Friday, January 20, 2017

Calamity Jane: How the West Began - Bryan Ney

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Martha Canary's family arrives in the goldfields of 1860's Montana in impoverished circumstances and despised for uncertain reasons. Soon though, Martha makes a name for herself as Calamity Jane through her exploits, wins friends and becomes the toast of the town. Murder and robbery stalk all who travel the surrounding trails, and Jane thinks she knows who is responsible. Can she and her new friends rally forces to clean the place up? (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Historical fiction is so much fun.  So are these newer fictional biographies I seem to be drawn toward. I have a special place in my heart for the Old West, and Calamity Jane is a figure that always intrigued me.  I wonder if it’s because so little is known about her origins, if it’s because she was such an exuberant figure of history, or because somewhere in my eight-year-old-self’s sick-day mind I watched Cat Ballou the same time I heard about Calamity Jane and haven’t ever been able to keep the two straight since. But despite my personal confusion between a pretty cute Western fictional heroine (anti-heroine? It’s pretty unclear.) and a real Western heroine (anti-heroine? Still not clear.), I like learning about them.

Bryan Ney has tackled a difficult subject in Calamity Jane with this novel, because there is so little known about who she was before she WAS Calamity Jane. Larger than life, even the well-documented truth seems hard to believe, and given the fact that she published an autobiographical pamphlet later in life that was widely regarded as mostly fictional, trying to decipher what she was with what she said she was is tricky. (Yet another reason she and Cat Ballou look so much alike in my mind.)  In a sense, this makes her early life ripe for a fictional biography, because there’s so little that is truly known.  However, I found myself balking at the larger-than-life tale that Ney has woven.

Elements of this story are all documented as having happened, although Ney has played with the timeline a bit in order to speed things along.  But the execution just didn’t ring true.  I’ve sat on this book for days trying to figure out what didn’t work for me, and I can’t come to any serious conclusions, other than it didn’t. It just didn’t.  

Perhaps it was the current writing style.  There was no lack of cursing, the insults thrown about so casually and so frequently were of the ickiest variety, and I found her overwhelming tomboyish-ness unbelievable to the extent it was portrayed.  

The older I get, the more I realize that some books are just not for everyone.  It could be the time in one’s life the book is read, the state of mind, even the weather that throws it off, but sometimes, books and people just aren’t meant to work together.  This one, sadly, just wasn’t for me.

Rating: Two stars

For the Sensitive Reader: While this is a YA novel, there is enough cursing and references to whores that it made me uncomfortable.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Dollhouse - Fiona Davis

Summary: "The Dollhouse. . . . That's what we boys like to call it. . . . The Barbizon Hotel for Women, packed to the rafters with pretty little dolls. Just like you." 

Fiona Davis's stunning debut novel pulls readers into the lush world of New York City's glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where a generation of aspiring models, secretaries, and editors lived side-by-side while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success in the 1950s, and where a present-day journalist becomes consumed with uncovering a dark secret buried deep within the Barbizon's glitzy past.

When she arrives at the famed Barbizon Hotel in 1952, secretarial school enrollment in hand, Darby McLaughlin is everything her modeling agency hall mates aren't: plain, self-conscious, homesick, and utterly convinced she doesn't belong—a notion the models do nothing to disabuse. Yet when Darby befriends Esme, a Barbizon maid, she's introduced to an entirely new side of New York City: seedy downtown jazz clubs where the music is as addictive as the heroin that's used there, the startling sounds of bebop, and even the possibility of romance.

Over half a century later, the Barbizon's gone condo and most of its long-ago guests are forgotten. But rumors of Darby's involvement in a deadly skirmish with a hotel maid back in 1952 haunt the halls of the building as surely as the melancholy music that floats from the elderly woman's rent-controlled apartment. It's a combination too intoxicating for journalist Rose Lewin, Darby's upstairs neighbor, to resist—not to mention the perfect distraction from her own imploding personal life. Yet as Rose's obsession deepens, the ethics of her investigation become increasingly murky, and neither woman will remain unchanged when the shocking truth is finally revealed. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: The description of this novel hooked me right off. I am a sucker for historical fiction these days, and especially historical fiction that is not on my radar. I’ve recently read a ton of WWII historical fic—which I love—and some of my favorite books come from that genre. But I also am, ya know, aware of WWII, and so it is very much on my radar. I, like many readers, also feel a connection to it because I have grandparents who served in various capacities during WWII and that makes me feel closer to them and I love that, especially now that they’re gone.

This book is about the famed Barbizon Hotel, which I did not know was famed, nor had I really heard that much about it (maybe this is showing my naiveté, especially in regards to New York City). Many famous women (one of the most famous being Sylvia Plath, although she lived there just a short time) have lived at the Barbizon Hotel, which I now know, and I loved that it was a huge cultural icon for women coming of age during the fifties. I am fascinated by the evolution—revolution—of women in the world, and the Barbizon was definitely a place where this happened. This is a time hop book, going back and forth between a modern day journalist (with her own set of drama and problems, of course), and a woman who stayed at the Barbizon and endured a tragedy there. She continued to live at the Barbizon, along with about a dozen other women, until modern day, when it became fancy and expensive and fashionable again. After a quick internet search I learned that this is true, and love the idea that there was just a little group of women who were left as a literal relic of the Barbizon’s past.

The story itself is quite interesting. As with many time hop books, the stories aren’t really all that related, which is fine, because I felt like this one did a decent job of connecting the two stories, although I found that the journalist basically squatting in an old woman’s apartment while she’s away to be a little improbable, but I was willing to let that slide. I mean, it made for a good story and a good connection, even if it was a little awkward in the end.

Although I enjoyed the story, I felt like some of the story lines were cut short, especially the historical story line. I’m not sure if Davis just wanted to leave us hanging—because there is a surprise at the end—or if she just wasn’t sure how to fill it all in and make it cohesive. I did feel like there was a little lacking, though, and the book is short enough she could have stood a few more chapters addressing what happened and the actual ending of the story. The surprise at the end was fun, though. I always like a fun twist.

I think this is a fun book, and worth checking out. I’m giving it 3.5 stars because I wish the historical story had been filled out and finished more at the end.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some discussion of sex and drugs, and some language, but I would see it is comparable to others in the genre.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Young Elites - Marie Lu

Summary: Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all. 

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen. 

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: We always hear the story of the hero.  The hero's rise to prominence, the struggles acknowledging their role as hero, the triumph of assuming their role, this is old hat. 

What if, however, our hero was the villain?

I love this exploration of the creation of a villain. Lu has humanized her villain, clearly giving her the ability to choose two paths: one of benevolence or one of revenge, and has crystallized the choices she must make.  Her story asks, how many of us, ever in our lives, have felt like we were being used in a way contrary to how we felt we should behave? How many of us have ever allowed ourselves to choose what may not be the most magnanimous but would certainly make us feel stronger? But the best question left to be answered: how far can one go before one has gone too far?

I'm in agony waiting for my library to get the final book in.  It's been months since the release and they still haven't ordered it.  Argh!

Rating: Four stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Physical abuse of a child by a parent, and allusions to a young teenager being sold into prostitution to settle a debt.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Swarm - Scott Westerfeld

Summary: They thought they’d already faced their toughest fight. But there’s no relaxing for the reunited Zeroes.

These six teens with unique abilities have taken on bank robbers, drug dealers, and mobsters. Now they’re trying to lay low so they can get their new illegal nightclub off the ground.

But the quiet doesn’t last long when two strangers come to town, bringing with them a whole different kind of crowd-based chaos. And hot on their tails is a crowd-power even more dangerous and sinister.

Up against these new enemies, every Zero is under threat. Mob is crippled by the killing-crowd buzz—is she really evil at her core? Flicker is forced to watch the worst things a crowd can do. Crash’s conscience—and her heart—get a workout. Anon and Scam must both put family loyalties on the line for the sake of survival. And Bellwether’s glorious-leader mojo deserts him.

Who’s left to lead the Zeroes into battle against a new, murderous army? (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: One of the benefits of having superpowers--and superpowers friends--is that you can learn from your mistakes. But one of the downsides, your mistakes can be illegal.  They can blur the lines of right and wrong, those lines no one thought would ever be crossed, and if the lines are confused enough, those mistakes can be fatal.

I wasn't a fan of Westerfeld's first book in this series, Zeroes, which surprised me, because I've liked his books before. It surprised me that I decided to pick this up, and I blame it on the reading funk I've found myself in.  It's funny how not being a captive audience to my bed anymore has changed my reading habits.  It's not so easy to read when you're running amok making up for last time! (End Tangent) 

There were elements of Swarm that I liked better than its predecessor, but at the same time, I found myself wondering why I was reading it.  while the story was fairly predictable, (Yes, of course, there may be others like you.  There are six in your small town, why wouldn't there be more? Yes, one of them is a really bad guy.  No, not everyone wants to join your group, and yes, some of you will have similar powers.) there were enough elements of surprise that kept me reading.  Hooked, no. But interested enough not to quit, certainly.

To be honest, the superpower elements of the story weighed me down.  It was the interpersonal relationships between the Zeroes and their families, between the group of Zeroes themselves, that made for a more interesting story.  To be honest, the whole "drama/conflict" part dragged for me. I skimmed most of it, just wanting to get to the parts I cared about.

If you disagree with my original assessment of the first book and loved it, you'll absolutely love this one.  It improves upon the world Westerfeld has built immensely.  I'm not sure if it did enough for me to keep reading the series, but it was an improvement.

Rating: Two stars


For the Sensitive Reader: There is altogether too much talk of sex, with a scene or two that are truly uncomfortable to read.  There's a mass hysteria murder that is disturbing.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality - Elizabeth Eulberg

Summary: A hilarious new novel from Elizabeth Eulberg about taking the wall out of the wallflower so she can bloom.

Don't mess with a girl with a great personality!

Everybody loves Lexi. She's popular, smart, funny...but she's never been one of those girls, the pretty ones who get all the attention from guys. And on top of that, her seven-year-old sister, Mackenzie, is a terror in a tiara, and part of a pageant scene where she gets praised for her beauty (with the help of fake hair and tons of makeup).

Lexi's sick of it. She's sick of being the girl who hears about kisses instead of getting them. She's sick of being ignored by her longtime crush, Logan. She's sick of being taken for granted by her pageant-obsessed mom. And she's sick of having all her family's money wasted on a phony pursuit of perfection.

The time has come for Lexi to step out from the sidelines. Girls without great personalities aren't going to know what hit them. Because Lexi's going to play the beauty game - and she's in it to win it. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: I'm a sucker for a good Pygmalion retelling. Seriously, I always have been. I wore out my grandparents' copy of My Fair Lady from watching it so many times ... it's still one of my very favorite movies. And when you're in the middle of a funk, it's always best to go back to whatever tropes you know will cheer you up.

This is a good spin on the familiar storyline.  Taking the comfortable storyline of Pygmalion and interspersing a bit of Taming of the Shrew makes for a fun and a quick read. Lexi's growth into a young woman who knows her own mind, isn't afraid to speak the truth--even when it will hurt the most, and her dogged pursuit of what she truly wants is a fun journey to take. Yes, there are missteps.  Yes, there are heartbreaks. Yes, there are misunderstood and almost abusive parent types that nearly tore my heart out. But to see the triumphs, small or great, allowed me to fly through this book and simply enjoy the ride.

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: The mother is NOT a good parent and that could be a trigger.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day - John Currence

Summary: From the James Beard Award winner, Top Chef Masterscontestant, and acclaimed author comes this fun, festive, and highly caffeinated ode to the joys and rituals of the Southern breakfast, with 75 recipes inspired by the author's popular restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi.

John Currence is one of the most celebrated and well-loved chefs in the South. Among his string of highly successful restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi, Big Bad Breakfast holds a special place in diners' hearts: It is a gathering place where people from all walks come together to share the most important meal of the day, breakfast. Southerners know how to do breakfast right, and Currence has elevated it to an artform: dishes like Banana-Pecan Coffee Cake, Spicy Boudin and Poached Eggs, and Oyster Pot Pie are comforting, soulful, and packed with real Southern flavor. Big Bad Breakfast is full of delicious recipes that will make the day ahead that much better--not to mention stories of the wonderful characters who fill the restaurant every morning, and a meditation on why the Southern breakfast is one of America's most valuable culinary contributions. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com).

I was given a free copy of this book by bloggingforbooks.com in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: In case you haven’t noticed, I am a sucker for cookbooks. I really love them. They’re so fun—the delicious looking food, the food combinations I’ve never thought of and yet seem so obvious, the endless possibilities! I love reading cookbooks, too. I will often take a cookbook off my [rapidly growing] cookbook shelf and just look through it for something yummy that maybe I’ve missed or forgotten about.

I don’t often read cookbooks from cover to cover—you know, where you read everything the author says. A lot of my cookbooks don’t actually have much writing. I have an eclectic mix of cookbooks from professional authors and chefs and then I also have quite a few of those fun and sometimes weird neighborhood ones that include everything from a surprise new-favorite recipe of carnitas to a jello-salad that I will probably never make but hey, it’s fun to see what people eat, right?

This cookbook is certainly not your neighborhood “everybody put your favorite recipe in it!” fare. Oh no. this cookbook is serious. The chef himself is hilarious. I loved reading what he has to say. He speaks with an air of authority that only someone in his position can—he knows what he’s doing, other people know he knows what he’s doing, and his food is legit. With that comes a fun combination of seasoned knowledge and also unapologetic declarations for how good his food is. I liked this a lot, actually, because I believe him. People obviously respect this man and he’s totally someone that I can tell is as much a part of his restaurants as his food is. The book has a lot of personality, and that’s always fun and a departure from a lot of the cookbooks I’ve read. This is a well thought-out cookbook for sure.

Now for the food. I am no southern food connoisseur. I don’t eat weird things like strange parts of pigs or seafood that still looks like it’s alive. My husband doesn’t eat seafood at all, so go judge him and not me. Anyway, I did shy away from some of the recipes because of that. However, the recipes I did make were seriously delicious. I loved the shrimp and egg enchiladas, and my kids are still asking about the monkey bread that we made. Hint: It’s not your normal monkey bread recipe. Also—and maybe this is another judgy moment here—I learned how to cook eggs really well from this. I don’t consider myself to be a juvenile chef. I cook quite a bit and I can pull off some pretty impressive things. However, after reading this book I have been able to elevate my egg making to something pretty awesome, which is great because I eat an egg for breakfast every day (cue music from Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast” here). Anyway, I think that’s a good measure of a cookbook—not only does it introduce you to fun new recipes, but it elevates the things that you already do. It seems fairly obvious that a professional breakfast chef should teach you how to make awesome eggs. He did.

If you’re into breakfast (who isn’t?!) or breakfast for dinner (me) this is totally your cookbook. I loved the variety of recipes available and I can’t wait to keep trying them.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language in this book.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Mata Hari's Last Dance - Michelle Moran

Summary: From the international bestselling author of Rebel Queen and Nefertiti comes a captivating novel about the infamous Mata Hari, exotic dancer, adored courtesan, and, possibly, relentless spy.

Paris, 1917. The notorious dancer Mata Hari sits in a cold cell awaiting freedom…or death. Alone and despondent, Mata Hari is as confused as the rest of the world about the charges she’s been arrested on: treason leading to the deaths of thousands of French soldiers.

As Mata Hari waits for her fate to be decided, she relays the story of her life to a reporter who is allowed to visit her in prison. Beginning with her carefree childhood, Mata Hari recounts her father’s cruel abandonment of her family as well her calamitous marriage to a military officer. Taken to the island of Java, Mata Hari refuses to be ruled by her abusive husband and instead learns to dance, paving the way to her stardom as Europe’s most infamous dancer.

From exotic Indian temples and glamorous Parisian theatres to stark German barracks in war-torn Europe, international bestselling author Michelle Moran who “expertly balances fact and fiction” (Associated Press) brings to vibrant life the famed world of Mata Hari: dancer, courtesan, and possibly, spy. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.)

Review:  Michelle Moran has become my go-to author for historical fiction.  I have loved most everything I've read of hers.  I love the depth and life she breathes into characters we all know, even if vaguely.  What's more, I really appreciate that her books are clean.

This is not the case with this book. The first section, detailing Mata Hari's rise to fame and fortune, are completely inappropriate and made me uncomfortable. I still regret reading those first few chapters.

In hindsight, I should have known better. This is a woman known for her varied and prolific love life, a woman accused of using her feminine wiles to extract state secrets to sell to the enemy.  You can't develop such a woman without showing what she's willing to do.  Can I claim sleep deprivation for the decision not to skip forward?  

Once I got into the actual story, I could see Moran starting to emerge.  She approaches this story differently than her others, filling in Mata Hari's backstory (the real one, not the fable) in well-placed flashbacks as told her attorney and favorite reporter.  However, this style leaves much to be desired, as only the smallest fragments are included and hardly any depth is able to be achieved.  I wanted to know more of why she chose the life she did. I hoped for a more intense investigation into her purported spy life, as well as a better analysis on why she was accused, sentenced, and executed for her crimes.  Instead, the climax of her life was rushed through so quickly it felt sloppy.

I don't feel like I know anything about who Mata Hari really was, and I left the book feeling dissatisfied. 

Rating: Two stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Sex, sexual situations, affairs ... nope.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Store This, Not That: The Quick and Easy Food Storage Guide - Crystal Godfrey and Debbie Kent

Summary: With so many different food storage products and companies to choose from, trying to find reliable foods that will pass the test of time and not empty your pocketbook can be a serious challenge. Store This, Not that! The Quick and Easy Food Storage Guide changes all that! Food storage experts Crystal Godfrey and Debbie Kent will help you quickly decipher what you should and should not be storing, empowering you with the savvy tricks and insider information it takes to store the correct food, get the best prices, and in the end, make something your family would actually eat. Take control of your future! You deserve the peace preparedness brings and the comfort of knowing you will have enough food to provide for your family--no matter what happens. (Summary and pic from storethisnotthat.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: I don’t know what your New Year’s Resolutions are, but I know a lot of people are including emergency preparedness this year. There is no cause for panic, of course (or is there!?), but there’s nothing wrong with being prepared, right? It seems like there are more and more natural disasters—or at least we hear more about them—and so having a little extra food or toilet paper and other vital supplies is super important. I’ve embraced this as I’ve gotten older. It was one thing for me to suffer and die if there was some kind of horrific disaster, but willfully ignoring that my kids would suffer as well? Not okay. So although I can’t do all of the prep all at once, I can do little parts here and there and for that, this book was super helpful.

I don’t know if you know this, but Latter-day Saints (i.e. Mormons) were told many years ago by their church leaders that they should have a year’s supply of food and supplies—including water—and so ever since then, Mormons have made an art form of food storage. Don’t believe me? Google it. Seriously. When I purchased my house, one of the things I loved the best is that there is a cold storage and a huge storage room just for my food storage! Peeps, this is exciting. You can laugh if you want, but although I haven’t undergone an actual natural disaster (knock on wood) I have gone down to my storage many a time to get stuff for dinner, and I have loved that when we’re buried under snow or not able to go to the store for whatever reason we still have food in the house. Anyway, my personal experience aside, Mormons have meetings about food storage and emergency preparedness, websites devoted to it, stores that specialize in it, etc., etc., etc. I know Mormons aren’t alone in this—there are many people who understand the importance of food storage and emergency preparedness. I bring up the dedication of Latter-day Saints, though, because the women who wrote this book are LDS women who have been living this food storage obsession for years and years and years, and have the fire of being told to gather food storage given to them by a living prophet. So, ya know, they take it seriously.

Friends, this book is awesome. I don’t know if you’ve tried to purchase food storage stuff, or even started with a 72-hour kit, but it can be overwhelming. There are so many questions to address—what should you put in a kit? How much should you have? What does everyone need? What about cost? What about storage? How long can it last? Even just a little thinking about it can be overwhelming. This book takes all the guesswork out of it. There is A LOT of information in it. It doesn’t waste any space—these women know that there is serious food storage and emergency preparedness to discuss and they aren’t afraid to just get to it. Each chapter is jam-packed with as much info as you can handle. I was so impressed with their chapter on 72-hour kits that I went right to Amazon (and they tell you where to buy this stuff, which is also awesome) and started bookmarking stuff that I’m going to buy incrementally, cause let’s be honest, outfitting a family of my size for an entire year is no cheap task.

I learned so much from this book. I was so impressed with it that I had my mom read it and she loved it so much that she wants to buy one for each member of my family and their families (she’s subtle like that). There are things you just don’t know about until someone who is obsessed and very knowledgeable about food storage and emergency preparedness tells you. For instance, did you know that MRE’s are not great to put into a72 hour kit? First of all, they take a ton of water to make, and when you’re pressed for water, that’s no good. Also, they’re designed to, er, stop you up, cause those military guys can’t be going to the bathroom every five seconds out on the field. Plus they’re gross. So consider this—it’s an emergency, you have limited water and resources and maybe can’t cook, and you’re feeding your family something that takes extra water and stops them up? With a possible makeshift bathroom? And maybe you’re on the move to get out of the disaster area? And you don’t have extra water to help all that work itself out? A disaster. I didn’t know this. Instead, there are some [slightly expensive] but very nutritious and healthy food bars (they give several brand options) that you can take with you. They’re good, they’re easy, your family can carry them, and the list goes on. Seriously, I think that when you put together a 72 hour kit this kind of information is golden. It’s not information you want to have to learn while actually living in the disaster. There is tons of information like this throughout the book. It would be foolish to overlook the institutional knowledge of someone who has already done the guesswork for you. No need to worry about researching brands or even prices—they tell you all of it. It saves you literally years of research and gives you the know-how of people seasoned in their craft.

I highly recommend this book. I think it’s amazing. It really has taken the guesswork and drama out of my emergency preparedness. Now, mind you, I haven’t gotten super far, but I am working on it and I love that I now know the specifics—the brands, the amounts, everything—of what I need to do. I don’t need to do the research, they’ve done it. Now I can spend my time and resources just accumulating what I need. Now that, my friends, is peace of mind.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is an informational book and is clean.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Reading Ruts: What to Do When the New Year has Left You in a Rut

Reading ruts.  They're the pits, aren't they? Whether they've lasted for an afternoon, for days, or for weeks ... or if you haven't read a book since Senior Year's final English semester, I have never met anyone who hasn't fallen into a rut at least once. I, for one, hate ruts.  It's silly, but I feel like it's a personal affront when my heart decides reading isn't the best use of my time. My reading time is sacred, dagnabit! So how do you cure that rut? I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and wanted to share a few ideas with you.
Thanks to bookriot.com for the image
  • GO BACK TO WHAT YOU KNOW. Even if you're not the kind of person who enjoys rereading a book (*gasp), everyone has a favorite book or a favorite genre that is as comfortable to them as a perfect pair of yoga pants. Whether it be a 57th readthrough of Twilight, Harry Potter, or The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, if it's been a favorite of yours for years, it'll most likely still be a favorite. Why does it work?  Rereading books always makes me see things in a new light.  I notice pieces of the plot and clues I didn't before. It gets my creative juices flowing enough that it reminds me why I love reading.
  • TAKE A LITTLE BREAK. Sometimes, even rereading your favorites isn't enough. And, you know what? It's okay to find something else that helps you chill. Find a good season on Netflix, plant in your garden, go for a walk.  Try a podcast. I tell my fitness classes all the time how important a rest day is every once in a while.  Not seven in one week, but in fitness, if you want to get stronger, you have to allow your muscles a chance to recover.  You need to allow the same flexibility with your creative mind as well.  Sometimes, a LITTLE break is the best -- but don't you dare make it a permanent one!
  • FIND A NEW SERIES. This is why I like YA and MG literature so much. Series that may not be super deep, amazing, will-be-around-centuries-from-now classics in the making have their place, and sometimes that place is getting you out of a rut! I like Rick Riordan's books because they're fun, they're relatable, but also, I know one or two will come out a year. I always have something coming up I can look forward to reading. Prolific authors aren't always good authors, so this tip comes with a warning: Make sure you're choosing a series you're willing to stick with. I've read single books by authors that blow me away with their depth, intelligence, and heart, only to find that the same authors' series are terrible. Goodreads is great at emailing a list of new books by authors I've read, and I find myself really looking forward to that email monthly.  I immediately start requesting books I'm dying to read, adding ones I'm interested in to my To Read list, and that little spark of excitement can sometimes break through a rut all on its own.
  • ALLOW YOURSELF TO REMEMBER WHY YOU LOVE BOOKS. Is it the smell? The heft? The ease of reading? Try an audiobook. Are you open to an electronic book? What if you find a format that is more amenable to your lifestyle? Allow yourself the opportunity to explore. (Also, take yourself on a date to a bookstore.  Used or new, enjoy as much time as you can browsing the shelves.) Also, sometimes just the act of buying a book you've been dying to read can break through your rut!

I know there are so many other ways to conquer this particular pest. Whatever your find works best for you, let us know, and enjoy your newfound passion for reading!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!!

Happy 2017!!  Our look back at our Best Books of 2016 is coming soon - but for now, what are your goals for 2017?  Any book or reading related ones? Writing? 

Have an amazing year!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Truly Madly Guilty - Liane Moriarty

Summary: Six responsible adults. Three cute kids. One small dog. It’s just a normal weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

Sam and Clementine have a wonderful, albeit, busy life: they have two little girls, Sam has just started a new dream job, and Clementine, a cellist, is busy preparing for the audition of a lifetime. If there’s anything they can count on, it’s each other.

Clementine and Erika are each other’s oldest friends. A single look between them can convey an entire conversation. But theirs is a complicated relationship, so when Erika mentions a last minute invitation to a barbecue with her neighbors, Tiffany and Vid, Clementine and Sam don’t hesitate. Having Tiffany and Vid’s larger than life personalities there will be a welcome respite.

Two months later, it won’t stop raining, and Clementine and Sam can’t stop asking themselves the question: What if we hadn’t gone?

In Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty takes on the foundations of our lives: marriage, sex, parenthood, and friendship. She shows how guilt can expose the fault lines in the most seemingly strong relationships, how what we don’t say can be more powerful than what we do, and how sometimes it is the most innocent of moments that can do the greatest harm. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: Have you ever finished a book and sighed with contentment?  What about slammed a book shut, furious at the ending? How about gently closing it because you're crying too hard to do anything else?  Okay, how's this one - confusedly shut the book, cock your head to the side, and think "Huh ...".  Bingo.

I'm still confused about my feelings for this book. I liked it. I like all of Moriarty's books. She knows how to write Mom-Lit so well! And I still think back to her skill with Big Little Lies and can't help but marvel how amazingly well she constructed it. But this isn't Big Little Lies.

Let's start from the very end. Characters who should never cross paths are perfectly connected, not into a forced connection, but so organically it works. The characters are all flawed, as well as deep. They all have stories needing to be told, even if those stories are a little trite.  Their relationships are complex, they ebb and flow, and they, as her other books, are why I enjoy her writing so much.  But the storyline? It wasn't my favorite. The characters felt a little too flawed.  Their conflict felt all-too-real and yet so terribly foreign. I just couldn't identify with this novel as well as I could with the others she's written. Their choices, their immaturities, I kept wanting to shake the book and shout "USE YOUR WORDS!!" at them, in the hopes they'd grow up a bit and start to behave.

Oddly enough, I've never been able to get characters in other people's books to behave the way they should. (Otherwise, Harry and Hermione would be happily married in the epilogue of The Deathly Hallows.) I'm left with this slightly frustrated feeling of a story slightly off.  (That being said, there's one resolution I absolutely love.)

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: One of the characters is a former stripper and takes joy in being a little too sensual.  It's a main theme.



Monday, December 26, 2016

The Empress of Bright Moon: A Novel of Empress Wu - Weina Dai Randel

Summary: In the captivating sequel to The Moon in the Palace, Mei must protect her people from a murderous empress

The second book in this stunning duology, The Empress of Bright Moon follows Mei as she struggles for power within the Emperor's palace, risking her life to dethrone the murderous Empress and establish herself as the new female ruler of China.

After Mei's lover, Pheasant, is crowned Emperor, a power struggle erupts between Mei and Pheasant's wife, Empress Wang. Both women are desperate to secure their name and rank. But when Empress Wang takes their feud to a new level by murdering Mei's supporters, Mei realizes that she must defeat the bloodthirsty Empress—not only to save herself, but also to protect her country.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: Ever since reading the first book in this duo, The Moon in the Palace, I’ve been looking forward to reading this installment. Empress Wu is a fascinating person and this book does a great job of discussing her life. The first one definitely left me excited for what was happening next.

The first book had a few writing issues that I discussed in my review, mostly, I think, due to inexperience on the author’s part. I am happy to report that I think those issues were resolved in this book. The writing was much smoother and less choppy. The dialogue also flowed a lot better, and while I found the dialogue to be distracting in the last novel, it really added to the story in this installment. There was quite a bit of dialogue, actually, and I think that it was actually one of the strong points in this installment. Although this is historical fiction novel, because it is based on the life of Empress Wu and Chinese court life, there is a lot of intrigue and involvement between the different characters and so the dialogue was important. Also, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Chinese court life. The author did a great job of making it come alive and bringing out the intrigue and drama that surrounded the time period.

The story itself was quite tragic, and it is one of those times when it seems apropos to bring out to the old adage “You can’t make this stuff up” or “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Although the author does admit that amidst her vast research she did have to take some liberties of her own, I think the liberties she has taken make sense and add to the story. It’s always hard to recreate the past, especially when things were so different then and the culture is so vastly different, but it is obvious that with the research done that this book is a good description of Empress Wu’s life. Because of the nature of historical documentation and the obvious favoritism that has gone to men and reporting their goings on throughout history, women like Empress Wu serve as a great reminder that men are not the only ones who shaped the world and culture as it is today. These books do a great job of documenting her early life, and even if some of it is conjecture due to the limited comparative resources available, it is enlightening to read about such a woman as Empress Wu and how she came to power in a man’s world.

If you are interested in ancient Chinese culture and especially the life and dynasty of Empress Wu, I really enjoyed these books and would recommend them. They are interesting, intriguing, and really bring to life the dynasty of a very powerful woman who ruled in the ancient world.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and violence, even against women and children. This was not gratuitous, but definitely tragic in its truth. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas from Reading for Sanity



We would love to wish you a very merry Christmas, full of peace, love, and books!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Letters from Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien

SummaryEvery December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or some sketches. 

The letters were from Father Christmas.

They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone North Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house.

Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humor to the stories.

This updated version contains a wealth of new material, including letters and pictures missing from early editions. No reader, young or old, can fail to be charmed by the inventiveness and "authenticity" of J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.)


Review: I am NOT a fan of Tolkien.  I never have been, I don't like the Lord of the Rings series, I can barely stomach The Hobbit, so can someone explain to me why I am SO enchanted with this book?

Perhaps it's the obvious love that Tolkien poured into the letters for his children.  Perhaps it's the handwriting that is so perfectly Father Christmas.  It could be the drawings (the gorgeous drawings), the hilarious characters, or the depth in which Tolkien so succinctly infused the stories he told. Whatever it is, this is by far my favorite example of Tolkien's work. Ever. 

This is a book best left for parents looking to capture some Christmas Spirit.  Some of the letters, penned leading up to and during World War II, are slightly darker than I had expected, detailing a ferocious war with the Goblins. However, they're also fairly realistic for a time where all children knew was war and uncertainty.  However, the telling of the stories, is what absolutely amazed me.  These are the letters penned by Tolkien from Father Christmas.  He has adopted an entirely new way of writing, switching from the hand of Father Christmas (shaky and ornate) to the paw of the Polar Bear (blocky and thick), to the scrawl of the Secretary Elf.  The drawings are gorgeous -- I never knew he was an artist!

I really did love my reading of this book and mourned having to return it to the library.  This one may be going on my Christmas list!

Rating: Five Stars


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story - S.D. Nelson

Summary: His stomach rumbling, Coyote approaches a house on Christmas Eve hoping to trick the family there out of a hot meal by dressing as Santa Claus, but Sister Raven sees the strange events and plays a wonderful trick of her own. (summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: I am an avid fan and collector of Coyote stories.  Coyote is always up to no good--he's the perfect example of how not to be, (though he sometimes also helps people, bringing fire or death or the pattern of the stars).  He can be wise, though much prefers to be tricky, and is often caught up in his own mischievousness, his tricks turning on him.  Coyote is one of those ancient figures who is always the same, never learns from his own mistakes and carries on making a fool of himself over and over.

I've loved this story since I was given a copy for Christmas several years back.  It's a fun twist on the old Coyote tales, as it takes place in a modern setting.  But Coyote is the same Coyote he always is, which lends to the familiarity of his character to those who have followed his exploits.  Thinking he'll get a a free meal by dressing as Santa (and he does), Coyote ends up with more than he bargained for when Raven (also a fellow trickster figure) adds her own brand of mischief, which, while for Coyote turns him on his tail, is a blessing for the little Lakota family he visits, and lends a warm Christmas spirit to the overall story.

Even if you're not familiar with Coyote, this is a fun story for anyone, and kids particularly like a good fellow mischief maker.  The art is lovely, and very expressive, helping to lead this warm and silly story along.


My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Just filled with silly antics.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Peppe the Lamplighter - Elisa Bartone

Summary: In the tradition of Lois Lowry and Paul Fleischman, Elisa Bartone's Caldecott Honor-winning book gives children a glimpse into American history and the immigrant experience.

This is the story of Peppe, who becomes a lamplighter to help support his immigrant family in turn-of-the-century New York City, despite his papa's disapproval. Peppe's family is very poor, and though he is just a boy he needs to find work. Being a lamplighter is not the job his father had dreamed of for Peppe, but when Peppe's job helps save his little sister, he earns the respect of his entire family. (Summary and image from goodreads.com).

Review: This isn't a traditional Christmas story, and yet, it's my husband's favorite.  He loves the simplicity, the pictures are stunning, and the story, although simple, is beautiful. 

Peppe is an Italian-American boy who is struggling to help his family.  With no work to be found, he is thrilled when he's asked to light the lamps for a time.  His father, ashamed of such menial work, doesn't know how to relate, and allows his feelings shame Peppe into inaction.

While the story isn't traditionally Christmasy, I understand why my husband loves it so much.  At its heart, this is a story of perseverance.  It's about doing what is needed, even when it may not be the most glamorous job.  It's about thinking of others, serving them, and helping them find hope and joy, even when you yourself are in need.  At the end, it shows that it's through those acts of service we find hope and joy.

Rating: Five stars

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Small One: A Story for Those Who Like Christmas and Small Donkeys - Charles Tazewell

Summary: This is the story of a small boy who found out quite by chance why donkeys are not really stubborn, as people say, but proud, because one donkey long ago was chosen to go with Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem. Countless thousands who have heard this beautiful story over the radio will find in it the perfect remembrance. (Summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: The Small One is a story I have loved since childhood, though I only realized it was a book several years ago.  I discovered it through the half hour Disney animation, which I would watch every Christmas.  (On a side note, if you are able to locate and watch this gem, please do, it's a unique choice for a Disney short, and loyal to the heart of the book.)

I love stories about friendship, and this one is a strong example.  A little boy is determined to give his best friend, an old donkey named Small One, a good home despite his father's wishes to sell the animal to the tanner for his hide.  The boy works diligently all day in the city, and is constantly rebuffed, mocked, and pushed aside, despite the boy's pleas that his Small One is fit to be in a king's stable. 

The story is a simple one, but in that simpleness is a very sincere and warm sweetness, and a unique view of the Christmas nativity story. Donkeys, as the storyteller explains, have already fulfilled their purpose by carrying Mary into Bethlehem.  They know who they are and the special calling one of their own had.  This is a perfect story for any animal lover, and anyone who wants a gentle tale about friendship and kindness.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Nothing offensive.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas - Melanie Watt


Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas: A Safety Guide for ScarediesSummary:  Holiday Greetings!  Here's my Christmas guide, in a nutshell.  


'Tis the season for worrying, planning, decorating, buying, wrapping, party entertaining, caroling and fruitcake re-gifting!!!

Therefore I, Scaredy Squirrel, have put together a collection of helpful safety tips and step-by-step instructions to guide you through common holiday obstacles such as avalanches, shopping for difficult individuals and encountering the Abominable Snowman.  (Image from Barns and Noble and summary from back of the book.)

My Review:  "WARNING! Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone put on mittens before reading this Safety Guide!"  If' you've read anything by Scaredy Squirrel, this quote sums up all of his books.

I have a daughter with anxiety.  She relates to Scaredy Squirrel and can laugh at herself through his books.  Christmas is a big holiday--there are so many things to worry about.  So many things that everyone expects to be done correctly.  And there's always at least one thing that will inevitably go wrong.  Don't you fear; Scaredy Squirrel has you covered. It's set up in chapters, but it's a very fast read with lots of pictures.  Need to explain Santa?  It's in there.  Need ideas for all kinds of people?  Scaredy Squirrel has 15 types of people with 3 ideas each.  Need help dressing for a holiday occasion?  That's in there too.  And my favorite: "If all else fails, play dead!"

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Sum it up:  Got an anxious kid?  This is worth the $$ to prepare for the holidays.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Redwall Winter's Tale - Brian Jacques

Summary: A troupe of traveling players have promised the Redwallers an evening of entertainment in exchange for a grand feast. Late at night after the festivities have ended, Mighty Bulbrock Badger sends the little ones off to sleep with the tale of the giant Snow Badger who comes on the first night of winter, bringing snow across the land. The grown-up Redwallers chuckle at the fanciful tale, but is it only a tale? Bungo the mole-babe isn't so sure, and is determined to stay awake and find out! (Summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: This is a delightful little story from the world of Redwall, complete with adorable illustrations.  Set after the time frame of the original Redwall book, we get a fun winter story filled with the usual Jacques wit and charm, along with fun poems and a classic Jacques riddle that you can try and solve.

Anyone who loves Jacques' work will enjoy this little holiday tale.  There's no threat from vermin in this book, it's just a simple story of wintertime and believing.  I love the character of Bungo, a little Dibbun (toddler) who not only gets into plenty of mischief, but is also lucky enough to get a special visit from the Snow Badger himself.

The illustrations as mentioned before are wonderful.  They're full of life, and the characters from the smallest mouse to the enormous badgers look so cuddly, warm and friendly.  There's a magical aura that the art lends to this charming little story.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: nothing objectionable (unless you count silly little Dibbuns chucking snowballs at everybeast).

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book - Chris McVeigh

Summary: This Christmas, LEGO is moving from under the tree to on the tree! With The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book as your guide, you'll make classic globe and barrel ornaments, all out of LEGO, as well as original gingerbread houses, a merry Santa, arcade cabinets, and many more.

Packed with step-by-step instructions for 15 charming builds, The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book is the perfect family activity this holiday season. Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Are you a Lego house?  This is something I've learned parenting boys - you're either a Lego house or you're not.  If you are, you're a Lego House for life.  And by life, I mean I think my mom still finds random Legos hiding in the carpet, and she's a grandmother.

We're a Lego House. The obsession started young with my oldest and has carried right on through to all of them.  As a Lego House, it's important for me for my kids to think of fun, inventive ways to use their Legos aside from the kits they came assigned to.  Enter: The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book. This is the coolest book ever. My kids (even the slightly-less-obsessed girl) fought over who got to build what, who got to read the instructions, and who got to keep it in their room.  

The instructions are easy to follow and are illustrated in exactly the same way as the actual Lego instructions you get in the kits. Scratch that, I found them easier.  Some of those color choices are impossible to decipher for my old eyes, and I didn't doubt one piece!

If you're shopping for a Lego House this season, this is a great gift to pass on to your Lego obsessed tykes.  (I won't even judge if you give it to the tykes' Lego obsessed aunts and uncles!)

Rating: Five stars 

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