Pages turned in 2011

I started looking at my book pile around June of last year. For the first half of the year, reading took a back seat as I spent most of my time taking care of my newborn baby. 🙂 Being a mom rearranged my priorities, schedule, and yes, even my leisure time. I took a break from my recluse reading routine and shifted to interactive mode by reading board books to my baby! It’s unbelievably fun and I really enjoy reading to my little man. 🙂 When he became more manageable—specifically his sleeping habits—I began flipping through my books again.

So here are the books I managed to squeeze into my wifey-mommy schedule last year 🙂

*Note: Those with review links (and pending reviews) are the books that really wowed me as a reader. 🙂 I highly recommend them. For the rest of the books, I’ll just share my thoughts/praise/critique on them. I really liked some of the books while the others merely stained my eyes. 😛

1. Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

2. The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan – This is the sequel to “The Strain”. It’s vampire-meets-science-meets-pandemic. I had high expectations on this one but it sort of fell flat on my reader radar. I hope that the last part of the trilogy will redeem the series.

3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (click here to read my review)

4. Lost Hero by Rick Riordan – This is book one of the Heroes of Olympus series—a spin-off from Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It started quite slow for me but when it picked up midway through I couldn’t put it down anymore. 🙂

5-7 Shiver, Linger, and Forever by Maggie Stiefvater (click here to read my review)

8. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum – I wanted to read more classics and I picked this one last year because I already forgot its magical story. I enjoyed my journey with Dorothy and wished that I had my own silver shoes, too. 🙂

9. Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto (click here to read my review)

10. The Rising by Tim Lahaye – This is the first in the trilogy from the “Left Behind” prequel. It’s about how the Antichrist came to be—from conception to adulthood. It’s disturbing to read how as a kid the Antichrist manipulated his parents, teachers, and classmates. It’s a must read for “Left Behind” followers. 🙂

11. Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them by John Ortberg (click here to read my review)

12. Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan (click here to read my review)

13. Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (click here to read my review)

14. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (review to follow) – One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read so far. Amazing story! I have more to say on my review. 🙂

15. Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (review to follow) – Unique and intriguing, this book will not give you peace until you finish it. 🙂 More tidbits in my review.

16. Curse of the Spellmans by Liza Lutz – The Spellman series is wit and humor combined. I didn’t realize that fiction can really be entertaining without being trashy. Haha! The Spellmans is a family of private investigators. Imagine your parents doing a background check on the guys/girls you date or doing a surveillance on you. Now, that’s wicked funny. 🙂 This is her second book. I suggest your read “Spellman Files” (1st book) to be familiar with the quirky characters. When I want to relax, I pick up Liza Lutz’s books to enjoy a good mystery with a good laugh.

17. The Devil Colony by James Rollins – This James Rollins thriller is about the Native American Indians and their secret technology that has immense consequences if it falls into the wrong hands. Rollins has written better novels than this one but this is nonetheless interesting still.

18. The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks – I haven’t read any Nicholas Sparks novel for the longest time. When he came here to visit I decided to read his latest book. I must say, this novel is a far cry from his previous novels. I mean this in a good way. His writing improved a lot, the characters have more depth, and the plot is not linear anymore. There are back stories behind the lives of the characters that blend into one as the book ended. Yes, it’s a tragedy again (but a good one) from the king of great love and broken hearts. 🙂

19. The Skeleton Key by James Rollins – This is a prequel to the “The Devil Colony”. This 100-plus page short story is a lot better than the novel. Everything about it was gripping and intense—the main things you look for in a thriller.

20. Unlocked by Karen Kingsbury (review to follow) – It’s my first time to read Karen Kingsbury and boy is she good! 🙂 It’s like reading Jodi Picoult only this time it’s Christian fiction. The story is about how music unlocked an autistic boy from his own world. I’m excited to write more about this in detail! 🙂

I can’t believe this is my first book blog for the year and January is almost over! Blogging fail! Oh well, at least I finished one! Haha! Here’s to more page turning this 2012! Cheers, bibliophiles! 🙂

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Son of Neptune: Percy Goes Roman

I’m a Rick Riordan fan. He is simply a great storyteller. The “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series was one of the best series I’ve ever read. When he started the “Heroes of Olympus” series, a spin-off from the Percy Jackson series, my book nerves went wild again! When I read “The Lost Hero”, I realized that the world of mythology is endless. You can come up with stories and plots without being redundant. So when the “Son of Neptune” came out early this month, I knew that I’ll be off to a great adventure again. 🙂

Prophecy of Seven

This new series is anchored on the Prophecy of Seven: Seven half-bloods shall answer the call/To storm or fire the world must fall/An oath to keep with a final breath,/And foes bear arms to the Doors of Death. The seven demigods will have to work with the gods to defeat the earth goddess Gaea, who vows to destroy the gods; and close the Doors of Death. The demigods who will fulfil this prophecy will be a mix of Greek and Roman half-bloods. The first three were introduced in “The Lost Hero”.

The Swap

Another vital background one needs to know is Juno’s (Hera) major role in this story. Juno wants to unite Camp Half-Blood and Camp Jupiter in order to defeat Gaea. In order to do that, she needed to take Jason from the Roman camp and Percy from the Greek camp and send them to their respective counterparts to earn each camp’s trust and reconcile them. The Roman and Greek demigods have been at war with each other for the longest time. However, they need to work together to prevent the destruction of the gods and the mortal world.

Percy Jackson is back!

I’ve grown to love the character of Percy Jackson. Reading about his adventures again made me feel like being reunited with a good buddy. 🙂 Just like Jason Grace in the first book, Percy Jackson also lost his memory. The book starts with Percy battling monsters who refuse to die then carrying a heavy old lady who happens to be the goddess Juno (Hera) then eventually seeking refuge at Camp Jupiter—a Roman half-blood camp. Percy was welcomed by Hazel, daughter of Pluto (Hades) and Frank, son of Mars (Ares). Both of whom became his best friends as the story progressed.

Percy joins the underdog 5th cohort of Hazel and Frank and leads them to victory in the capture-the-flag war game. He surprised the camp with his unconventional warfare skills (mainly because it’s Greek) and gained their respect as the son of Neptune (Poseidon). Mars appears after the game and claims Frank as his son. He also gives a quest that requires Frank to go to Alaska—the land beyond the gods, free Thanatos (Death), and go back to the camp before the Feast of Fortuna. Souls are escaping from the Underworld and death is losing its hold on mortals and monsters since Thanatos is held captive. Frank chose Percy and Hazel to join him in the quest and together they went to Alaska to face the giants  awaiting them.

Hands down, yet again

Rick Riordan wrote another gripping page-turner with “Son of Neptune”. Filled with facts on Greek and Roman mythology, Riordan’s natural knack for witty humor made the story all the more engaging. He revealed the different facets of each of the characters at the most opportune time. Being the daughter of Pluto, Hazel’s life and power are filled with darkness and mystery. Being the first Asian character in Riordan’s novels, Frank’s life revealed bits and pieces of Eastern culture and tradition. Discovering his gift is one of the highlights of the novel. Being the ever famous son of Neptune, Percy showed once again his obstinate loyalty even to this new camp. He always used his powers to the advantage of his friends. The comeback of other familiar characters is like seeing your childhood friends in action again. 🙂

With the involvement of the Amazons, animated harpies, blue-skinned giants, grain spirits, and ghost armies, the “Son of Neptune” will continue to keep your interest, pique your curiosity, and challenge your knowledge on mythology to the very end. 🙂

You are not Normal and so am I

Reading non-fiction like John Ortberg’s “Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them” is like getting a jolt back to reality. There’s one thing you usually get when you read a non-fiction book—application. I got loads of that when I read this.

John Ortberg is one of my favorite Christian inspirational authors. Some of the books he wrote are “If You Want To Walk On Water, You’ve Got To Get Out Of The Boat” and “Life You’ve Always Wanted”, both of which are part of my shelf staples. 🙂

In this book, Ortberg focuses on the importance of relationships and community in general. He provides ways by which we can build and strengthen our relationships with other people. He starts off with the premise that nobody’s normal. Everybody comes with a flaw or a certain kind of weirdness. Just when you think a person is normal, he will show his flaws once you get to know him. With our “abnormalities” comes the need to be accepted in a community. He said,

“To experience community is to know the joy of belonging, the delight at being known and loved, the opportunity for giving and growing, the safety of finding a true home.”

Whether it be with my family, my peers, or my colleagues I know that I have that desire to be accepted in a community. There’s something about connecting with another individual that makes me feel at home. Ortberg adds that we were created for community. However, we cannot build one overnight. It takes time and effort to be in a community. I love what he said in the chapter on Friendship,

“If you think you can fit deep into community into the cracks of an overloaded schedule—think again. Wise people do not try to microwave friendship, parenting, or marriage.”

Throughout the book, Ortberg uses biblical examples to illustrate the value of community and relationships. He retells some Bible stories in a modern way, making them relevant to our time. He spent a great deal on the building blocks of relationships such as authenticity, acceptance, empathy, conflict, forgiveness, confrontation (the gift nobody wants as he aptly puts it), and gratitude.

Very insightful and practical, this book gave me nuggets of wisdom to apply in dealing with other people and strengthening my relationships with them. You don’t have to be socially challenged to read this book. Anyone who interacts with people will find this useful in a society where flawed people are normal and acceptance is vital. 🙂

An Unconventional Love Story: Before Ever After

It’s been a while since I’ve been so engrossed in a novel. When I started reading Samantha Sotto’s “Before Ever After”, I couldn’t help but go on and continue flipping the pages until I reached the ending. At first, I thought it was one of those typical love stories, judging from the book’s dainty cover. But it was far from typical; it was imaginative, brilliant and written with a good dose of wit and humor. I’m glad that Samantha Sotto swept me off my bookish feet and carried me into the world of Max and Shelley.

The Background

It’s been three years since Shelley’s husband died. Max died in a terrorist bombing in Madrid, leaving Shelley a young widow with a fragmented future. Shelley’s recovery had been slow but steady until an unexpected visit turned her world upside down. One mundane morning, a visitor who looks like Max appeared on her doorstep claiming to be Max’s grandson. It would’ve been okay if Paolo was not 32 years old—the same age as Max. This disclosure made Shelley question everything she knew and believed about her own husband.

The Journey Begins

Paolo began telling Shelley how much he loved his Nono, his term of endearment to his grandfather Max. So when he saw Max’s photo in a website, he knew that he had to look for him to find the answers he needed. He prodded Shelley to look at the site for herself, and when she did she knew that she had to pack her bags and leave for Boracay, Philippines where her supposedly dead husband was living.

During the flight from London to Manila, Paolo and Shelley started sharing stories about Max. Shelley recalled the backpacking Euro trip she joined in where she met the eccentric charming tour guide, Max. It was in this trip where Max and Shelley found each other in the midst of the historic places of Austria, Slovenia, and other cobble-stoned pavements. Shelley revisited the stories that Max related in each mysterious tourist spot, realizing through Paolo’s affirmations that Max was actually part of the story. He was not merely a storyteller; he was the protagonist in the pages of history he was retelling.

The Journey Ends

Shelley continued her quest for answers and in the process discovered truths that are too difficult to comprehend yet too real to deny. The novel ends in a way that will surprise readers. It’s not the conventional ending that the already captivated audience would’ve wanted (count me in, too). But I guess that’s the beauty of it. With its unpredictability comes the preservation of the magic that the story created even if you already turned the last page. 🙂

Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy

Maggie Stiefvater created a world of wolves that draws readers deep into the lives of the wild and the resilient bond that tie them together.

The trilogy starts with “Shiver” where we are introduced to the character of Grace Brisbane and Sam Roth. Grace was attacked by a pack of wolves when she was a child. She was saved right on time before the wolves can do further damage to her. She distinctly remembered seeing a wolf with golden-yellow eyes who snarled at the pack to back off. Since then, she has been watching the wolf that saved her from her bedside window. For years, she tried to communicate and draw near to her wolf but she can only go so far.

Little did she know that the wolf that rescued her is also human and he is Sam Roth. On one hunting spree, Sam was shot and he turned human. The house closest to where he was shot was Grace’s house. Upon seeing him and looking at his eyes, Grace knew that Sam was the wolf who saved her. It was then revealed how wolves turn into humans during summer and they turn back to being wolves when winter breaks. The cold weather triggers the change. The struggle to keep Sam human to be with her and the unrelenting love of the two characters consumed most of the story.

I must admit, when I was reading half way through the novel my mind was screaming “Twilight!!!” The love story between Grace and Sam is sooooo “Twilight”!  The stubbornness of youth mixed with their impulsive love is like reading Bella and Edward all over again. But this time, it’s the wolf version. I was at the brink of giving up when the novel amazingly started to pick up! By the time I was down to the last 70 pages, I was so eager to know what will happen—if the cure for Sam will work or not. So there, the ending saved the novel. The science behind the paranormal gave a new twist to this growing genre. The end was so good that I decided to immediately read the sequel, “Linger”.

In “Linger”, a cruel reversal of fates happened. Grace is starting to show signs of being a wolf through the deterioration of her health. While Sam is struggling to find out how he can help her. An interesting character also enters in this novel, Cole, front man of the famous band Narkotika. Cole is a new wolf trying to find his way in this new world of wolves. Linger begins with a gripping plot and ends with unexpected changes in the characters. For me, this sequel saved the trilogy. It kept my interest (and perhaps the interest of the other readers) and compelled me to open the pages of “Forever”.

“Forever” is the final part of the Wolves of Mercy trilogy. In this novel, lives are threatened, a complete annihilation of wolves is at bay, and humans are showing no mercy. As I was reading the book, the image of the dogs in the movie “Eight Below” came to mind. The way the wolves communicated with each other to save the pack felt so real and believable.  I love the way the story ended, the maturity of each character along the way, and the unconventional resolution of conflicts. It took a few days before I was able to part with the characters of Sam and Grace. After reading the trilogy for 4 days, it felt like I was living in Mercy Falls, too, and they were my friends. It also made me want to have a wolf as a pet. Well, come to think of it, I already have my own wolf (canis lupus) all these years. Now, that’s interesting. 🙂

Never Let Me Go: Beautifully Disturbing

It’s hard to talk about this novel without giving spoilers. It’s a story filled with intriguing clues that lead to one discovery after another. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “Never Let Me Go” is beautifully disturbing. Set in England around the late 1990s, the novel takes place in Hailsham—a special boarding school where students are raised for a sickening reason.

Kathy H. is the voice of the novel. It is from her memories and point of view that the plot develops. The way she tells her story keeps you wanting for more. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the rare authors who know the craft of leaving inconclusive details without pissing off the reader. He gives you an insatiable discontent for the unknown, which can only be satisfied as you keep turning the page. From the very first chapter, Kathy’s job as a “carer” is not described at length, which begs the question “What does a carer really do and who do they care for?” Donors and donations were also mentioned in casual terms as if implying that the reader ought to know what those taboo words mean.

As Kathy drives along a familiar road, she starts to narrate her life at Hailsham and the story of two significant people who became her closest friends—Ruth and Tommy. Kathy describes in detail the almost impeccable education system they receive from Hailsham. They were even substantially provided for their needs and even wants. But since nobody lives in a perfect world, certain clues emerge here and there implying that there is something terribly wrong in this boarding school. At one point, a teacher resigns for reasons that the so-called principal cannot disclose; a certain character called “madame” gets the best art work of the students; and “donations” are mentioned in crucial moments in the story. Slowly, the innocence of these students is shattered as they gradually discover why they’re there in the first place.

SPOILER ALERT (do not proceed if you don’t want to miss the novel’s turning point)

Here’s the spoiler I’m not supposed to say but I can’t help but divulge. Kathy, along with her friends Ruth and Tommy, are all created to be organ donors. They are raised well so that when the time comes that they have to give their donations they are perfectly fit to do so. Not only are they organ donors, they are also clones. Sickening, right? You raise a human person—not a machine—then end his life regardless if he wants to or not. Even if he is a clone, that person has life and he has the right to decide what he wants to do with it.

My heart went wild as I was reading this. I felt pity for the characters, I felt rage for the cruel people behind this sinister project, I felt sorrow for the lives that were lost and the hearts that were broken. Although this novel is fictional, it shows the reality that men are capable of the most depraved things when push comes to shove. Never is deception portrayed ever so delicately yet menacingly the way Kazuo Ishiguro did in this masterpiece. This is one novel worth shelf keeping. 🙂

The Help

I like reading first-time novelists. There’s something about fresh raw talent that produces exceptional piece of literature. Some of my favourite debut novels are Aravind Adiga’s “White Tiger” and Audrey Niffeneger’s “Time Traveller’s Wife”. These novels were unique in all aspects and Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” is no exception. I think I’ve done my fair share in recommending this book to my friends but I guess doing a review will even encourage more readers to pick up this good read.

Allow me to share with you why the USA Today named it “Book of the Year”, why Oprah picked this for her book club, why it’s been in the New York Times bestseller list for the longest time (since it was published in 2009), and why I’m raving about this excellent book.

I won’t spill the beans for those of you who plan to read this book. I’ll just share the reasons why I LOVED it and what’s pretty challenging about it. To start off, “The Help” is a novel about the poignant intertwined lives of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Set during the early 1960’s in Jackson, Mississippi, this book gave a voice to the silent cries of black maids during that time.

The Characters

Aibileen, a middle-aged black maid, is probably the noblest help in the community. Raising her 17th white child, she is compassionate and devoted to the kids entrusted to her. It was at Aibileen’s voice that the novel began and ended. She is not your typical black help, Aibileen is wise and in her own way, regal. Minny is not your typical tongue-tied black maid. In fact, she has the biggest mouth in the neighborhood. Her humour stands out in the novel yet it is her strong outspoken character that differentiates her from the rest. Skeeter is a 22-year-old aspiring writer, who is expected by her mother and everybody else to be married at that time. She is white but that did not stop her from exposing the debilitating situations of black maids in their town. Skeeter was also raised by a lovely black help named Constantine who apparently left their household and no one would tell why. It is in this process of discovery and brave exposition that these three women uphold each other to free themselves and the rest of the black maids from the prevalent social injustice.

The Technique

Kathryn Stockett wanted to preserve the voice of the black maids by using their language when they are the one’s narrating the story. With that, I found it very challenging when I read the first page of the book, hearing it from Aibileen’s voice. Here’s an example of one of her dialogues,

And how I told him don’t drink coffee or he gone turn colored. He say he still ain’t drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years old. It’s always nice seeing the kids grown up fine.

I find myself going slow on those parts where it is either Aibileen or Minny’s narrative. This is what I specifically like about the book; it is true to its origin and very organic. Never mind going slow, it is the raw voice that you will actually hear as you do that.

A true page-turner, this book piqued me in a way that it opened my eyes. It also made me laugh and pleasantly surprised me in many ways. The story line was seamless. The characters were distinctly memorable. The language was prolific regardless of the point of view. The author’s bravery in writing this piece is purely exceptional. “The Help” is BOLD, MOVING, and for a fiction read, it is ironically REAL.