From that time on, the world was hers for the reading....

Monday, August 31, 2009

Nicholas Sparks: The Last Song

I've been reading Nicholas Sparks books for about ten years. I'm a fan. Still, I know there's a point in each book where I'm going to have to pull out a box of tissues and bawl my eyes out. I know it's coming, but I'm never quite ready for it. It always takes me a few days to recover from the loss, but I never stop thinking about the characters and their journey. And that's exactly how I felt about his new book, The Last Song (September 8, Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group).

Seventeen-year-old Veronica "Ronnie" Miller is angry. Her parents got divorced three years ago, and her Dad moved to Wilmington, NC. She hasn't spoken to him since. She acts out by rebelling against her Mom's rules, breaking curfew, shoplifting, letting her grades drop, and quitting piano lessons.

Her Mom decides that it would be best if Ronnie and her brother Jonah spend the summer in Wilmington with their Dad, Steve, a former teacher and concert pianist.

Jonah is excited! Ronnie just wants to put as much distance between her and her Dad as possible.

Jonah and Steve spend days flying kites and working on creating a stained-glass window for a local church.

Ronnie's time in Wilmington isn't much different than her time in New York--she stays out late, tries to start fights with her Dad, refuses to play the piano (or be anywhere near one), and gets arrested.

Betrayal by a friend and first love with the town heartthrob, help Ronnie let her guard down and open her heart to the people around her, leading to an incredibly emotional summer. She learns that when you open your heart to the joys of love, you're also opening it to the pain of love.

Sparks, as always, did a fantastic job creating realistic characters that I cared about and rooted for. With The Last Song, I was transported to the beach, where, like Ronnie, I met complex people, made great friends, fell in love, and had my heart broken. I didn't want the journey to end.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Shelley Adina: Tidings of Great Boys

When I was given the chance to receive and review Tidings of Great Boys by Shelley Adina prior to its publication (September 8, Faith Words/Hachette Book Group), I couldn't resist. Isn't that a great title?

Lady Lindsay MacPhail (Mac) is going home to Scotland for the holidays and bringing her friends from Spencer Academy--Carly, Lissa, Gillian, and Shani--with her.

As if the holidays weren't stressful enough, Mac has to:

- Convince her childhood friends that she's still the same old Mac and that going to school in California has not turned her into a Hollywood type consumed with image.

- Organize a traditional New Year's Eve dance/party (Hogmany).

- Find a way to spend more time with the guy she's crushing on, who may or may not return her feelings.

- Get her parents back together

- Help Shani get out of a sticky situation with Prince Rashid's family (it turns out that angry royal family members are very persistent and beyond intimidating).

Even worse? She finds out her mom's been keeping a secret--her parents are in financial trouble and may lose their castle.

Will a little faith and great friends help Mac save the day?

Tidings of Great Boys is the fifth book in the All About Us series. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to read the first four books--none of the libraries in my area had them. There were times I felt a little confused, but Shelley Adina did a good job filling in the blanks for new readers.

I enjoyed reading dialogue written in authentic Scottish dialect and learning about Scottish holiday customs.

All in all, a fun read. I'm looking forward to reading more about Mac and her friends.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ally Carter: Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover

I finally got my hands on Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover by Ally Carter! The series is beyond popular at my local library and the waiting list for each book is huge.

When Cammie "The Chameleon" Morgan visits her roommate Macey in Boston, she thinks she's in for an exciting end to her summer break. After all, she's there to watch Macey's father accept the nomination for vice president of the United States. But when you go to the world's best school (for spies), "exciting" and "deadly" are never far apart. Cammie and Macey soon find themselves trapped in a kidnappers' plot, with only their espionage skills to save them.

As her junior year begins, Cammie can't shake the memory of what happened in Boston, and even the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women doesn't feel like the safe haven it once did. Shocking secrets and old flames seem to lurk around every one of the mansion's corners as Cammie and her friends struggle to answer the questions, Who is after Macey? And how can the Gallagher Girls keep her safe?

Soon Cammie is joining Bex and Liz as Macey's private security team on the campaign trail. The girls must use their spy training at every turn as the stakes are raised, and Cammie gets closer and closer to the shocking truth.

Macey's father accepts the nomination for Vice President of the United States, which is exciting in more ones than one. Macey and Cammie suddenly finds themselves fighting off kidnappers on a hotel rooftop in Boston. And that's just the beginning!

As Macey travels with her parents to key states on the campaign trail, she has an intense private security team watching her every movie, making her secret romance with the possible future first son tricky. But they aren't the only ones watching--Cammie's usually there, too! Dressed in an array of disguises, she's determined to keep her friend safe and help get to the bottom of things. She knows Macey has the best security taking care of her, but the secret service can't compete with spies in training. Cammie can't shake what happened in Boston, feeling something was off about the kidnapping attempt. She won't rest--and is willing to break a lot of rules--until she finds out what. But Cammie the Chameleon isn't so good at blending in these days.

How can she help protect her friend when she keeps getting caught and shipped back to spy school? Why does she always find herself in danger? And how is it possible that the kidnappers anticipated the way she and Macey would fight back--do they know about the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women?

This is hands-down my favorite book from the Gallagher Girl series! What I liked best was that most of the book took place outside of the classroom, making for some edge-of-your-seat excitement for Cammie, Macey, and the Gallagher Girls. And, while boys are in the periphery, this story didn't revolve around impressing boys, figuring them out, or having boyfriends. It was an exciting journey with more than one surprise turn.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Claire Cook: Life's A Beach

I didn't get to go on vacation this summer (or last summer), and it's been a while since I've been able to afford a beach vacation. I long for the days of lounging in the sun with a good book and combing the shores for sea glass. Reading Life's a Beach by Claire Cook seemed like the perfect way to fill the void.

By the bestselling author of Must Love Dogs, the story of two grown-up sisters who fight like cats and dogs--but call each other at least twice a day

When Must Love Dogs was published, the Chicago Tribune called it "pitch-perfect" and the Washington Post declared, "Readers will hope that Claire Cook will be telling breezy summer stories from the South Shore of Massachusetts for seasons to come." Luckily for her legions of fans, Cook returns with another sparkling romantic comedy that's reminiscent of Must Love Dogs in all the right ways, but very much its own animal--about a relationship-challenged single woman, her quirky-to-put-it-mildly extended family, and the summer the shark movie came to town.

Life's a bit of a beach these days for Ginger Walsh, who's single at forty-one and living back home in the family FROG (Finished Room Over Garage). She's hoping for a more fulfilling life as a sea glass artist, but instead is babysitting her sister's kids and sharing overnights with Noah, her sexy artist boyfriend with commitment issues and a dog Ginger's cat isn't too crazy about. Geri, her BlackBerry-obsessed sister, is also nearly over the deep end about her pending fiftieth birthday (and might just drag Ginger with her). Toss in a dumpster-picking father, a Kama Sutra T-shirt-wearing mother, a movie crew come to town with a very cute gaffer, an on-again-off-again glassblower boyfriend, plus a couple of Red Hat realtors, and hilarity ensues. The perfect summer read, Life's a Beach is a warm, witty, and wise look at what it takes to move forward at any stage in life.

Ginger is a free spirit, but she's starting to feel restless. She doesn't have a fulfilling job. She's single and childless. She lives with her family. She takes care of her sister's kids. Some may say she can't commit, but Ginger simply doesn't want to settle.

Geri, her almost-fifty, workaholic sister, plays by the rules. She has a steady job, a house, and a family.

They're different and don't always agree. Still, they're always there for each other.

Soon, a shark movie is filming in the area, and Ginger takes Geri's kids to the casting call. Ginger doesn't get discovered, but her nephew lands a role as an extra! This leads to a summer at the beach for Ginger (hired by Geri to be caretaker on the set) and her nephew--a break from her day-to-day life that she hopes will give her creative energy (her current venture is making sea glass jewelry) and help her decide what she wants from life.

Though things heat up--in the form of an on-the-set romance--Ginger finds she can't escape her life and continues to over-analyze everything.

An unexpected visit from Geri, coupled with disappointments and broken hearts, brings the sisters together and reminds them how much they really need each another.

Life's A Beach was the perfect beach read, even if I read it on the sofa in an air-conditioned house--light and fun, with a happy ending. I enjoyed the characters' journey of self-discovery. I laughed out loud more than once. I felt like I was at the beach hanging out with friends.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sara Kadefors: Are U 4 Real?

I was looking at books on the new release shelf in the YA Fiction section of my library, and the cover of Are U 4 Real? by Sara Kadefors caught my attention. Translated by Tara Chace, Are U 4 Real was originally published as Sandor Slash Ida, and is Sweden's all-time best selling young adult novel.

Kyla is exactly the kind of girl Alex could never talk to in real life. She's a gorgeous, outspoken city girl who parties to forget about her absent father and depressed mother. He's a shy ballet dancer from the suburbs who's never been kissed. Luckily, when they meet for the first time it's not in real life--it's in a chat room, where they can share how alone and misunderstood they feel far away from the conformity-obsessed scenes at their high schools and at home. Kyla and Alex quickly forge a friendship that's far from virtual . . . maybe they're falling in love.

But what happens when you come face-to-face with the soul mate you've never met?

Will that person be the same?

Will you?

Though party girl Kyla and ballet dancer Alex meet in the most honest of situations--a confession of loneliness in an online chat room--they're afraid to reveal too much about their real lives and backgrounds and create new identities to hide behind. Needless to say, it all unravels. The two start to wonder what happened to the friend they met online or if that person even existed. It's a roller-coaster ride that inevitably ends with a romantic connection.

It wasn't the most realistic book I've ever read, but it did hit home for me. I've made a lot of friends online. Some are great! Others seem great at first and then betray you. Then there are the ones you meet in person who aren't quite the people they made themselves out to be online. It's a tricky process, figuring out what's real, what's not, and who to trust.

While the characters were easy to relate to (Who hasn't felt lonely or misunderstood?), I think the story lost something in the translation. At times, both Kyla and Alex seemed over-the-top caricatures of teenagers. I found their emails to each other to be void of a true human connection and wondered how they became friends in the first place. It was the narration of Sara Kadefors that really explained the characters' backgrounds and motivations--in short, saving the story.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Laurie Halse Anderson: Catalyst

I watched "Speak" on Lifetime Saturday night. It's a good movie. I imagine the book is even better. Problem is, it's always checked out. In its absence, I decided to grab a different Laurie Halse Anderson book--Catalyst.

Meet Kate Malone--straight-A science and math geek, minister's daughter, ace long-distance runner, girlfriend (to Mitchell "Early Decision Harvard" Pangborn III), unwilling family caretaker, emotional avoidance champion. Kate manages her life by organizing it, as logically as the periodic table. She can handle it all--or so she thinks. Then things happen like a string of chemical reactions: first, the Malones' neighbors get burned out of their own home and move in. Because her father is a Good Man of God (and a Not Very Thoughtful Parent), Kate has to share her room with her nemesis, Teri Litch, and Teri's troublemaking but adorable little brother. The days are ticking down and she's still waiting to hear from the only college she's applied to: MIT. Kate's life is less and less under control--and then, something happens that truly blows it all apart. Set in the same community as the remarkable Speak, Catalyst is a novel that will change the way you look at the world.

There are two Kate Malones:

Good Kate is smart, sweet, helpful, positive, and has her act together.

Bad Kate is disrespectful, bitchy, negative, and about to snap.

Her mother died nine years ago, and it's up to Kate to take care of her preacher father and fourteen-year-old brother Toby. Despite the struggle between Good Kate and Bad Kate, she has a very well-balanced life.

Unfortunately, she only applied to one college--MIT--and things start to unravel when she receives a rejection letter.

To make matters worse, Teri Litch--a bully who used to beat up Kate daily and habitually steals Kate's belongings--and her little brother Mikey come to live with the Malones, which means Kate now has two more people to take care of, more responsibilities, and even less control.

Laurie Halse Anderson did a fantastic job describing Kate's anxiety and insomnia. (Trust me, I know a great deal about both.)

However, despite a tragic twist in the story that surprised me, I felt something was missing from the storytelling. The supporting cast of characters--even Teri--seemed rather one-dimensional. I wanted to know more about them, what makes them tick, and how they got to where they are. I suppose, as the story was told from Kate's point of view--and she's somewhat unbalanced as things spiral out of control--the blurry storytelling makes sense. Still, it took away from my reading experience.

All in all, though, Kate's story was relatable and the ending was realistic.

It wasn't a bad way to dive into Laurie Halse Anderson's writing. I still look forward to reading Speak.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has been on my "to read" list for a long time, but the waiting list at my local library was crazy. Then, an article in The Wall Street Journal told the ending (along with the endings of three other books I wanted to read) without spoiler warnings. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it anymore, so I dropped it to the bottom of my list. Finally, I gave in. And I'm glad I did!

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before--and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

Acclaimed writer Suzanne Collins, author of The New York Times bestselling Underland Chronicles, delivers equal parts suspense and philosophy, adventure and romance, in this searing novel set in a future with unsettling parallels to our present.


I started reading The Hunger Games Sunday night during the Yankees/Red Sox game. The game was super-exciting, so I only made it through fifty pages.

I plowed through the rest of the book Monday night. I was struggling with a wicked bout of insomnia (a time when I do my best marathon reading), but this was the type of book that I would have mainlined caffeine and propped my eyes open to finish. I couldn't stop reading!

Katniss is a survivor. She has no choice. When she was only eleven years old, her father died in a coal mining accident, forcing her to take care of her despondent mom and seven-year-old sister. If she didn't, they would have starved to death.

It was then that she began sneaking into the forbidden woods outside District 12 to forage for food.

Now, at age sixteen, she is an old pro. She and her friend Gale, an eighteen-year-old boy who, like Katniss, is single-handedly taking care of his family, hunt game and gather greens, roots, and berries. Sometimes, this is their only source of food. More often than not, they make trades with local merchants for necessities like shoelaces and wool.

Katniss is resourceful.

She is a skilled hunter, the bow and arrow her weapon of choice.

More importantly, she knows real hunger.

Now twelve years old, her sister, Prim, is called to represent District 12 in The Hunger Games. Katniss is shocked and offers to take her place in the Games. Soon she, and the other tribute from District 12, a boy named Peeta, are on a train heading to The Capitol to prepare, compete, and inevitably die.

But Katniss stands out from the crowd and becomes a favorite to win, something that's rare for a tribute from her District (they've only had two winners in the Game's seventy-four year history).

Katniss, Peeta, and the twenty-two other tributes are "imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena" to not only survive but fight one another to death. All on live television. The last person standing--the only one to survive--wins.

Part-Suvivor-part-Lord-of-the-Flies, The Hunger Games is a fascinating story of government control, survival, friendship, alliances, death, and, strangely enough, love. It wasn't easy to read the realistic descriptions of murder, knowing kids were involved and that people were watching it all unfold on television (making bets and enjoying this harsh reality show). But, at the same time, I couldn't help but love Katniss and cheer for her (a testament to the fact that even the most adamant reality television hater can get sucked into the fray).

I really cannot wait to read Book Two.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sarah Dessen: Along For The Ride

Thanks to a very cool friend, who sent me a gift card, I was finally able to pick up Along For The Ride by Sarah Dessen! I know that I probably should have used the card for something practical, but I have no willpower whatsoever when it comes to books. And, quite frankly, I waited long enough to read this book.

It’s been so long since Auden slept at night. Ever since her parents’ divorce--or since the fighting started. Now she has the chance to spend a carefree summer with her dad and his new family in the charming beach town where they live.

A job in a clothes boutique introduces Auden to the world of girls: their talk, their friendship, their crushes. She missed out on all that, too busy being the perfect daughter to her demanding mother. Then she meets Eli, an intriguing loner and a fellow insomniac who becomes her guide to the nocturnal world of the town. Together they embark on parallel quests: for Auden, to experience the carefree teenage life she’s been denied; for Eli, to come to terms with the guilt he feels for the death of a friend.

It's Auden's last summer before heading off to college. She makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to spend the summer at her dad's beach house, landing her smack dab in the middle of life with a colicky baby and a not-so-perfect marriage between her dad and stepmom Heidi.

Watching her dad and Heidi struggle reminds her of her parents' divorce years ago, which brought on bouts of insomnia.

Spending time working at Heidi's boutique and nights riding around with Eli, a fellow loner and insomniac, Auden learns about being a friend, coming to grips with the past, being a carefree teenager, and accepting that she can't always be perfect.

I enjoyed watching her try and fail and grow. Her quest for a carefree teenage life brought back a lot of memories.

However, though important to Auden's journey, the adult characters ruined it for me. They were selfish and inconsiderate. It also seemed like everyone was anxious all the time, turning the littlest things into super-big catastrophes. Between them and the baby crying, I started to feel anxious.

That being said, I'm sad to say I didn't like this book very much. It was okay, not the best Sarah Dessen book I've ever read. In fact, with the overly anxious behavior and constant baby talk, I felt more like I was reading her blog and not a book. And I'm really not a fan of her blog at all.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Kristin Harmel: Italian For Beginners

It's rare for me to give books a four-hearts review, but Italian for Beginners by Kristin Harmel (August 13, 5 Spot/Hachette Book Group) deserves it.


Thirty-four-year-old Manhattan accountant Cat Connelly has always lived life on the safe side. But after her little sister gets married, Cat wonders if she has condemned herself to a life of boredom by playing by the rules. She decides to take a chance for once, accepting an invitation to spend a month with an old flame in Italy. But her reunion with the slick and gorgeous Francesco is short-lived, and she finds herself suddenly alone in Rome. Now, she must see if she has the courage to live outside the lines for the first time - and to face a past she never understood. It will take an unexpected friendship with a fiery Italian waitress, a whirlwind Vespa tour of the Eternal City with a handsome stranger, and a surprise encounter with an old acquaintance to show Cat that life doesn't always work out the way you expect, but sometimes you have to have fall in order to fly.

Cat has spent most of her life taking care of her family, being responsible, and doing the right thing. After being humiliated at her younger sister Becky's wedding and feeling like there might be more to life than simply existing, she decides to take a month-long trip to Italy.

After one day in Rome, Cat feels humiliated, lost, and ready to return to her boring, predictable life in the United States. Instead, she find herself renting a room from and outspoken, opinionated, and feisty waitress named Karina, who encourages Cat to step outside the box, take chances, and have fun.

Cat spends her days exploring Rome, embracing her passion for photography, finding love, making friends, and discovering secrets about her family and ultimately herself.

It was a lovely, well-written story.

The characters were very likable. I felt like they were my friends and wanted good things to happen for them.

Another important character in the story was the city itself. I've always wanted to visit Rome. It seems like an amazing place. Kristin Harmel's descriptions of the tourist spots, historical locations, and the food were so vivid that I felt like I was there (and got a craving or two).

Italian For Beginners left me wanting more from Kristin Harmel.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Ally Carter: Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

The Gallagher Girls series has become very popular at my local library. After being the first person to check one out in July, I now have to put myself on a waiting list for each book. Luckily, the wait for Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter wasn't that long.


After staking out, obtaining, and then being forced to give up her first boyfriend, Josh, all Cammie Morgan wants is a peaceful semester. But that's easier said than done when you're a CIA legacy and go to the premier school in the world...for spies.

Cammie may have a genius IQ , but there are still a lot of things she doesn't know. Like, will her ex-boyfriend even remember she exists? And how much trouble is she really in after what happened last semester? And most of all, why is her mother acting so strangely?

Despite Cammie's best intentions to be a normal student, danger seems to follow her. She and her best friends learn that their school is going to play host to some mysterious guests--code name: Blackthorne. Then she's blamed for a security breach that leaves the school's top-secret status at risk.

Soon Cammie and her friends are crawling through walls and surveilling the school to learn the truth about Blackthorne and clear Cammie's name. Even though they have confidence in their spy skills, this time the targets are tougher (and hotter), and the stakes for Cammie's heart--and her beloved school--are higher than ever.

It's a new semester at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, but something isn't right.

Cammie's Mom seems distracted and upset. Even worse, she's keeping secrets.

The East Wing is locked and the girls aren't allowed to access it.

On top of that, Cammie and her friends are forced to attend classes with boys. Boys are confusing enough, but boy spies are worse.

And if that's not enough, the school keeps going on lock-down under "code black" alerts.

Despite promising her Mom, who is also the Headmistress of the Gallagher Academy, that she won't sneak around, tell lies, and take part in private covert operations, Cammie and her friends start investigating and fire up their "boy-to-English translator."

I'm usually not a fan of sequels, but this was a fun, fast-paced follow-up to I'd Tell You I'd Love You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You I couldn't wait to find out what happened next!

Ally Carter has a real talent for crafting edge-of-your-seat mysteries that keep you guessing and wondering who you should trust.
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