Friday, June 1, 2018

Reading For Sanity's Newest Book Club Recommendations (or Summer Reads)

It's summertime folks, and you know what that means.  It's time for the ladies at RFS to hang a proverbial sign on the door and soak up the sun with their families.  Now, don't cry.  We'll miss you too.  Besides, you didn't think we'd leave for the summer without giving you a little something to remember us by, did you?

Here's our newest list of 
Book Club recommendations, 
in no particular order!  
Click the title (not the cover) to read our review! 

The Woman in the Window - A.J. Finn

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

Caraval - Stephanie Garber

The Passion of Dolssa - Julie Berry

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

Educated: A Memoir - Tara Westover

Leadership & Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box - The Arbinger Institute

The Martian - Andy Weir
(Read and recommended in the classroom edition, but not reviewed by RFS)

Wonder - R.J. Palacio

Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquivel
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

The Hundred-Foot Journey - Richard C. Morais
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

The Two-Family House - Lynda Cohen Loigman

The Boys in the Boat - Daniel James Brown

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce

Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth Wein

The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln - Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Princess Bride - William Goldman
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

The Hunger Games series - Suzanne Collins
(Yes.  All of it.  Here are our reviews of #1 #2 and #3)

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine,
and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain

The War that Saved my Life - Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

The Orphan Keeper - Camron Wright

The Rent Collector - Camron Wright
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier

 Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

 Me Before You - Jojo Moyes
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

Dracula - Bram Stoker
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint Exupery
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

The Inquisitor's Tale - Adam Gidwitz
(Read and recommended, but not reviewed by RFS)

Boxers & Saints - Gene Luen Yang

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian -Sherman Alexie

Now...take this list and run with it.  

Have a great summer and HAPPY READING!  
We'll see you back here on September 1st!

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones

Summary: Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together. (Summary and pic from

My Review: This is one of those books that, though I’m giving it a very high rating, I didn’t love. I appreciated the story—it’s heartbreaking, really, and it’s so messy and painful that you can’t help but feel connected. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that these two live a very different life from me and experience things that I will never experience because they are African-American. I will never be able to understand what that’s like, and so I appreciated that I felt like I was given an insight into what it’s like to have to navigate race relations as an African-American in the country today. We’ve come a long way from the beginning, no doubt, but there’s still a long way to go. I appreciated that this book addressed those issues. Celestial and Roy, the two main characters, are living the life in the new South, where things are different but also the same in some ways. It’s hard not to be frustrated about this while reading An American Marriage.

The book is very well-written. I love books that do a good job with changing perspectives each chapter, and this is one of those books. I feel like I am able to connect to the characters when this is well done, and the advantage of seeing the story from different characters is that you have a more holistic view. In a book like this, where it’s very much a he-said she-said kind of story, and where there are complicated relationships going on, I appreciated being able to understand first-hand what each character was thinking.

I also enjoyed the storytelling in this book. I found the story to be very compelling and also realistic, which is part of what made it so painful and heartbreaking. This felt like something that could really happen, and on some levels, happens all the time. I appreciated the layers of relationships and depth of the story; Jones did an incredible job of creating a very complex and varied atmosphere that was equally simplistic in its summary but also very detailed and almost impossible to describe. Because of this, it felt very realistic but this is why I alternatively really enjoyed it but also didn’t really like it.

I’m really glad I read this book. I found it insightful, interesting, and well-written. I definitely understand why it has gotten the accolades it has gotten. I will for sure recommend it to people who are looking for something complex and interesting to read. Will I recommend it to gum-popping teenagers or Christian romance reading women? Probably not. I won’t give away the ending but it really doesn’t matter—this story is deep and hard and raw. I will definitely recommend it to my more thoughtful reading friends, especially those who appreciate how stories can be heartbreaking but also very rewarding and worthwhile.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some language, a vague discussion of rape, and vague discussions of sex. It is on par with other books in the genre.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Book of Polly - Kathy Hepinstall

Summary:  Willow Havens is ten years old and obsessed with the fear that her mother will die.  Her mother, Polly is a cantankerous, take-no-prisoners Southern woman who lives to chase varmints, drink margaritas, and antagonize the neighbors -- and she sticks out like a sore thumb among the young modern mothers of their small conventional Texas town.  She was in her late fifties when Willow was born, so Willow knows she's here by accident, a late-in-life afterthought.  Willow's father died young, and her much older brother and sister are long grown and gone and failing elsewhere.  It's just her and bigger-than-life Polly.

Willow is desperately hungry for clues to the family life that preceded her, and especially Polly's life, pre-Willow.  Why did she leave her hometown of Bethel, Louisiana, fifty years ago and vow never to return?  Who is Garland Jones, her long-ago suitor who possibly killed a man?  And will Polly be able to outrun the Bear, the illness that finally puts her on a collision course with her past?

The Book of Polly has a kick like the best hot sauce, and a great blend of  humor and sadness, pathos and hilarity.  This is a bittersweet novel about the grip of love in a truly quirky family, and you'll come to know one of the most unforgettable mother-daughter duos you've ever met.  (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:  For those of you who might have been waiting for this review, I'm sorry that it took me so long to get it down on proverbial paper. Sometimes life gets in the way of reading, and it took me nearly three weeks to get through the first half of The Book of Polly.  It's not that I didn't want to read it.  I did.  After all, Kathy Hepinstall is one of my favorite authors. But *sigh* life. So, I read when I could, venturing sporadically into the world of a first precocious, then fiery, young Willow, her equally ornery mother, Polly, and a stunningly odd cast of characters.  Each visit brought unexpected adventures.

Polly is a delightfully sassy southern mama, willing to be all and beat all for her headstrong daughter, though unwilling to relinquish even a small morsel of information about her past.  Her reticence only encourages her daughter, Willow, to become increasingly creative and sneaky in her search for information.  Polly wages war on the weeds, the varmints attempting to raid her garden, the devious neighbor children who sneak in to pee on her plants, and buries her secrets even deeper.  Willow is increasingly worried about her aging mother's health and with good reason.  The Bear is back, an creeping stealthily into her mother's bones.

And now we come to today, as I sat down with nearly half the book left and read it a under two hours.  While this book can be read and enjoyed in fits and bursts, I definitely recommend it as captivating binge-read, if your schedule at all permits.  I won't go into too much that happens in the latter half of the book except to say that journeys are taken, secrets revealed, punches thrown, and twists abound, all delivered with the bittersweet, southern flair that Hepinstall manages to nail. every. time.  While I can't recommend this book to every reader (see sensitive reader), I did enjoy it myself and desperately wish I had a Polly (and Willow and Rhea and Dalton and Garland) of my own.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a fair amount of swearing in this book that make it impossible for me to recommend to my sensitive reader friends.  There is a briefly mentioned, non-descript sexual assault of a young girl and an non-descript attempted kidnapping of an older girl.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Boxers & Saints - Gene Luen Yang

Summary: One of the greatest comics storytellers alive brings all his formidable talents to bear in this astonishing new work.

In two volumes, Boxers & Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

Boxers & Saints is one of the most ambitious graphic novels First Second has ever published. It offers a penetrating insight into not only one of the most controversial episodes of modern Chinese history, but into the very core of our human nature. Gene Luen Yang is rightly called a master of the comics form, and this book will cement that reputation. (Summary and picture from

My Review: The really awesome thing about Boxers & Saints is that it is two separate graphic novels, but they work together as companion pieces.  The main characters in each book make an appearance in the other.  You could easily read one or the other and have a complete story.

Or rather, you actually won't.  

Because what I really, REALLY love about Boxers & Saints, is that there's always another side to every story.

You start with Boxers.  The Boxer Rebellion took place in the late 1800s, when groups of vigilante Chinese people rose up against foreigners, opposing western colonization and religion.  We follow Little Bao, a boy who has seen the darker side of this colonization, how these foreigners (whom they call devils) destroy China's beloved gods, change their culture, and harm their people.  

Then you have Saints, where you follow Four-Girl (later Vibiana) as she converts to Christianity (at first believing she can become a 'true devil' as she believes is her destiny, which is a humorous, if not also heartbreaking, sidestory), with visions of Joan of Arc to help her as she discovers her true path.

Read either one alone, you have a straightforward story.  Read both, you have understanding.

What Yang has been able to so successfully accomplish with Boxers & Saints, is seeing how one side affects the other.  How the Boxers see the conflict vs how the Christians see it.  They both have (what they believe to be) good reasons for their actions.  Yang is able to humanize both sides by following a main character in each that we can root for and love, even despite the horrible things they might do.  While fictional, they become real people that allow us to see into a real conflict that took place.

And that's another thing I love about stories like this--they open your eyes.  Stories in general are a way for us to see and learn things we may not be familiar with, but stories like this, that adequately show both sides, each of which could be equally villainized, teach us that we shouldn't always jump to conclusions, that we should examine everything before we make judgement or condemnation.

The art of both novels is simple, but also defining, and I love the use of color in each volume.  In Boxers, there are bright colors, especially when the ancient gods come, while in Saints, the color palate is more muted, with golds as our highlights.

Where this could easily become a dark, dreary story of bloodshed and hate, Yang is skillfully able to intersperse humor and light into both stories, which is needed and enjoyable, but does not lessen the harsh truths these tales need to tell. 

My Rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: this is the story of a rebellion, a war.  In Boxers particularly there is much bloodshed (many innocent people included) and some minor language and adult talk, though nothing too graphic.  I'd recommend it for an older child audience, though if read with a parent or adult, it would be good to introduce the concept of seeing both sides of a situation for a younger audience.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Need to Know - Karen Cleveland

Summary: In pursuit of a Russian sleeper cell on American soil, a CIA analyst uncovers a dangerous secret that will test her loyalty to the agency—and to her family.

What do you do when everything you trust might be a lie?

Vivian Miller is a dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst assigned to uncover the leaders of Russian sleeper cells in the United States. On track for a much-needed promotion, she’s developed a system for identifying Russian agents, seemingly normal people living in plain sight.

After accessing the computer of a potential Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents within America’s borders. A few clicks later, everything that matters to her—her job, her husband, even her four children—are threatened.

Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But now she’s facing impossible choices. Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust? (Summary and pic from

My Review: I feel like I would be doing a disservice to our readers if I didn’t warn you about this book. Here are a few things you should know before you start.
1.       Do not start reading this with the intention of only picking it up every now and then.
2.       Do not start reading this in the middle of the night or right before you go to bed.
3.       Do not start reading this with the idea that you’re just taking a break from your normally scheduled life for a few minutes, and then return to whatever you were doing.

Why do I tell you this, dear readers? Because you WILL NOT be able to put it down when needed. You can’t trust yourself to do it, I promise. Now for another list of rules to help you on your reading way with this book.
1.       It moves quickly. One chapter will not suffice. Don’t think that you’ll just be able to read one chapter and move along. The chapters are too short for this. They capture you unfairly. One leads to another. Don’t trust the “I’ll stop at the end of the chapter” lie.
2.       You will relate to the woman. She will be talking in your head just as if she were you talking in your head and all of a sudden it’s hard to detach from her life to your life. My life is nothing like her life and yet I was all “But what if my husband is a Russian spy?!” until I snapped myself out of it. My husband is not a Russian spy…I’m assuming. I mean, right?
3.       You will think you won’t be surprised by this book, and then you are. And then you aren’t. And then you can’t trust anyone. It doesn’t matter either way if you are surprised or not. It’s just fun anyway, regardless.

And so I assure you, dear readers, that if you are looking for something fast-paced, something heart-pounding and something really fun, this is your book. There were times when I actually couldn’t read it because I was afraid of what was going to happen. The characters mattered to me. I’m not saying it was literary brilliance or that I’m going to live my upcoming life emotionally attached to them, but boy oh boy did I enjoy that very short period of time I spent with them. In fact, I’d love a sequel, but I don’t know that that’s going to happen. Also, I need to get stuff done every now and then (more than that, let’s be real), and this book does not allow for the kind of genteel reading that comes from just 15 minutes while you’re falling asleep at night. No. This book demands your attention until it’s done, and it toys with your emotions and allegiances just like a good book should.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language in this book, and some light suggestion of sex between married people.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Daughter of the Pirate King - Tricia Levenseller

We hope you enjoy Mindy's review.  You can also read Ashley's review of the same book here.

SummaryThere will be plenty of time for me to beat him soundly once I've gotten what I came for.

Sent on a mission to retrieve an ancient hidden map -- the key to a legendary treasure trove --seventeen-year-old pirate captain Alosa deliberately allows herself to be captured by her enemies, giving her the perfect opportunity to search their ship.

More than a match for the ruthless pirate crew, Alosa has only one thing standing between her and the map: her captor, the unexpectedly clever and unfairly attractive first mate Riden.  But not to worry, for Alosa has a few tricks up her sleeve, and no lone pirate can stop the Daughter of the Pirate King.  (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:  A bookish friend of mine raved about this book (and its sequel) on Facebook, and so I clicked the good ole' request button at the library without further ado.  What can I say?  I live dangerously.  It's actually probably a good thing that I didn't see the book before I picked it up at the library, because, at first glance, this book isn't that impressive.  It was published by an offshoot of the Macmillan group, but, to be quite frank, the cover looks a little self-published -- very I-just-learned-how-to-use-Photoshop-Elements, if you will.  Still, it came highly recommended and so I gave it a go.

Daughter of the Pirate King is what it is -- a lighthearted, piratical adventure on the high seas.  It's not particularly complex and almost entirely dialogue driven, but has plenty of the sort of swashbuckling action you'd expect in a book about pirates and some steamy tension between two of the main characters. Though I don't really like her name, Alosa is a strong female lead in every sense of the word.  She kicks butt, cracks heads, slits a few throats, and doesn't let people push her around (unless it serves a purpose).  She's also sassy and smart, which makes for some interesting repartee with her would-be captors, and one pirate in particular.  Alosa knows what she wants, and has no problem knocking a man out and strip searching him, if necessary.  Her otherworldly knack for getting men to do exactly what she wants, comes into play the further you get into the book, with interesting results.

As this kind of book goes, I don't mind that it was an easy read, and I enjoyed the story, but I did feel that by focusing almost entirely on dialogue, the author missed the opportunity to set the stage.  I wanted to hear about the boat, the ocean, the salt air, the islands, the disgusting food, etc.  Done well, a little description here and there would have dramatically enhanced the story without detracting from the action or characters.  Just my two cents.  Honestly, the romance was tame for a more modern YA romance, but it was still a little more than I wanted to hand my 14-year-old daughter.  You'll have to read it and be the judge for yourself. 

Other than that, I don't have much critical feedback to give.  I normally take notes when I read a book, in case a thought pops up that I'd like to share with you, but I read this one on Mother's Day and just wanted to relax and read something fun without worrying about much else.  Daughter of the Pirate King pretty much fit the bill.  I probably won't read it again, but I will most likely read the sequel, Daughter of the Siren Queen, a title which (if you're paying attention) gives you a little extra insight into this book.

My Rating:  3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Some swearing, some nearly-sexual situations (mild and not particularly descriptive), and plenty of violence.  Because, hello?  Pirates.  Oh, and one particular pirate, who features very little, fancies men.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Circus Mirandus - Cassie Beasley

Summary: Do you believe in magic?

Micah Tuttle does.

Even though his awful Great-Aunt Gertrudis doesn’t approve, Micah believes in the stories his dying Grandpa Ephraim tells him of the magical Circus Mirandus: the invisible tiger guarding the gates, the beautiful flying birdwoman, and the magician more powerful than any other—the Man Who Bends Light. Finally, Grandpa Ephraim offers proof. The Circus is real. And the Lightbender owes Ephraim a miracle. With his friend Jenny Mendoza in tow, Micah sets out to find the Circus and the man he believes will save his grandfather.

The only problem is, the Lightbender doesn't want to keep his promise. And now it's up to Micah to get the miracle he came for. (picture and synopsis from

My Review: I like to pick children's books when it comes to hosting book club, because I feel there is a lot to be gained from literature for young readers.  I'm not saying that all books written for kids are stellar, but in general, the standards are fairly high.  If you know me, I rarely read books for grown ups and tend to stick with kids' fare, and here might be why.


Books for young readers often have magical elements, and not just just the wand waving kind.  Kids are much more in tune with their imaginations and innocence, so even a children's book about every day life still has that sense of wonder and awe that I feel is often missing in books for adults.

Circus Mirandus was a lot of fun.  But it also deals with serious issues.  That's another thing I love about kids' books--they are not afraid to tackle pretty harsh topics.  In the case of this book, Micah's grandfather Ephraim is very ill, verging on death.  When Micah's great aunt comes to watch over them both, she is particularly cruel to him.  But Micah's belief in the stories of his grandfather's visit to the legendary Circus Mirandus keep him going, and that is what I love so much.  That the stories and magic help them both to survive.

The book often flashes back to when Grandpa Ephraim was a young boy and first discovered the Circus Mirandus.  It was during the war, in which his father was fighting.  By going to the circus, by taking part in the fantasies the Lightbender crafted for him, Ephraim was better able to cope with his current circumstances, even though those didn't change.  Some people (i.e. Aunt Gertrudis in this book) look down on magic and stories as false lies that hinder us.  When, in reality, stories and magic are the things that help us live.  They might not be true, but the things we learn from them are.

The big part of magic in this book deals with finding the magic within oneself, and how you use that magic, whether selfish or selfless, of which we see both sides and the implications that follow.  There's also the fact that not everyone has the same access/belief in magic.  One of the quotes in the book touches on the fact that you need to let people go to find magic on their own.  Micah's friend Jenny has a very analytical, scientific mind, so magic is a foreign thing, hard for her to grasp or understand, and at first, Micah fights to make her believe what he does.  But he comes to terms that she sees the world differently, and he allows her to see magic in her scientific way, which works for her.  Likewise, Jenny is willing to believe in Micah even when they're looking at the same magical thing but seeing it differently.  I think that's very powerful, we cannot force others to see/believe what they cannot yet grasp.

While on the surface a tale about a magical circus and a boy's fight to save his grandfather, this story is much deeper, hinging on how magic and stories can mold and shape us, and help us become.

My rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: A great majority of this book deals with Micah coming to terms with his grandfather's coming death.  This could be a trigger point for some.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Motherhood Comes Naturally (And Other Vicious Lies) - Jill Smokler

Summary:  Newly pregnant and scared out of her mind, Jill Smokler lay on her gynecologist's examination table and was told the biggest lie she'd ever heard in her life: "Motherhood is the most natural thing in the world."  Instead of quelling her nerves like that well-intentioned nurse hoped, Jill was instead set up for a future of questioning exactly what DNA strand she was missing that made the whole motherhood experience feel lies than natural to her.  Wonderful?  Yes.  Miraculous? Of course.  Worthwhile?  Without a doubt.  But natural?  No so much.

Jill Smokler's first memoir, the New York Times bestseller Confessions of a Scary Mommy, rocketed to national fame with its down-and dirty details about life with her three precious bundles of joy. Now Jill returns with all-new essays debunking more than twenty pervasive myths about motherhood.  She gives you what few others will dare: the truth.

This is not a parenting manual or how-to guide (there are plenty of those out there and you've probably read more than your share).  Think of it instead as a coping resource.  (summary from book - image from amazon)

My Review:  Motherhood Comes Naturally is written by Jill Smokler, the brains behind Scary Mommy a website that touts pregnancy and parenting advice for imperfect parents, and an anonymous confessional where parents can give voice to their deepest and darkest.  I've tooled around the site a few times, lurking in the confessional, and come away feeling slightly amused, somewhat validated, and more than a little disturbed.  I haven't gone back to the site since those first few times.  Mostly, because my mama brain simply forgot about it's existence.  Whoops.

I found this book on my local libraries "for sale" shelf, vaguely remembered the site, and rifled through it a bit, landing on a page that was pretty dang funny. I decided to get it, hoping to read some snort-inducing stories and garner some mothering inspiration (aka. coping mechanisms) to make it through the rough days.  Alas, I only made it eight lies in before throwing in the towel, and quite frankly I had to force myself to make it that far.  Smokler drops some solid truth bombs (and a fair few B, A, S, and F-bombs, as well), but it wasn't nearly as funny or as inspiring as I had hoped.  Yes, motherhood is hard.  Yes, our kids can drive us crazy.  Yes, sometimes we want to lock ourselves in the bathroom.  Truth, truth, and truth, no denying it.  However, Smokler's general attitude towards motherhood came off cringe-worthy and brutal, with a touch of "....but I DO love my kids, I swear!" thrown in to keep CPS at bay.  I really felt that it needed a bit more positivity to balance all the negativity she was throwing around.  Maybe that came later in the book, but I'll never know because I don't have the emotional energy to wade through the darkness hoping for a glimmer of light.

We've all received a backhanded compliment before, right?  "You're lucky your husband works all day, so you don't have to!" or the inverse, "It's so great that you get to go to work.  I could NEVER let a stranger raise my kids!"   Ultimately, this book felt like a backhanded compliment to motherhood, delivered with just enough humor to make the reader question whether they should be offended or amused.  Mostly, I was offended.  Or I would have been, had I the time or energy to be offended by a book.  As it stands, I can't, in good conscience, recommend this book to anyone....or, at the very least, to anyone who isn't already a massive Scary Mommy fan.  Find something else to read.  Might I suggest this...

My Review: 1 Star

For the sensitive reader:  Plenty of swearing, so discussion of sexual matters (though vague) and a general sense of disdain for the day-to-day aspects of mothering.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Hazel Wood - Melissa Albert

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Alice and her mother have spent most of Alice’s life on the road, always a step ahead of the uncanny bad luck biting at their heels. But when Alice’s grandmother, the reclusive author of a cult-classic book of pitch-dark fairy tales, dies alone on her estate, the Hazel Wood, Alice learns how bad her luck can really get: her mother is stolen away―by a figure who claims to come from the Hinterland, the cruel supernatural world where her grandmother's stories are set. Alice's only lead is the message her mother left behind: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

Alice has long steered clear of her grandmother’s cultish fans. But now she has no choice but to ally with classmate Ellery Finch, a Hinterland superfan who may have his own reasons for wanting to help her. To retrieve her mother, Alice must venture first to the Hazel Wood, then into the world where her grandmother's tales began―and where she might find out how her own story went so wrong. (Summary and pic from

My Review: You know those books that start out one way, and you’re expecting something very specific from them, and then they just totally change it all up? This is one of those books! I’m kind of excited to say that! I read a lot, and although I haven’t read All the Books in the Land you can definitely see a pattern. Now it’s not like I started reading this book and all of a sudden my mind is blown and I’m challenging my very existence. No. But I did like that things turned out much differently than I expected.

You see, I go through these waves where I don’t actually read the summary of a book before I start reading it. Obviously I’d have read the summary at some time since I added it to my Goodreads “To Read” list, but I add so much on there that unless it was fairly recently or it has a very obvious cover or it is part of a series, I usually forget. Besides, I like to go into a book cold. This means that I’m often surprised by stuff that I maybe wouldn’t have been surprised by had I read the summary again, and it means that sometimes I’m a little confused, especially at the beginning. Reading a book without the summary feels more honest in some ways, though. A well-written summary can often smooth over the confusing bits of a book, and so I like to just be surprised. If the book isn’t that great at the beginning, it’s the author’s fault. If I don’t know what’s going on, it’s the author’s fault. On the other hand, it really does bring a fun sense of surprise and a feeling of jumping into a world with both feet that doesn’t happen if I’ve read the summary. I guess what I’m saying is to go ahead and just live on the edge. Skip the summary!

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I didn’t read the summary when I started this book, and I didn’t remember exactly what was going on (although the cover definitely gave me some sort of idea of what would be happening). As I said at the beginning, I was happily surprised! First off, I love the concept of living fairy tales. How fun is that? I’ve enjoyed this wave of fairytale books (for both children and adults!) and I’ve liked the magical realism that has been infused in a lot of stories. This one, in particular, took a detour from magical realism to straight up magic and fantasy, but I liked it. I thought the names of the characters were really fun, too, let alone the names of the stories. Some of those fairytales had downright creepy names, which was awesome, and when Albert would go as far as to tell the story, well, that was even better.

I really enjoyed the inventiveness of this book. I liked the juxtaposition of the real world and the imaginary world, and I really appreciated the twists and turns. There was the normal teenage angst and love drama that always goes on, but I thought it was pretty realistic and not super annoying like those He’s-My-Destiny types that I really hate. It was just fun and creepy and had a satisfying yet unsatisfying ending (which is always a fun place to be in! No, for reals! How awesome to be able to do both). Plus, when I looked at Goodreads, it looked like this might be a series or a trilogy. Yay! I think this is going to be a really fun world to play in.

This was a pretty cool book. I think it was a lot of fun, and even though it’s YA fic it had some scary parts and tricky bits that made it really interesting for me well beyond just the escapism I usually find in other YA Fic I’ve enjoyed.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language but it is pretty clean and on par with others in the genre, possibly on the lighter end.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Fed, White, and Blue: Finding America with my Fork - Simon Majumdar

Image result for fed white and blueSummary:  Before deciding whether to trade in his green card for U.S. citizenship, Simon Majumdar knew he needed to find out what it really means to be an American.  So he set out on a journey to discover America through the thing he knows best: food.

Over the course of a year, Simon crisscrossed the United States, stopping locales such as Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about what the pilgrims ate; Kansas, for a Shabbat dinner; Wisconsin to make cheese: Alaska, to fish for salmon alongside a grizzly bear; and Los Angeles, to cook at a Filipino restaurant in the hope of making his in-laws proud.  Along the way he made some friends and dug in to the food cultures that make up America -- brewing beer,farming, working at a food bank,and even tailgating.

Full of heart, humor, history, and, of course, food, Fed White, and Blue is a warm, funny, and inspiring portrait of becoming an American in the twenty-first century.  (summary from book - image from

My Review:  I first "met" Simon Majumdar through his debut book, Eat My Globe, which details his year-long quest to travel the world and eat everything in it.  While I don't think that's technically possible, Simon gave it his best go and I really enjoyed traveling and eating (vicariously, of course) alongside him.  When I found out he'd written a second book, this time detailing his travels as he ate his way through America, I had it purchased in a flat minute.  I simply wanted to spend a little more time as his travel buddy and dinner companion.

On this culinary adventure, Simon's mission felt a little more personal, as he was recently married to an American citizen and was debating the merits of seeking citizenship himself.  His wife suggested that before making the decision, he get to know the people that make up the United States.  So, Simon set out to, in his words, "eat amazing food and meet amazing people" in an attempt to find out what it really means to be an American.  He goes to all the places you might expect, from small scale farms to feed lots, craft breweries to cheese markets, fine-dining to fast food, Shabbat celebrations to Texas tailgate, lobster trawlers to food banks, and attends a variety of competitions that range from BBQ to beer to competitive eating.  In each situations, he writes not only of the incredible food eaten and drinks consumed (I'll have to take his word on that one) but of a passionate, hard-working people, committed to their craft.  Simon's attitude about his adventures was overwhelmingly positive and it was clear that although our country has it's problems, we still have a lot to offer the world.

Unsurprisingly, a good portion of Simon's journey involves the consumption of copious amounts of ethnic foods.  America is a melting pot, after all, and our culinary culture would not be complete without a paying homage to the diverse immigrant communities that make up this nation.  He learns to make the perfect kare-kare for his Filipino in-laws, eats machuca with Honduran Garifunas, Trinidadian "buss up shut"chicharrones with Puerto Ricans, drinks Jamaican wood root tonic, consumed way too much "corn cheese" and soju some Koreans reality-stars, and scarfs mouth-watering tacos from some slightly unregulated Mexican food trucks. And the people he meets are some of the most welcoming on the trip.  In a world that is struggling with rampant xenophobia, Simon's efforts to showcase America's diverse populations and all that they bring to the American table (both literally and figuratively) was admirable and well-executed.  Indeed, it was my favorite part of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the time I spent in this book.  The chapters weren't very long, which allowed me to read what I could, when I could, without too much turmoil.  However, the ability to do so, led to a slight disconnection with Simon's story.  Had I the opportunity, I might have been able to devour it in a sitting, but instead was forced to gulp down a bite or two when I could, which didn't feel nearly as satisfying.  I would recommend this book as a good-one time read for anyone who either a) loved Eat my Globe, b) loves travel/food lit, or c) just loves food.

My Rating: 3.25 Stars.  It was a good one-time read.  I enjoyed it, but I probably won't read it again.

For the sensitive reader:  Simon is infrequently crass and frequently tipsy.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

My Name is Venus Black - Heather Lloyd

Summary: In this stirring, life-affirming debut novel, a young woman must reconcile her past with its far-reaching consequences on her quest for redemption.

I think about this a lot lately, trying to figure out how I got here. I trace my life back in time, looking for all those places in the past where, if I could change one key detail, I would never have seen what I saw or done what I did that terrible February night 

Venus Black is a straitlaced, straight-A student obsessed with the phenomena of astronomy—until the night she commits a shocking crime that tears her family apart and ignites a media firestorm. Venus refuses to talk about what happened or why, except to blame her mother. Adding to the mystery, Venus’s developmentally challenged younger brother, Leo, suddenly goes missing.

Five years later, Venus emerges from prison with a suitcase of used clothes, a fake identity, and a determination to escape her painful past. Estranged from her mother, and with her brother still missing, she sets out to make a fresh start, skittish and alone. But as new people enter her orbit—including a romantic interest and a young girl who seems like a mirror image of her former lost self—old wounds resurface, and Venus realizes that she can’t find a future while she’s running from her past.

In this gripping story, debut novelist Heather Lloyd brilliantly captures ordinary lives upended by extraordinary circumstances. Told through a constellation of captivating voices, My Name Is Venus Black explores the fluidity of right and wrong, the meaning of love and family, and the nature of forgiveness. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Right away this book is captivating—a teen who commits a murder (and she admits it, which is refreshing and different)—but little else is known about what happened that fateful night. So we’re going along, and we’re basically just told what Venus wants us to know; and here’s the thing about Venus Black—she’s not really someone who is super likable. She’s closed off, she’s evasive, she’s not very friendly or approachable, and she’s basically someone who acts like their entire life was ripped away and she was forced to be raised in a prison. She felt very authentic in this way, actually. I used to work at a place where I would be in contact daily with people who had come from prison, and Venus felt real in that way. Also, because of her evasiveness and unwillingness to trust people (even the reader); it made her an unreliable narrator in some ways. This wasn’t always the case, because there are other voices, but I liked the trickiness of this situation.

My Name is Venus Black started out being about Venus Black, and it is, but it is largely about Venus Black’s little brother, Leo. I was actually quite surprised where this led to and what happened in the end, and I don’t want to spoil it so I’m going to leave it at that. Suffice it to say, this is one of those books that will have you feeling one way about the situation, even though your more practical self will not agree with you. For that reason, I think this could be a good book club book. It offers enough discussion topics that I think it could lend to a good book club discussion. It could even get a little heated, but nothing too dramatic. I think that most people would agree they could see both sides. But it would definitely lend itself to conversation.

The writing in this book started out really strong. I liked the voice of Venus, even though I didn’t always love her as a person. As I mentioned, though, that made it feel more real. Let’s face it—who likes absolutely everything about every person? Even ones you love the most? Someone with as much damage and baggage as Venus obviously has some prickly edges, and that made the book feel authentic. In about the middle of the book I felt like the writing and story lost some momentum, but it didn’t take long for that to pick right up and move the book along again. I especially liked the descriptions of Leo and what he was thinking—they also felt very authentic and true to someone with his developmental challenges.

This book didn’t always go how I wanted it to nor do what I wanted it to, but I think that’s okay. Books that go exactly as you choose sometimes feel contrived. Plus, we all know that real life doesn’t always do what you want it to do. Right? Or is that just me?...

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and discussion of sex. There is also some sexually predatory behavior by an adult to a minor.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Deal of a Lifetime (A Novella) - Fredrik Backman

Image result for the deal of a lifetimeSummary:  It is Christmas Eve, and a father and son are meeting for the first time in years.  The father has a story he needs to share before it's too late.  As he tells his son about a courageous little girl lying in a hospital bed a few miles away, he reveals even more about himself: his triumphs in business, his failures as a parent, his past regrets, his hopes for the future.

Now, on this night before Christmas, the father has been given an unexpected chance to do something remarkable that could change the destiny of a little girl he hardly knows.  But before he can make the deal of a lifetime, he must find out what hsi own life has actually been worth, and only his son can reveal the answer.

With humor and compassion, Fredrik Backman's The Deal of a Lifetime reminds us that life is a fleeting gift, and our legacy rests on how we share that gift with those we love.  (Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review: It only took three sentences for The Deal of A Lifetime to grab my attention and place it in a headlock:

Hi.  It's your dad.  You'll be waking up soon, it's Christmas Eve morning in Helsingborg, and I've killed a person.   

Woah...what?  It went from cute to crazy in three sentences.  And two of them were short.

I will admit to being a little confused at first -- like a little kid in a movie that doesn't understand what's happening.  I wanted to poke a grown-up and ask what was going on... and that grown up would probably just tell me to watch the movie and I'd get my answers soon enough.  That is my advice to you.  Except, you know, with this book. If it doesn't make perfect sense at first, just keep reading. You're almost there. 

It's fascinating how some writers can take sixty-five pages to craft an exposition, while others can pack an entire story, and a good one, in the same amount of space.  Fredrik Backman's latest novella may be short on pages, but it doesn't lack for depth or emotion. His writing is simply phenomenal and his ability to bring out the best in highly unlikable characters is nothing short of uncanny.  In this particular novella, the narrator is easy to despise and yet he grew on me.  His interactions with several of the secondary characters, namely the little girl and the woman in the grey sweater (love her!) were some of my favorite moments in the novella.

Once I got my bearings in the story I did have a teensy inkling of where it might go (and it did head there) but it didn't end quite as I expected and I liked that.   It definitely got me thinking about my life, my priorities, and how I'd like to be remembered.  The Deal of A Lifetime is an evocative, bittersweet novella and I highly recommend it if you're looking to spend an hour with a memorable story.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars  (wish it were longer)

For the sensitive reader:  Three instances of mild profanity.  Used in rapid succession.  That's all I can remember.

Friday, May 4, 2018

STAR WARS REVISITED: A Book Series Spotlight

You guys!  It's Star Wars Day!  

My daughter  recently discovered a storied retelling of the original (ahem...only) Star Wars movies and loved them, and although I haven't actually read them myself, I feel like today is the perfect day to share them with you.  Consider these a book spotlight, rather than a review, but know that they come with a twelve-year-old Star Wars geek's fervent recommendation.  As each book is written by a different author, I've included an excerpt from each one so you can get a sense of their writing style.

Star Wars: A New Hope (The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farmboy) 
by Alexandra Bracken, author of The Darkest Minds series

Image result for princess farmer scoundrelLeia wasn't the girl they thought she was.

THat girl might have seen this plan through successfully.  The crew of the Tantive IV thought Senator Leia Organa would be able to get them untangled from the net she'd flown them straight into.  But her plan had gone so wrong - so wrong.   There wasn't any way out, any way to save them.  She had let them down and now there was only one hope for completing her mission.

Leia had never been inside the access corridors on the ship.  They were meant for droids and technicians to get around without being trampled underfoot by the crew.  Her heart thundered in time with her boots as she ran, and she was sure she'd never find the labor pool.  The dull metal corridors and paths were lit by only a few crimson lights, and parts of it were so tight she barely managed to squeeze through without ripping her dress.  Blast it- of every color under every sun, why had she chosen to wear white? She stood out in the darkness like a reactor core.  

An easy target(excerpt from book)

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (So You Want to Be a Jedi?)
by Adam Gidwitz, author of The Dark and Grimm series

Image result for so you want to be a jediSo you want to be a Jedi?  I get that.  It seems cool.  You can move things with your mind.  Control people with your thoughts.  Oh, and the lightsabers.  Yeah, those are awesome.  But listen, it's not all mind control and weaponized flashlights.  Being a Jedi requires patience and strength and self-awareness.  And training.  Lots of training?  You still want to be a Jedi?

Tell you what.  I'm going to tell you a story.  Not just a story.  The story.  The story of one of the greatest Jedi ever.  As I tell it, I'm going to give you some tests.  To see if you've got what it takes.   If' you're afraid, I don't blame you.  Most folks don't have what it takes.  Most folks are just ordinary.  Which is okay.  There is nothing wrong with ordinary.  But if you're ordinary, you can't be a Jedi. 

Do you want to hear the story?  And do you want to undergo the tests?  Do you still want to be a Jedi?  Okay.

This is the story of a young man.  His name was Luke Skywalker.  Now, even though this story is about him, I'm not going to tell it that way.  You want to become a Jedi.  He became one of the greatest Jedi of all.  If you want to follow in his footsteps, you need to walk in his shoes.  I mean, really walk in his shoes.  And wear his clothes.  And carry his lightsaber.  And share his friends.  And fight his enemies.  You need, for the duration of the story, to become Luke.  If you do, you will have walked the long, difficult dangerous path of a Jedi.  That path begins a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....  (excerpt from book intro)

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (Beware the Power of the Dark Side) 
by Tom Angleberger (author of the Origami Yoda books)

Image result for beware the dark side bookJabba the Hutt is a giant, evil space slug.  And like a slug, he's rather helpless on his own.  Tiny arms,no legs, no armor, no weapons. Well, he does have one weapon -- his mind.  A mind vile and corrupt even by Hutt standards.  By the sheer force of his own greed, he has risen to the top -- or perhaps the bottom, depending on your point of view.

As the most feared crime lord in the galaxy, he can afford to hire all the help he needs -- smugglers, thieves,bounty hunters, and plenty of piglike warriors to guard his palace.  

Just as a slug prefers to hid under a rock, Jabba has chosen a dark, damp place for his palace.  The nicer rooms are like a dungeon and the dungeon is...unspeakable.  It's a fortress, really.  So deep in the dunes that the desert itself is all the defense generally needed.  Even so, under Jabba's orders the old monastery was obsessively fortified by master armorers.  Yes, it's the perfect place for this rancid crime lord to slither away and hide, wallowing in his slimy pleasures and chortling over his ill-gotten treasures.  And his newest treasure -- for which he had to pay the cunning bounty hunter Boba Fett a medium-sized fortune  -- is Han Solo.  

I hope you've found something to satisfy the Padawans and Jedi Apprentices in your life.  Mine sure liked it.

And again, Happy Star Wars Day!


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