**** 1/2
Very good
**** 1/2
Just okay
Not for me
Definitely not for me

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The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

weirdsisters I was really intrigued when I heard about this book, so I pre-ordered it before the book came out. I have two sisters myself and all of us had the same excellent high school English teacher who taught Shakespeare with a passion. I know there was some variation from year to year in the plays that he covered, but I studied Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, and the Merchant of Venice . All three of us are Shakespeare fans as a result.

The book is essentially about three sisters who are all at turning points in their lives. Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia are all named from Shakespeare plays, not a coincidence as their father teaches courses on the Bard at the local college. Their mother is a homemaker and both parents have a strong influence on the sisters.

I love the first paragraph of the book:

"We came home because we were failures. We couldn't admit that, of course, not at first, not to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone else. We said we came home because our mother was ill, because we needed a break, a momentary pause before setting off for the Next Big Thing. But the truth was, we had failed, and rather than let anyone else know, we crafted careful excuses and alibis, and wrapped them around ourselves like a cloak to keep out the cold truth. The first stage: denial."

It's always nice to go home after failure, where people will love you whether you have failed or not. So, they go home to help their mother through her battle with cancer and to deal with their own failings the best they can. Each sister has her own storyline that's interesting, but the character that fascinated me the most was their mother. I definitely wanted to hear more of her back story and learn why she was the way she was. I think she really was the silent star in the book.

The book is peppered with Shakespeare quotes, and for the most part, I enjoyed them and was familiar with them. However, it got to be too much even for me after a bit and started to become a little annoying. I also really didn't like the two older sisters much, especially Bean (Bianca). Cordy was probably the only one that I enjoyed getting to know. Also, the plural narrator threw me for a loop at first, and I just really couldn't get used to that format.

All in all, I enjoyed this book about three very different sisters, but I think I'm a little less enthusiastic than most about it. If you have even one sister or you enjoy Shakespeare you will probably appreciate it.


2011, 318 pp.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

shipbreaker Printz Award, 2011

Nailer works on a crew in the Gulf who scavenges parts from rusted out ships along the shoreline. Crew life is difficult. He's always having to make quota while also making sure he doesn't get on the wrong side of his superiors. One step out of line and he could be cut from the crew; there really are no other work options. Nailer's always hungry even with his job because his Dad spends most of his time drinking, doing drugs, and then abusing him. Nailer's world is cutthroat enough even without his father. Bring him into the picture and it's even worse. He wonders, too, if he's like his father or if he's going to turn into him. Fairly quickly in the story, his fears are severely put to the test.

A bleak book and eerily timely with the Gulf oil disaster, Ship Breaker is probably not too far off from what could happen in the future if we let greed go unchecked.

This book has been getting some really great reviews so I was excited to read it. An additional plus was that I love dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction. I will say it's a good book, but I was a little disappointed after all the hype. While I liked it and thought the story was good, I wasn't enamored with the writing. It probably didn't help that I was reading Charlotte Bronte's Villette on the same day. Not a fair comparison, but it couldn't be avoided.

Other bloggers have raved about it, so I would definitely encourage you to check out their reviews as well.


(2010, 323 pp.)

Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo


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Heaven Is for Real is about a small town, Christian, 4 year old boy's near death experience as told by his father, Todd Burpo. I saw this book on the bestseller list on Amazon and wanted to read it for several reasons. First, I grew up less than 40 miles from Burpo's hometown in Imperial, Nebraska, and that town is even mentioned in the book. Second, I have had a close family member who had a NDE and saw himself/herself lying on the operating table. Third, I am a Christian as well so I was interested in this perspective. And, I do believe heaven is very real.

It is an amazing story, but I do have questions about it. That doesn't really mean I believe or disbelieve the story as I'm not sure how I feel about it and probably never will be sure. I hesitate to express any doubts about the story because I know it has given several Christians hope and a renewed faith. Also, and most importantly, if it is true I wouldn't want to go against God in any way, shape, or form. However, after thinking about it, I decided to go ahead and write a review of the book detailing my questions.

First, the background. Colton gets very very ill (I don't want to spoil the reason why) and nearly dies. Several months after his recovery, Colton begins saying things about his time in the hospital that make his family believe that he has, in fact, been in heaven. The details don't come all at once but over a course of months and even years. Colton not only gives descriptions of heaven, but also of family members he should know nothing about. The tale is inspiring and amazing if true, but the questions I have about the story are these:

  1. This is a minor mistake, but in the book Mr. Burpo stated that North Platte was 3 hours from Denver and 8 hours from Omaha. Not true -- I've driven I-80 and I-76 along this route many many times. It's more like 3.5 hours from Denver and 4 from Omaha. On the map below, you can clearly see that North Platte is almost directly halfway between the two cities. This mis-statement was the first that raised a tiny red flag in my mind. If he was wrong about this, could he be wrong about other facts?
  2. Colton said that in heaven Jesus still had the holes in his hands, feet, and side. I don't dispute that that may well be the case. However, there is some debate in Christian circles whether the nails were actually in Jesus' hands or his wrists. I don't know the correct answer to this, but Colton pointed to his palms when describing them. I'm just saying that some Christians would have a problem with this.
  3. Colton said he remembered clearly what Jesus looked like. He would always say that all the pictures he saw of Jesus were wrong, until he saw one painted by Akiane Kramarik, another child who states she has seen visions of heaven. However, the painting is of a 'Western' Jesus, where in reality, Jesus was Jewish and should have Jewish/Middle Eastern features. Then, when I went to Akiane's site and blog, it appears she's not really Christian in the sense that most Christians consider themselves to be Christian. She talks about goddesses of earth and water and her opinion that we can find heaven on earth now. Both are views that most Christians would surely deny.
  4. Also, it bothered me a little bit that actual people's names (other than the family's) were used. Maybe they gave their permission, but I know that most people in very small towns wouldn't want that. I wouldn't, but that's me.

It's not for me to determine if the story is true, only God can know that. The story is interesting, and I'm sure it has given a lot of people comfort and hope. It has to be up to every reader to decide.
Here is the map I talked about:


Denver, North Platte, and Omaha. Imperial is circled southwest of North Platte.

Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks

Mistik Lake by Martha Brooks is about a Canadian teenage girl who is trying to cope with a myriad of issues. One of Odella's parents struggles with alcoholism and abandons the family. Odella, the oldest of her siblings, tries to maintain order for the rest of her household while also dealing with the typical trials of the teenage years.

While I did enjoy certain aspects of the story, particularly the discussions on the characters' Icelandic heritage, I'm afraid this book suffers from what I call 'everything AND the kitchen sink' syndrome. With themes of guilt, identity, alcoholism, abandonment, and h*mos*xu*ality -- just to name a few, this book just had too much going on with the story in order for it not to feel a bit contrived. I just really believe that young adult novels, particularly short ones, are more effective when they deal with only one or two major issues. That is probably just a personal preference, though. Your mileage may vary.

2007, 224 pp.

Summer of the Swans

Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars won the Newbery Medal in 1971. The title of the book refers to a little boy's fascination with the birds. Charlie (who is mentally handicapped) and his sister Sara live with their Aunt Willie. The story begins with Sara's dissatisfaction with herself and her life, but when Charlie goes missing, she puts all that behind her to help find her brother.

While I appreciated Sara's growth in the book and the tenderness between Sara and Charlie, it definitely isn't one of the stronger Newberys that I've read. It is positive in its illustration that family relationships are more important than selfish concerns, but the book just didn't grab me. To be fair, my conclusion could be based on the mediocre performance of the audio narration, which I didn't at all care for.

1970, 144 pp.


Natasha and Other Stories

" Because who wins if a Jew doesn't go to synagogue?
I'll tell you who: Hitler
." -- p. 133

This collection of stories by David Bezmozgis is about a Latvian Jewish family who emigrate to Toronto, Canada. It was a NYT Notable Book in 2004 .

Mark is the only child of Roman and Bella Berman. All seven stories in the collection feature Mark in his growing up years. First, I'll give a brief synopsis of each story and then my thoughts on the collection as a whole.

  • "Tapka" -- It's 1980 and Mark has been in Canada for 3 weeks. He's in the first grade and hangs out with his cousin Jana. Some elderly neighbors have a dog that they idolize, and they begin to trust Mark and Jana to take care of it.
  • "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist" - Mark's father works at a chocolate factory but is also studying to become qualified as a massage therapist. He hopes an important doctor in the neighborhood will be a source for referrals.
  • "The Second Strongest Man" -- Sergei, a very important person from the Bermans' past, comes to Canada for a wrestling tournament.
  • "An Animal to the Memory" -- Mark begins to have trouble with his classmates and the principal, particularly on Holocaust Day.
  • "Natasha" -- Mark and Natasha, the daughter of his uncle's wife, become close friends.
  • "Choynski" -- Mark deals with the deaths of two people who are close to him.
  • "Minyan" -- Mark's grandfather looks for a place to live.

This is one of the best short story collections I've read. All seven stories were unique, but they all fit together nicely to explore Mark's experiences. Although I thought all of the stories were extremely good, I thought "The Second Strongest Man" and "An Animal to the Memory" were the strongest. If an author can make me interested in a story about wrestling, he is very good indeed. I could really feel the menace, the frustration, and the envy of the characters come through the pages. And in "An Animal to the Memory," the author's depiction of Mark's turmoil as he comes to terms with his Jewish heritage was very well done.

Highly recommended, especially for those with an interest in Jewish, Soviet/Russian, or Canadian literature.

2004, 147 pp.