Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus is a hauntingly beautiful debut novel that explores the reach and limits and intersection of family, love, anger, and faith against the backdrop of civil unrest in Nigeria.

Kambili, a fifteen-year-old girl, lives with her older brother, Jaja, and her parents in Nigeria.  Her father, Eugene, is a religious zealot and wields tight control over his wife and children, subjecting them to severe physical punishment when they fail to live up to his impossible expectations, using his Catholic faith as a weapon against them. I cringed from some of the descriptions of physical abuse, but the spiritual and emotional abuse was constant and insidious, undermining the children's and his wife's sense of self and decimating their confidence.  In addition, their family's wealth distances Kambili from the other children in her class and they see her shyness as snobbery.

The real tragedy, very obvious to the reader but initially lost on Kambili herself, is Kambili's passive acceptance of her life, that "it was simply the way things were done" and there was no reason to try to understand it or wish it different. For example, on Sundays after attending mass, the family always visited the priest.  One day, Kambili's pregnant mother was feeling nauseated and asked Papa if she could stay in the car while they visited. After silently intimidating Mama into coming in for the visit, he brutally beat her when they returned home, resulting in a miscarriage. When she came home after a short stay in the hospital, Papa insisted that the family "would recite sixteen different novenas. For Mama's forgiveness." Kambili concludes, "I did not think, I did not even think to think, what Mama needed to be forgiven for."

To make matters more confusing for Kambili and Jaja, the people of the town praise Eugene for his courage in running a newspaper that speaks out against the tyrannical government.  He pays the school fees for up to a hundred of the children in town.  He shows remorse after the physical abuse, insisting he only does it because he wants what's best for them. Kambili yearns for his kindness and praise, though she fears his anger and disapproval.

The world begins to open up just a little bit wider when Kambili's aunt - Papa's sister - comes to visit.  Aunty Ifeoma is happy and joyful and completely different from Papa.  Kambili isn't sure how to respond.  "I did not know how to handle that kind of playfulness," Kambili explains.  Aunty is Catholic as well, but unlike her brother, embraces her cultural traditions and supports her father, Papa-Nnukwu. Eugene refuses to see him because he is a "heathen" - he retains his traditional faith in their ancestors - though he agrees to send Kambili and Jaja for short 15-minute visits once or twice a year. Kambili studied Papa-Nnukwu during their short visit to his poor home, "I had examined him that day, too, looking away when his eyes met mine, for signs of difference, of Godlessness. I didn't see any, but I was sure they were there somewhere. They had to be."

Then Aunty invites Kambili and Jaja to visit them, their first trip away from Papa and Mama.  They were "bewildered that Aunty Ifeoma and her family prayed for, of all things, laughter." She tells them stories of their history, of the king of the Opobo people who stood up to the British, and declares, "Being defiant can be a good thing sometimes." Kambili notices that after his early-morning religious devotions to his ancestors, Papa-Nnukwu was smiling.  She notes "I never smiled after we said the rosary back home. None of us did."

One incident is pivotal symbolism.  Kambili watches some boys playing games in a stadium, preparing for a local high-jump competition.  The coach has the boys jump over the rod and then, when they aren't looking, raises the rod a notch and has them jump again.  "He raised it a few more times before the boys caught on...He laughed and said he believed they could jump higher than they thought they could. And that they had just proved him right."
It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn't.
This exposure to another way of living, one that involves laughter, joy, love and acceptance of others as predominant instead of fear, angry, and oppression, is life-changing for Kambili. She learns that faith doesn't have to be based on fear, that different doesn't mean bad, that public perceptions don't negate private actions. Adichie is a brilliant writer, evoking the confused emotions and contradictory thoughts of a young, abused girl, just starting to think for herself and slowly coming into her own.

I can't wait to read more from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Purple Hibiscus
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Watch her TED talk: "The Danger of a Single Story." Seriously.  Watch it.
ISBN: 9781565123878
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, April 28, 2014

Whitney Awards Winners!

The Whitney Awards winners were announced at the gala on Saturday evening and among those categories I predicted, I didn't guess too badly!  Check out the list of winners here or below.

The winners are:
Best Novel: Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson
Best Youth Novel: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Best Novel by a New Author: Pivot Point by Kasie West
Best General Novel: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster
Best Historical Novel: Esther the Queen by Heather B. Moore
Best Romance Novel: Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson
Best Mystery/Suspense: Deep Cover by Traci Hunter Abramson
Best Speculative: Dark Memories by Jeffrey S. Savage
Best YA Speculative: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Best YA General: All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry
Best Middle Grade: The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I picked the winner in all three of the youth categories as well as the overall Best Youth Novel, and my favorites won in Best General and Best Historical, too!  There's actually only one of the winners I haven't read, so I'll need to find a copy of Dark Memories.

Happy reading!

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 63 - The Whitney Awards Edition

Over the past seven weeks I have read and reviewed 25 of the 40 Whitney Award finalists for 2013. Next year, I'll have to start earlier so I can try to get to more of them!

The winners will be announced at the gala tomorrow in Salt Lake City, but I thought I'd put my two cents out there on who I think will/should take top honors.


In Youth Speculative Fiction, the five finalists are:
Insomnia by J.R. Johannson
Pivot Point by Kasie West
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Blackout by Robison Wells

While all five featured inventive, creative sci-fi or fantasy settings, I have to go with Steelheart.  Sanderson's experience shows here as he deftly combines the page-turning action with character development, leading to a well-balanced story.  But Slayers: Friends and Traitors is the second in a series that has a loyal fan base, and Robison Wells, who is going through a rough time lately, has strong ties to the Whitney Awards, so I wouldn't be surprised to see either of those selections in the top spot.


In Youth General Fiction, the five finalists are:
Chasing June by Shannen Crane Camp
Dead Girls Don't Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

All of the authors in this category excelled in creating vivid, realistic characters and relationships.  This is the hardest one for me to pick a favorite because I was thoroughly drawn in by all five.  I think I have to give the edge to Julie Berry's All the Truth That's in Me for her innovative and poetic narrative, though the stellar character development in Going Vintage and the sparkling sarcastic humor of The Distance Between Us make them both standouts, too.


In the Middle Grade category, the five finalists are:
The Inventor's Secret by Chad Morris
Rump by Liesl Shurtliff
Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman
Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George
The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Following in the footsteps of its prequel, The Runaway King is an excellent continuation of the story of Jaron and his fight to save his kingdom.  I wouldn't be upset at all if Jennifer Nielsen did a repeat in this category, but newcomers Liesl Shurtliff, with her sympathetic retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, and Peggy Eddleman, with her age-appropriate post-apocalyptic future, are definitely worth a look, too.


Unfortunately, I wasn't able to read all of the books in any of the adult categories (General, Historical, Romance, Mystery/Suspense, and Speculative), so I freely admit that my opinions here aren't fully informed.

These are the ones I did get to:
Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster (General)
The House at Rose Creek by Jenny Proctor (General)
Belonging to Heaven by Gale Sears (Historical)
Esther the Queen by H.B. Moore (Historical)
Safe Passage by Carla Kelly (Historical)
Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson (Romance)
Rocky Road by Josi S. Kilpack (Mystery/Suspense)
Deep Cover by Traci Hunter Abramson (Mystery/Suspense)
The Witnesses by Stephanie Black (Speculative)
Echo in Time by C.J. Hill (Speculative)

First, I'd like to point out that while I only got to read one of them, Heather B. Moore has four(!) books up for a Whitney Award this year in four different categories!  The one I did read, Esther the Queen, is at the top of my list for the adult categories, so I hope her prodigious output in 2013 is rewarded.

Right up there with Esther, I found Mile 21 truly affecting.  Dunster painted a portrait of a young widow's grief that rang true, and while many LDS authors seem to struggle with incorporating LDS beliefs in a non-intrusive way, she wove them seamlessly into the narrative while not ignoring the theological questions and cultural complications of the situation.

I also really enjoyed Belonging to Heaven and thought it was well done, though it suffered just a bit from the weight of its own ambition.  Sears tried to cover such a wide swath of history and characters that, as skillful as she was, I think the story would have been better served in a two-part series.

Because I didn't even come close to reading all of the books in the Adult categories (only 10 out of 25), I'm supremely unqualified to predict the winner of
Best Novel of the Year
but I'd be pleased if Esther the Queen or Mile 21 took the honor.


I happened to read six of the seven novels eligible for
Best Novel by a New Author 
in 2013 (the only one I missed was I, Spy by Jordan McCollum).  So, I'm going to give that one to either Liesl Shurtliff for Rump or Peggy Eddleman for Sky Jumpers (with the caveat that I, Spy may have been so incredibly amazing that I might have picked it if I'd had the chance to read it).

And finally, since I read all 15 of the novels in the Youth categories, I'm going to say
Best Youth Novel of the Year
will go to either Steelheart or All the Truth That's In Me.

I'll make sure to post a link to the winners when they're announced so we can all laugh at how far off my predictions were!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: Echo in Time by C.J. Hill

This review must remain fairly short and vague as I'm trying to avoid including plot points that would be spoilers for both Echo in Time and its predecessor Erasing Time.

C.J. Hill, like Kasie West and Heather Moore, has more than one book up for a Whitney Award this year.  In addition to Echo in Time, Hill also published Slayers: Friends and Traitors, a finalist in the YA Speculative category, in 2013.

Busy woman!

I have to admit I'm a bit confused as to why Echo in Time is in the General Speculative Fiction category instead of YA Speculative.  My library had it in the YA section and it has the younger protagonists YA fiction usual features.  And it reads like a YA story.  Maybe they didn't want C.J. Hill competing against herself in the YA Speculative category, but Jordan McCollum is in that situation in Mystery/Suspense.  Anyway...

A team returns to Traventon, the city were Taylor and Sheridan were drawn into the future, in order to destroy the device that ripped them out of their home time and prevent the evil government from using it to create a dangerous weapon.  The actions of some members of this team end up wreaking havoc with the time stream, causing unintended consequences that dramatically shift their present situation.  The rest of the book is dealing with those changes and, since those initial actions are irreversible, trying to mitigate the damage done and rescue the innocent who have been harmed unintentionally.

Vague enough for you?

While the action was once again non-stop with Echo in Time as it was in Erasing Time, the plot felt more predictable. Before the team left, I had a pretty good idea of what would happen when they returned to Traventon, and the consequences of that action.  And it played out pretty much exactly as I expected.

There's certainly nothing wrong with predictable plots and it can be argued that there are very, very few completely original stories at this point, but after being caught so off guard with the big twist in Erasing Time, I was disappointed to not get the impact of a big surprise in Echo in Time, as well.

If you're drawn into the world in Erasing Time as I was, it's worthwhile to continue to read the story in Echo in Time.  If you're less than enthralled with Erasing Time, you can probably skip Echo in Time and be none the worse for it.

Echo in Time
by C.J. Hill
ISBN: 9780062123961
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Book Review: Erasing Time by C.J. Hill

Erasing Time is not up for a Whitney Award this year, but its sequel Echo in Time is, so I'm reviewing the first book this morning and you can look for the review of the actual Whitney Award finalist this afternoon.

Eighteen-year-old Taylor and Sheridan Bradford are identical twins, but not as similar as you might think.  Taylor is a mathematical and scientific genius, graduating high school at 13 and college at 16.  Her post-graduate work in physics is on the cutting edge of what anyone has dreams possible.  Sheridan, on the other hand, wants to be an English professor and is still plodding through her senior year of high school.  When they are suddenly sucked 400 years into the future, it takes the talents and skills of both of them to survive in a completely different society.

Befriended by father and son anthropologists Jeth and Echo, who have studied their antiquated language and customs, Taylor and Sheridan learn that a lot has changed.  At the age of 11, all girls are surgically prevented from ever becoming pregnant accidentally and all children are bioengineered from the best genes of the population.  All citizens are implanted with a tracking crystal so they can always be found and controlled, and ranked according to "age, health, IQ, job status, how many friends you have, your friends' and family's rankings, and what rating other people have given you." Democracy is a governmental form of the past because "it was too hard for average people to make decisions about policies." Religion has been outlawed because it "promoted divisiveness and oppressed its followers."  And "information isn't available to the public anymore"; individuals only have access to the narrow field of data they need to perform their job duties.

Of course, there are some underground resistance organizations, the Dakine (similar to the Mafia) and the Doctor Worshippers (dedicated to keeping religion alive), and both come in to play for the twins.  And Echo has some dangerous secrets of his own relating to the death of his twin brother a month earlier at the hands of Dakine assassins.

In other words, it's very similar to just about every other dystopian future ever written.

But I've got to say that Hill keeps the action moving non-stop.  The interactions between the twins as well as their fish-out-of-water adjustments to this brave, new world are key to this story feeling fresh despite the similarities to other dystopian fiction.  I liked the insights into what our society would look like to scientists four centuries later.  Talking animals, democracy already in decline, all people were weak and obese, the nonsensical vernacular slang...it makes me wonder just how accurate our assumptions about past civilizations are.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been, but I was sincerely surprised at the big twist towards the end.  Hill does a good job instilling suspense and a sense of urgency in her characters' motivations, as well as a real quality of nobility.  She establishes early on that it isn't possible for Taylor and Sheridan to return to their own time and allows them to grieve for that loss, but they quickly conclude that they must prevent any harm that could come to others due to their presence in the future and make some tough choices accordingly.

Entertaining read and an interesting twist on the slew of dystopian futures out there right now.

Erasing Time
by C.J. Hill
ISBN: 9780062123923
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book Review: Chasing June by Shannen Crane Camp

Chasing June, a Whitney Award finalist in Youth Adult General Fiction, picks up two years after Finding June.  June and Joseph are headed off to Brigham Young University in Provo for their freshman year of college.  Joseph is planning on only going for one semester before leaving on his mission and doesn't want any romantic entanglements while he prepares, so June and Joseph are back to "just friends."

June struggles to adjust to college life, her roommates are less than welcoming, and she laments that "people seemed to never use their signals when changing lanes and there was a severe lack of racial diversity" in Provo, but life looks up when she and Joseph are both cast in Tartuffe and then three of her friends from Forensic Faculty come to visit, including Ryan, one of the supporting cast from the show.  Ryan is ready to step into the void Joseph has left in June's dating life and soon June finds herself having feelings for him, too.  Their relationship is sweet and respectful, but June can't help but wonder what this means for the future she always imagined with Joseph.

While still enjoyable, Chasing June seemed a bit more contrived than Finding June. Too many things just worked out too conveniently.  One example: Just as their romance is starting to bloom, Ryan and June happen to both get parts in the same movie - as love interests, natch - and happen to get their friends hired on there, too.  There's an eating disorder subplot that never gets fully developed and then resolves a bit too quickly and easily.

The passages where June chronicles her loneliness during that first semester of college rang painfully true; I think everyone's experienced that sense of being completely alone even with lots of people around.  And I again appreciated the recognition that decisions aren't always cut and dried, black or white.  When June discusses with her grandma/agent whether or not she should accept the lead role in the film with Ryan, which would necessitate leaving school for a semester, she hesitates:
"I guess getting an education is always the right answer, isn't it?" I asked, honestly not sure anymore.
"Always is a dangerous word to use, Bliss.  It's very rare for something to be always right."
I found Chasing June weaker than the first book in the series, but I'm still invested enough in the story that I want to know what happens to June and Ryan when Joseph gets home.  Fortunately, Catching June is expected out later this year.

Chasing June
by Shannen Crane Camp
ISBN: 9781484191262
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Book Review: Finding June by Shannen Crane Camp

Sixteen-year-old June Laurie looks like the reincarnation of 1920s silent-film star Lillian Gish, which has gotten her a few small acting gigs, mostly parts in "artsy commercials".  But then her big break comes: a recurring role in the hot TV crime drama Forensic Faculty starring none other than heartthrob Lukas Leighton.  And June's been cast as his love interest!

As June juggles normal high school classes, church activities, and teenage life with her newfound fame, her best friend Joseph helps keep her grounded.  He shows up bright and early every morning, with hot chocolate in hand, to give her a ride to seminary.  He encourages her before auditions, rehearsals, and filming.  He's a steady rock for her to lean on, and a willing listener, though a little less enthusiastic when she goes on and on about her gorgeous co-star.

It was interesting to see how June navigates balancing her standards with her environment and her work.  Fortunately, most of the people she's surrounded by are supportive of her choices. For example, she asks the costume designer to adjust her wardrobe after her initial scenes left her uncomfortably exposed, and apologizes for being difficult.  His response is, "You're not being a pain if you're being true to yourself."  June comes across as sincere without being stuffy or self-righteous.  She knows who she is and what her standards are and sticks up for them when needed, but doesn't impose her standards on others or expect them to conform to her lifestyle.  Consequently, she leaves a good impression on her co-workers, in contrast to the "overbearing Mormons" some of them have run into in the past, and soon makes fast friends.

But in the high-paced, high-flying field of entertainment, June has to keep her head on straight and not allow herself to get swept away in the moment.  When Lukas Leighton starts paying attention to her, determining who is really a true friend and who may be interested in her for more selfish or shallow reasons becomes essential.

Camp has a gift for writing dialogue.  The conversations between characters flowed nicely, almost cinematically, and the dialogue enhanced the characterization.  It was easy to imagine scenes throughout the book brought to life on the screen.  The story itself is fairly predictable, but it reads well and quickly and was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

And as a theatre geek in high school and a theatre major in college, I thoroughly enjoyed all the nitty-gritty details on auditions and film acting and sets and costumes.  I'm looking forward to seeing where June's career heads next!  (Check back this afternoon for a review of the sequel, Chasing June, a Whitney Award finalist this year!)

Finding June
by Shannen Crane Camp
ISBN: 9781480260825
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review: Dead Girls Don't Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

In contrast to the book I reviewed this morning, Dead Girls Don't Lie started out strong for me, but faded a bit toward the end.

Another Whitney Award finalist in YA fiction, Dead Girls Don't Lie starts at the funeral of Jaycee's best friend Rachel.  Jaycee's grief felt very real as she processed her own feelings of loss, regret, and guilt, and how to try to reestablish a "normal" life after such an earth-shattering event.  Not only is the girl who has been her best friend since they were little gone, but the last few months of Rachel's life they grew apart so Jaycee missed out on her last opportunities to spend time with Rachel.  And the night Rachel is killed, Jaycee ignored multiple texts from her while spending time with a boy she liked; maybe if she'd answered, Rachel would still be alive.

But then Jaycee receives a video message from Rachel pointing her toward Rachel's murderer and telling her to only trust someone she identifies as "E", and she starts looking in to the events of the night they made a terrifying and traumatic discovery in an abandoned house.  As Jaycee peals back layers of lies and deception, it's impossible to know who she can trust and who may be out to get rid of her, too.

Wolf definitely keeps the suspense level high throughout the story.  Small town suspicions are exacerbated by racial tensions.  Drugs and gangs are involved, as well as some real moments of clarity regarding cultural differences and social realities.  I kept wishing that the teenage characters would actually talk to their parents and other adults rather than running headlong into dangerous situations, or that their parents would actually talk to them about difficult topics. If any communication had been happening between generations, a whole lot of grief could have been avoided.

I will say that I wasn't particularly pleased with the depiction of mental illness and how it fit into the story.  Dead Girls Don't Lie is a definite page-turner, though, and will keep you guessing with its twists and turns to the very end.

Dead Girls Don't Lie
by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
ISBN: 9780802734495
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)

Book Review: Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

What do you do when you find out that your boyfriend is cyber-cheating on you?  If you're Mallory in Whitney Award finalist Going Vintage, you post a nasty-gram on his Friendspace account and then foreswear all modern technology.  And if you, like Mallory, happen to be helping your antique-dealing father sort through your grandmother's collected paraphernalia after she moves into a retirement community, you hone in on 1962 with a laughably rose-tinted nostalgic perception of what life must have been like back then and attempt to duplicate your grandmother's goals for her junior year of high school.

I have to admit I wasn't sold on this story from the get-go, but it grew on me.  Or perhaps more specifically, Mallory grew on me as she grew up a bit.  Granted, teenagers can be prone to dramatic declarations and outlandish stunts as a way to show their independence - I went for an ENTIRE MONTH without any chocolate my sophomore year in high school because my boyfriend at the time said he didn't think I couldn't do it - and there's something to be said for deciding to do something and following through no matter how much harder it is than you thought it would be.

Mallory's boy-crazy immaturity at the beginning of the book was in striking contrast to her younger sister Ginnie's self-reliant level-headedness.  I really enjoyed their relationship throughout the book: at turns adversarial, doting, sarcastic, and sappy, but always loving and supportive.

By the end, this initially flippant desire to recreate what she thought was a "simpler time" was a real vehicle for growth in Mallory's life.  As she searches for her place in life she realizes, "I might not know what kind of girl I am, but I know who I'm not."  She keeps her commitment to finish her grandmother's 1962 goals because "like so many other things in my life lately, I want to do this to see if I can."  She comes to realize that - as cliche as it is - no one is perfect, not her, not her parents, not her grandma, but that "real should probably be the goal, not perfection."

And I truly appreciated that at the end **spoiler alert!!** Mallory decides to take time away from relationships with boys to learn more about herself, who she is by herself and on her own.  Of course, there's a great guy waiting in the wings, but that's secondary to the discoveries that Mallory has made about the person she wants to be.
Going Vintage
by Lindsey Leavitt
ISBN: 9781599907871
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: All the Truth That's in Me by Julie Berry

All the Truth That's in Me, a Whitney Award finalist in YA General Fiction, is a hauntingly poetic story, tinged with elements of horror, romance, and history.   It's a riveting tale of continued devotion and friendship, and lost and eventually rediscovered identity.

Four years ago, two girls disappeared from the town of Roswell Station, deliberately ambiguously placed several hundred years in a colonial, puritanical past.  One girl was found dead, stripped of her clothes, in a stream.  The other, Judith, came stumbling home two years later with half of her tongue cut out.  Her mother, horrified at this mutilation and the curse from above it implies, forbade her to speak.  Isolated from the rest of the townspeople, ignored and used by her mother for chores, Judith watches Lucas from afar.  Before her disappearance, they were friends with a possible romance blooming between them.  Now, she can only speak to him in her mind, expressing her feelings in silence.  When the town is threatened with invasion by old enemies, Judith demonstrates her courage by seeking out the only person who can save the town: the person she fears most.

All the Truth That's in Me is Judith's intimate and immediate first person narrative, directed solely at "you": Lucas.  In short sections only a few paragraphs long, Judith tells the story of her life, with passages about the past mixed in with those about the present.  Though slightly disorienting at first, this fragmented approach gives the narrative an almost ethereal, impressionistic quality with brief vignettes and flashes of emotion weaving together to form a strong emotional framework for the book.

For all the suspense and poetry in the prose, relationships really are key in this novel.  The relationship between Judith and Lucas is central, of course, but the relationships between Judith and her mother, and Judith and her younger brother are fascinating, too, especially in how they change over the course of the story.  Judith's friendship with another girl in town, Maria, develops at Maria's insistence and helps instigate Judith's growth and optimism that the future can be different for her than the past has been.

Beautifully written, powerfully and evocatively told, this is one of my favorites of the Whitney Award finalists.

All the Truth That's in Me
by Julie Berry
ISBN: 9780670786152
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter 2014!

This year I've tried to step it up a bit in my Easter observances.  In addition to my Lenten practices (reading the entire New Testament and moderating my tone and volume, especially at home), I've been faithful about using my homemade Easter "Advent" binder with my kiddos every day this week.  Each day we read the scriptures that describe the events that day of Holy Week, as well as a story or poem from a Church magazine about Easter and sing a hymn or children's song.

Last Sunday evening I attended the Spokane East Stake's performance of selections from Handel's Messiah.  That's definitely an ambitious project for a stake, and I especially appreciated the sing-along portions.

Yesterday we dyed Easter eggs.  This year, for the first time, I experimented with some natural dyes: beets (for red), turmeric (for yellow), and red cabbage (surprisingly, for blue!), in addition to the normal food coloring dyes for orange, green, and purple.  The yellow turned out wonderfully and the cabbage yielded a lovely soft gray-ish blue once the egg sat in the dye for almost an hour or so.  I think I didn't use enough beets, though, because even after a long time the best red we got was a blushing beige.

My cute boys showing off
a few of their Easter eggs.
Yesterday afternoon we decorated some sugar cookies I got from Bountiful Baskets.

That rainbow bunny on the left is my creation.
The boys were impressed with my mad decorating skills.
Last night we went to the Spokane Stake's presentation called "Come unto Christ." In one room, they had a beautiful display set up showing scenes from the life of Christ starting with his birth, going through his youth, his ministry and miracles, and his crucifixion.  In another room they had a display all about the Resurrection, including Christ's visit to the Americas.  Then we took seats in the chapel for the musical performance.  The choir sounded glorious!  My older two boys both remarked that they thought "Gethsemane" was beautiful, and I loved "Were You There?" (I sang the solo part for a choir performance many years ago) and "The King of Love My Shepherd Is". (Here's the MoTab singing a slightly different arrangement, one of my favorites.)

Then I got up early this morning to attend the non-denominational Easter sunrise service at Greenwood Memorial Terrace.  It was a little chilly - the regulars were easily identified by the blankets they knew to bring - but it was beautiful and clear and crisp and a wonderful setting for an Easter message. After readings of several scriptural passages (Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; and Matthew 28:1-10), Rev. Mark Klohe gave a brief sermon on how the Resurrection should affect us every day, how it should change the way we see ourselves and the way we treat others.  Along with hymns and prayers, a very Christ-filled service.
The Cross of Inspiration at Greenwood Memorial
Terrace.  It was a beautiful, clear morning!
When I got home, the boys got into their simple Easter baskets and ate some jellybeans, we all had breakfast together, and then we had an Easter egg hunt:

The rest of the morning was fairly quiet.  I listened to the MoTab's recent performance of Handel's Messiah - the whole thing! - and you can listen/watch here.  The boys watched the VeggieTales Easter Carol video.  We got ready for our regular church services this afternoon, which featured some beautiful pieces by our ward choir and some good Christ-centered talks and lessons.  And dinner was at my parents' house: delicious lamb, various veggies, and other yumminess.  It's been a good Easter season.

Happy Easter to all!

He is risen!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Kasie West

Kasie West has two novels up for Whitney Awards this year: the futuristic Pivot Point and the contemporary The Distance Between Us.

While the basic outline is the almost-cliche, Cinderella-esque, poor-girl-meets-rich-boy story, I was pleased with the characterization and relationship building West wrote into the book that give it more depth.

The main character, Caymen, works at her single mother's struggling doll shop for long hours every day, going to school in the morning and leaving at noon for "work study" at Dolls and More.  She's even decided to forego college in order to stay home and help, especially when she discovers that the shop is operating in the red.

One day a young, attractive, and obviously affluent guy walks into the store, looking for a birthday present for his grandmother.  Caymen is instantly on her guard, having dealt with plenty of the "snobby rich" in their small beach town, but is pleasantly surprised when Xander responds well to her dry, sarcastic humor.  He, in turn, appreciates someone his age treating him like a normal person instead of either sucking up or trying use him for his money.  The secondary characters are interesting and well-drawn, too, providing a great supporting cast for these two to interact with.

West handles a delicate topic - class, money, privilege - well, recognizing the unique challenges that life affords for those in any circumstances and the tensions and misunderstandings that financial disparity can bring into friendships as well as romantic relationships. Caymen's relationship with her mother is particularly well-written with the love, misunderstanding, tenderness, exasperation, and loneliness between a mother and her teenage daughter just pitch perfect.

The Distance Between Us
by Kasie West
ISBN: 9780062235657
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 62 - Sweet Child o' Mine Edition

Occasionally, I find it amusing to dig around on youtube for various versions of well-known songs.  Here are some of the most entertaining covers I've found of Guns N' Roses "Sweet Child o' Mine".


Miche Braden gives "Sweet Child o' Mine" a fabulous bluesy, jazzy, New Orleans Style treatment here.  I love the instrumentation with the brass and the clarinet:


I have a huge girl-crush on Sheryl Crow and she nails this cover:


I usually find Gregorian chants very soothing, but this one takes the cake for the most unlikely arrangement of the song:


For the complete polar opposite of Gregorian chant, and, I think, the least recognizable version of the song, here's the electronica cover by Akasha.


And finally, here's a Brazilian bossa band with a sweet, mellow arrangement.  Extra points for the use of the flute on the famous guitar solo riff.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Rocky Road by Josi S. Kilpack

Rocky Road is the tenth "culinary mystery" by Josi S. Kilpack featuring Sadie Hoffmiller as a former private investigator, general unintentional meddler and all-around solver of mysteries.  And it's a Whitney Award finalist in the Mystery/Suspense category.

While Rocky Road certainly hinted at events that occurred in previous books, it was fairly self-contained story.  In other words, I didn't feel that I missed out on much starting with this one, even if there were nine earlier installments.

Sadie is on a "girls weekend" in St. George, Utah, with her friend Caro.  The itinerary includes shopping, girl time, and helping with a breast cancer fund-raiser.  One of the organizers of the fundraiser, a well-loved local physician, disappeared a couple of months earlier and, unsatisfied with the unsuccessful efforts of the town's police, Caro wants Sadie's help investigating the disappearance.  Cautious because of recent experiences (which I'm sure are described in the last book in the series), Sadie declines Caro's persistent request that she get involved.  Eventually, however, she finds herself drawn in, despite her desire to steer clear, when she meets the good doctor's ex-wife while helping to prepare the luncheon for his memorial and strikes up a sympathetic conversation. At the memorial, his current wife appears "a little bit too composed" and arouses Sadie's suspicions more.  The pieces just aren't adding up, so Sadie starts asking more questions.

You see, Sadie believes that "truth is important" and "I found that I could discover important information and help find the answers that might help people." Good reasons, I think.

As any good mystery does, this one has clues, puzzles, twists and turns.  People turn out to be not as they seem, both for good and evil.  The mystery is solved neatly in the end and the bad guys get their comeuppance, though not without some additional heartbreak on several fronts.  Rocky Road was a pleasant, somewhat frothy diversion for a day.  I'm not so engrossed that I'm going to run out and read the rest of the series, but I may pick up another when I need something light.

Of course, as a Whitney Award finalist, it's a given that the author is LDS, but the way Mormon references were included in this book - the character seemed fairly unfamiliar with the terminology such as "ward" for a congregation and looked forward to touring the grounds of the LDS temple in St. George - it seemed like she hadn't incorporated much into earlier books.  I wonder if this was a change from her previous writing and if long-time readers found it a bit jarring.

And yes, I copied out a couple of the recipes including a knock-off of Cafe Rio's Barbacoa Pork and Cilantro Lime Rice, and Granny Anne's Rocky Road Fudge.

Rocky Road
by Josi S. Kilpack
ISBN: 9781609075934
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Deep Cover by Traci Hunter Abramson

Deep Cover is the first of the Mystery/Suspense 2013 Whitney Award finalists I've had a chance to read and it started off the category with a bang!

Kelsey has been deep undercover for two years in the Middle East as a nanny and tutor for the daughters of a suspected terrorist.  After being shot in the leg for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is evacuated to the United States, her cover story still intact.  Back at her parents' home, vacant while they serve a six-month mission, she tries to focus on recovering and settling back in to "normal" life, but the CIA still needs her expertise to prevent a terrorist attack on US soil.

Kelsey's parents asked their neighbor and "adopted" son, the single 29-year-old FBI agent Noah, to keep an eye on the house while they were away.  Unknown to both Kelsey and Noah, Noah is working to prevent the same terrorist attack as Kelsey. As they get to know each other, romance starts to blossom until their personal lives and professional lives collide.

I was fascinated by Kelsey's seamless switching between her aliases: her real life as Kelsey Weber, her CIA desk job as Kelly Park, and as the tutor Taja Al-Kazaz. She speaks fluent Arabic and Hebrew, as well as a smattering of Pashtu and other languages.  She's strong, capable, and confident at her job, both undercover and on desk duty as an analyst.  Her sense of patriotism drives her focus on her work, though she regrets missing out on many family events and holidays, and not being able to be completely honest with them about her absences.

While the relationship between Noah and Kelsey seems to move really quickly, it was also believable for me as they spend more time together and their friendship grows.  The only part that felt less convincing was his reaction when he discovers her CIA cover identity.  Especially since he works in the field, I would expect him to be more understanding from the get-go, though I'm sure surprise and shock, as well as concern for her family being kept in the dark would be the author's explanation.

I have to admit I was less than thrilled with the recurring comments about how "she would gladly trade her world travels for the chance to live inside that beautifully simple life" of staying home and raising a family.  It was very obvious that Abramson was setting them up to have "a traditional life of the husband bringing home the bacon," though I appreciate that she has Noah express that "he was willing to accept whatever choice she made."  I can totally understand how after two years deep undercover in an extremely stressful and dangerous situation, she would yearn for a more peaceful life, but I couldn't help but wonder if right in the aftermath of so much upheaval was the right time to make that decision.

Deep Cover
by Traci Hunter Abramson
ISBN: 9781621083689
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: The Witnesses by Stephanie Black

While reading The Witnesses, I kept thinking to myself that the story really seemed like more of a sequel than a stand-alone and I wished that Stephanie Black had told the story of Ian Roshek and his sister that led to the events on The Witnesses first.  And then after finishing the book I discovered that she did exactly that!

The Witnesses is a sequel to the novel The Believer, though on Black's website, she notes that she wrote it so that you didn't have to read the first book to understand The Witnesses. While that may be the case, I think it would have helped immensely to have the background of The Believer before diving in to this already-created world.  More than once characters launched into expository paragraphs that intruded on the narrative in order to fill readers in, but I'm grateful for the intrusions because otherwise I would have been lost!

The Witnesses is a Whitney Award finalist in the Speculative Fiction category.  The northeast portion of the United States has seceded and become "New America," an anti-religion dictatorship. In New America, "religion was dangerous rebellion, anarchy mutate by insanity, rightfully banned to protect national security." I'm sure that reading The Believer would help, but I didn't really understand the logical leap that banned religion in this new country.

Black incorporates teachings from the Book of Mormon as inspiration for the characters who are fighting for their lives, seen as traitors by their country, but also as the impetus for one particular character finding peace and forgiveness for her past actions that cost her family their lives.  I'm sure readers not familiar with the Book of Mormon would be a bit taken aback or confused by references to Abinadi and Alma, but it worked pretty well for me, though occasionally, the references seemed a bit forced.

The action never stops in The Witnesses, the suspense is palpable, and there are a few twists that I'll admit I didn't see coming, though a few at the end in particular were a bit of a stretch in my mind.  But maybe they wouldn't be if I'd read the first part of the story.  Argh! I can't help feeling that I'm at such a disadvantage not having read The Believer.  I guess that's going to be next on my reading list...

The Witnesses
by Stephanie Black
ISBN: 9781621085232
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Book Review: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster

A Whitney Award finalist in the General Fiction category, Mile 21 is a moving account of grief, loss, and the painful process of healing in a uniquely LDS setting.

It's been a year since Abish Miller's husband of only seven months died from a fluke pulmonary embolism. At the age of 21, she'd never envisioned herself a widow and is struggling to maintain any semblance of a life.  Her monotonous on-campus job, doing payroll at BYU-Idaho, and managing her mother's fourplex married student apartments is almost more than she can handle.

Likewise, relationships with friends and family have suffered - "withered on the proverbial vine" she says - and "right now, I just can't scrape together enough...initiative? Pride? Anger?...Enough of anything, to care."

And then it just gets worse.  Her mother fires her after one too many lapses as apartment manager, forcing Abish to look for a new place to live.  In a singles' apartment.  With roommates.  In the ward where her boss - "Burt the Turd" in her mind - was just called as bishop.

Abish's only salvation is running.  She runs to work in the morning, runs home at night, and runs at every opportunity in between.  She finally decides to sign up and train for the marathon she and her husband Mark had talked about running together.

Dunster's depiction of Abish's grieving process is so real and raw, it almost hurt to read.  She's lonely and sad and angry and afraid of forgetting even as she knows it's inevitable that she'll forget some things.  She feels guilty about wanting to move on, but there's another part of her that resents Mark for leaving her and God for taking him, but then she feels guilty for that, too.  Dunster does an incredible job of juggling all of those conflicting emotions and layering them with Latter-day Saint beliefs in a way that comes across as real rather than affected.

Abish's parents, her friends, and her bishop, in particular, try to help her come to terms with what has happened and learn how to be happy again, without pretending to have all the answers.  Bishop Barnes - no longer "Burt the Turd" - insists, "You've got a right to mourn. Don't be ashamed. You should let others mourn with you." while reminding her that the plan of happiness is "about this life too, Abish. Heavenly Father wants you to be happy here too."

Dunster also meets some of the less attractive aspects of LDS culture head on.  For example, I wanted to smack Abish's roommate Maddie during this exchange:
"You know, you're pretty lucky, Abish." 
"Lucky how?"
"Well, you found your eternal companion. You're totally taken care of. Like, you get to be in the top tier. You're not even, like, divorced or something where you have to go looking again to gain celestial glory."
"Yeah," I say dryly. "I should go join a convent or something."
Maddie's eyes are round and serious. "Well, it wouldn't be a sin if you did. And now I think of it, I mean, it would be kind of selfish for you to..." She shrugs. "I mean you've had your chance, and there are only so many good guys in the world..."
Mile 21 hits on some hard, heart-wrenching topics, but doesn't shy away from either the pain or the questions that accompany the pain.  It doesn't sugar-coat or white-wash LDS culture either.  There is a romance subplot, but it takes it's proper place as a portion of the story rather than the predominant feature.  The bulk of the story is about Abish's journey through grief and healing. Dunster acknowledges the reality of incredibly difficult struggles in this life, but also shows the hope and happiness that exists even through the dark times.

Mile 21
by Sarah Dunster
ISBN: 9781462112975
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 61


The horrors of genocide in Rwanda - now two decades old - are breath-taking and heart-breaking.  In my nice little western, middle-class bubble, it's hard to fit such unspeakably evil actions into my definition of reality, but ignoring them seems far worse, to the point of dehumanizing and minimizing the suffering of others.

The NY Times recently published an article "Portraits of Reconciliation" containing the stories and pictures of victims and perpetrators of specific acts of violence together. Each of the pairings had participated in "a continuing national effort toward reconciliation and worked closely with AMI (Association Modeste et Innocent), a nonprofit organization" including several months of counseling.

One of the survivors related this:
After I was chased from my village and Dominique [the perpetrators with whom she was photographed in the article] and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”

I can't fathom the emotional strength it would take to forgive the person who killed your loved ones, or destroyed your home and property, and caused you so much pain.  Or, for that matter, the emotional strength it would take to face the person you had so wronged and beg for forgiveness.

If you'd like to learn more, I highly recommend the film Hotel Rwanda and the book Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza.


This article "Picturing Hunger in America" is a couple months old, but still timely and oh-so-poignant.  Again with our little bubbles of reality, I think we simply don't recognize how widespread and pervasive hunger is, or how close to home hits.  Scroll down to the pictures of bananas at a suburban grocery store and the inner city corner bodega.

If you have six-and-a-half minutes, click through the link at the bottom of the article (or click here) to go to the clip from PBS Newshour where you can hear from the women who took the photographs as part of this project in Colorado.


While I'm posting photo series, I've got to throw in this one from Buzzfeed: "15 Adorable Kids Pose As Iconic Figures of Women's History".  I love baby Janet Reno - she looks so serious! - and baby Alice Walker, but baby Malala just about took my breath away.


And let's finish off with this post compiling short bios of seven feminist foremothers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I love Emma, Emmeline and Eliza, but Sarah Granger Kimball and Martha Hughes Cannon are pretty incredible, too.  I honor and admire all of these strong, faithful women as part of my spiritual heritage.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book Review: Safe Passage by Carla Kelly

The history of the LDS colonies in Mexico intrigues me.  It's been one of those topics I've been aware of for years, but haven't ever taken the time to research it, so I was glad for an opportunity to read this Whitney Award finalist see it from the perspective of (fictional) Saints living there. My interest is definitely piqued enough to want to learn more.

That being said, I had a hard time getting into Safe Passage.  Husband and wife Ammon and Addie have been estranged for a couple of years after her father deliberately neglected to inform Ammon, away at a logging camping, of Addie's miscarriage.  Ammon was injured and unable to return home, all the time unaware of his wife's situation, but she interpreted it as a lack of caring on his part.  When he finally did get home, on crutches and in terrible pain, the normally reserved Addie took her anger and pain out on him, yelling and throwing her wedding ring at him.  He left their home and tried to reconnect through letters, only to receive them back torn into little pieces.

Fast forward a couple of years and the Mexican civil war has made it a dangerous place to live.  Church leaders have strongly encouraged everyone to get out of Mexico, but when Ammon arrives with his family at one of the refugee camps, his father-in-law tells him Addie's still in Mexico caring for her grandmother.  He asks Ammon to return and rescue her and Ammon agrees on the condition that he give Ammon's family $500 to help them start a new life in the United States and another $500 to Addie when they return.

And then it starts to get a bit more convoluted.  Ammon finds Addie and they have close calls with federales and Mexican freedom fighters, but they end up traipsing several days' journey in the wrong direction to give some money that a doctor stole from the place Ammon had hidden it, to the wife of the person who stole it, in return for him preventing Addie from being raped.  (And I literally said out loud - why are you risking your life to take money to someone who stole it from you in the first place!) Then as they're trying to get out of Mexico - even though Ammon isn't sure he wants to leave his homeland - they encounter General Salazar who is the leader of one of the main armies of rebels and that, of course, complicates matters.

Anyway, along with the plot that was all over the place, the character of Addie in particular seemed inconsistent.  I appreciated the recognition that men suffer emotional pain, too, as Ammon did when he learned of the miscarriage and as he related a story from his father grieving after they suffered a miscarriage as well. "Son, for some reason, they don't think men need comfort."  But then there were so many comments like "women were a separate species" and "what was it about women?" that just irritated me, capped off with the last words of the book: "His woman."


Safe Passage
by Carla Kelly
ISBN: 9781599558967
Buy it from Amazon here: (paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: The Inventor's Secret by Chad Morris

In The Inventor's Secret, the fifth and final Middle Grade Whitney Award finalist, there's a fun, fascinating, futuristic invention around every corner, but almost to the extent that they overshadow the characters and story.

Abby and her twin brother Derick have been admitted to the prestigious school Cragbridge Hall. While Derick fits right in with the other brilliant and overachieving students, Abby feels out of place and just plain ordinary, especially since she knows her application was initially rejected before her grandfather, the founder of Cragbridge Hall and a famous inventor, intervened.

Unfortunately, her roommate Jacqueline discovers this nepotism and refuses to room with her, locking her out of their dorm room the first night at school.  The other girls likewise reject her, since they all had friends who didn't get in to the school and blame her for taking a spot from a more deserving student.  Finally one girl, Carol, befriends her and life starts looking a bit brighter.

And then her grandfather is kidnapped, her parents go missing, and only Abby and Derick have the clues to rescue them.

I can't quite put my finger on what felt off about the book.  I liked it.  It was entertaining for sure, the inventions were creative, there was adventure and time travel and intriguing puzzles to figure out.  But I was annoyed that Abby thought boys acting in women's roles in Elizabethan England was "gross" and I was a little taken aback by how consistently vicious Jacqueline's bullying of Abby was, though Abby triumphs in the end.  The characters in the book, with the possible exception of Abby and Derick, seemed fairly flat, like two-dimensional stock characters. There were a couple who started out antagonistic toward Abby and Derick and then suddenly flip-flopped and were on their side and that's just an awfully convenient plot device.

Or perhaps it's because I sympathized a bit with the bad guy, Charles Muns.  Don't get me wrong, he's a thoroughly evil character, but I kind of buy his argument that if you could go back and stop Hitler that would be a good thing.  And while I can understand Dr. Cragbridge's insistence that "the fabric of society could change" and that if society didn't have tragedies to learn from, we would be less humble and simply make even bigger mistakes, there seems to me to be a moral imperative to prevent death and pain when possible.  Yes, messing around with the past would have serious, world-changing ramifications, but I'm not sure that "tragedies are where heroes are made...tragedies help us forget lesser problems and come together" is a comforting statement to those who lose loved ones.

The Inventor's Secret is another one of those books by an LDS author that has a Mormon image tossed into a random scene, kind of an Easter egg for the LDS readers.  A painting on the wall of the school depicts Joseph Smith having an operation on his leg as a small boy and notes that he "grew up to be the founder of a new American religion."

The Inventor's Secret
by Chad Morris
ISBN: 9781609073268
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).