The Only Alien on the Planet Book Review



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Review:

This is another book that originally caught my attention due to the cover, which featured a rather beautiful but blank-eyed teenage boy dressed in white and floating in mid-air. In between the cover and the title, I thought it was going to be some sort of science fiction novel, but the description on the back introduced me instead to a boy named Smitty Tibbs who never speaks and never smiles, and the new girl in town who decides to try and befriend him.

Well, I was intrigued, all right, and ended up devouring the novel within a few hours.

It’s a very intense read that touches on some serious issues of abuse and neglect. As an adult, I have a little trouble suspending my disbelief that no professional tried to delve deeper into Smitty’s voluntary muteness and refusal to interact socially before a couple of high school seniors started nosing around and trying to break through his shell, but as a teenager I found the book riveting. And really, despite those little niggling doubts about its realism, I’ve continued to enjoy its presence in my periodic re-reading rotation as an adult. Like The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, another of my teenage favorites, it benefits from a smart and likable (though flawed) narrator with a set of loving and supportive family relationships and friendships. The central romance is slow to develop and much more complicated than Kate’s thanks to the severity of Smitty’s condition, but sweet to watch as it (and Smitty) finally unfold.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Children of the River Book Review



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Review:

Children of the River is another of my favorite YA romance novels. It tells the story of a Cambodian refugee girl named Sundara who escapes from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge with her aunt and uncle and flees to America. I’m ashamed to say that before reading it for the first time around age 14 or 15, I knew almost nothing about Cambodia, and nothing at all about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the death of up to 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, so it was a very eye-opening book for me. In addition to information about the Cambodian genocide, the novel also has many interesting details about Cambodian customs and traditions, as well as a nuanced depiction of the struggle many immigrants face between preserving their own unique cultures and blending in with mainstream American society.

It’s also a very sweet romance. Four years after her escape from Cambodia, Sundara falls in love with an American boy named Jonathan, which creates new complications in her life, as Cambodian culture practices arranged marriage and good Cambodian girls like Sundara are not supposed to go on dates. (Especially not with non-Cambodian boys.) Sundara and Jonathan are both changed by their relationship, and the book has a very satisfying conclusion.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman Book Review



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Review:

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, by Louise Plummer, is one of my favorite YA romance novels. It’s an extremely witty and tongue-in-cheek read, in large part because of the great use of first-person narration. Kate is a very intelligent and charismatic heroine and she narrates as if writing a romance novel based on her own life, complete with frequent consultation of The Romance Writer’s Phrasebook and hilarious commentary on the bodice ripping descriptions she finds there. She is also (speaking as a fellow tall, plain-ish nerd with bad eyes) extremely relatable, so I’m sure there was some wish fulfillment involved in my enjoyment of this book when I first read it as a never-been-kissed teenager. However, I’ve found it equally enjoyable as an adult.

Another thing I liked and found relatable was the portrayal of Kate’s family. As someone who really didn’t have a rebellious teenage phase and whose relationship with my parents ranged from pretty good to great even at the height of my puberty-induced hormonal moodiness, I really enjoyed the depiction of a loving and mutually respectful parent-teen relationship. (There’s also a great depiction of female-female friendship, in keeping with the book’s feminist themes.) The novel is set over Christmas break in Minnesota, and Kate’s (mostly) happy family life and Swedish Christmas traditions add to the cozy, comforting atmosphere, making it an especially good read for the holiday season or the sorts of days when you don’t feel like doing anything but curling up with a blanket, some tea, and a good book.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Book Review



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Review:

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, is one of my favorite classic adventure novels. It gets off to a rather slow start, but ratchets up the tension beautifully as the story progresses until it’s practically impossible to put down. I also like that Marguerite, while forced into the role of damsel-in-distress at several points, is nevertheless allowed to be quite clever and resourceful in her own right. For a novel originally published in 1905, she’s an unusually spunky and likable heroine!

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

It seems like a book that would make a fantastic movie, but I’ve been disappointed with the attempts so far. The 1934 version with Leslie Howard was just awful. I liked the 1982 film with Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan a lot more, but still feel like it could be done better. Here’s the trailer for that version:

The Broadway musical soundtrack is enjoyable, but I’ve never seen it on stage.

Julian Kestrel Mystery Series Review

The cover that caught my eye

The cover that caught my eye

Sometimes it pays to judge a book by its cover. One day years ago, I was browsing in a nice little independent bookstore in my hometown when my eye was caught by the cover of The Devil in Music, by Kate Ross. I noticed it first because it was illustrated by Kinuko Craft, one of my favorite illustrators, but when the pages decorated by the cover turned out to contain a murder mystery starring a Regency dandy named Julian Kestrel as sleuth (plus: opera!), well, there was no way I wasn’t taking it home!

It was a good choice.

The Julian Kestrel series was cut tragically short when Ross lost a long battle with cancer at the age of just 41, but she left behind four very enjoyable mysteries. I ended up reading them all out of order. The Devil in Music turned out to be the fourth and last book in the series, but I read it first anyway, then I read the second and third, because I had trouble getting a copy of the first. I finally read the first last! This worked out okay because the books are mostly stand-alone, and I might even recommend starting with the fourth, as it might make you less likely to guess the twist. However, I’ll review them in the correct order.

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Historical Fiction By Sharon Kay Penman Review

Sharon Kay Penman has been one of my favorite authors since I was a teenager. Her novels focus on the Plantagenet family that ruled England for several centuries starting in the 12th century, and their contemporaries.

It would be admittedly be pretty tough to make the Plantagenets boring (they were some of England’s least boring rulers, and that says something!) but Penman’s novels are not only highly regarded for their historical accuracy, they’re also rip-roaring good reads, with plenty of action, romance, and intrigue to keep almost anyone enthralled. For such a male-dominated period of history, I like that she also puts a lot of focus on the female characters and their complex situations.

My Favorite Penman Novels: The Welsh Princes Trilogy

The Welsh Princes trilogy were the first Penman books I read, and are still my favorites. I think they have the most appealing characters (confession time: teenage me had a huge crush on both Llewelyns), although history being what it is, they’re also something of an emotional roller coaster, especially the second and third books.

Book 1: Here Be Dragons



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The first in the series focuses on Joanna, a bastard daughter of King John. (Yes, that King John.)

Joanna is married to the Welsh prince Llewelyn ab Iorwerth (more commonly remembered as Llewelyn Fawr, or Llewelyn the Great) at the age of 14, and soon finds herself torn between her loyalty to her beloved father (who is here given a more nuanced portrayal than usual) and husband, who she also grows to love deeply.

Joanna is nearly unique in the annals of royal wives in that she was caught in an adulterous relationship and not only forgiven by her husband but restored to full favor and position at court. (A Royal Affair demonstrates a much more common aftermath for such a situation.) By all accounts, Llewelyn was grief-stricken by her death some years later, and even founded a Franciscan friary in her honor, which was completed shortly before his own death. I thought Penman navigated this tricky and unusual situation well, and came up with a plausible explanation for it, given the apparent happiness of Llewelyn and Joanna’s marriage otherwise.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Book 2: Falls the Shadow



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Book 2 continues with the deaths of most of the characters you grew to love in the first book (seriously, keep a tissue handy!) but introduces new ones in the form of Llewelyn Fawr’s grandson, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, and Simon de Montfort, the reform-minded French husband of Joanna’s younger half-sister Eleanor (Nell), as they each contend with John’s weak and incompetent son Henry III, and the rise of Henry’s far stronger son, the future Edward I (Longshanks).

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Book 3: The Reckoning



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Don’t throw that tissue away yet! You’ll need it a few more times as Edward warms up for his future role as “Hammer of the Scots” by taking on the Welsh. Although I love them all, this is probably my favorite of the trilogy. Family drama, romance, and high tragedy abound.

My rating: (5 / 5)

If you enjoy the Welsh Princes trilogy, I also recommend Edith Pargeter’s Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, which focuses on the lives of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and his brother Davydd.

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Restoration Hardware Starlit Tree Snow (2′) Review

starlit-tree

Review:

In between the small apartment and the two year old (a climber, and an energetic kid in general), we decided not to have a full size Christmas tree last year, but I didn’t find any small fake trees I liked much in local stores, so when I stumbled across Restoration Hardware’s Lit Trees Collection, I decided to give them a shot as a unique alternative. I bought the 2 foot tall Starlit Tree from the Snow collection and we used it as our Christmas tree.

The tree is made out of sturdy but bendable wire, so you can shape the branches however you want. I was a little disappointed by the tree’s appearance up close. It’s wrapped in white plastic tape that makes it look kind of like a DIY mummy tree or something. However, it looks fine from a distance and the 72 tiny LED lights give off a lovely warm glow. We had fun using it as a table centerpiece for a “candlelight” dinner.  If you had the money and/or inclination, I think a small forest of several different sizes (the trees come in 2′, 3′, 5′, 7′, 9′, and 11′ models) would be lovely.

The tree has both an on/off switch and a timer that you can use to set the lights on for 6 hours, off for 18 hours. We have only used ours indoors, but the company’s website says they can also be used in sheltered outdoor spaces, as long as they’re protected from storms and heavy wind. The tree operates on C batteries, and the lights have a 30,000 hour lifetime, but unfortunately are not replaceable.

Restoration Hardware Lit Trees Collection

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

Lego Duplo My First Zoo (6136) Review



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Review:

My First Zoo is my son’s second favorite Lego Duplo set after his My First Train set. It includes a giraffe, tiger, elephant, polar bear, and fish, so it was also a big hit with my animal-loving seven year old daughter, and the two of them like to combine it with their Lego Duplo Green Building Plate and free bricks from a brick box to make more elaborate fences and exhibits.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Lego Duplo Green Building Plate Review



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Review:

If you have Lego Duplo, this 15 inch by 15 inch building plate is a must-own, in my opinion. As far as I know, none of the Duplo sets come with a full-sized building plate, but building Duplo sets on the plate rather than free-standing makes them much more stable and less frustrating for little builders. The building plate is also a good base for building towers, houses, and other stuff. My kids particularly like to use it with their My First Zoo set to enable more fences and exhibits.

If you have regular-size Lego, you’ll want this 10×10 building plate instead.

My rating: (4 / 5)

LEGO Friends Heartlake High (41005) Review



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Review:

I was really impressed by the design of this Lego Friends set. The final build was smaller than I expected, but really packed a lot of cool stuff into a compact space. Heartlake High comes with science and fine arts classrooms, a cafeteria, and bathrooms, and has tons of useful accessories like art supplies, a laptop, an owl, a telescope, and more that give it good play value.

Despite this, my daughter has never shown as much interest in playing with it as she does some of her other sets, like Olivia’s House, the Summer Riding Camp, and King’s Castle. I think it may just be that she can’t relate to it yet – she’s only seven, so she certainly hasn’t been to high school and hasn’t even watched that many high school movies. I’ve been thinking about bringing it back out now that she’s read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series – they might help her come up with more scenarios to play out in the school. Meanwhile, though, I’d probably recommend this set for slightly older girls, say 10 or 11.

My rating: (4 / 5)