Friday, January 19, 2018

The Marrow Thieves - Cherie Dimaline

Summary: In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America's Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the "recruiters" who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing "factories." (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review:This book is the 2017 winner of the Kirkus Prize for fiction teen books so, I had to read it and see what all the hype is about. I would say that overall I liked it—it’s certainly got that dystopian element that is so popular in teen fic these days. I have read quite a few dystopian novels over the past few years (as I’m sure you have) and I can’t help but wonder if teens are really binging on this as much as the adults are? Do they ever get paranoid or scared by it as we adults do, or do they just let it be a simple distraction and fun for their life? You know, as much as dystopia is fun. Which mostly it is not. Interesting, sure. Inventive? Hopefully. Uplifting? Doubtful.


So I have to start by saying that like many books in the dystopian genre, the details of this one are confusing. I get the basic premise—the world has been destroyed by global warming and people have stopped being able to dream (whether this is sleep dreaming or going-for-your-dreams type-dreaming is unclear) but they have found that Native populations have the key to being able to dream in their DNA, so they extract it from their bone marrow. This results in all sorts of hunting down people and capturing and torture and such, as you might image. And that’s the crux of the book, actually, which I will get into later. The actual taking of bone marrow or how it works and why it works and why it is just native populations (and what is native, really, in this dystopian world? I mean, there are people native to each area in the world, and everybody is native to somewhere, but is it just native meaning people who are not white? Because the term “native” seems to vary broadly in that there are native populations from Canada, America, and even some of the islands. Was it just the American continent? What about the indigenous people in other areas? This was also confusing). Also, the indigenous people who are the main characters are able to find what they think might be a solution to all of this madness, but I’m not sure why the solution was what it was which is too bad because it could have been really cool. I’m being intentionally vague about all of this because I don’t want to ruin the book, but also because it was genuinely confusing. I wanted it to make sense. I really did. However, I think Dimaline had created a dystopian world so rich in her mind that she didn’t understand what the rest of us didn’t understand. The world was so real to her and so obvious that the few crumbs that she thought were all we needed were not enough to actually make it very cohesive.

The fact about all of this is, though, that many dystopian books are this way. The how and why and the details of All the Badness are often vague so that the book can focus on the characters, so this is pretty standard fare for dystopian books.

What this book did have going for it was the actual dripping from the page dread, fear, and confusion that the characters were feeling. Dimaline did an excellent job of creating characters who were relatable and easy to understand. The story itself had a hopeless quality that I’m assuming would be very real and prevailing in an actual dystopian world. I really enjoyed the indigenous cultural infusions that Dimaline used, and my own regret is that there weren’t more of them. I LOVE culture and I love how it plays into people’s lives. Culture was a huge part of this novel because of the nature of the characters being hunted for their indigenous bone marrow. There was a very interesting juxtaposition of elders who had traditional culture and language and stories (which was super fascinating) and then the modern young teen characters who were trying to live in a world where they hadn’t had much exposure to their traditional culture and yet it now meant everything—the key to saving themselves both physically and emotionally as well. I really Really REALLY wish there had been more exploration into the indigenous cultures in this book. I think it would have made it so much richer, and also filled out the story more. It really was confusing in so many ways. That being said, I understand that YA fic can only be so long with only so much depth or it ceases to capture its audience. In Marrow Thieves there is just enough culture and depth to really make the story and leave the reader wanting a lot more.

Because I felt like there was much confusion surrounding the actual premise of the book—the marrow and how it is connected to dreams—and because I wanted a lot more culture discussion in this book to flesh it out, I’m giving this book 3.5 stars. I so wanted to be immersed in this culture and in the end I felt like there was so much of that lacking. That being said, if you are into dystopian fiction, you should definitely check it out.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and some minor descriptions of minor teen sexual play (no sex). I would say it is on par with others in its genre, maybe even on the lighter side.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Finding Beauty in the Beast - Jessilyn Stewart Peaslee

Summary: Princess Rose's fiery temper has kept every potential suitor away...until now. After being spurned and humiliated for the last time, the princes forces every eligible man to present a gift to her under pain of death. The man who brings her the best gift will be chosen as her husband.

When Corbin presents his gift, he hopes that his simple offering will keep him safely overlooked. All he wants is to return to his quiet life as a blacksmith away from forbidding castles and beastly princesses. But love works in mysterious ways, and it all starts with a rose...
 (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: I don't know anyone who didn't love Disney's Beauty and the Beast growing up. The story is so wonderful and timeless, the music is awesome, the heroine is strong and resilient, there's just a touch of angst ... it's just wonderful. Definitely one of my favorite Disney Classics. But, what if the Beauty and the Beast were one and the same?

Jeassilyn Peaslee is taking us back to the world she's created in Ella in order to follow Corbin the blacksmith and his journey. Upon realizing that his intended is more in love with the idea of marrying a prince than with him, he flees to a new town to create a new life for himself. With all the hubbub of the move and the realization that he's moved into the kingdom of "the Beast" (who Ella), he is abruptly informed that he has a few minutes to choose a gift for the Princess, as she has decided she'll marry a commoner to snub the Prince who cut off their engagement for one.

The story is fairly predictable. The Princess is horrible to everyone and everything, she takes little to no interest in the state of her kingdom, she refuses to get to know Corbin, because she's never been taught to grow or move forward from a childhood tragedy. Corbin is sullen, withdrawn, and grumpy as he tries to find a new identity as husband to the Princess and the future King. There are a few other side stories, but nothing earth-shatteringly out of left field. 

Despite the predictability of the story, I really loved this book. It was so sweet. The characters were real to me -- they had flaws and failures, they grew and they had purpose. The story, while definitely light reading, was exactly what my brain needed during the stress of starting a new and scary job. Additionally, the lighter fare of the storyline allowed me to develop a better connection with the characters, because I wasn't so consumed with trying to figure out a convoluted storyline. 

I really enjoy this series, and hope this isn't the last one in it. I want to visit these characters again. I want to see their growth, get to know their children, and see how they stay connected.  Again, if you're looking for a good series to direct a teenage girl to, this is a good one. These are the qualities I'd like my daughter to grow into.

Rating:  Four stars


Monday, January 15, 2018

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

Summary: In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place.  The only time teenage Wade Watt really feels alive is when he's jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS.  Wade's devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world's digital confines -- puzzles that are based on their creator's obsession with the pop culture icons of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.  But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize.  The race is on, and if Wade's going to survive, he'll have to win -- and confront the real world he's always been so desperate to escape.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I went into this book with sky high hopes.  One of my friends, a fellow bibliophile, recommended it alongside A Man Called Ove (which I gushed over here) as her top books of 2017.  She's an avid reader, and former bookseller, and so her glowing recommendation usually means I'm likely to strike literary gold.  Having unreasonably high expectations can often lead to disappointment, and, unfortunately, that is what happened to me.

Ready Player One is imaginative, complex, and likely to dazzle a lot of people at the box office when the movie comes out in March 2018.   The entire concept of the book intrigued me and I appreciated that it delved into a variety of contemporary themes and sub-themes (e.g. our society's increasing dependence on technology, the idealized nature of the online world, the evils of greed, addiction, and corrupt corporations, and so on). One of my favorite quotes spoke to the depressing reality of Wade's Wall-E-like existence:

...over the past few months, I'd come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn't exist.  Each component of my rig was a bar in the cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.  Standing there under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth.  In real life, I was nothing but an anti-social hermit.  A recluse.  A pale-skinned, pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact.  I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul wasting his life on a glorified video game.

I liked the buttons the author was trying to push with his work, but I just didn't feel invested in the story. Part of the problem was that even though I enjoyed the basic plot, a lot of the subject matter was outside my wheelhouse. I am a geek at heart, but not really a gamer geek.  I caught the references to iconic movies like Monty Python or Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and the nods to TV shows like Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Firefly, but  I've when it comes to gaming, well, I have never so much as played Minecraft.  We didn't have video games growing up, and I couldn't even pass the original Mario at my neighbor's house.  I'm that bad.  First-person shooters make me motion sick and the closest I've ever been to RPG's is the day I sent my boyfriend off to sword fight in the quad (not a proud moment, I assure you).  I only caught about 10% of the steady stream of pop culture references hurled my way, leaving the other 90% to sail right over my head.  Oh, I still knew what was going on in the book, but I believe that the story would have been enhanced if I had caught a bit more.

The best way I can explain the whole experience was that it was like watching my college boyfriend (yes, the same one) play a really amazing video game -- cool up to a point, but not something I want to do for hours on end.  It took me an inordinately long time to feel that wrenching gut-hook that yanked me into the story, which came roughly 360 pages into a 579 page book.  It wasn't until Wade ran into some truly harsh realities outside the virtual world that I started to feel that hoped for pull, but once I did, I finished it in a flat second and can see why it's being made into a movie.  While I wouldn't recommend this book to everyone, I'd be far more likely to recommend it to someone with an extensive gaming/RPG background, as I think they'd probably enjoy it more than myself. 

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Plenty of swearing, some anti-Christian themes, some frank discussion of sexual matters.

Friday, January 12, 2018

GOODREADS Best Books of 2017

I know we haven't really had a DTR, but we're not exclusive.  
We hope you enjoy our book blog and tons of others. 
If you haven't had a chance to visit Goodreads, you really should.  


We recommend starting with the Best Books of 2017  

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Strong is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves - Kate T. Parker

Summary: Real beauty isn't about being a certain size, acting a certain way, wearing the right clothes, or having your hair done (or even brushed).  real beauty is about being your authentic self, and owning it.  Kate T. Parker is a professional photographer who finds the real beauty in her subjects, girls age 5 to 18, capturing it for all the world to see in candid and arresting images.

Here are girls who are fierce, funny, adventurous, assertive, loud, creative.  Athletic girls and artsy girls.  Fighters.  Survivors.  Girls at the barre, wrapping up their calloused feet in pointe shoes, girls in their football jerseys, wearing eye black like war paint.  Girls, defiant and proud, showing off their scares, their messy hair, their dirty feet.  Girls curled up on the couch, dashing through the sprinkler, raising their hands, reclaiming their independence in the face of adversity, playing music together, dissolving in fits of laughter, leaping in unison against the sunset.

A catalog of spirit in words and smiles, these photographs inspire--and serve as affirmation of the fact that it's what inside you that counts.  Strong is the New Pretty conveys a powerful message for every girl, for every mother and father of a girl, for every coach or mentor, for everyone in the village that it takes to raise a strong and self-confident person. (Summary from book flap - Image from barnesandnoble.com)

My Review:  I found this book on my local library's "Lucky Day" shelf (meaning you can skip the wait list) and it's a good thing too, because as the mother of four girls, with that title, and the above synopsis, there was no way I was walking out of the library without it.  I took it home and spent a rare quiet moment flipping through the stunning photographs, inspiring forewords, and uplifting quotes.  Strong is the New Pretty was everything I hoped it would be and more -- an undeniably beautiful, well-deserved punch in the face to an industry (heck, to a world) that often tries to teach girls that their worth is defined by their cup/pant/lip/butt size or dictate the things they can and can't do.  The book is quite easy to read and is primarily composed of photographs with quotes from the subject of the photo.  On each page, girls of all ages, sizes, backgrounds, and ethnicities show us what strong means in spectacular fashion (see a few below).    Some images are thought provoking, some defiant, others silly, but the takeaway is undeniable -- Be your joyful, compassionate, wild and crazy, confident, rough and tumble, strong, determined, creative, courageous, uncontainably authentic self.  Strong is beautiful.

The most telling thing about this book is what happened when I finished reading it.  Feeling rather empowered, and hoping my daughters would take an interest, I set it on the coffee table and walked away.  There it sat in plain sight.  Sure enough, several times in the last week, I have walked into the room and found a different daughter nose-deep in it.  Even my preschooler was entranced.  I haven't decided yet whether I want to have a conversation with them about it, or whether I want to let them absorb the message how they will and form their own takeaways.  For now I'm just letting them marinate in it; the book really does speak for itself.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a girl. Or has one.  Or knows one.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  You're fine.  Unless you're sexist.  Then you realllly should read it.

Photo credit to Gabby DeSantiago, North Denver Tribune.


Monday, January 8, 2018

It All Comes Down to This - Karen English

Summary: It’s 1965, Los Angeles. All twelve-year-old Sophie wants to do is write her book, star in the community play, and hang out with her friend Jennifer. But she’s the new black kid in a nearly all-white neighborhood; her beloved sister, Lily, is going away to college soon; and her parents’ marriage is rocky. There’s also her family’s new, disapproving housekeeper to deal with. When riots erupt in nearby Watts and a friend is unfairly arrested, Sophie learns that life—and her own place in it—is even more complicated than she’d once thought. (Summary from goodreads, pic from amazon)


My Review: One of the things I love about reading is that it transports you to other times, other places, other worlds, other lives. This seems obvious, right? Then why don’t more people read?! It blows my mind when someone is like, “Oh, I don’t know how you have time to read! I’m just SO BUSY with my life that I can’t bother to crack a book!” Meanwhile, I’m getting my judgy eyes and thinking about all the time I see them hanging out on Facebook or commenting on their stupid TV shows they watch or whatever. Now, don’t get me wrong. I also hang out on Facebook/Instagram/whatever and when I’m done I’m often like “Please give me back that time I wasted!” And I also have shows I enjoy watching with my husband at night. But I consciously try to make time each day to read. I don’t always get to read, and most of the time I don’t get to read as much as I’d like to, but I am a firm believer that reading is the way to experience things, experience places, and learn things that cannot be learned any other way. Those who don’t read are missing out on SO MUCH! But I don’t need to preach to you, dear readers of this blog, do I? Because obviously you’re readers or you wouldn’t be here. So we can just all get our judgy eyes on together and selfishly read all the books that we can with the little time that we’ve got.

One of the reasons I love historical fiction is that it takes you to a place you’ll never get to go to. Even if history repeats itself (and by jove, let’s all hope that it doesn’t in so many incidences) it will never be like it was at that time with those people. It just can’t be. We ourselves are living in a unique time and place. But that discussion is deeper than I’d like to go in this little book review. It All Comes Down to This is such a book that transported me to a time and place that I will never experience. For one thing, 1965 will never happen again (obviously). For another, I’m not African-American and don’t have the experience of that either. I think my favorite quote in the book, and one that summed it up quite nicely is this, “Jennifer once asked me what it felt like—to be Negro. I said I couldn’t really explain it. Just that you remembered what you were all the time. All the time. From the time you got up in the morning until you went to bed at night. But you really remembered it when you were the only Negro around.”

I’ve read other books about African-Americans during this time period (and others as well), but this book is different in that the main character, Sophie, comes from an upper middle-class family in a slowly integrating white neighborhood. This made all the difference. For one thing, Sophie does experience racism in a lot of ways—her peers treat her as beneath them even though her parents are well-educated and she has the same privileges as they do (such as music lessons, live-in help, etc). Also, Sophie is experiencing normal coming-of-age things like changing friendships, siblings leaving, the reality of parents and their flaws, etc., but she does it all in a backdrop where she is often alone because of her race. Most interestingly, though, is that during the famous race riots in LA during this time, she is as removed from them as other people in her neighborhood, and yet they treat her as if she knew what was going on because she is also African-American. I found this fascinating, actually, and I loved reading what she thought and how she was as confused as they were, yet had some realizations through her sister and a friend.

I didn’t find Sophie as relatable as some other coming-of-age female characters I’ve read. She had some self-proclaimed quirky things about her, but I didn’t really find them to be all that quirky or even exceptional. She seemed pretty normal to me, which would have been fine, except that English had obviously tried to make her seem to be an outsider not only because of her race but also because of her personality, which she wasn’t really. The beginning of the book was slow-going as far as getting to know her personality as well. It just wasn’t that captivating. As it went on, it got better and once the excitement started there was a lot to learn, but much of the book was just normal life for any tween kid that age at any time.

I enjoyed this book for its candid look at the difficulties of living during this time, especially for a girl in these circumstances. I feel like I learned quite a few things that I didn’t know before.

My Review: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are a few incidents of language by the adults, some discussion of puberty, and a subplot of an affair but this book is clean.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Holding - Graham Norton

Summary: Graham Norton's masterful debut is an intelligently crafted story of love, secrets and loss.

The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn't always been this overweight; mother of­ two Brid Riordan hasn't always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn't always felt that her life was a total waste.

So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke - a former­ love of both Brid and Evelyn - the village's dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community's worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.

Darkly comic, touching and at times profoundly sad. Graham Norton employs his acerbic wit to breathe life into a host of loveable characters, and explore - with searing honesty - the complexities and contradictions that make us human. Summary and image from goodreads.com

Review: I know, I know. You’re probably thinking the same thing I did: hold up! Graham Norton wrote a book!? It’s got to be wildly hilarious, dry, and utterly British, right!?. At least, that’s what I was thinking. I was convinced I was going to be in for a surprise with this book. I was, just not the one I was expecting.

I heard Norton talking about his book and describing it as a sleepy town with a quiet mystery, and I was intrigued. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I did expected it to be well done, hilarious (because hello, Graham Norton), and a quick read. It was a quick read, but I was surprised to find very little humor in the book. The town definitely is sleepy, the mystery was quaint, but hardly a mystery at all, and the characters themselves were overall relatively unredeemable.

Let’s break this down. Characters first — these guys weren’t my favorites. They seemed oversimplified. I mean, this is the author’s first book, so I was trying to cut him some slack, but still. I’d have liked a little bit of originality breathed into them. It was like he decided which tropes a small town would have, gave them names, and then decided that that was enough development. 

Okay, let’s move onto the storyline. To be honest, I felt like there was no originality in this storyline at all. I’ve read this “mystery” in a million other forms, and most of them better than this one. There’s “mistaken identity” and a “buried secret” and it doesn’t take more than a minute for a mom-addled brain to put together what was going to happen, or what had happened. Being able to read the signs so early on, it just cast the whole book into a dreary light which dampened any enjoyment I would have had from it.

Finally, let’s talk about the writing. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like the storyline, but I’ll be honest. Graham Norton can craft a sentence. It may be a boring sentence, but it’s well-crafted. I think that’s what kept me reading. I didn’t enjoy much about it, but I did appreciate his writing. Is that enough to save the book? Not really, but it did give me a bit more relief than I otherwise would have gotten from reading it.

 Overall, this is a skippable one. But keep your eye on Mr. Norton. If this whole British Talk Show Host thing doesn’t work out, he may just have a future in books.

Rating: Two stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Affairs, sex scenes, rape, murder, foul language. Just stay away.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Lies She Told - Cate Holahan

Summary: Sometimes the truth is darker than fiction.

Liza Jones has thirty days to write the thriller that could put her back on the bestseller list. In the meantime, she’s struggling to start a family with her husband, who is distracted by the disappearance of his best friend, Nick. With stresses weighing down in both her professional and her personal life, Liza escapes into writing her latest heroine.

Beth is a new mother who suspects her husband is cheating on her while she’s home alone providing for their newborn. Angry and betrayed, Beth sets out to catch him in the act and make him pay for shattering the illusion of their perfect life. But before she realizes it, she’s tossing the body of her husband’s mistress into the river.

Then the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur. Nick’s body is dragged from the Hudson and Liza’s husband is arrested for his murder. Before her deadline is up, Liza will have to face up to the truths about the people around her, including herself. If she doesn’t, the end of her heroine’s story could be the end of her own. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I always love me a good crime thriller mystery. It’s like my go-to comfort read. I like to mix up my reading—I read a lot of things and a lot of genres. I am not someone who completely writes off one genre, although I do have to say I am not a huge lover of fantasy, especially those cheesy old school ones that are obviously made for people who just want to live out their Dungeon & Dragons fantasies (I’m married to a geek so I can say this not only with authority but also with the knowledge of the truth of it). I’m not amused by someone who just wants to read about dungeon crawlings and such. That being said, of course I recognize The Lord of the Rings, the grandfather of this genre, as one of the best and most influential series ever written. That doesn’t mean that I’ll be reading a lot of fantasy in the coming future. I’m not really a huge sci-fi reader, although I’ll read some of that. I almost never read romance, although I enjoy some good chic lit now and then, which can sometimes be romantic. But no bodice ripper books. I can’t even imagine my embarrassment of people thinking I might engage in reading such a thing. Okay, so the more I write this the more I think I am a little biased. However, I really do read a wide variety of things but I do have my comfort zones. Crime/thriller/mysteries are definitely one of those. They’re fun to read (you know, cause death and murder is fun), a fast read, and they usually take little to no brain power. I don’t try to guess whodunit, I just go along for the ride and enjoy it as it comes.

Lies She Told certainly fit this bill. It was a fun and fast read. It didn’t take me long to read it at all, actually. It also had the added advantage of having the type of voice where I could actually feel like I was in this person’s head. This is always a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s fun to be so much of a part of a character that you understand them that much. You feel like you hear their thoughts, their problems are your problems, and it’s easy to be immersed in the story. In this particular novel that was quite disconcerting because obviously with it being a crime/thriller novel there were some things going on that I decidedly don’t want to be a part of in real life. And before you start wondering about me and my hearing the character’s thoughts and all, let’s just clarify that I am nothing really like this character. Our lives are very different in pretty much every way imaginable, but the way that Holahan writes really puts the reader in the main character’s position, which I would say is a bonus.

This isn’t a highly surprising or shocking book with twists and turns. I actually found it predictable in a lot of ways. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. However, I wouldn’t say that when I got to the end I was super surprised or floored by how it all went down. It could be a good introduction to the genre, though, and readers of books like it, such as Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train would probably very much enjoy it. Serious mystery readers will probably be disappointed, though, as the mystery isn’t too mysterious, per se. I can see that it would probably make a compelling movie.

If you’re looking for something light (you know, murder and mayhem light) and easy to read with an interesting plot and accessible characters, this book is for you.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some language and mild sexual content, but I would say it is on the lighter side for books of this genre.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy New Year

May your only hangovers be book related!  
We'll be back to reviewing on the 3rd.  Stay hydrated and well read!  

Monday, December 25, 2017

We Here at RFS Want to Wish You a LOVELY...

Merry Christmas!  


We'll be taking a few days off to celebrate the birth of our Savior, 
spend time with our families, and (hopefully) read a few good books.  

We wish all of you a ton of the same!

See you in the New Year!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Reading For Sanity's Best Books of 2017

As a little pre-Christmas present, we've put together a list of our favorite books (5 Stars), runners up (4.5 Stars), and spotlights (unrated but great) from this past year.  Go ahead and click on the titles if you'd like to read our reviews. Hope you enjoy them as much as we did!  You can also check out all our 5 Star reviews here and our Best Reads from 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 (2016 forthcoming).  

Our Favorite Books of 2017 (5 Stars)

The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

Auschwitz Testimonies: 1945-1986 - Primo Levi & Leonardo de Benedetti

The Girl Who Drank the Moon - Kelly Barnhill


The Inquisitor's Tale - Adam Gidwitz & Hatym Aly (Illus.)



A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

The Orphan Keeper - Camron Wright


Refugee - Alan Gratz


- Jason Porath

The Shell Seekers - Rosamunde Pilcher

- Crystal Godfrey & Debby Kent
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Wolf Hollow - Lauren Wolk

Runners Up (4.5 Stars)
Dragonwatch - Brandon Mull

The Passion of Dolssa - Julie Berry

The Perfect Horse - Elizabeth Letts

Chelsea Clinton & Alexandra Boiger (Illus.)

The Silent Children - Amna Boheim

Tiny Lego Wonders - Mattia Zamboni

The Ultimate Guide to Grandmas & Grandpas - Sally Lloyd-Jones & Michael Emberley (Illus.)

Favorite Spotlights 
(Unrated but Highly Recommended)

The Big Fat Notebook Series - Various Authors

The Big Paleo Book of Slow Cooking - Natalie Perry (OUR VERY OWN!!)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Wonderling - Mira Bartok

Synopsis: Have you been unexpectedly burdened by a recently orphaned or unclaimed creature? Worry not! We have just the solution for you!

Welcome to the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, an institution run by evil Miss Carbunkle, a cunning villainess who believes her terrified young charges exist only to serve and suffer. Part animal and part human, the groundlings toil in classroom and factory, forbidden to enjoy anything regular children have, most particularly singing and music. For the Wonderling, an innocent-hearted, one-eared, fox-like eleven-year-old with only a number rather than a proper name -- a 13 etched on a medallion around his neck -- it is the only home he has ever known.

But unexpected courage leads him to acquire the loyalty of a young bird groundling named Trinket, who gives the Home's loneliest inhabitant two incredible gifts: a real name -- Arthur, like the good king in the old stories -- and a best friend. Using Trinket's ingenious invention, the pair escape over the wall and embark on an adventure that will take them out into the wider world and ultimately down the path of sweet Arthur's true destiny. (synopsis and picture from goodreads.com)


My Review: This book was okay.  

From the cover, the art, and the premise, it looked like it had everything going for it.  An interesting world filled with humans, animals, and those that are in between, called Groundlings, and a main character destined for greater things. But from there, the wonder wilted.

I needed a little more.  What are the rules?  Where did these Groundlings come from?  Why do some people have animal parts or are half and half or more animal than human, and what makes them the way they are?  I liked the idea, but I needed more foundation, needed a little more history.  I know that in magical worlds, not everything has to be explained, but rules are important.  I'll return to this in a moment.

One of my central criticisms is in our main character, a one-eared fox Groundling named Arthur.  He never made a choice for himself, 99% of the novel.  He was very reactionary, only doing things because others prodded him until he had to.  Truth be told, it made Arthur a bit of a pansy.  He was sweet and innocent, but he needed to choose to fight for himself or others, and he never did (except one brief moment at the start and another right near the very end).  A character can be reluctant, especially near the beginning of a story, but they cannot remain that way if we are to relate or care for them.

That being said, I did continue to read this book because it was interesting enough that I did want to see what happened.  I liked how the theme of music was important and brought everything together.  I loved how there were little drawings scattered throughout the tale--they felt old fashioned and fit the tone of the book, which was very Dickensian, and had a strong Oliver Twist vibe.  That also being said, it did tend to drag on a bit too long, at nearly 400 pages, which, for the type of story we had, was much too long.

And the ending was a trifle confusing as well.  I won't spoil anything, but back to rules.  We need rules so we can understand a world properly, and when the climax came, I found myself going, 'well, okay, but what does that mean?  Why is that important?'  I didn't understand why the big reveal about our main character was so big because it had no context (and I felt he hadn't really earned it, whatever it was).   

If you want an adventure story with an interesting world and a Dickensian feel, this is a good one.  It wasn't terrible, and it had its moments, it just doesn't fit the caliber of what, to me, makes a great and memorable children's book.

My Rating: Two stars

For the sensitive reader: The main character is bullied and he and others are in danger throughout the story, and there are strange and spooky worlds and villains that might be frightening for younger readers.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Refugee - Alan Gratz

Summary: JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .

ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .

MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .

All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers -- from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, their stories will tie together in the end. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: You’ll have to forgive me if this is a little gushy or rambly - I finished this book last night and am still reeling from the emotional punches it threw. I found myself in tears more than once, which is not something I had expected, but that made it difficult to not run upstairs, wake up my son (who got me reading Gratz in the first place) and demanding that he read this book RIGHT NOW THIS VERY INSTANT!

This isn’t an easy book to read. Granted, Gratz’s other books don’t exactly pull punches, and he specializes in making difficult subjects easier to introduce to ready middle readers. However, that doesn’t mean that this is one to skip. Instead of dealing with history, Gratz has tackled a pressing issue that has been thrust into the public with the expansion of media reporting - the refugee crisis. Taking three different refugees, Josef - a German Jew fleeing Hitler’s regime aboard the St. Louis, Isabel - a Cuban who is desperately trying to get her family and the family of her best friend to America and away from Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud - a Syrian boy who is just trying to get to Germany where he and his family can be safe from the shells destroying his home, Gratz jumps from story to story, showing the reader the struggles, the fears, the boredom or extreme anxiety that each refugee faces. Masterfully done, he then interweaves their stories in such an unexpected and touching manner, that when I noticed what was happening, it quite literally took my breath away.

Typically the stories that Gratz relates are semi biographical, but in this instance, all three characters are fictional. Their experiences are real, they are based upon real children who went through the stress and the tribulations these characters did, but this is fictional. The issues, however, are not, and the way Gratz confronts them is tastefully, unabashedly, truthfully done. 

I have loved Gratz’s other books, but this one struck me in a way that his others simply haven’t been able to. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a must read, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in classrooms soon.

Rating: Five very shiny stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Some violence, a shark attack, and it’ll just chew up your heart

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Passion of Dolssa - Julie Berry

Summary: Dolssa is a young gentlewoman with uncanny gifts, on the run from an obsessed friar determined to burn her as a heretic for the passion she refuses to tame.

Botille is a wily and charismatic peasant, a matchmaker running a tavern with her two sisters in a tiny seaside town.

The year is 1241; the place, Provensa, what we now call Provence, France—a land still reeling from the bloody crusades waged there by the Catholic Church and its northern French armies.

When the matchmaker finds the mystic near death by a riverside, Botille takes Dolssa in and discovers the girl’s extraordinary healing power. But as the vengeful Friar Lucien hunts down his heretic, the two girls find themselves putting an entire village at the mercy of murderers. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I chose this book for my book club in kind of a blind draw. The way our library book club sets work is that they have the longest list ever, and then there’s a somewhat confusing calendar on another page, and then you’re somehow supposed to figure out which books are available that you actually want by toggling through the two of them, trying to match up what you want verses what’s available. If this doesn’t sound complicated then I haven’t done it justice. I’ll often just start by trying to see what’s available and then decide if the book is something I want to choose, which is what I did this time. See, my book club is full of women near and dear to my heart, some of my best friends that I have had these ten years living here in this neighborhood. It started as part of a church group, though, and although we’re no longer that,  many of them are quite conservative and very conservative readers, so it’s not like choosing Fifty Shades of Gray is an option. At all. Not that I would ever read that trash. But also—I just want to be careful. I don’t want to be that person who picked the book with all the raunchy scenes and unnecessary language. It’s not like they’re prudes, they understand that sometimes books have some language, but it’s an audience where I want to choose a good book for them that is on the clean side. (Any suggestions would be much appreciated! Leave them in the comments!) Our book club has been going for more than ten years now so you can imagine that we’ve covered quite a few books. Much of the low hanging fruit has been picked.

When I came to The Passion of Dolssa on my toggle fest for the perfect book club book, I was happy that it was already on my “To-read” list. That makes things easier. From there I do lots of info gathering and reading other reviews and Wikipedia, etc., to make sure that I know what I’m getting us all into. Not only do I not want to have a book that would make people uncomfortable, but I also REALLY don’t want to waste people’s time (including my own). Most of the women are gracious enough to read the book, and even if they don’t read the whole thing, most of the time they’ve read at least some and can talk about it. Having a really stupid book is just a waste of everyone’s time and makes for a lame discussion.

I am happy to report that I am very happy with my decision for this book. I think it has a lot of great attributes that make it an excellent book club book:
1.      It’s well-written. Sucky writing, no matter how good the story, just sucks. This writing was beautiful and although it was written for a YA Fic audience, it didn’t feel dumbed down or trite like I think some books in this genre teeter on the edge of.
2.      The story was very interesting. It was in-depth and featured many well-developed characters. Although the book is long, it is still a relatively quick read and I didn’t have anyone complain about the length (which will happen if a book happens to be too long to read in a month for some people’s liking). The story was engaging and even had some surprises and twists in it, which was nice.
3.      The book had a hint of magic, but not too much to turn off those people who are really against fantasy. In fact, it was up to the reader to decide whether it was magical realism, magic, or something entirely religious. This made for some great discussion in my book club, especially considering our religious background.
4.      Which brings me to an essential…this made for some great discussion in our book club. We talked longer about this book than we have any other book in a long time. I had a list of questions that I had gathered from various places, but there was also just a lot of discussion and hashing out details. Part of this is, admittedly, because we are an LDS (Latter-day Saint i.e. Mormon) book club (in the sense that we are all LDS, not that we only read LDS literature), and so these types of religious happenings were a very interesting topic for us to delve into. If you are LDS you’ll know what I mean when you read this book—there’s a lot to discuss.
5.      The female characters are really cool. There are some great male characters, too, don’t get me wrong, but this book is based on real-life female mystics that lived during the Middle Ages. The author had done a lot of research into the original journals and first person accounts of miracles that were performed and what happened. I love me some historical fiction, but it’s so fun when it’s based on true historical facts and real people.

I really enjoyed this book. I had planned on reading it myself sometime, but I am so glad that I read it in a book club so that I had other people to discuss it with. I have, in fact, recommended it to other people as well in the hopes that we can discuss it. As a religious person I just found it really fascinating, and also engaging and well-written. I highly recommend it.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are some minor incidents of language and acknowledgment of sex (and in the afterward there is some discussion of how the female mystics would write about their devotion in an almost sexual manner, although this was never discussed). I was fine reading this book in my book club.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Red - Liesl Shurtliff

Summary: Red is not afraid of the big bad wolf. She’s not afraid of anything . . . except magic.

But when Red’s granny falls ill, it seems that only magic can save her, and fearless Red is forced to confront her one weakness.

With the help of a blond, porridge-sampling nuisance called Goldie, Red goes on a quest to cure Granny. Her journey takes her through dwarves’ caverns to a haunted well and a beast’s castle. All the while, Red and Goldie are followed by a wolf and a huntsman—two mortal enemies who seek the girls’ help to defeat each other. And one of them just might have the magical solution Red is looking for. . . . (Summary and Image from goodreads.com)

Review: I have a weakness for retold fairy tales. I love revisiting stories from my childhood and seeing the reimagined depth an author can breathe into them, especially when it’s well-done. I even like it when they tie in other stories, even if minutely.

Shurtliff has done a fantastic job here in expounding the story of Little Red Riding Hood, creating a world where the wolf may not be as terrible as we’ve come to imagine, and where the real villain may just be time. Her imagery and her characters made everything so immersive that I found difficulty in putting this book down. The storyline, typically one difficult to expand or flesh out, is so masterfully well done, skillfully interwoven with other fairy tales as needed, that it’s taken on a life of its own. 


My daughter had to read this for a school competition and begged me to read it as well. If you’re still looking for a good book to give the MG reader in your life, consider this one. Clean, well-written, fun, sweet - it checks all the boxes!

Rating: Four stars

Monday, December 11, 2017

To the Back of Beyond - Peter Stamm

Summary: After returning from a pleasant holiday with his wife, Astrid, and their two children, Thomas leaves the house. He walks down the street, and he keeps on walking. At first Astrid asks herself where he's gone, and then when he's coming back, and finally whether he is even still alive. 

In precise and hypnotic prose that cuts as cleanly as a scalpel, To the Back of Beyond is a novel that takes away the safe foundations of a marriage and a lifestyle to ask deeper questions about identity, connection and how free we are to change our lives. It is a graceful and resonant work from one of Europe's most important writers. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: Ok so here’s the deal. I have to admit that my review is going to be completely colored by the fact that I am absolutely judging the main character. That’s how book reading goes, though, right? If we relate to them—or even if we don’t—our opinions of the books we read are completely determined by our own human experience. I think one of the ways this has really been emphasized for me over the years is when I go back and re-read a childhood fave, or even one that was especially poignant to me in a certain part of my life. When I read it again I’m not going through the same thing and therefore it doesn’t hit me the same way. Or I like it more. Or I like it less. So although I am not personally someone who re-reads books a lot (there are so many more books to read! I don’t have time for old ones!) I completely understand that there is more to get out from a good book that just a first-time reading can give me. Or even a tenth time reading.

I will not be reading this book again. I got what I needed.

I think the summary on the back of the book pretty much describes all you need to hear within the first paragraph: “Happily married with two children and a comfortable home in a Swiss town, Thomas and Astrid enjoy a glass of wine in their garden on a night like any other. Called back to the house by their son’s cries, Astrid goes inside, expecting her husband to join her in a bit. But Thomas gets up and, after a brief moment of hesitation, opens the gate and walks out.”

So that’s it. The dude walks out. No explanation. Ever. And none ever comes, so don’t worry about waiting for it. Save yourself the grief and pain and struggle and sacrifice and questioning and confusion and loneliness and loss and anger and betrayal and resignation that Astrid had to deal with from this very selfish man with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. I mean, seriously? SERIOUSLY! I was so angry for her I basically couldn’t get over that the whole time. I tried to keep an open mind, though, maybe there would be some sort of human discovery where Thomas has to search his inner soul or something and comes back renewed (or doesn’t come back renewed, but either way, hopefully something went on) but there was no soul searching. The book itself is written in very short little blurbs that switch back and forth between Astrid and Thomas’ respective lives. From the accolades that Stamm has received I would have expected a lot more than I got. The short blips seemed almost like an outline, or maybe something a less experienced writer would do. There was no description, very little discussion of what was actually going on, more like just a report of the basics with no discussion whatsoever. Nothing of substance is said at all, really. Just a report of these people’s lives who were ruined because one stupid man made a very stupid choice that pretty much affected both of them and their children for the rest of their lives with absolutely no explanation from any of them. So there I am, completely annoyed with Thomas and his stupid selfishness and genuinely bad life choices, and there is no comfort of discussion or analysis or anything to quell my annoyance. This only fuels it.

I am willing to accept that maybe something was lost in translation. Maybe there is a subtlety in Switzerland where people are okay with spouses leaving them and having no discussion of it, but I don’t think so. This book was short and I think it was meant to be concise and thought-provoking, but I found nothing to provoke my thoughts. Just my extreme annoyance and anger.

My Rating: 1 Star.

For the sensitive reader: There was a a few swear words and a few sex scenes, although nothing graphic. This is on the tamer side of most adult fic.

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