Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Prison Book Project

A couple weekends ago, I joined a handful of members of my church to volunteer at Open Books. This is a completely non-profit, volunteer-run bookstore in our area. Open Books supports the Prison Book Project, sending thousands of books each year to indigent inmates in Florida prisons, where libraries and educational opportunities are insufficient.

Why send books to inmates? Check out the response from a recent survey which asked prisoners about books and the role they play in their lives.

We opened letters from prisoners, trying our best to fulfill their book requests, getting as close as possible to the author/genre they specified. There were a lot of requests for dictionaries, thesauruses, and Bibles. I opened a particularly touching letter from a 46-year-old who was losing his eyesight. All he requested was a large print Bible. We found the only one in the store, as well as a couple other large print titles we thought he might enjoy. World Book Night donated a ton of great books. Then we packaged them up for mailing. That particular weekend, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans provided the funds to mail the books.

Interested in helping out? Donating books? (This is a great cause if you need an outlet to offload already read ARCs). There might be a prison book program serving your area.

What bookish charities/projects are in your area?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Title: Astonish Me
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

April 8, 2014

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Find it on:
Astonish Me is the story of Joan, an American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star defect. Joan is a very good dancer, but she will never be a soloist. She eventually leaves the world of ballet, marries, has a child and a new life. Years later, Joan finds herself faced with the world she left behind when she recognizes a rare, exceptional talent in her son.

This was my first encounter with Maggie Shipstead's writing, and I was captivated from the very first page. Her writing is simply stunning. I savored every word, and I didn't want to put the book down. These characters are flawed, their lives complicated, and the connections between them confusing and messy. Yet Shipstead created characters I loved and became fully invested in.

There was a "twist" near the end - more of a cliché, really - that I saw coming for most of the book. I was so disappointed when it finally turned up... I'd held out hope that I'd be wrong. But my disappointment was short lived: I wasn't at the end of the book yet! Shipstead took that cliché and put her own spin on it. The tension and my conflicting emotions had my stomach in knots and took my breath away. From that moment until the last page, I simultaneously wanted to throw the book across the room and hug it.

What a phenomenal reading experience. I can't wait to read more by Maggie Shipstead.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Salon: Easter Sunday

Writing this at home on Saturday night, 9:20 p.m. My husband and the kiddo are taking a nap (yeah... we run on a late schedule around here!).

If you're a historical fiction buff, don't forget to enter my giveaway of Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones. There hasn't been a huge response, so your chances of winning are good! Contest ends at midnight tonight (CST).

Recently Finished:
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Her writing, ahhhh! Just wonderful from beginning to end. Should have a review posted soon.

Currently Reading: 
Stand Up Straight and Sing! by Jessye Norman
Almost finished with this one. Norman seems so sweet and kind-hearted, I can't help but wonder how true to life that portrayal is... ;)

Can't Wait To Read:
The Painter by Peter Heller
I read Heller's The Dog Stars last year and didn't feel strongly about it either way, but there was enough about his writing that I enjoyed: I was pretty excited to learn he has a new novel releasing next month. I hope to start reading this tomorrow.

Easter Sunday! Holy Week was pretty fantastic. I was able to go to two services at my own church, since the church where I work only needed me Good Friday evening and this morning. On Maundy Thursday, my pastor used Ernest Hemingway's quote,“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast,” as the springboard for her sermon. You know, I think that was the most intelligent, beautiful Maundy Thursday service I've ever attended.

A Musical Treat:
Good Friday afternoon, I played piano for my best friend as she sang Moses Hogan's simple but stunning arrangement of Were You There. I tapped "record" on my phone as I made my way to the piano. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mini Reviews from Classic Children's Literature

C is almost 5 and still enjoys plenty of picture books, but this year we've been reading more and more classic chapter books. Between audiobooks while we're in the car and whatever book we're reading here at home, we're on a roll! I thought I'd combine our most recent reads into a mini review post.

Image Map

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard & Florence Atwater
This was a completely new one for me. How had I never even heard of it? I loved the rich vocabulary, the problem-solving (especially how to keep the penguins happy and healthy), and the little bits of social studies woven seamlessly into the story. C's reaction? "Sooooo cute and those penguins are hilarious!"

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I read these books over and over again as a child. Loved them, and the television series, too. And you know, I found that I remember little nothing about what is actually inside the books. It was like reading it again for the first time. Little House in the Big Woods is very descriptive about the day-to-day (and seasonal) things that homesteaders have to do. I have a very talkative inquisitive child, which is probably why it took us months to get through the book. I could hardly finish a couple of sentences in a row before being interrupted by (very good) questions. I did run into a couple instances where I ended up censoring a bit: I skipped the terrifying yellow jacket scene (had a heads up thanks to my friend April at The Steadfast Reader) and changed a racial slur. Overall, I found the book a teensy bit on the boring side as an adult, but C loved it and immediately asked if we could go to Barnes & Noble to get the next one.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is just fantastic. She "cures" children of all sorts of ailments - anything and everything, from not taking a bath to not cleaning up their room or refusing to eat - all with wit and humor and plenty of fun. C's reaction: "I liked Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's name, because it's fun to say and makes me think of a pig that wiggles. And the hump that she had on her back, and her upside down house. And I liked Patsy, who didn't take a bath. I liked when she screamed because of the warm water. That was my favorite part of the story."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wondrous Words Wednesday

the pieces that are left when something breaks, falls apart, is destroyed, etc.

1: of or relating to a sensory threshold
2: barely perceptible
3: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition: in-between, transitional

an alcoholic drink containing liquor (such as rum) mixed with water

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

Title: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

April 8, 2014

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Find it on:
Set in the near future, The Word Exchange takes place in a world where print is almost extinct and people can biologically interface with smartphone-like devices called Memes. Anana is searching for her missing father, following a single clue he left behind. She follows a trail which uncovers a secret society and the true intentions of the corporation behind the Meme, all while the English language begins to decay thanks to a "word flu" pandemic.

The way the technology worked and how the word flu spread make me skeptical. I'm not sure if I felt like details were too scarce, if the details weren't consistent enough, or if I wanted things to be more grounded in reality. Also, the characters seemed flat and one-dimensional. During what should have been signification moments of interaction between characters, I didn't feel anything for them at all; it felt like filler. Some more background would probably have helped me connect with them.

I did enjoy the way Graedon uses (and tinkers with) language throughout the novel. I wondered if the story would eventually dissolve into gibberish at some point. The premise behind this dystopian world is what kept me turning the pages, and that is what kept me wanting to read more. When it was all over, though, that wasn't enough to make me feel like I loved this book.

Side note: I'd like to mention that I was thrilled with how Knopf Doubleday handled the footnotes in the e-book version. It was great to never have to leave the page I was currently reading: when I tapped on a footnote's number, the note was displayed in a small pop-up frame. (I'm not sure if this will be true across all devices, but that's how the epub worked on my Nook.)

Even though this one fell flat for me...Whatever the future brings when it comes to technology, The Word Exchange will certainly come to mind!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spotlight & Giveaway: Night In Shanghai by Nicole Mones

Avid historical fiction lovers, you're in for a treat! Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours has offered a copy of Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones to one of my lucky readers (US only). Visit the complete tour schedule to check out reviews by other bloggers.
In 1936, classical pianist Thomas Greene is recruited to Shanghai to lead a jazz orchestra of fellow African-American expats. From being flat broke in segregated Baltimore to living in a mansion with servants of his own, he becomes the toast of a city obsessed with music, money, pleasure and power, even as it ignores the rising winds of war.

Song Yuhua is refined, educated, and bonded since age eighteen to Shanghai’s most powerful crime boss in payment for her father’s gambling debts. Outwardly submissive, she burns with rage and risks her life spying on her master for the Communist Party.

Only when Shanghai is shattered by the Japanese invasion do Song and Thomas find their way to each other. Though their union is forbidden, neither can back down from it in the turbulent years of occupation and resistance that follow. Torn between music and survival, freedom and commitment, love and world war, they are borne on an irresistible riff of melody and improvisation to Night in Shanghai’s final, impossible choice.

In this impressively researched novel, Nicole Mones not only tells the forgotten story of black musicians in the Chinese Jazz age, but also weaves in a stunning true tale of Holocaust heroism little-known in the West.
When reading Night in Shanghai, you can't help but notice the incredible care and imeticulous attention to detail Mones took in her research. The perspective is certainly unique, too: I think of jazz as being so American; I didn't realize there was a Chinese Jazz age at all. There is a noticeable difference between the freedoms and lives of both African-American expats and women in Shanghai and the United States during this time.

This giveaway is open to US readers only, and will close at 11:59 pm (CST) Sunday, April 20.

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