Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Review: Generation A by Douglas Coupland

Here’s a funny thing about Douglas Coupland: he’s one of my favorite authors because I adore his writing style, but I’ve never considered a novel of his worthy of a five star rating. They always make me laugh and ponder life’s big questions, but they also end up missing something that would solidify them as all-around satisfying reads.

Coupland excels at creating memorably quirky outlines of characters, but he seldom manages to dig deep enough to make us really believe that they are flesh and blood or to get us to really care about them*. In GENERATION A, he introduces 5 20-somethings from around the globe who are all stung by bees, years after bees were thought to be extinct. However, with the exception of Harj, an amusingly clever call center employee from Sri Lanka (and my favorite character by far), all of them speak in a near identical “Coupland” voice: witty, emotionally distant, and very self-aware.

Coupland is also known for his outlandish plots, liberal use of pop-culture references, and willingness to experiment with structure. This one strikes me as a mix of GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA (for the post-apocalyptic elements) and GENERATION X (for the inclusion of a bunch of loosely related short stories a la The Decameron in the second half). It comes together (sort of) in the end, and we learn how these seemingly random individuals are related and what it means for the future of the human race.

Ultimately, I enjoyed reading it - though once again, I didn’t love it. I’m still waiting on that elusive perfect Coupland novel…

GENERATION A is available in hardcover now. Find out more about it at the author's website.

*I most cared about Susan Colgate in MISS WYOMING and Cheryl, Jason and Heather in HEY NOSTRADAMUS! which is why those two are probably my favorite of Coupland's works.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Book Review and Giveaway: When She Flew by Jennie Shortridge

Using the true story of a war vet and his 12 year old daughter found living in the forest as inspiration, Author Jennie Shortridge has written a powerful work not only about the bond between parent and child but also about doing the right thing, even when that’s a hard thing.

The fictional tale is told in alternating chapters - some from the point of view of 12 year old Lindy who lives off the grid with her PTSD-plagued father and some following police officer Jessica Villareal, a grandmother already at 38 who is estranged from her 19 year old daughter, as she responds to the call that a transient preteen has been seen in the woods.

Lindy’s chapters are spare yet haunting as she describes her life in the forest as well as her “capture” and subsequent ordeal. In some ways, Lindy is mature beyond her years, in others, completely na├»ve and Shortridge absolutely pulls off the voice. That Jessica’s chapters feel so completely different – down to earth yet pulsating with that mix of frustration and compassion that adulthood brings – is a testament to Shortridge’s skill.

Oddly, though Lindy’s chapters are first person and Jessica’s are third, I felt I got to know Jessica much better. Lindy remains a bit elusive, much like the blue herons she so loved to catch a glimpse of.

I enjoyed this one immensely and highly recommend it to those who like modern day stories with fully fleshed characters and a compelling storyline.

WHEN SHE FLEW is available in paperback now. Find out more about it on the author’s website.

This review is part of the TLC blog tour for WHEN SHE FLEW. See other stops on the tour at the TLC website.

I have one signed copy of the book up for grabs - to enter for it, simply tell me what news story you think would make a good jumping off point for a novel. Since it's coming directly from the author, this one is US and Canada only and I'll keep it open until 11:59 PM CST on January 11th.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tuesday (86) = Picture of Emmy

We're back in Germany and delivered Hans and Silke's (my father and stepmother's dogs) presents to Emmy and Finn.

They didn't tear into the wrapping paper like the dogs did on Christmas day, but they seem interested....

The bouncy toy with a squeaky mouse inside is fun and we are still looking for batteries for the other one.

It's nice to be back (and the kitties sure are happy to have us back too)!

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Favorite Reads of 2009 (with giveaway of top 2 favorites!)

Today I am guesting over at The Book Smugglers for their Smugglivus Celebration and there you can see my top 5 YA reads of 2009.

Well, I will go ahead and reveal that my #1 was Lips Touch by Laini Taylor...because I bought a hardcover copy I want to give away to addict someone else to its utter brilliance! Keep reading for contest details. To view #2-5 you'll have to click over to the Book Smugglers. (Yes, I am making you work for it!)

My next ten YA reads of 2009 (#6-15) in no particular order:
Genesis by Bernard Beckett (the only male author on the list!)

So want to win my favorite book of 2009, Lips Touch? Or maybe the library queue is too long for The Help and you'd like me to buy you a copy of that one? Just tell me what YOUR favorite book of 2009 was in the comments. I'll pick one winner for Lips Touch and one for The Help so make sure you also tell me your preference in your comment.

I'll give extra entries for:
+1 Leaving a comment at my guest post at The Book Smugglers
+1 Linking to my contest from your blog (sidebar is fine)
+1 For tweeting (include @lenoreva in your tweet)

I'll keep the contest open until January 11th at 11:59 CST, and I will send internationally! Happy reading in 2010.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

24 Hour Vampire Series 3 Book Contest!

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas! Today I have 3 vampire series books I want to give away to someone who reads them (or is interested in reading them). I got them for review (unsolicted), but since vampire fiction isn't really my thing, I thought I'd pass them on.

HEARTS AT STAKE by Alyxandra Harvey, Book 1 of The Drake Chronicles
Solange Drake's sixteen birthday is finally here, but in her family, htthis day triggers the transformation from human to vampire. Her seven older brothers each made it throught the potentially deadly passage, but since she's the first female-born vampire in almost 800 yeaars, and since her birth was foretold in a prophecy that predicts she will united all the vampire clans as their queen, this birthday isn't looking quite so sweet. Solange could be killed by the transformation itself, or by one of the existing queen's followers who are after the bounty on her head.

Luckily her protective older brothers and her very kick-butt best firned, Lucy, have her well being at heart. And it will take all of them- plus the help of their nemesis, Kiernan Black- to make sure Solange survives. By the stroke of midnight, her fate will be sealed, one way or another.

BAD BLOOD by Mari Mancusi, Book 4 of the Blood Coven series
Sunny McDonald is in the ultimate forbidden relationship. Her boyfriend Magnus is a vampire, and the leader of the Blood Coven. Their differences have never been an issue, until now…

When the Blood Coven decides that Magnus needs a mate to be his co-ruler, Sunny’s humanity puts her out of the running. The Coven’s chosen candidate is Jane Johnson, a magna cum laude graduate of Oxford University who just happens to look like a vampiric celebutante. Sunny is suspicious of a Rhodes Scholar who can’t answer the most basic poly-sci questions, but Magnus brushes it off as petty jealousy. Still, when the Blood Coven goes to Las Vegas for a vampire convention—where Magnus and Jane’s bonding ceremony will be the main event—Sunny and her sister Rayne secretly tag along. And Sunny’s not going home before she learns the truth about Jane. Because not everything stays in Vegas—especially bad blood…

FADE OUT by Rachel Caine, Book 7 of The Morganville Vampires
The resident vampires have made major concessions to the human population. With their newfound freedoms, Claire Danvers and her friends are almost starting to feel comfortable again...

Now Claire can actually concentrate on her studies, and her friend Eve joins the local theatre company. But when one of Eve's castmates goes missing after starting work on a short documentary, Eve suspects the worst. Claire and Eve soon realize that this film project, whose subject is the vampires themselves, is a whole lot bigger-and way more dangerous-than anyone suspected.

Contest is open internationally until noon CST Dec 27th. Just comment telling me what your fave vampire series is to be entered! One winner gets all three books.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday (85) = Picture of Emmy

While we're away, Emmy and Finn have a complex catsitting plan involving several friends and Daniel's brother Wossi.

Here are a couple of pictures of the kitties first leg at Jay's place.

They are back at home now getting visitors several times a day and night! They need lots of cuddles after all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review: The Naughty List by Suzanne Young

Head cheerleader Tessa is also the head of a super-secret organization - the Society of Smitten Kittens - that investigates boys possibly cheating on their girlfriends. Tessa knows her own boyfriend Aiden would never cheat though... or would he?

The Naughty List is a very cute book. Perhaps a bit TOO cute (for my taste anyway). Tessa is perky, positive, and very sweet - so sweet she won't let anyone swear around her and uses the names of baked goods for her own exclamations.

The plot is inventive enough to keep you guessing and although it feels kinda fluffy and very teen (as in, not a YA title that is ripe for a crossover adult audience), it does touch on more serious topics such as the importance of trust and communication in relationships.

THE NAUGHTY LIST comes out on Feb 4th with the second book, SO MANY BOYS, due in June 2010 and the third book, A GOOD BOY IS HARD TO FIND, set for October 2010. Find out more about this fun new series at the author's blog.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Book Review: The Natural Beauty Book by Anne Akers Johnson

Last year I reviewed THE GREEN BEAUTY GUIDE by Julie Gabriel and one thing that made that book less than ideal for me on a practical level was that most of the home spa recipes were complicated, requiring high-tech kitchen appliances and lots of exotic ingredients.

THE NATURAL BEAUTY BOOK, aimed at teens, is definitely more my level of difficulty. Almost all the recipes are simple and use common ingredients. The appealing package includes two bottles of essential oils (lavender and tangerine) that are required for some of the fancier recipes. Also included are other fun home spa items such as nail tools, a headband, loofah, and pumice stone.

The advice in the book - from the right way to wash your hair to the truth that your feet prefer comfortable shoes - is very basic (that's where the GREEN guide excels), but I can imagine the fab and fun DIY spa recipes being a big hit at slumber parties.

THE NATURAL BEAUTY BOOK is available now in paperback. Find out more about it at the publisher's website.

PS. If you are doing any last minute Christmas shopping for a younger teen girl, this would be a great choice!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: Dork Diaries by Rachel R. Russell

Nikki's the new girl at an exclusive middle school, and instead of getting a super-cool cell phone that will help her get in with the popular girls, headed by snotty MacKenzie, she gets a diary to write down all the shame that comes with being the new girl at at an exclusive school with no cell phone.

I have to admit, I nearly abandoned this a few times in the early chapters because I am sooo not the target group for lamentations about not having the hottest cell phone. But I am glad I stuck with it, because there is a very sweet story arc and some hilarious scenes (the scene with Nikki's sister at MacKenzie's house and her fear of the tooth fairy is worthy of inclusion in a future *fantasy* season of the classic tv comedy Arrested Development, it is THAT absurdly ROTFL funny).

DORK DIARIES is available in paperback. Find out more about it and watch a book trailer at the publisher's website.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: Candor by Pam Bachorz

Oscar Banks spends his days trying to convince his Stepford town of Candor that he's as "perfect" as everyone else there is. But he's not - because he knows the secret behind the perfection and takes steps against losing his own free will. But when wild Nia moves to town, his falling for her jeopardizes all he's worked so hard to protect.

Candor is definitely a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Parents bring their problem children to the town and consent to brainwashing to straighten them out. But they not only sign away their children's individuality, but their own as well. Sure, the town's subliminal messages can help you quit smoking, but they also place all power in the hands of one man: the founder of the town, who also happens to be Oscar's father. Oscar's father isn't an evil man per se, but his methods are certainly fascist and it is chilling to read about just how far he's willing to go to keep his vision of a perfect world.

Because everyone is so well-behaved, this is more of a quiet dystopia, but that doesn't mean it is boring. Oscar's struggle for control is a fascinating one, and the new feelings and past memories Nia brings to the surface provide most of the narrative tension. Supporting characters such as Mandi, a former Queen Bee meanie, and Sherman, a social wreck, illustrate both the good and the bad of Candor's MO. And that ending...whoa. I am still trying to wrap my head around that one.

CANDOR is available in hardcover now. Find out more about it at the author's website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tuesday (84) = Picture of Emmy

I am traveling again (I know, can you believe it?), but here's a shot of Emmy before I left exploring the cupboard while I was cleaning it out:

She's staying at friends of ours and they are taking great pics so I'll have one of those for you next week.

So where am I? Easter Island!

Ha, ha... just kidding. That was taken in DC at the Museum of Natural History (setting of Night at the Museum 2). My friend Kelly and I thought a bit of photoshop trickery would be fun.

So yeah, I was in DC for a few days visiting friends, and now I am in LA for a few days visiting friends (had a lovely meeting with My Friend Amy on Sunday). Yesterday we drove to Joshua Tree National Park and the Salten Sea and today we are going to visit Daniel's alma mater Art Center in Pasadena and then go to Santa Monica.

I'll be in Kansas on Thursday, and I can't wait to see if I've gotten my Secret Santa gift from the book bloggers holiday swap yet!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Book Club Report: The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

This was the third pick from my new book club (I missed our meeting to discuss pick 2 because I was in Africa).

Short summary: Ren is an orphan and because he is missing a hand, it is unlikely a family will adopt him. When a man who claims to be Ren's long lost brother appears, he introduces Ren into a completely different world filled with scam artists and grave diggers. Is this the family Ren has always longed for?

The group's verdict: Everyone really enjoyed the more realistic beginning, but only those of us with a healthy appreciation for the absurd (such as myself) really liked it by the end. I personally loved the character of Dolly, a dim-witted thug who is "raised from the dead" and becomes Ren's friend and champion. It is partly through him (and the excellent landlady Mrs. Sands) that Ren reevaluates the meaning of family, an important theme in the novel.

Up next: Becoming Madame Mao by Anchee Min

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: Gone by Lisa McMann

This is the third and final installment in the dream catcher series that includes WAKE and FADE. My recommendation is to read all of the books together if you can (I had a 10 month break between books 2 and 3, and was lost for the first few chapters of GONE). If you haven't read the first two books yet, please read my review of those titles and skip this one so you don't get too spoiled!

After finding out the terrible consequences of being a dream catcher, Janie has a big decision to make and everything points towards isolating herself from everyone including her beloved Cabel - that is until a chance meeting with an important stranger makes her realize that her choice is even more horrible than she could have ever imagined.

So does anyone think this book can have a happy ending with a set-up like that? I know I caused a furor over on Goodreads the other day when I described this installment as "bleak and depressing". But hey, I call them like I see them, and although there is a "happy end" of sorts, the story itself is still ... yes ... depressing as hell.

GONE is very much about Janie making her decision about her future and the other characters, even Cabel, fade very much into the background. We see a lot of Janie's inner turmoil and the plot centers around Janie and the stranger that suddenly enters her life. It's not quite as exciting or eventful as the first two novels, but the resolution seems logical (if brutally so).

GONE will be released in hardcover on Feb. 9th, 2010. Find out more about it on the author's website.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Review: The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

It's 1915 and teenage Bess realizes that her world is about to change drastically. She's always lived in the shadow of Niagara Falls, but now it is poised to become an even bigger part of her life - for better or worse.

This is a finely crafted historical romance that held my attention for the most part, though I thought certain parts were overly melodramatic. I liked how bits of local lore and politics of the day were mixed in to the main story, and it's always inspiring to read about women making their own way in the world and being strong enough to make choices that are right for them.

Thanks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program for sending me this book.

THE DAY THE FALLS STOOD STILL is available now in hardcover. Find out more about it on the author's website.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Library Thing Tuesday (83) + Picture of Emmy

No LibraryThing up yet, but here's your weekly Emmy fix.

Since we've been back, the kittehs have been very clingy - they always want to be close, especially when they're napping:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Former student Raskolnikov commits a crime and then goes through a lot of psychological melodrama as punishment.

I’d been meaning to read this one forever. I loved THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND back when I read them a decade ago. I actually thought, for some reason, that this one was much more about someone serving a sentence in Siberia, so I was surprised when the novel just went on and on with Rasky trying not to incriminate himself, his mental breakdowns, and his long (looooong) conversations with various people including his mother, his sister, the nasty man his sister is engaged to, his best friend, a random drunk he meets in a bar, random drunk’s daughter, and a handful of policemen. Not that all that wasn’t interesting… it was. It just wasn’t what I expected.

It’s worth a read just for Dostoevsky’s keen insight into human nature and his masterful use of language that makes you feel like you yourself have entered Rasky’s mind to feel the same nervousness and fear he does. Not for the impatient reader, but for those who long to be intellectually engaged.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Review: Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton

Single mother Mina works at a call centre and connects with one of her customers, single father Peter who has a habit of banging up his car. Could they have found love?

This is the kind of book I NEVER read. I generally don’t care for romance, and if you throw in some precocious kids (this novel has 3 main ones, including a set of twins whose dialogue I had to skim it annoyed me so) - I am really outta there.

The colorful cast of characters and whole range of dramatic situations make me think this could be made into a successful romantic comedy film, so if that’s your thing, you might really like this novel. It veers just enough off formula to make it interesting, but sticks with genre conventions enough to be cozy and heartwarming.

As for me, I did enjoy Mina’s experiences with callers at her job at least. There are certainly some hilariously clueless people out there…

CROSSED WIRES doesn’t seem to be available in the US, but it is out now in paperback in the UK. If you are in the US and want to read this one, let me know in the comments. The first to claim it, gets it!

Find out more about the book (and read excerpts from reviews by people who really adored it) at the author's website.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Book Review: Boyology by Sarah Burningham

Where do teens get their dating advice these days? Friends, parents, magazines, surfing the internet? I’m not sure. Would they like to get it from this book? I’m not sure about that either.

BOYOLOGY is billed as a teen girl’s crash course in all things boy, but it’s really a crash course in dating. The tone and format is not unlike that of a teen magazine, with the advantage that it is able to go more in depth, but with the disadvantage that it is dated (especially in its references to pop culture) pretty much immediately.

Chronicle always has great art direction and the book is fun to browse through. There are quizzes and graphics, song lists for romancing your boy (point being: don’t play him girly music), and a list of movies to watch when you break up. Some of the content seems flippant (like a section that stereotypes boys into 8 “breeds”) but other content, like the chapter on setting sexual boundaries and preventing rape, is very, very serious (and important).

BOYOLOGY is out in paperback now. Find out more about it on the author’s website.

Friday, December 4, 2009

700 Followers Prize Pack: 5 Upcoming Books & A Giftcard. Open Internationally!

As a thank you to my faithful followers, I wanted to offer a prize pack with some hot upcoming YA titles. Here's what you could win:

THE LINE by Teri Hall (March 2010)
An invisible, uncrossable physical barrier encloses the Unified States. The Line is the part of the border that lopped off part of the country, dooming the inhabitants to an unknown fate when the enemy used a banned weapon. It’s said that bizarre creatures and superhumans live on the other side, in Away. Nobody except tough old Ms. Moore would ever live next to the Line.

Nobody but Rachel and her mother, who went to live there after Rachel’s dad died in the last war. It’s a safe, quiet life. Until Rachel finds a mysterious recorded message that can only have come from Away. The voice is asking for help.

Who sent the message? Why is her mother so protective? And to what lengths is Rachel willing to go in order to do what she thinks is right?

Read a review at The Compulsive Reader.

WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green and David Levithan (April 2010)
One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.

Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won both them legions of faithful fans.

Khy gave it 5 stars, but she IS a David Levithan stalker...

THE NAUGHTY LIST by Suzanne Young (Feb 2010)
As if being a purrfect cheerleader isn’t enough responsibility! Tessa Crimson’s the sweet and spunky leader of the SOS (Society of Smitten Kittens), a cheer squad–turned–spy society dedicated to bringing dastardly boyfriends to justice, one cheater at a time. Boyfriend-busting wouldn’t be so bad . . . except that so far, every suspect on the Naughty List has been proven 100% guilty!

When Tessa’s own boyfriend shows up on the List, she turns her sleuthing skills on him. Is Aiden just as naughty as all the rest, or will Tessa’s sneaky ways end in catastrophe?

Read a review at Shalonda's blog.

THE MARK by Jen Nadol (Feb 2010)
Cassandra Renfield has always seen the mark—a glow around certain people reminiscent of candlelight. But the one time she mentioned it, it was dismissed as a trick of the light. Until the day she watches a man awash in the mark die. After searching her memories, Cassie realizes she can see a person’s imminent death. Not how or where, only when: today.

How does the mark work? Why is she the only one who sees it? And finally, the most important of all: If you know today is someone’s last, should you tell them?

Read my review.

WANDERLUST by Lucy Silag (Dec 2009)
The second book in the Beautiful Americans series. Read my review.

I am willing to send these books internationally, so that means anyone can enter!

But now I am going to sweeten the pot:
There will be a second winner of an amazon giftcard and the amount of the giftcard will be determined by how many followers I have at the end of the contest period. If I have 700-710 followers, the winner will get a $10 gift card. For every additional follower over 710, the gift card amount goes up $1. I am going to cap this at $50. The first place winner can then pick the gift card or the books.

For your first entry, tell me what book you'd buy your best friend for Christmas and why.

Additional entries as follows (must each be in a separate comment to count):
+1 for followers (new followers welcome - obviously!)
+1 for tweeting (include @lenoreva in your tweet)
+1 for posting a link to the contest on your blog (sidebar is fine) or social media site (if you don't have a blog)

Contest will remain open until Dec 21st at 11:59 pm CST.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

It's 1962 Mississippi and three women - aspiring writer Skeeter, professional nanny/maid Aibileen and sassy maid Minny -come together for a project that puts them all at risk.

By now, most bloggers are well aware of the ample charms of this engaging novel. I was one who was initially put off by the sheer length of the book - at 450 pages, it qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge. But I am here to tell you ... I wish this could have been TWICE as long - I enjoyed the main characters that much (Minny was my favorite) - and I'd have loved to have gotten more about a lot of the side characters, especially Celia Foote, Constantine, Sugar and Kindra.

Not having spent much time in the American deep south, I can't say how accurate the portrayals of the maids' daily lives were, but the injustices they had to bear certainly sound likely for what I know about the time. While race relations have thankfully improved in this part of the world (thanks to brave men and women like the ones in this novel), there IS still a general attitude of superiority in many parts of the world and I definitely noticed a “colonial mentality” while in Kenya last month (where I read this).

I overheard conversations where expats complained about finding a decent maid since “all Kenyans are lazy”. There were complaints about theft, and even about maids using the house toilet instead of going behind a bush (hey, they should be used to it right?). Seriously!

THE HELP doesn’t come out in paperback until the end of May, but it’s one it is worth getting in hardcover. Find out more about it at the author’s website.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review: A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve

Newlyweds Margaret and Patrick embark on a yearlong adventure living in Kenya which ends up putting strain on their marriage.

As soon as Nicole heard I was going to Kenya, she generously offered to send me this novel and I was excited to have the opportunity to read it while I was there (thanks Nicole!). It is set in the late 1970s, but there was still much familiar about the country described, especially in regards to the high level of crime, the recreational activities, and the divide between expats and Kenyans. But although everything that had to do with the setting was incredibly engaging, the story itself meandered about with a bit of tragedy here, a bit of temptation to cheat there, but no real identifiable arc.

I was puzzled why Margaret would find Patrick attractive – he seemed like a self-absorbed jerk to me most of the time. The ending made sense though, and showed how much Margaret had grown over the course of the narrative.

A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE is available in hardcover now. Find out more about it at the author's website.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Library Thing Tuesday (82) + Picture of Emmy

Today Wendi is talking about the World Cat feature. And as per usual, I just checked it out today for the first time. I looked for my edition of George Orwell's 1984 but didn't find it.

But I do have another kind of world cat for you today too - a Lamu cat I snapped a picture of in a alley way of this Kenyan beach town. They are said to be the closest breed to those cats you see depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Aristocratic, no?

And because I don't want you to feel cheated out of Emmy, here she is cuddled up in our blanket. It's getting MUCH colder here...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Africa Trip Part 4: The Guide Book Comparison

During my trip I used 5 different guidebooks.

For general safari planning, you can't go wrong with Fodor's THE COMPLETE AFRICAN SAFARI PLANNER which covers Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Victoria Falls. For each country, the guide covers the gateway city, the must-see parks, the if-you-have-time parks and beach escapes. It also gives you great tips on the ins and outs of safaris including what to expect, what to wear, what to bring and more. It was thanks to this guide that we decided we must go to Ngorogoro Crater and Lamu. Though I didn't end up using any of the eating or sleeping listings, I enjoyed the wealth of cultural information presented throughout. Definitely a keeper. It may even inspire me to go on more safaris!

As for day-to-day guides, we used the Lonely Planet's EAST AFRICA as well as country guides from Footprint covering Kenya and Tanzania. All three offered a good mix of both affordable listings and more upscale locales. I found the Lonely Planet to be more reliable in general, although current phone numbers can be a problem in both publisher's books. Your best bet is to check the listing's website for the most current contact details. We had a devil of a time finding the number for Robert's Camp in Baringo, though it didn't turn out to be a problem since we ended up being the only guests.

Footprint's KENYA HANDBOOK is current as of March 2009 but some of the information didn't get double-checked when they printed the new edition. For example, the guide claims Diamond Village (where we stayed) has pit latrines, but they've had en-suite flush toliets since 2005. Oops! What I do really like about the Footprint guides are the hard covers and the excellent maps.

The book I used the most during my trip was Lonely Planet's WATCHING WILDLIFE EAST AFRICA. Not only is it full of excellent color pictures and detailed information about species you are likely to encounter, it also has a whole section covering each national park in East Africa and what wildlife you may find there (and in what areas specifically). Whenever our guide would point out a new bird (for example), I would pull out the book and read all about it. The only think I was really missing was a checklist so I could keep track of what I'd seen and what I still needed to track down.

What guidebooks do you like to use when you travel?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Review: Notes from My Travels by Angelina Jolie

When I heard that actress Angelina Jolie had published her diaries of some of her trips as a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), I was mildly interested. Especially when I read that she went to Ecuador and Cambodia, two countries I've visited myself. So when I saw a copy in the Diamond Villiage library in Lamu, I picked it up and started reading.

As she admits herself, Angelina is not a good writer. She tends to repeat herself and is vague on many of the pertinent details of her trips. What impressed me, however, is her willingness to fade into the background and give the spotlight to UN employees and the refugees themselves. She goes into hellholes that very few of us would be willing to endure and never makes a single complaint - all the name of greater awareness for the plight of refugees.

I don't have the book with me anymore, but a particular passage that has stuck with me is Jolie's mechanism for coping with extremely high temperatures - she simply thinks of opening her refrigerator back home and getting a blast of cold air. I'll have to try that next time I am in the sweltering heat.

An interesting aside - Angelina was recently in Kenya visiting the Dadaab refugee camp for displaced Somalis. The friends I was visiting in Kenya told me that their neighbor, Damien from New Zealand, works with UNHCR Kenya and met Angelina. During a neighborly Sunday cookout he told us about his experience with her and he confirmed that she is genuinely interested in improving refugees' lot, is exceedingly humble, and took time to get pictures with everyone who wanted one. Apparently Damien's picture with her hangs in a special place :)

NOTES FROM MY TRAVELS is available in paperback.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Africa Trip Part 3: The Baby Animal Extravaganza

During our stay in Kenya and Tanzania, we went to quite a few national parks and reserves and were lucky enough to see all of the big five (elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard) and get a decent picture of 4 (all except the leopard who was too quick for us). We saw zebras, giraffes, tons of different antelopes and birds, hippos, crocs, jackels, warthogs, 1 hyena, and the highlight - a mother cheetah with 3 cubs, out on a walk for the very first time.

Cheetah and cubs:

Black rhino and baby:

A hippo who might just eat its baby:

Baby topi:

Here are my two favorite lion pictures (sans cubs).


Up (too) close (in Ngorogoro, animals are more used to cars and are less skittish):

And just for fun, a very cheeky Starling (who flew off with our bread roll):

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Book Review: The Mark by Jen Nadol

I was so captivated by this premise: Cassie can see a faint glow around the heads of people who are about to die. Why does she have such a strange power and does she have the moral responsibility to tell what she knows?

Cassie is rather more robust than your typical teen. Once her nana dies, she’s entirely on her own – except for an aunt who could care less about her – but she takes it in stride. Her power isolates her too - she doesn’t really engage with others much, with the exception of college student Lucas who pushes her to “use” her “talent”. The ups and downs of their rocky relationship feel authentic and add to the dramatic tension (though some readers might be put off by what amounts to statutory rape, albeit unwitting).

What I most enjoyed was the exploration of philosophical questions which gave the novel depth beyond that of a typical YA read. It was, however, a tad convenient to have Cassie actually audit a philosophy class in which Lucas was the TA. In fact, quite a few aspects of the plot came off as too convenient which makes the narrative feel overly “outlined” and not as fresh as it could be considering the very original revelation we get at the end of the novel. I could totally imagine (and hope for) a kick-a** sequel, Ms. Nadol.

THE MARK comes out in hardcover on January 19, 2010. Find out more about it (and read an excerpt) on the author’s website.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Africa Trip Part 2: Huts and Tents

I'm still going through all my trip pictures (I took well over 500 - unusual for me), but I'll go ahead and show you a few places we spent the night.

The scariest place we stayed in was a banda at Robert's Camp at Lake Baringo, Kenya where we were the ONLY guests. Bandas are simple huts with a bed inside but no bathroom. To use the bathroom, you have to brave a whole herd of grumpy hippos in the pitch black night. So you don't use the bathroom once the sun sets.

Here's the hut:
Here are the hungry hippos:

We also stayed in one of Diamond Villiage's huts on the beach in the World Heritage listed town of Lamu on the northern Kenyan coast (yep, pretty close to Somalia). Kenya's national motto is Hakuna Matata (which means "No problem" - something you know if you've watched Disney's The Lion King) and it's especially true in Lamu. They also like to say Pole Pole ("slowly, slowly") and people here are very relaxed and mellow - a welcome change from the bustle of Nairobi. This would have been paradise if it weren't for the swarms of mosquitos and sand flies who were not the least bit put off by repellent and abundant smoking coils.

Our hut (which seemed to me like something out of The Mosquito Coast - before it burned down of course):

Probably our favorite accomodation was our tent at the luxury tented camp Mara Siria in the Masai Mara National reserve. Very comfortable bed, a hot "bush" shower, a gorgeous view and nary a mosquito in sight.

And finally, here's our friends' place in Nairobi. It is on a compound with electric fences and around the clock guards. You'll notice too that there are bars on all the windows and doors. They don't call the place "Nairobbery" for nothing.

That's all for now. Lots of baby animals soon!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Library Thing Tuesday (81) + Picture of Emmy

This week's question from Wendi: Have you ever participated in SantaThing (it is in its third year)? If so, what did you like? Dislike? Are you planning to participate this year?

I never have, though I do think it sounds fun in theory. Since I've already signed up for a bookish Secret Santa this year though (The Book Blogger Holiday Swap), I better resist the temptation! Maybe next year....


While we were in Africa, dear friends of ours hosted our kittehs at their house and documented their naughtiness on Facebook. Here's my favorite picture they posted:

That Finn sure looks comfy. All he needs is the remote a little closer to his paw.