Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: Pieces by Chris Lynch

Title: Pieces
Author: Chris Lynch
Year Published: 2013

Genre: YA fiction
Pages: 192
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Location (my 2014 Google Reading map): USA (MA)

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school's library

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): When Eric's brother Duane dies, his world breaks in two. Duane was his best friend--possibly his only friend. And Eric isn't sure how to live in a world without Duane in it. Desperate to find a piece of his brother to hold on to, Eric decides to meet some of the people who received Duane's organs. He expects to meet perfect strangers. Instead he encounters people who become more than friends and almost like family--people who begin to help Eric put the pieces of his life back together for good. 

Review: I have a donor dot on my driver's license. I like the idea that other people could be helped by my body parts. That sounds so sick and boy do I hope no one gets my "pieces" for a very long time! I had high hopes for this book, what a great concept: someone meeting the people that got a loved one's organs? That's heavy stuff.

I liked the character of Eric. He is a lost soul who is having trouble finding his way now that his brother has died. He reaches out to these organ recipients hoping to find answers. He seemed real in his need for a connection, which I could understand. The crew of organ recipients that he meets are interesting and varied, but if felt a bit like they entered his life too easily. Perhaps they needed connection, too.

While I liked the concept, I feel like the book didn't go far enough. Eric befriends these people, their lives become intertwined and then it just ended. It felt like it needed another couple of chapters to wrap it up. At only 192 pages, there could have been more.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: The Expats by Chris Pavone

Title: The Expats
Author: Chris Pavone
Year Published: 2012

Genre: Adult spy fiction
Pages: 326
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2014 Google Reading map): Luxembourg

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): In the cobblestoned streets of Luxembourg, Kate Moore's days are filled with playdates and coffee mornings, her weekends spent in Paris and skiing in the Alps. But Kate is also guarding a tremendous, life-defining secret--one that's become so unbearable that it begins to unravel her newly established expat life. She suspects that another American couple are not who they claim to be; her husband is acting suspiciously; and as she travels around Europe, she finds herself looking over her shoulder, increasingly terrified that her own past is catching up with her. As Kate begins to dig, to uncover the secrets of the people around her, she finds herself buried in layers of deceit so thick they threaten her family, her marriage, and her life.

Review: If you like intrigue, then this is the book for you! This novel has spies, European travel, romance, family, finance, and international who-done-it.

This book really centers on four characters: Kate (the protagonist, who is ex-CIA), Dexter (her husband, an internet security expert), Julie (Kate's "friend") and Bill (Julia's husband). All of the characters are likable in their own way, even if you don't like them. We get to know their quirks, their inner workings, and their motivations. While Kate is the main character, the others pay a very important role in the intrigue.

The setting is fun; when is the last time you read a book set in Luxembourg?! I actually learned a bit about the country, which was a nice touch. The next time I have questionable banking that I need to do, Luxembourg is the place for me! We also get to travel to northern Italy, Paris, and other European locales as well as some Central American countries.

I am not sure what else to say about this novel except that it is a fun read if you like spies, adventure, and a plot with more than a few twists.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A visit with the Bidens (yes, those Bidens)!

A couple days ago I got a call from someone at my school district's main office. I had been chosen along with 7 other teachers to meet and speak with Dr. Jill Biden, the Second Lady. Was I interested? "Sure! That would be cool" I said. (By the way, she's a teacher.)

I had no idea what the visit would entail or how exciting it would be.

Here's the short version of the afternoon:
  • Snipers around the small Santa Barbara airport
  • A huge grey cargo plane on the tarmac that carried the 9 armored SUVs that the entourage and Bidens drove in SB
  • TONS of police, sheriffs, fire trucks, K-9 units, ambulances, and secret service agents
  • The press were there as well, treating us teachers like we mattered and were "somebody." In fact, everyone did since we were the invited guests. That will probably never happen again

We hung out in the private jet airport for 2 hours before they arrived, chatting with a secret service agent and one another. It was fun because we were all a little giddy and excited. Only one teacher seemed to be calm and not excited and when I pointed it out to him, he said, "are you kidding? Do you know how many times I've gone to the bathroom since we got here?!" Pretty cool. The secret service agent was really nice as well, answering all our probing questions, some with good solid answers and others with perfect vagueness. Us: how many secret service agents are here? Him: Enough. And yes, they do have little microphones at their wrists.

We were allowed out near the tarmac while the plane landed and taxied into place then we were taken out to stand near the plane while the Bidens de-planed. We thought it was just going to be her, but the Vice President was there, too! They shook hands with each of us and had brief chats with each of us as well. She came first and introduced herself as "Jill" and he introduced himself as "her husband, Joe." Both so friendly, normal and down to earth.

She gathered us around and talked about teaching, teachers, etc (she is a community college English teacher and past high school teacher) who was grading papers on the flight. Then she casually said, "do you want to see inside Air Force 2?" Well, yeah! So we got to tour the plane!!

I told Dr. Jill Biden that my daughter dared me to take a selfie with her. That was a lie. I just thought it would get her to do it and she did!

More photos on the tarmac (the press was far away, but they've got good lenses) and they gave us gift bags (M&Ms, Kisses and a metal bookmark with Jill Biden's signature and a quote, all with the White House seal). Then the press talked to us afterward as the Bidens sped away in the armored cars.

It was such a high and really was fun. I had no idea I'd feel that way doing it. And, it turns out I was on the news.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Year Published: 2014

Genre: YA fiction
Pages: 391
Rating: 5 out of 5

Location (my 2014 Google Reading map): USA (NY)

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school library

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, trying to outrun the memories that haunt them both. They moved back to Andy's hometown to try a "normal" life, but the horrors he saw in the war threaten to destroy their lives. Hayley watches, helpless, as her father turns to drugs and alcohol to silence his demons. How do you keep your father alive when death is stalking him? What are you supposed to do when your parent stops acting like an adult? And what happens if a sweet guy who can make you laugh barges his way into your world and for the first time, you find yourself thinking about the future?

Review: Laurie Halse Anderson is incredible. She has done it again: written a book that sucks me in, makes me believe it's real, brings emotions to the front, and all with good writing.

I have read her other books: Winter Girls,  Twisted, Speak, Catalyst, and Fever 1793 (most of which I read before I was blogging) and have loved every single one of them. She has a way of creating characters and situations that are so real, so raw, that really make the stop and think about things. And even if the characters are nothing like me, I can relate to them and understand them. She also manages to write about really depressing things without depressing the reader.

Hayley is barely holding it together and it shows. She isn't good at pretending it's all okay, she isn't doing well in school, she isn't being a very good friend, and she really doesn't care. But I don't dislike her. She is like so many students who have all this crap at home and getting to school and doing well just isn't a priority. How do we help these kids? Luckily Hayley has people who care enough to push her along. What I liked is that none of them solves anything for Hayley, they just keep popping up in her life, checking in and carrying her along. Hayley has to figure things out for herself. Her dad certainly isn't going to make things better.

PTSD is at the heart of this book. Andy Kincain is a vet (probably of Iraq) who isn't doing well. Drugs and alcohol seem like solutions some of the time, but mostly things just aren't working for him. And he doesn't have a solution. I liked that he wasn't doing badly all the time. He'd hold it together, get a job, stay sober, then slip. Very realistic and such an important issue to bring out in the open in YA literature.

Overall this book is so well done. I highly recommend it to adults and teens.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Title: Code Name Verity
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Year Published: 2012

Genre: YA fiction (mystery)
Pages: 332
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2014 Google Reading map): UK and France

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school library

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): When "Verity" is arrested by teh Gestapo, she's sure she doesn't stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she's living a spy's worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution. They'll get the truth out of her. But it won't be what they expect.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure, and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from a merciless and ruthless enemy?

Review: I have read a lot of books set in World War II and even a couple spy books (not usually my favorite), but this one definitely had its own outlook and perspective on the genre.

First off, female spies?! Awesome. It turns out there were a number of women allowed to fly planes during World War II, just not in combat (except in Russia where women were employed as combat pilots in the 1940s). Female pilots were allowed to shuttle planes around the United Kingdom, taking planes from one airfield to another and shuttling passengers (both military and civilian) where they needed to go. And yes, there were some female spies as well. It turns out the author did a lot of research into the roles women played in Britain during WWII in order to make this work of fiction plausible.

We get the story from the perspective of both main characters, Julie and Maddie. Julie's version is the first half of the book and I would rate that section a 4 out of 5. It gets quite confusing at times since there are so many characters and lots of them seem to have code names. I did like that we know the narrator/spy is in the hands of the Nazi Gestapo and that they are allowing her to write down her story. This is how we learn all about Julie and Maddie's friendship, Julie's background, and how she came to be in the Gestapo prison. I found the second half of the book, Maddie's story more interesting, but perhaps that is because her story fills in the gaps and reveals much more.

Overall this is a good novel about a little known aspect of World War II and I recommend it if you are interested in that time period.