December 30, 2012

The Princess of Dhagabad by Anna Kashina

I picked up this book for ten cents at a garage sale, and I've been putting off reading it. Not sure why, but I just didn't have the urge to actual read it until today. And I wish I hadn't have waited. This turned out to be a pretty good book.

The Princess of Dhagabad has long awaited her twelfth birthday. For it is on this day that she is allowed to have the bottle that her grandmother left to her. And she gets quite the surprise that the bottle holds a Djinn. An all-powerful being that is essentially her slave since she holds the bottle. At first indifferent, he grows to be her closest friend and when she must marry, he is there to make sure that everything can go as smooth as possible. He just doesn't account for the Princess's wishes and sense of adventure, and the belief that she can change things that have never before been changed.

The Princess is pretty inquisitive. She has a genuine love of the world around her and it frightens Hasan, her Djinn, that she too could become like him because of the knowledge that she surrounds herself with. He, himself, is somewhat mysterious, but because the history of the Djinn and himself are laid out, it gives an interesting perspective into the life of the Djinn and how he became one. The Princess's parents, and indeed many of the people at the palace, aren't as kind or supportive of her though and at many times it feels like it is the Princess and the Djinn against the world. Which is somewhat unbelievable. I'd like to think there are more redeemable people than just the two of them.

The plot meandered along. I had a sense it was more setting up the characters and the relationships before the next book. But that was ok, I thought the history and story telling behind the characters was interesting. The writing was a tad juvenile, but easy to lose yourself in. I liked when the Princess had her world view but found Hasan's point of view to be a little over flowery. It didn't detract too much from the book though. There were some mature themes that I didn't expect in this book. The Sultan and his harem were described in great detail, including some of those activities that they partake in. Not that that's a bad thing, just not what I expected from this young adult seeming fantasy story. There is a little bit of violence, but it is not nearly as descriptive as the sex scenes are.

I'll definitely be looking out for the second book in the series. I'm eager to see what happens and if Hasan and the Princess can overcome more obstacles with their friendship.

The Princess of Dhagabad
Copyright 2000
272 pages

December 29, 2012

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This is a comforting read. Sure it contains a lot of harsh topics and it isn't the best thing written out there. But as I said, it's comforting. And sometimes you just need a book like that.

Lily has grown up with the accidental death of her mother on her mind. She remembers little of it, but knows that somehow she was involved, and her father seems to blame her too, or at least he's not very nice to her. Her only companionship is a woman who her father has hired named Rosaline. Rosaline is ok, but with the racial tension in the South soon finds herself in trouble for trying to register to vote. Lily helps her escape prison and together they run away to South Carolina where Lily hopes to find some clue to her mother's past and find out if she was ever loved by either of her parents.

Lily is a strange girl, but she seems loving in her own way, even if she does get into quite a bit of trouble all the time. When it comes right down to it she's helpful and wants so desperately to fit in somewhere that she becomes misguided at times. Luckily the sisters who take her and Rosaline in are as charming as they are different. August, especially, is a good mother figure for Lily while June is somewhat standoffish and May a good friend. They all seem to appreciate each other though and I think that's what makes this novel so comforting.

The plot is a bit unbelievable. The fact that they could so easily flee from the town and her father and not be questioned more along the way makes you suspend disbelief a little bit. But the overall plot of belonging somewhere is a universal one. Everybody wants to feel that. And I liked the way all the characters interacted. Since it does take place during the Civil Rights movement there is always that in the background too and it causes some tension in the book. But largely the book didn't focus on that as much as it focused on the community the sisters had built and their acceptance of Lily and her friend Rosaline. The book does contain some religion, the sisters have created their own involving a statue of Mary that has hints of Catholicism and other spiritual aspects. Those parts can get a little drawn out, but does show the type of people they are.

A nice book, one that let's you see the light side of humanity. Even if it isn't perfect, it is still a good book for curling up by the fire with.

The Secret Life of Bees
Copyright 2002
302 pages

December 28, 2012

Wesley the Owl by Stacey O'Brien

I have a great love of owls. It all started when my uncle nicknamed me "owl". But rather than praising my virtues of wisdom, he used it in a more derogatory way to imply I was a snobbish know-it-all. As much as it hurt, I finally told myself to turn it around and use the animal as a totem of sorts instead, and felt a lot better when I focused on that positive aspect. So there's that connection, and then there's just the fact that they're beautiful creatures.

Wesley the owl was adopted by the author Stacey O'Brien when he was just a few days old. A research at Caltech, she worked with the owl department and was found to be the perfect fit for this owl as he could never be released to the wild because of an injury. So she took him on with only a little idea of what that would mean over time. For nineteen years she cared for Wesley and developed a connection with him that would last the entire time he was alive. Mixed into the book are anecdotes about Wesley and general facts about owls and a little smattering of Stacy's personal life; as it was deeply intertwined with Wesley's life.

Stacy is a pretty fair narrator of herself. She doesn't hold back some of her flaws or embarrassing moments (like Wesley trying to mate with her) but she also doesn't seem self conscious either. It's clear that she was pretty happy with Wesley in her life, even if it did keep her from developing a human relationship. Wesley is just adorable and I enjoyed all the descriptions of his antics and emotions. I always thought of owls as pretty stoic and was surprised to learn at just how much goofiness they possess. And the bond the two had together was pretty incredible.

This book progressed slowly at times, and I think that's because O'Brien just tried to fit a sheer amount of information, stories, and other things into a somewhat small book. I could have easily seen this book be expanded into two different ones; one about owls and the other the personal story of Wesley. But even if it's a little rushed it was still a very enjoyable read. You got to learn about O'Brien as a person and her love for the little owl she raised. It almost made me want an owl myself, but to be honest, just hearing the detail of everything she had to do to care for Wesley and how it impacted her social life, it's not a task to be taken lightly and really, only a professional should ever attempt it. Wild animals are wild animals, and it's very rare that they should be included in someone's home. And like all animals, even Wesley, there does come a time when they grow old and leave us, and like most animal memoirs, that is not left out of this book.

This was definitely a book for owl lovers or even just regular animal lovers. With the photos that showed Wesley you could really get a sense of this unique owl and it added to the book as well. Because "Whoooo" could resist an owl (sorry had to do it)?

Wesley the Owl
Copyright 2008
224 pages

The Black Stallion Returns by Walter Farley

The Black Stallion series is one that is known to many. The story of a boy, shipwrecked with a wild horse who becomes his friend, captures the heart of many. This book, The Black Stallion Returns, is the second in the series. You don't necessarily have to read the first book before this one, but it does help to read it for background, so I recommend going in order.

Alec has had quite a shake up. First someone tries to kill the Black Stallion, and then, just hours later, his real owner shows up to claim him. After all that he's been through he can't stand to lose the horse. So when an opportunity comes for him to go visit the horse in Arabia, Alec takes it. But the journey will be much more dangerous than he can imagine and even if he gets there, it's no guarantee that he will be able to get his horse back, or even make it out alive.

Alec is the main character of the series. And we can clearly understand his love for his horse. But to be honest, we never really know any of his other hopes and dreams, and it would have been nice to have his personality expanded on those things. Still, he does take good care of his horse, and is brave for wanting to go to the unknown to find him again. Henry the trainer, and Mr. Volance, the men who go with Alec to the desert aren't really described that much either. We know Henry is kind of cranky and Mr. Volence is the money of the operation, but they don't feature much in the book. The Bedouin though, are described somewhat stereotypically although not unkindly and are described as a fierce but hospitable people.

The plot is actually pretty good. There is a lot of adventure, and while there is violence and murder, it's not very descriptive so I think this is still an ok book for young readers. It's more a story of overcoming odds and finding something that you care about no matter what. So it is inspiring in that regard. It's a little too fast paced at time, I think this book could have easily been twice as long. And there are some things that wouldn't really happen in reality, but this book is good for escape.

It's an exciting adventure about a horse. There's not much to dislike about that. And for children and even adults revisiting their childhood, this is a good book to read.

The Black Stallion Returns
Copyright 1945
199 pages

The Black Stallion Legend by Walter Farley

Anyone growing up in the eighties, nineties, or even before has heard of the Black Stallion. It was such a popular book series that everyone had at least one of the books. This book, The Black Stallion Legend, is actually the last book in the series (there was one written after but it's a prequel) and it was written over forty years after the first book was. Which may account for why it's such a drastic change from the original tone of the series. And while you don't necessarily have to read the rest of the series to understand this book, it does help for character background.

Alec has been a bit distracted lately because of all the pressures of home. Sure he's a well known jockey. He's ready for a vacation and the distraction of his girlfriend, but when he learns that she has been killed in an auto accident, he loses it. Headed West, with his horse The Black Stallion in a trailer, he keeps driving and driving until he comes to a desert. There he stops and turns himself and The Black free only to discover that among the Native Americans in the area, they are the stuff of legend.

Alec is very very dark in this book. He ranges between grief, and rage, and hopelessness and it's sad and disturbing all at the same time. And it's actually pretty realistic of real grief and the range of emotions a person will experience when losing someone important in their lives. He has his horse, but even that is sporadic, especially out in the wild. His trainer, who features at the beginning of the book, is gruff and none to nice and I couldn't bring myself to like him in this book. Same with his dad, who seemed very indecisive and ineffective. Even the Native Americans weren't described that well. We had no sense of what kind of people they were, only that in their limited interaction with Alec they thought he was the person from their legend.

The plot was reaching a bit. It moved way too fast and there needed to be more detail for what Farley was trying to pull off with this novel. All the events and the way things happened just didn't seem quite right and the only way I could make them line up in my head was to imagine that Alec had gone into shock and was actually dreaming everything that happened. Otherwise, it just didn't make sense. This book, as said before, was decidedly gruesome and sad compared to the hopeful tone the other books seemed to carry. But it did contain a good lesson grief.

For an avid lover of the Black Stallion series, this book is going to be a shock and perhaps even a disappointment. It was almost as if Farley's personal grief was too much for him, and he poured it all out into his writing.

The Black Stallion Legend
Copyright 1983
177 pages

It's Easy Being Green by Crissy Trask

I had a hard time trying to decide what to rate this book. While it had a lot of good tips and ideas, it also had a lot of outdated ideas, ideas that just plain disturbed me, and so many links to websites and really it seemed you could learn much more just by using your computer and never touching this book.

This book claims that it is a handbook for Earth-Friendly Living and it breaks itself into different parts to complete that mission. First it exposes those Green Living Myths and says what the actual truth about living green is. Like saying that green products are expensive and instead explaining why they are not expensive. Next it talks about how the average person can make a difference, regardless of how busy they are. Part Three covers Eco-Tips for living greener and includes check-boxes so you can keep track of how you are doing. These tips range from travel to cleaning to food. Buying Green is next and it tells you what to look for and some common terms when looking at labels. Green Shopping Online is a huge listing of websites dedicated to green products. And getting involved has more online listings so you can get involved with campaign writing and other initiatives. Lastly there are Resources to help the Earth, which again, is a listing of online sites.

My main problem with this book is that it is mostly online listings of websites. You could easily look up all this information without this book just by typing in what you're searching for. So in buying this book, you actually wasted a resource in that regard. Next, because websites close down, change, etc., this book is ineffective even only six years later as not all of those sites are around anymore (although some still are). The next problem I had was with some of the tips. There was actually a tip saying that you should use your microwave for cooking and reheating more than your stove because it saves energy. Ok, in theory this is true, but microwave cooking also breaks down the nutrients in your food, which could cause you to be less healthy, and use up more resources later to improve your health as a result of not eating properly. Then there was the tip on how to reuse film canisters. Let's be honest, who in the heck has seen a film canister lately?!? And while there were quite a few tips, most of them were more appropriate for a beginner, or just common sense. Although I should say that I learned a few things from this book, so it wasn't a total waste.

My main thought is that if you are going to call a book a handbook, the information should be there for you to look at, not listed in an online website for you to go look up later. It should more appropriately be called a guide. And I do like that it encourages Green Living, I just don't think that it's a lasting book or one that should be referenced now that it seems to have gotten outdated. It did have an easy to read format and was broken down into logical parts. The typing is small though and may be harder for older people or people with weak eyesight to read.

There are better Green Living books out there to read (or even websites really) and while I can appreciate what this book was trying to do, I can't recommend it for reading.

It's Easy Being Green
Copyright 2006
161 pages

December 27, 2012

Many Waters by Madeline L'Engle

When it comes to the Time series by L'Engle, I'd have to say that this is my least favorite. It's not that it isn't well written, L'Engle has a beautiful way with words, but this one doesn't inspire that passion and love of reading that her other works can.

Sandy and Dennys are the normal ones of the Murray family. While the rest are odd geniuses, they are highly intelligent but average twin boys. Well, at least until they stumble into one of their dad's experiments and end up in a strange place. Even worse, they end up brutally sunburned and are only saved by the short race of people living in an oasis in the desert they are dropped in. But as they heal, they see that not all is what they think. There are strange creatures here, and a man named Noah who's story they are very familiar with.

For character development, this is one of the better books of L'Engle. We never see much of the twins in the other books and they are the main characters of this one. And L'Engle really takes the time to describe them and their personality, and most importantly their differences as they are twins. And the people they encounter; Noah, his father, his daughter, they are all bright examples of the goodness a person can be while still ultimately being human. Even the Seraphim and Nephilim were interesting concepts introduced to this book. And the mammoths were incredibly adorable and made me wish they were real.

The plot, as you may have guessed, centers around the Biblical flood. And as such, this book has a religious tone to it, although not in the usual way. L'Engle likes to combine fantasy with science and religion and her style is very unique. But this one definitely was more religious than a great many of her other books. And I did find the writing in this one to be a little less beautiful than in the others. Before she would include poetry and detailed descriptions of lovely things. This one she just told the story. And it even had some sexual undertones to it which was another thing I wasn't used to seeing in her books. It's not bad, just not her usual.

I dearly love L'Engle's books and always feel a sense of home when I read them. Just because this one isn't my favorite doesn't mean it's not a worthy read. I strongly encourage any reader to try out a book of L'Engle.

Many Waters
Copyright 1986
310 pages

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeline L'Engle

It's hard not to like L'Engle's books. They all have such poetry and imagination that you can really escape into them. And this one, a sequel to "A Wrinkle In Time" does that first book justice and continues the story of the Murry family who are all special in their own way.

It's Thanksgiving and Meg and her brothers are back at the family home to be together. Meg is heavily pregnant and resting while her husband is away and has even invited her strange mother in law to join them as well. But it is at this dinner that her father gets a call from the President saying that a dictator in Vespugia is threatening war and bombing. Her younger brother Charles Wallace is set to a mission and using a verse that Meg's mother in law gives him, he must travel through time with the help of a unicorn to try to tweak the past and change the future.

I didn't feel as connected to the characters in this book as I did in Wrinkle of Time. I think its because everything bounces around so much and from time to time to different whens and wheres that it's hard to get a read on the characters. Meg is a constant, but she is just an observer telling Charles Wallace's story so we don't get much of a sense of her in this. Being that previously she was always a child, I had somewhat looked forward to learning of her as an adult, but alas, that is just not for this book. Charles Wallace is so many different people during his travels in time that he too is not described greatly aside from being brave in a unique sort of way. But the people he is in the past all have interesting stories, and there is a chain that ties them all together through history.

I liked the concept of the time travel and the tweaking of certain events to get a better future. I think L'Engle handled it excellently, as she does will all scientific and mythological combinations. She just has a way of weaving unlikely things together in a beautiful way. Combine that with the poetry and legend she incorporates into her book and it's hard to be disappointed when reading something of hers. There is a little bit of religion incorporated into her works as well, but it was actually pretty light in this book as compared to some of the others. And her version of Christianity is so peaceful that it doesn't come across preachy like so many other authors do. As for this book tying in to the others of the quartet, it probably could be read alone. There isn't much mention of the other books and no important details are left out. In fact, reading it, it almost seems as if the other books didn't exist at all.

I beautifully written book with a lot of interesting topics and concepts, A Swiftly Tilting Planet is appropriate for all ages. With a little more character development, I think this could have been right there at the top of fiction.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Copyright 1978
278 pages

December 26, 2012

The Giver by Lois Lowry

This has been a powerful book for me ever since I first read it in the sixth grade. Something resonated from then and I return to it over and over. In fact, I credit it with developing my love of dystopian fiction in general. And while this book has its flaws, it's so much a part of my love of books that I simply don't care.

Jonas is an eleven year old living in his community. He has an assigned family unit and the coming December marks his transition to a twelve year old. This is the year that his job assignment happen and he learns his role in the community. However, the unexpected happens when he is chosen to be the new Receiver for his community, a role that is only granted to one person and the previous Receiver is growing old. It isn't until his training though that Jonas learns what this job actually entails. He is the receiver of memory, good and bad, and the only holder of true feelings besides his mentor the Giver, in a world that has chosen sameness over choice and life.

Jonas is pretty compliant. He was designed to be that way from his birth to his training at home. But his experiences with the Giver make him grow and he slowly drifts away from obedience to wanting something better for a community that doesn't want the same thing. The Giver too is a wise but pitiable figure as he has all this knowledge and wisdom and can't really share it with anyone. He has to suffer alone. The other characters are two-dimensional, as they are supposed to be. They have so long been brainwashed and chemically controlled that they are arguably not true humans, but more like robots. And their reactions to each other are so superficial that it's painful to read.

The theme is definitely dystopian. So much so because Jonas does live in the perfect world. No war, no bullies, everyone is polite; but there is no true life. There is no art or music or all the wonderful things that we take for granted in this world. That the quest for perfection and easiness has a high price to pay, and people shouldn't get complacent. And the ending, without giving too much away I do want to comment on it. It gives you a choice, and it's interesting too what people think of the ending and why. I tend to choose the more tragic route. The only thing I could really want more from this book is detail about Jonah's society. There is so much about its past and its everyday workings that I would have loved to understand.

This is definitely a book that will make you think. It will always remain on my shelf and is one that I take with me on long travels. There's a plethora of feelings that come from reading it.

The Giver
Copyright 1993
180 pages

The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy

I enjoy books about travel, and was intrigued to find this book about a cyclist circling the world in the late eighteen hundreds.  It was rare enough to make that journey by other transportation at that time, so to do it by bicycle was impressive.  And since it's non-fiction, it's hard to believe that such feats where accomplished with the machines available at that time.

The Lost Cyclist tells three stories in a sense.  The first being that of Sachtleben and Allen, two men who traveled around the world east to west on their bikes (albeit using alternative transportation where needed).  The second story was that of Frank Lenz, a man who set out to do the same thing on his own, just in the opposite direction.  Sadly Lenz did not make it back and disappeared in the region of Turkey.  The third story would be that of Sachtleben who sets out to look for Lenz or his body and investigate what he believes to be murder.  Of course a little history on the bicycle is thrown in as well.

The story of Allen and Sachtleben was actually quite interesting and my favorite part of the book.  Which surprised me because really this book was about Lenz and his disappearance.  But we never really knew as much about him and his personality and life wasn't as described as the other two wheelmen's were.  So as much as I wondered what happened to him, it was in a detached sort of way.  There also wasn't that much about the locals they met while on their journeys.  Sure when Sachtleben was looking for Lenz's body it described some of the people he worked with, but more in line with the investigation instead of the person's life.

The whole premise of the book has an air of mystery and history to it.  I enjoyed reading about some of the races and clubs that bicyclists had at the turn of the century and never would have expected it to be so prevalent.  I also couldn't have imagined someone riding over such rough terrain on the bikes then as I can barely do it on a completely modern bike now.  They must have been in terrific shape.  Allen and Sachtleben's journey was well described and I must admit that I wish the entire book had been about it.  It wasn't that Lenz journey wasn't as daring, it was just that the way his was described was very dry and since he disappeared, it turned into a mystery where much sitting around was done and nothing happened for the last third of the book.  I admired Sachtleben's determination to find out what happened, but the author just wasn't able to pull off that part of the book well.  I felt that so much was lost in the detail about who was signing what documents and what the diplomats weren't doing, that it lost focus on the fact that a cyclist had been murdered and instead just drowned you in the paperwork that went along with it.  Which might explain some of the detachment I felt towards Lenz.

As an aside, this book did contain several journal entries, letters, and pictures that were collected by the travelers.  It was neat to see some of the places they traveled and even some of the earlier photos, which were very well done for having the cameras enduring such rough travel.  It just added to the authenticity and research for the book.  It's clear that the author did do his due diligence in that regard.

If you enjoy cycling, or travel, or just like a non-fiction book about disappearances, this would probably be a good book for you.  For me, it just wasn't engaging writing and it was hard for me to enjoy most of the book.

The Lost Cyclist
Copyright 2010
302 pages

December 10, 2012

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

This was a pretty entertaining book.  I won't say it was the best written out there, but it certainly kept me interested and was one of those great books that goes well with a bubble bath and a glass of wine.  And it's the first in a series, which means that there is more of this entertainment to be had.

Rachel is a runner for the IS (Inderland Security) a somewhat police force that monitors the magical realm of things as opposed to the human's FIB (Federal Inderlander Bureau) and is generally made up of such magical beings as witches and vampires.  Rachel herself is a witch, and due to a series of not so great assignment, she's ready to quit.  To her surprise, Ivy, a vampire hotshot in the Security also wants to force, but once that happens a price can be placed on their heads, and Rachel has to stay alive long enough to figure a way out of her contract.

Rachel is an ok character.  A bit too brash and she has trouble thinking things through sometimes.  But I guess that makes her realistic.  Her love interest, Nick, I didn't care for too much.  I think he just reeks of trouble and I couldn't find too many good qualities about him.  Ivy was one of the better characters.  She gets mad a little too often but she's more level-headed and seemed the stronger of the two girls.  Jenks, the pixie, was a lot of fun at least and I enjoyed reading about him and his family.  The bad guys weren't even too bad in this.  They had a  mysterious quality about them and that kept things interesting.  I just wish more time had been spent on Rachel making her a well-rounded character.  As it was she just had a few extremes and that's what made her.

The plot was decent.  There was a lot of action and the book was constantly moving and things were always being done.  I don't think Rachel ever sat still except for when she was hurt.  Which was somewhat unbelievable, but oh well.  I did enjoy all the different mytsical type beings coming together and thought that the explanation for how the world turned out the way it did was well thought out.  I would have liked to have more detail, but at least I got a good giggle out of how a genetically modified tomato is what started the who downward cycle of the human race.  And people wonder why I eat organic.  There's no sex in this book bu there is some romance.  And with Ivy being a vampire there's a bit of tension between her and Rachel, but I thought it was an intriguing way to develop their working relationship.  There is also violence in this book and magic and a myriad of other things that some people don't like, but then again those people probably shouldn't be reading a book with "witch" in the title.

Very entertaining and I'll be sure to read the next one when I come across it.  It seems like this is a great series for fun, light reading.

Dead Witch Walking
Copyright 2004
416 pages

December 08, 2012

The Insider's Guide to the Peace Corps by Dillon Banerjee

I'm going to join the Peace Corps.  Not right away of course, I still have responsibilities that I have to take care of before I can go (my parents would not appreciate me dumping two cats and two chinchillas on them).  But when I don't have those responsibilities anymore, I'm going.  After reading this book, I'm even more determined to do it. 

And it's not because this book is all sunshine and rainbows.  This book tells it as it is and I think its very truthful.  Banerjee has taken the time to answer all sorts of questions you could think of (or not think of!) about the Peace Corps.  He starts with the application process, and I've got to tell you, I didn't realize that there were some many needed qualifications to become a volunteer.  It's competitive!  Then he goes in to what to pack and what you can usually find in country.  Next is the actual training, since it varies from program to program, he offers the basics, but it does help to know how the training process takes place.  There's a short section on managing your money and then its on to "Living like the Locals" which gives an idea of what your accommodations will be.  There's a rather large section on Medical Concerns, which was nice because that's a big worry for some.  Next is a section on the postal service and phone calls and what's available.  There is a section on technology, and sadly for the technophobes out there, most gadgets are really not that useful where the volunteers are located.  There are also sections on other volunteers, what kind of work you'll be doing, and the rules of the Peace Corps.  It finishes out with how to travel around while in country and what to do after the stint in the Peace Corps, and of course useful appendices.

I learned so much from this book and voraciously read it.  Couldn't put it down in fact which made for a sleepy day the next day.  But that's ok.  As I said before it further convinced me that this is what I want to do.  I like the way he approached all the topics too.  He told what was good, what was not, and gave points of view from all different sides.  In fact, its very rare that I could find him be biased anywhere about anything.    There is a section on negative aspects of the Peace Corps, but he gave the reasonings behind these and balanced it out with the positives of everything.  Additionally, there are also a couple of scary sections, like sexual harassment and some of the illnesses.  But Banerjee takes the time to explain statistics and how these situations are handled and everything seemed to be well taken care of.  In fact, in most cases it wasn't really any different than the statistics here in the United States.

A fantastic book if you're thinking about joining the Peace Corps or volunteering overseas.  It really goes in depth on the program and could probably change a few peoples minds who are considering the program.  It at least gives all the facts honestly and is definitely a book I will be keeping around to peruse over and over.

The Insider's Guide to the Peace Corps
Copyright 2009
181 pages

December 06, 2012

Tales from the Yoga Studio by Rain Mitchell

I've just recently started taking yoga classes. And let's just say that I am not a natural. It's all I can do to try to touch my toes. But I enjoy striving to become better at it and figured reading a book might increase my enjoyment. And this book wasn't too bad. I'd probably give it about 3.5 stars. There was definite room for improvement, but it did keep my attention.

Lee owns a small independent yoga studio where she is the main teacher. There are other classes of course, but between herself, and her husband who sometimes helps out, and her friend who rents a small room for massage, it's a close-knit operation. Well, minus the husband aspect. As he has recently moved out to "find himself" Lee hasn't been feeling herself lately. Added to that is an offer to sell her skills to a corporate yoga studio and she's feeling quite a bit of pressure. But she still wants to present the best classes possible to her students. She wants to be there for them, and when they all have problems of their own, they need the clarity of a yoga class as well.

I like how this book showed that a yoga instructor isn't perfect. Lee does her best but she has her own flaws and problems in life and isn't as "zen" as she would probably like to be. All of the other characters also have relatable problems. Imani is getting over a miscarriage, Katherine is a recovering addict, Stephanie stresses too much about work and Graciela just wants to have an audition go ok despite an injury. The yoga class kind of brings them together and shows that with the right kind of community and support, things can be achieved. However, that's the women in this story. When we talk about the men, at least Conor is quite redeeming, and I enjoyed reading about him. But the rest of them, either have a lot of issues or are complete jerks (Lee's husband anyone?) and I can't find their redeeming qualities. I guess I could spare Imani's husband some of the criticism, but he didn't really show up much in the book. Overall I would have liked to have seen more of the characters and for this to have been a longer book.

I think overall the message in this book is about growing. Each of the characters has to work through the problems ultimately by themselves. They have their friends supports but no one can automatically change something for you. You have to do it yourself. Add that in to the fact that you have to be pretty dedicated and focused to do yoga and I think that the whole thing is a learning experience in life. As for the yoga itself, I was proud to say I understood a couple of the poses that they mentioned. But then the vast majority were completely incomprehensible to me. Guess I'm just not that far along in my classes yet. But if you have even had one yoga class, you'll understand a little bit about what is talked about in this book. The writing style itself is a bit choppy and jumps around a bit so its hard to keep a timeline. But it is friendly and approachable and that somewhat makes up for it.

As said before, there is room for improvement but overall this book was comfortable. I won't go as far as to say it is as relaxing as yoga, but it was a nice read.

Tales from the Yoga Studio
Copyright 2011
279 pages

December 02, 2012

A Stone Creek Christmas by Linda Lael Miller

Linda Lael Miller is my guilty pleasure. Sure I read other romances, but I don't seem to enjoy them nearly as much as I do hers. And since this one combined a Miller romance with Christmas, well it definitely "tis the season."

Olivia is a veterinarian in the small town of Stone Creek. Her brother, Brad, once a famous magician is now building a shelter that she'll be the head of. He's brought in Tanner Quinn to build it too. Tanner is a good guy, but flighty. After the death of his wife he sent his daughter to boarding schools with high security to try to keep her safe, and has moved around quite a bit, never staying in the same place year after year. So when he develops an attraction to Olivia, it pulls at him a little bit. Nevermind the fact that she thinks she can talk to animals and may be just a little strange in his opinion.

Olivia was pretty tame for a heroine of the book. Sure she had her thing with animals but it is downplayed so I kind of wonder why it was mentioned at all unless it was just to make the dog, Ginger, a more interesting character. I kind of would have liked to see more about it. Tanner was a pretty believable character though. His desperation between wanting to keep his daughter safe yet still wanting to make her happy was a conflict that I think a lot of parents would have and could relate to. And the daughter was cute, although she definitely acted older than her age. The only real problem I have with the characters is that they usually seem to be insanely rich or at least know someone or is related to someone who is. It'd be nice to have an average joe thrown in once in awhile who has some money issues. But I suppose that would ruin the fantasy of it all.

The plot was simple. Tanner comes to town, meets strange veterinarian, has worries about daughter and they all have family issues that they have to come to terms with. But they threw in the Christmas aspect and a little bit of magic (supernatural) and it gives it a twist. Since this is a romance novel I do have to say that there are sex scenes in the book. They aren't long or greatly graphic by any means, but they are there. So if you prefer your romances without the love scenes, Miller is probably not an author for you. The rest of the writing is down to earth and comfortable and it made it an enjoyable holiday read because of all the Christmas aspects in it.

I'll definitely continue to read Miller. It's hard to find a terrible book by her and I enjoy most of her books that I've come across.

A Stone Creek Christmas
Copyright 2008
211 pages

Gamers by Thomas K. Carpenter

**This book was received as a Free Advanced Reader's Copy**

Gamers is a book about, well, Gamers.  Running with the dystopian theme that is so popular right now, Gamers provides a look at a future where people have shifted over to a very technological reality.  I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit, and thought that it offered an interesting approach to the genre.  I'd probably give it 3.5 stars because of some things I'd like to see improved, but even so, it had a way of drawing you into the story.

Gabby is a somewhat hacker and gifted student that is preparing for her Final Raid.  In Gabby's world, people are ranked by points that will tell whether they get into a job by university or be regulated into the lower class jobs offered to those who don't score high enough.  These points are built up by performing regular tasks, playing games at school, and in general succeeding at life.  When Gabby's reality is disrupted by a group dubbing themselves the Frags, she learns that her world is not quite what it seems.  LifeGame is more real than one could imagine, and the consequences for not scoring high are dire.  Especially in the Final Raid, which will determine her and her classmates fates.

Gabby is an ok character.  She seems to genuinely care for her friend.  Her parents are a different story but we don't see much of them so it doesn't seem to matter if Gabby likes them or not.  The Frags as a group were interesting, but we only had a limited time with them so I couldn't really feel connected to them or their plight.  I would have liked to know more about this and why Gabby trusted them so much, but I suspect that is reserved for the next book in the series.  Gabby's friend also had a limited time in the book but Zaela is a character I connected with.  She's an artist, and while that's not highly valued in Gabby's worl,  I value it.  By contrast, Gabby spends more time with her arch-nemesis, the leader of a group called the Evil Dolls during the final raid.  Which don't get me wrong, she was a complex character, I just don't think she should have had more time than Zaela since she's so integral to Gabby's life.

The plot was interesting.  Being a past gamer myself I was able to appreciate the Dungeons and Dragons type setting of the last raid.  In fact, it may have even brought back some memories for me.  That being said, people who aren't gamers might not understand some of the lingo that was used, but I don't think it was greatly devastate their enjoyment of the book.  I also didn't really understand the role of the government in the book and why precisely they were fighting a war.  There were  hints at it all over, but nothing was ever really explained about why such an entity came into the power it had.  I also realize this could come in the later books, but it would have been nice to have a little more background to understand Gabby's world together.  As it is, it's almost alien.  The actual running of the games and the points system was well done.  I could see the concept being used efficiently to rank people, and while I may not understand why the games are so important compared to reality type life skills, it made the book interesting to read about the different types of games.  I also liked the descriptions of how they could change their rooms and appearances.  It just added to the total effect of Gabby's world.  The book is descriptive which helps because there is a lot of detail in it.  It may end somewhat abruptly, but that just gives a good reason to read the next book in the series.

An interesting take on a dystopian book.  I can definitely see myself reading the rest of the books in the series at some point.

Copyright 2011
313 pages

December 01, 2012

The Red Hat Society Eat Dessert First Cookbook

**I have made 25 of the recipes in this book**

This is quite the decadent cookbook. And with the holidays rolling around there is always plenty of room on the table for dessert. This book has quite a few fabulous recipes in it, and most are quite easy to make as well.

As most people know, the Red Hat Society is a club for ladies who primarily dress in purple and red and hats. And I'm sure there's more to it than that, but I honestly don't know much beyond that. Except that these ladies can cook, and that this book puts dessert before everything else.

There are several sections to this book. The first is "Cakes for Every Occasion". The Raw Apple Cake is the first recipe in the book and it was interesting, but it did turn out rather dense, so it was a filling type of cake. The Best Ever Coconut Pound Cake was ok, but didn't actually taste coconutty, and the recipe for glaze that came with it made entirely too much. But then there was the Peanut Butter Sheet Cake. Oh my goodness. This was about one of the most fabulous cakes I've had, and I usually prefer my peanut butter spicy as compared to sweet. Then there was the Double Delicious Banana Cake. It was good, but quite messy and the batter only made enough for 2 layers, instead of the three that it called for. A time consuming recipe in this book was the Mexican Chocolate Cake, but it was entirely worth it. There's something about a mix of spices and chocolate that is a great favorite of mine. Claire's Lavender and Lemon Cake was ok, but I didn't find it remarkable or overly note-worthy. The only real disappointment in this chapter was the German Black Forest Cake and that's because it was mostly put together from canned and boxed ingredients and it just tasted fake to me.

The next section was "Savory Cheesecakes and Pies". I made the Mini Surprise Cheesecakes to take into work and they were very popular. And for a cheesecake they weren't that hard to make either. Then there was the Fresh Blueberry Cream Pie. I greatly enjoyed this. It was definitely fresh tasting. The Strawberry pie was also delicious.

Which leads us to "Pastry Delights". I made the Cranberry-Maple Nut Scones in this section and they were amazing. Light, flaky, and filled with great ingredients, I could probably eat these for breakfast every day. The Sun Parlor Coffee Cake was also good, and another hit at work. As was the Mom's Neverl-Fail Sour Cream Coffee Cake. And they were so easy to make. The Strawberry Orange Muffins were another good breakfast item.

"Munchable Cookies" was a favored section of mine, just because cookies are so quick to make. The sugar cookies were very good, and I used some almond flour in them to really amp up the flavor, they turned out great even with the substitution. The Chocolate Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies were also very yummy and easy to make. The Chocolate Chips Cookies Plus tasted ok, but were quite crumbly for eating. I'm intrigued by crispy cookies so when I tried the Crispy Oatmeal cookies I was pleasantly surprised to find out they tasted good and still didn't involve a lot of labor to make. The Molasses Cookies though I wouldn't waste my time on again, they were just kind of blah in taste. The Southern Shortbread Cookies were popular, and I added a bit of Amaretto for a kick. And the Pumpkin Whoopie Pies I can't say I enjoyed the texture on. They might have tasted ok, but they were kind of gummy.

"Mouthwatering Bars and Luscious Brownies" was a chapter I didn't delve into too far. It had all the standards though. The Apple Nut Squares tasted healthy, and they were easy to make. The Blonde Brownies tasted ok, but they were rather dry.

Next chapter was "Old-Fashioned Favorites". I made the Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce and it was ok, but not something I'd make again. They had other interesting sounding recipes in the chapter though that I haven't tried yet, like Rice Pudding and Fondue.

"Frozen Delights" was a chapter I did not get into. But there were recipes for ice cream or recipes involving ice cream, like Baked Alaska.

Which brings us to "A Medley of Other Sweet Pleasures". This is a mish mash of all types of desserts, and I only read through a little bit in this chapter. But there are puddings, bread puddings, cobblers, etc.

"Brittles, Truffles and Assorted Candies" is exactly as it sounds. There are even numerous types of fudge in this section. I made the Fleming Fudge and it didn't set up right for me, but I was living at a high altitude at the time which could have had an influence.

The last section was "Thirst-Satisfying Beverages" and I didn't make anything from this chapter. Nothing particularly stood out for me but there are punches galore and even an eggnog recipe in this section.

Technically speak this book does a good job on measurements and baking times. There were only a few that I had trouble with, and one of those could have been due to the high altitude. So a beginner cook could probably be quite successful using this book. Everything is clearly spelled out.

The book was put together beautifully. Great big pictures that are well done for a good portion of the recipes. And throughout the book are pictures and stories from different Red Hat Society Club Members, which would probably be appealing for someone who is a member. I kind of just ignored them. The index is easy to use and each recipe is credited to the lady that submitted it. This would be a great book for someone in this club or someone who enjoys making desserts.