Sunday, July 31, 2011

Keeping the “Me” in Marriage: A Book Review of Kristin Hannah’s “Distant Shores”

Kristin Hannah’s novel, Distant Shores, is not the type of book that makes you walk into walls because you can’t put it down long enough to make it to the bathroom.  Instead, Hannah’s work reads like a warm tidal wave of words that gently washes over the reader.    Neither shocking in originality nor surprising in its plot twists and turns, the beauty of this book lies more in its realistic content, rather than in any gimmicky moments of instant gratification or superbly developed characters.
Much like marriage itself, Hannah’s book requires a slow appreciation and a gentle simmering of mixed emotions.  Instead of being a drawback though, this deliberate measured pace is precisely where the value of Distant Shores lies.  The main character, Elizabeth “Birdie” Shore, is the forty-something mother of two college-aged girls who suddenly realizes she’s lost herself in the years she’s dedicated to being an exemplary mother and wife.  As her husband begins to focus more on his own professional success and her girls are consumed by their college careers, Birdie is left wondering what she has been working towards all these years and why her marriage and life suddenly hold no meaning for her.
Although sprinkled with clich├ęs and riddled with a plethora of lonely sea imagery, Hannah somehow makes these common devices work as metaphors for marriage.  The writing style fits the topic of her book because dissolving marriages are relevant, familiar, and yet often unaddressed in our societies today.  The present unraveling of marriages and families is not something that happens overnight or with a sudden big bang.  Instead, the demise of a marriage is often a surreptitious unwinding that begins with a single thread, continually picked at until it pulls the whole sweater apart.  Like the drip of molasses, Hannah’s words and writing style capture that slow pace of family estrangement.  Bit by bit, the clandestine winds of discontent settle in and carry the couple apart, both physically and emotionally. 
Hannah’s message is a strong one that isn’t articulated quite enough in any medium.  Although the character of Birdie opts for a marital separation in order to “find herself,” the author doesn’t seem to be advocating this path of family destruction.  Both husband and wife realize in the end that despite the bumps in the road, the 24 years of marriage they shared is not something that can be easily forgotten or tossed aside.
Distant Shores is the type of work that can only be what you make of it.  Some readers may interpret it as encouraging an individualistic outlook, but I am confident that the underlying message is all about finding that middle road.  Marriage does not have to result in the loss of self and identity, particularly for the mothers in this world.  Instead, marriage can and should be the bond that helps each partner develop a stronger sense of self with the support and sanctity of a spouse.
While this novel won’t leave you breathless from excitement or emotion, it will provide you with a realistic look at married life with words that mimic the gentle swaying of a summer hammock rather than the rocking of a roller-coaster.  Losing yourself in life and in marriage is not a path worth following, but losing yourself in Hannah’s novel definitely is.
          --Suzy Ismail

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Passion, a Fallen novel by Lauren Kate (a book review)

Passion is the third (but not final) installment in the Fallen series. The second book, Torment, ends with the protagonist Luce jumping into an Announcer (kind of a shadowy, past memory/time portal device), as she is frustrated with her fallen angel boyfriend, Daniel, who won’t tell her anything about their past lives together or the curse that has plagued them for centuries, destining Luce to repeat her life, birth through age seventeen, again and again. Passion is almost exclusively a time jumping tour (feels a little like Groundhog Day goes island hopping), each trip taking her further back into the past with Luce learning a little more about the curse and the triggers that end her life each time, perpetuating her circuitous rebirth.
This is one series I look forward to, one that doesn’t merely get tossed on top of my teetering “To Be Read” pile.  Luce and Daniel are definitely one of the swooniest couples in current YA paranormal romance (anyone who knows me, knows I love my swoon). And this book has plenty…dare I say almost too much. Almost. I can’t believe I just said that! Excuse me while I wash my proverbial mouth out with soap. But alas, it’s true. I learned that even I  have a limit and this book took me right to the edge and dangled my ‘ruby slipper red’ pedicured tootsies over it. So, fellow swooners, rejoice. 
Ms. Kate seems to have had some fun with this book, imagining her characters in different times and parts of the world and how the social conventions of those would affect the couple’s relationship. World Wars I and II are covered. Also 1800 England, 1700 Tibet and France, all the way back until the years tick in reverse, 1046 BCE China and 3100 BCE Egypt. This novel is a bit of  a bonus for lovers of paranormal and historical fiction. 
At this time, I’d like to tip my hat to Ms. Kate for creating a male and female character I adore. Thing is, it’s not Luce or Daniel.  Supporting cast Arriane and Cam win that prize. Now for a deep, dark, secret confession few know: I generally don’t like female characters. Trust me, I want to be all girl power, but very few of the fictional fairer sex garner my admiration. Arriane is a street smart, tough cookie of a fallen angel, capable of kicking any guy’s tail feathers. We get to see loads of her in Fallen, one great scene in Torment,  and barely at all in Passion. L I’d have loved one big scene in Luce’s past life with Arriane, (perhaps while cast in the trappings of frills, lace, and a corset), seriously clocking someone.
So clearly for me…it’s all about the boys. And in this case, Cam, a superbly written character with a crystal clear voice. If Cam saunters into a scene, you know who is speaking long before the first dialogue tag. He’s a demon who’s a little bit sexy and a whole lotta sarcastic. My favorite combination. And we certainly get more of Cam in this book than the last (though I confess, I was still left uttering to Ms. Kate, “Please, mum, can I have some more?”). 
Parental note and potential spoilers: There is very little foul language, perhaps the only usage being H. E. double hockey sticks. All three books contain very descript kisses (Lauren Kate is one of the best writers of kisses) and some very non-descript wandering hands over fully clothed bodies. Keep in mind, Disney has optioned this series, so it would be a good ‘mom/daughter read together’ before it’s in the theaters (Dear Disney producer people: Think Pirates. This series is a bit dark. Respect it. Thank you. P.S. I’ll be there opening night). 
In closing, I say, read the books, don’t wait for the movies.  J

    --Suzi Ryan

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sirenz, by Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman (A Book Review)

“Frenemies” Meg and Shar are reluctant roomies in a fourth year Live-In program in Manhattan.  While fighting over a pair of red patent Vivienne Westwood heels on the subway platform, a fatal “accident” occurs involving a very superhot, innocent bystander.  During the aftermath, who should show up but Hades, Greek god of the Underworld himself. He offers to undo the damage from the girls’ mishap if they agree to become his Sirens, with a special assignment to lure a famous fashion mogul, whose contract just expired,  to the underworld.
Okay, so Sirenz is NOT my typical read.  I live mostly in the YA world of oblivious female protagonists and enigmatic, brooding boys with far too many secrets. Let’s compare to one of my favorite topics, shall we?  Chocolate.  I love chocolate. Lots of chocolate (just ask my hips). Problem is, after a number of bites, the complexity  of the cocoa concoction becomes muddy and lost.  But break it up with a bit of vanilla? Or a lovely raspberry sauce? Ah, the chocolate once again delves into intricate layers of flavor. So, for me,  Sirenz was a lovely, literary palate cleanser. 
Co-authors Charlotte Bennardo & Natalie Zaman have penned a story of unlikely friends caught up in the conspiracies and meddlings of the Greek gods. Hades takes the center spotlight and no, this is not the animated James Woods’ version of Hades stuck in many of our brains.  Hades is smooth talking, well dressed and kind of…hot.  Demeter, Persephone, and Hera all make appearances and assist  Hades with doling out plenty of red tape and “fine print below.”
A word of constructive analysis, as always. I would have liked Shar’s temptation to have been more of a struggle. Shar was such a strong character (not a bad thing, per se) that I wasn’t worried she’d give in. What can I say…I like to worry and I like to be tempted.  I’ll say no more—don’t want to head into spoiler territory.  
The bottom line is Sirenz is super-quick, funny, and easy to read—perfect for a summertime list of books to conquer, especially as a means to break up whatever your regular read is (unless your favorite reads are light, witty YA, in which case this would fit in nicely with your library).  I deem this book fairly high on my “daughter/mom books to read together” list. There is a mild amount of cussing and just a splash of sexy. 
I shall now return to my regular literary diet of boys I can’t figure out if I want to slap or kiss…or preferably both—at least until Charlotte and/or Natalie’s next book is released.  J
    --Suzi Ryan

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Crankamacallit: A Review of Mimi Cross’s New Interactive iPad Story App

The Crankamacallit.  Say that three times fast and let the syllables tickle your tongue.  The title’s probably already got you smiling inside and out.  With such an intriguing name, you know that lots more giggles are sure to follow in this hilarious interactive iPad App. 
Dr. Seuss couldn’t have penned a more aptly fitting title for such a high-tech tale.  The Crankamacallit is the story of a crazy gadget that piques the curiosity of kids of all ages.  The magical twist to this highly amusing tale is that Mimi Cross, the creative author, has chosen the perfect technology medium to showcase her true visual and literary work of art.  
Displayed on the iPad, the story comes to life and becomes a virtual playground for both children and adults.  Mimi Cross’s creation is clearly a beacon for the future of children’s writing.  A story written in beautiful rhyme with  Polymash created images, The Crankamacallit turns your iPad into a field of recreation with flying balloons, turning cranks, pushing levers, and lots of fun swirly-ma-gigs.
The story-teller’s voice matches the excitement of the App perfectly.  When I first experienced the magic of The Crankamacallit I squealed like a child and couldn’t help laughing out loud at the humorous portrayals of this new gadget.  No picture book could ever let a child explore a characters’ workshop at his or her own pace the way The Crankamacallit does.  In something akin to a technology-bound pop-up book, the surprise that each “page” elicits in this story is compounded by the hands-on approach that the iPad allows.
One of my favorite parts of the App comes early on when navigating through The Crankamacallit creator’s workshop.  One click on the radio image and the user can listen to what the character is listening to!  Lo and behold the lively notes that come out of the radio are none other than the author’s recording of “Alligator Waiter.”  An original song written and sung by Mimi Cross that my own children love and have sung incessantly since the first time they’ve heard it.
Sincere congratulations are definitely in order for the author of this creative tale and for the voice behind the story and the image creators as well.  Bringing a story to life for children has never been done more effectively.  The Crankamacallit truly encompasses the childhood spirit of discovery and adventure and immerses the user in the world of the story more completely than any print form ever could.  Now, if only I could build myself a real life Crankamacallit to help get things done, I’d be an even happier reader!  

Don't have an iPad & want a peek at The Crankamacallit?

OR: Author interview and demo reel halfway down the page at
          --Suzy Ismail