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The House of Tomorrow

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The Short of It:Brilliant, beautifully written and touching in a way that surprised me.The Rest of It:After losing both parents in an accident, sixteen-year-old Sebastian Prendergast lives with his eccentric grandmother Nana in a geodesic dome. Nana, who studied with the infamous R. Buckminster Fuller (architect, philosopher and futurist), continues to share his teachings by conducting tours of their very unique home.Most people visiting Iowa come for other reasons, but every once in awhile they have a visitor or two, and that’s enough to keep Nana happy. Sebastian spends his days polishing the dome and as he’s gazing down upon the town below, it occurs to him that he hasn’t seen much of it, or the rest of the world for that matter. You see, the dome acts as a barrier to all things. It protects him, yet it also imprisons him. In his sensible shoes and conservative outdated clothing, Sebastian finds pleasure in simple things, but he secretly desires more. When his Nana falls ill, he meets a family that helps him realize how special he really is.This is a wonderful story and includes the most interesting cast of characters I’ve encountered in a long time. They are terrifically flawed. I seriously loved them all, which I almost never say. Bognanni manages to make them vulnerable in beautiful, subtle ways. The story is funny and sad and touching without being overly worked. The transitions were effortless, or seemed so anyway. I adored this book and this is Bognanni’s first novel! It blows my mind. You know that feeling you get after reading a page or two of a new book? The feeling where you just know that it’s going to be great? I had that feeling throughout the book and the ending did not disappoint. There is so much more to say, but it would be better to experience it on your own.
If I Stay

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The Short of It:A short but riveting story about the importance of family, the ability to let go and the impact that change can have on one girl’s life.The Rest of It:After surviving a horrific crash, Mia finds herself in an “in between” state. As she hovers between life and death, she reminisces over the life she’s lived thus far.In just a few pages, Forman has you walking in Mia’s shoes. My heart was in my throat the entire time. You know the injuries are serious, and you know that she might not make it, so the suspense alone has you turning pages but at the same time, you sort of don’t want to know the outcome. The implications of her staying, are explained to a degree but what you imagine is far worse. I can’t say more about the plot because I would be giving the story away.Beautifully written, with just enough detail. This is easily a YA book that will appeal to adult readers as well (such as myself!)While reading it, I was told that there is a sequel. It’s called Where She Went and it’s out now. So if you want to read them together (and you will), you can pick both of them up.
The Train of Small Mercies

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The Short of It:Compelling and thought-provoking… The Train of Small Mercies affords us a tiny glimpse of people made somber by tragedy.The Rest of It:In New York, a young black porter struggles through his first day on the job-a staggering assignment aboard Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train. In Pennsylvania, a woman creates a tangle of lies to sneak away from her disapproving husband and pay her respects to the slain senator, dragging her child with her. In Maryland, a wounded young soldier awaits a newspaper interview that his parents hope will restore his damaged self-esteem. And in Washington, an Irish nanny in town to interview with the Kennedy family must reconcile the lost opportunity and the chance to start her life anew.I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one. As the train moves through each state, you feel as if you are one of the mourners, waiting for the train to come through town. There is so much going on with these people. They all have their own challenges and somehow, they come together for this one purpose. What I enjoyed most is that the story flows effortlessly. As the train winds its way through these states, the pace of the story never falters and although the story’s point of view alternates between characters, the momentum is never lost.I eagerly turned the pages and enjoyed this one quite a bit. The Train of Small Mercies will appeal to all types of readers.
Across the Universe

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The Short of It:Across the Universe has a lot going on in its pages, but teen readers will have a hard time putting it down.The Rest of It:Amy, her parents, and a host of others are frozen in a type of extended sleep until they arrive at the new planet. Their trip is expected to take three hundred years. For the duration, the folks on Godspeed, the ship transporting them, are in charge of creating new generations while on board, and preserving the folks that are living as frozen cargo. Except, they aren’t doing a good a job of it because there is a murderer running around unplugging everyone before their time.As entertaining as this book is, and as fun as teens will find it, it contains almost “too much” information and goes in too many directions. It’s dystopian sci-fi (my favorite part), but it’s also a mystery, a thriller, a love story, a coming of age story, fantasy and an action adventure tale all rolled into one.The feeling I had while reading it, was that the author wanted it to be many things. I get that. It’s a first novel and I can see why the author would want to guarantee wide appeal. BUT, it was almost as if the author just chose a storyline from a stack of cards and then went with it, but only to a certain point. Then another card was chosen, and so on and so on. An unfortunate situation for this adult reader because I really enjoyed the characters and wanted to know more about them, but once you started to know something of importance…the story would veer off into a different direction.In the author’s defense, teens do have a very abbreviated attention span and it is geared towards young adults, of which, I am certainly not. So I understand that what I found frustrating, might not even register with a teen. I do want to say that there is quite a bit of sex. If your son or daughter plans to read this, you might want to have a talk with them about it before they start. It’s not overly gratuitous, but they are trying to create new generations and there is a lot of mating going on as the seasons change.In summary, my favorite part of the story was the whole freezing/planning for the new planet. There is a riveting scene where Amy is frozen for the trip and that scene literally gave me goosebumps. I wish the story had continued along that line, the colonization of the new planet, etc. On the flip side, I could totally see this playing out in movie form. Overall, a good first attempt at a genre I seem to be liking more and more each day.
The Absolute Value of Mike

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The Short of It:Laugh-out-loud funny.The Rest of It:When his father takes a teaching job in Romania for the summer, fourteen-year-old Mike is sent to a town he affectionately calls, “Do Over” so he can stay with his grand-aunt and uncle known only as Moo and Poppy.Moo and Poppy have their own issues. They’ve recently lost their grown son Doug, and Poppy spends his days sitting in his chair, staring at the TV and eating nothing but Scrapple. Sitting in a chair all day wouldn’t be too bad, but there’s a project that the entire town is relying on Poppy for, and he’s in no shape to complete it. Having no other choice, Mike steps in to save the day.There are some very serious issues contained within its pages, but The Absolute Value of Mike addresses them with humor. The small town feel and the relationship between the town’s inhabitants is at times laugh-out-loud funny, but also very sweet.I had just begun to read this when The Boy took it out of my hands. He is not a reader, but after reading the opening paragraph, he declared that he would read it after me. Wha?? The Boy said he wants to read it? Wha?? It took a moment for that to settle in.Isn’t that saying something though? This is clean tween reading. No vamps or zombies here. Just Porch Pals, a car named Tyrone and a Romanian orphan looking for a home. Although it’s geared towards tweens, I enjoyed it too.Erskine’s name might sound familiar to you and that would be because she also wrote Mockingbird, which I liked very much. The Absolute Value of Mike is an Amazon Best Book of the Month and has been chosen by Indie booksellers for the Summer 2011 Kids’ Next List.
The Lifeboat: A Novel

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The Short of It: Strong start, weak finish. The Rest of It: After an explosion sinks the luxury liner she and her husband were on, Grace Winter finds herself floating across the Atlantic with thirty-eight other passengers in a lifeboat meant for much less. What follows is an account of what happens when food and water run scarce and when all hope of rescue is lost. The story is told from Grace’s point of view as she recounts the events leading up to her rescue. From the beginning, the reader knows two things… that Grace was not the only one to have survived and that she is on trial for something that she did…or didn’t do. That part remains a mystery for most of the book and is what kept me reading. When the ship goes down, they have little time to launch the lifeboats so half of them don’t make it out and the ones that do, are either terribly overcrowded, as is the case with Grace’s, or not manned by a knowledgeable crew member. In this sense, Grace is lucky. Her lifeboat, although overcrowded and taking on water is manned by a crew member so their plight seems less serious than say, some of the other boats, but as they float for three weeks and their chance of rescue decreases, tempers flare and desperation sets in. Grace was a hard character to like. On the surface, she seemed very straightforward and possessed a great deal of common sense. Young, and a newlywed at that, she seemed to hold it together pretty well given that her husband’s status was an unknown throughout much of the book. However, there was a coldness to her that I didn’t care for. Calculating and detached. Those two words kept coming up for me when I was reading her story and it bothered me. It made it hard for me to see things from her point of view and given that this is her story, I struggled with parts of it. My interest in the book started to wane at about the halfway mark. They were still on the lifeboat but the day-to-day routine was becoming tiresome and not much else was shared about the other passengers. At this point, Grace was interested in Grace. This retreat into herself didn’t work for me. I wanted to know more about the others, so that I could understand the full effect of Grace’s actions. This is one of those stories where one particular character finds herself pushed to her limits, but I never got to see that desperation. I expected to see her snap or to be overcome with grief or to experience some other extreme emotion, but what the author delivered was just a shell of what I had expected to see. Because of this, Grace’s outcome meant little to me. Besides my inability to feel much for Grace, I didn’t think there was enough conflict on the lifeboat itself. Small boat, too many people with little food and water between them. That is a recipe for disaster and yet… what took place didn’t seem all that bad to me. The passengers seemed too civilized for me to take their situation seriously and I never felt the danger that they were obviously in. Perhaps, me knowing that there were survivors lessened the sense of danger for me. That is one possibility. Quite some time ago, I read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I had trouble with that book too (for different reasons) but the lifeboat scenes in that book were riveting and so real that my stomach ached from hunger. I think I expected a little bit more of that in this one.For more reviews, visit my blog: Book Chatter.
The Hand that Trembles

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I have to set some time aside to try this one again. The first time I read it, I had a hard time getting into the story. I didn't feel too much for any of the characters, yet the story was interesting enough to keep reading. Not sure if it was just a timing issue for me or what but I'd like to give this book a second chance sometime down the line.
The London Train

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The Short of It: Understated, quiet and lovely. The Rest of It: Paul and his second wife Elise have had issues in the past, but at the moment, they seem to be doing well. That is, until he leaves her to live with his pregnant daughter in a ramshackle flat with a couple of strangers. While Paul struggles to find his place in this new arrangement, Cora finds herself utterly conflicted over her recent separation from her husband Robert. The two stories intersect to create a new dynamic that force these characters to face life, head on. This is a book of moments. As a whole, it’s very quiet and simple but there are moments within it that beg to be reread, or even read out loud. There is a lilting, pleasing tone to the writing that I found quite enjoyable. Although at first glance nothing much happens, as this is not a plot-driven novel, there is a lot that happens within the characters. Revelations. Realizations. Understanding. Once, Cora had believed that living had built a cumulative bank of memories, thickening and deepening as time went on, shoring you against emptiness. She had used to treasure up relics from every phase of her life as it passed, as if they were holy. Now that seemed to her a falsely consoling model of experience. The present was always paramount, in a way that thrust you forward: empty, but also free. Readers who enjoy reflection and contemplative musing will truly appreciate this novel. The writing was lovely and it left me with a deep sense of peace. The London Train was longlisted for the Orange Prize but didn’t make the shortlist. A real shame if you ask me.
Hand Me Down World : A Novel: A Novel

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I only gave this one a very short time and it didn't work for me. Perhaps, I will give it another go by the end of the year, but the story didn't hold my attention at all, although I have liked his writing very much in the past.
Pearl of China: A Novel

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The Short of It:Interesting premise but poorly executed.The Rest of It:"It is the end of the nineteenth century and China is riding on the crest of great change, but for nine-year-old Willow, the only child of a destitute family in the small southern town of Chin-kiang, nothing ever seems to change. Until the day she meets Pearl, the eldest daughter of a zealous American missionary."The “Pearl” referenced in that blurb is Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth and numerous other novels. The story follows the lives of Willow and Pearl. This includes their marriages to horrible men, Willow’s imprisonment over refusing to denounce Pearl’s work, and Pearl’s rise as a writer. Some of the novel is based on fact, but the friendship itself is total fiction, which I was disappointed to learn.The historical bits about Mao’s Red Revolution and particularly the bits about his wife, were fascinating but not fleshed out. There were numerous gaps in the storyline. In real life, Pearl was a visionary. Highly revered for her humanitarian efforts yet in the story, her life almost took a backseat to Willow’s. Min was forced to denounce Buck’s work so perhaps this book was her way of paying homage to the writer. I’m not sure she succeeded, but what she did do was make me want to read The Good Earth.In additional to the gaps in storyline, the writing itself is a classic example of “telling” and not “showing.” Min tells you all about these horrible marriages yet she shares nothing about them. I never get a feel for the situation that these women are in. Even the imprisonment, which I’m sure would have been a harrowing experience for anyone, is glossed over with just a few sentences telling us how horrible it was.Pearl of China was my book club’s pick for July. What could have been a fabulous read, ended up being a thin outline of historical facts with a underdeveloped story thrown in for good measure. I can’t recommend this book, although it did provide quite a bit for us to discuss at our meeting.
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