Monday, May 23, 2016

Lara's Favorite Reads

Adult Fiction: 
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 

Young Adult Fiction:
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton 
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare

Friday, May 20, 2016

Reagan: The Life - H.W. Brands

Summary: From master storyteller and New York Times bestselling Historian H. W. Brands comes the definitive biography of a visionary and transformative president

In his magisterial new biography, H. W. Brands brilliantly establishes Ronald Reagan as one of the two great presidents of the twentieth century, a true peer to Franklin Roosevelt. Reaganconveys with sweep and vigor how the confident force of Reagan’s personality and the unwavering nature of his beliefs enabled him to engineer a conservative revolution in American politics and play a crucial role in ending communism in the Soviet Union. Reagan shut down the age of liberalism, Brands shows, and ushered in the age of Reagan, whose defining principles are still powerfully felt today.
     Reagan follows young Ronald Reagan as his ambition for ever larger stages compelled him to leave behind small-town Illinois to become first a radio announcer and then that quintessential public figure of modern America, a movie star. When his acting career stalled, his reinvention as the voice of The General Electric Theater on television made him an unlikely spokesman for corporate America. Then began Reagan’s improbable political ascension, starting in the 1960s, when he was first elected governor of California, and culminating in his election in 1980 as president of the United States.
     Employing archival sources not available to previous biographers and drawing on dozens of interviews with surviving members of Reagan’s administration, Brands has crafted a richly detailed and fascinating narrative of the presidential years. He offers new insights into Reagan’s remote management style and fractious West Wing staff, his deft handling of public sentiment to transform the tax code, and his deeply misunderstood relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, on which nothing less than the fate of the world turned.
     Reagan is a storytelling triumph, an irresistible portrait of an underestimated politician whose pragmatic leadership and steadfast vision transformed the nation.
  
(Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I have to admit that I was just a wee little lass when Reagan was president, and so I didn’t know much about him or his presidency. I knew a few token things, obvious things—like the fact that he was a Hollywood star before being president, and also that he had some serious popularity going for a lot of his presidency. There are maybe a few other things but that’s perhaps all that’s worth mentioning. Up until I read this book, Reagan was an enigma. I knew he had a great impact, but I wasn’t sure how specifically.
                After reading this book, I can say that, while I’m not necessarily an expert on all things in Reagan’s life, I’m certainly very well versed in his presidency. The book is certainly well-documented, with copious notes, letters, and memos, a lot of which are part of the actual book. Brands didn’t just summarize conversations or situations, he included the actual conversations, memos, or thoughts from memoirs and interviews from the players involved. I liked that a lot, actually. Biographies will sometimes be tainted by the author’s view of their subject, but I think that Brands did a great job of leaving his opinion out of it. He let the letters, comments, and conversations of the day dictate what the reader thought. He didn’t just report on the situations in the presidency, he documented them such that it was a very realistic re-living of the times and what was going on. In fact, until the final few pages of the book I wasn’t even sure what he thought. It seemed obvious that were you to research and write a book of this magnitude, you would probably like the person, but this wasn’t immediately evident until the end.
                After finishing this book, I‘m very aware of three things, which happen to be the most prominent themes in the book. 1) Reagan was an incredible speaker. It was, perhaps, one of his greatest strengths. He always tried his best to be honest in his speaking (and even amidst the Iran-Contra fiasco he maintained that he always told everything he knew) and he was funny and personable and warm so that he was well-liked and trusted. 2) Reagan was a very private person and was not necessarily as warm and loving and accessible in real life as he was in his public speeches. His children from two marriages have said as much, and people who worked very closely with him for years were never really let into his innermost thoughts and feelings. 3) Nancy Reagan played a huge role in the presidency and in Reagan’s life (this last point is obvious, since she was his wife). She swayed policy and people and the president himself in subtle ways.
                This book was a very detailed description of Reagan’s early professional life as an actor and Actors’ Guild player, and especially his presidency—the politics, the people involved, the fiascos, the wins, and basically all the goings-on in minute detail. The conversations and letters and speeches he gives are well-documented. The biography is not, however, a detailed description of his private life. There is some of that, of course, but there are not deep discussion (or much of any discussion, really) of his children or his relationships with his wives or their goings-on. If I were to re-name this book, I would call it Reagan: The Presidency. I have read other biographies of presidents and in my experience, this is one of the most thorough discussions of a president’s professional life. It is not a deep discussion of his life in general. There are other biographies written about Reagan as well as a few autobiographies written by him, and I’m assuming that those go more deeply into his personal life. Also, a biography of Nancy Reagan would be fascinating as a companion to this book as she did have so much influence.
                Overall, I would say that if you are looking for a detailed description of Reagan’s professional life and especially his presidency, this is an excellent book. It is well-documented and cited and I enjoyed the insights from his personal diary as well as the opinions of the other players involved.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Born to Treason - E.B. Wheeler

Summary: Joan Pryce is not only a Catholic during the English Reformation but also Welsh, and comes from a family of proud revolutionaries. But when a small act of defiance entangles her in a deadly conspiracy, a single misstep may lead her straight to the gallows. Now, Joan must navigate a twisting path that could cost her life, her freedom, and her chance of finding love. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Okay, I know you shouldn’t ever judge a book by its cover.  But look how pretty!  I want that dress.

Joan may be Welsh nobility, but she is also an orphan, cast out of the only home she knows to live with her godparents. She tried in vain to save her father, but as a result of Queen Elizabeth’s henchmen, he succumbed to the torture and passed away.  She knows little of her godparents, and is shocked to find they still expect her to marry a boy she had been betrothed to years earlier, one who shows very little interest in her.  Anyway, she’s not sure she even wants to marry - what she truly wants is to be Welsh.  She wants to practice her faith in public, but as a Catholic, the mere thought of that is nearly treasonous.  Without meaning to, she is recruited as a runner, charged with dropping off a few papers here and there that will be printed and distributed as a booklet extolling the virtues of Catholicism. 


Wheeler did an amazing job with this book.  It’s a quick and engaging read, and one I found very easy to get lost in.  Joan’s character is very likable, concerned with what she sees as her duty as a noblewoman and a Catholic.  While she chafes under the restrictions placed upon her by Queen Elizabeth and by her own limitations as a woman, she searches for ways to blossom.  It almost felt like a distant cousin of Beauty and the Beast, but without a lifetime of servitude. 

Although the story is set in Elizabethan Wales, I loved how relatable some of Joan’s problems were.  Inequality, prejudice, fear-mongering, and poverty are universal struggles, and Wheeler deals with them in a way that is optimistically uplifting.  I would easily pass this book to a teen (11+) as a summer read.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is a scene where Joan is attacked and beaten for information.  Also, one of the priests she is trying to help is distinctly chauvinistic.  I didn’t like him.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Winter Sea - Susanna Kearsley (Slains #1)

The Winter Sea—Susanna Kearsley (Slains #1) Summary: In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown. Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write. But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her.…

Image and summary from Goodreads.com. 

Review: A friend recommended this book to me knowing that I have Scottish ancestry and love to read and write historical fiction. My friend did not know that I descend from the Hay Clan line that lived at Slains Castle. This book definitely held some personal interest for me! That being said, if not for that interest, I doubt I would have continued past the third chapter. However, I did. It probably took me about halfway through the book to become invested in the story itself for its own merits. 

Carrie McClelland is a best-selling historical novelist who has enough money to live wherever she wants and write whatever she wants and she’s best friends with her agent and everything and she lives the glamorous stereotypical life of an author, which as an author, I find annoying and inauthentic (though obviously this book came from an author, who had no issues with those stereotypes—maybe Susanna Kearsley is living that legendary life!). Carrie intends to write about the 1708 Jacobite Uprising through the eyes of an Irish man in the French Court but after a happenstance detour to Slains Castle in Cruden Bay, Scotland, decides to change the narrator and location of her story. She rents a small cottage in Cruden Bay and begins writing. She writes as she never has before, so swiftly and beautifully. She feels like a medium, a conduit. As she continues with her research, she begins to see that parts of the story she thought she imagined are actual historical fact. And the ancestor’s name she borrowed for as a name for her character was actually, unbeknownst to Carrie, at Slains Castle during this time in history. She begins to realize that the story she is writing is not a fictional account that she is inventing, but a retelling of her ancestor’s story and she is having “ancestral memories,” something the all-too-easily-convinced town doctor compares to inheriting an ancestor's DNA, the same way most people are scared of heights (we must have had an ancient common ancestor who fell off a mountain). Can you tell I felt this plot like was hokey? I think I'd rather go with some kind of supernatural haunting or reincarnation plot device. :) Two brothers begin courting Carrie and there is a sweet, simple, corny love triangle that is too saccharine to put much stock in.

The book alternates between Carrie’s experience writing the book and the actual book, which is the part of The Winter Sea that I enjoyed. This part of the story follows Sophia Paterson, a young from western Scotland sent to live with distant relatives for a short time at Slains Castle in Cruden Bay. Sophia learns of the Jacobite rebellion and develops Jacobite sympathies of her own, though not really based on prinicples or morals, but more from exposure, I think. Everyone around her is a Jacobite and has much to lose if the cause fails, therefore she roots for the cause, too. She falls in love with John Moray, a Scottish outlaw and fierce Jacobite supporter. They marry in secret before he returns to war and before long, Sophia discovers she is with child. The meat of the this aspect of the book revolves around the Sophia-John love story and how her discovery as his wife and mother of his child could be used against him and whether Charles Stewart will regain his throne so Sophia's beloved husband can come back to her.

There is a unique aspect of suspense as Carrie since descended from Sophia Paterson MacClelland, not Sophia Moray. This secret love story is not found within the genealogical records Carrie has access to, and this secret love and heartbreak is something shared between her and her ancestor Sophia. Knowing what she knows about Sophia’s life and her own family history, can Carrie face the ancestral memories she has and finish her story? Though overwritten and heavily dependent upon stereotypes, Sophia’s story engaged me (though Carrie’s did not) beyond my own personal interests. I’ve recommended it to people interested in that time period and the history of Slains. Being fairly educated in my family history, it was fun to see those facts brought to life and done so accurately, as far as my knowledge goes. A sweet love story told with a unique twist, it’s a fun tale. Though it’s the first in the series, it is complete as a stand-alone tale and the other books do not seem to build upon the same characters but rather the same concept of modern day heroines channeling the stories of long-ago heroines.

My rating: 3.5

For the sensitive reader: While there are incidents of intimacy, they are very subtle and veiled. I’d give it a green light for sensitive readers.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers - Coco Schumann

Summary: A fine translation of Coco Schumann's vivid memoir of a life in music. From his early enthusiasm for American jazz in Berlin cabarets to his membership of Terezin's celebrated Ghetto Swngers, to surviving Auschwitz through his music, to post-war appearances with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, jazz remains a constant in a remarkable life story.  (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Coco Schumann came from a loving, tolerant, incredible German family.  His father, everything the Nazis wanted in their rising regime came from a good family, although not a well-to-do one.  His mother, an incredible woman who came from an equally amazing and supportive family, happened to be Jewish.  Coco witnessed from a very early age his father’s courage as he told the rising regime he would be unwilling to leave his family for a more “Aryan” one.

Coco inherited that grit.  He also inherited a love of the nightlife from an uncle, and sought it out from early on.  The guitar fell into his life almost by happenstance, and he embraced it with gusto.  His relationship with his guitar was the only thing that could never be taken away, and that passion propelled him through the most harrowing circumstances.

This was an interesting and enlightening read.  The passion and the clarity with which Schumann recalls his past experiences, playing with some of the greats, surviving World War II, his internment, are all very evident.  I felt like I was listening to the gregarious great-uncle with stories almost too good to be true, other than the fact that they really are. 

This book very much feels like a conversation carried on between Schumann and anyone passionate about music.  His arrest, internment, and release are all such a brief and fleeting memory compared to his musical achievements that I feel like I was probably not the best target audience.  I like music, but I’m condemned to appreciate it, not to live for it.  I don’t know much of Jazz History, or of the History of Jazz in Germany, and this book would be perfect for the audiophiles in your life.  

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Schumann was a Jazz player, with mentions of promiscuity, lots of drinking (seriously the drinking), and some mentions of the brutality and fear that he experienced during the War.

As a side note, please join me in wishing Herr Schumann ein herzlicher Geburtstag!!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nimona - Noelle Stevenson

Summary: The graphic novel debut from rising star Noelle Stevenson, based on her beloved and critically acclaimed web comic, which Slate awarded its Cartoonist Studio Prize, calling it "a deadpan epic."

Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)


My ReviewI often have trouble getting through my lists of books to read because I'm one of those people who constantly returns to re-read favorites.  This week, it was Nimona.

I like Nimona because it is so off-the-wall and unexpected, a fast-paced adventure of heroes and villains, but not in the typical sense.  It's set in a non-distinct time period that feels like the future and the past all at once, while still giving off the vibe of a medieval fantasy, which is a nice twist and lends to a lot of fun imagery and ideas.  It turns the tropes of good and evil on their heads, showing what it means to be a villain, a hero, a monster, or just overall different.

The humor in this book is great, and may be what you'd call dark or deadpan (which happen to be my favorite kind).  Nimona, the girl working for the city's villain Blackheart, is a goofball, and keeps the story lively with her wit, jokes and constant shape-shifting, despite the pain hiding deep within herself.

Which leads me to what I love most about this story: the heart.  Wacky as it is, it's a surprisingly touching story about friendship and trust, and I love how Blackheart comes to care for his crazy sidekick, as she changes from employee to friend.  I love funny stories, but if they are funny and have heart, then they win me over and stay with me.


My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Does have some killings--sword, gun, and monster related, as well as some mild swearing.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Bleeding Door - Todd Cook

Summary: In 1868, the body of a young man, one of southern Appalachia's most feared and despised feudists, is found inside a deserted millhouse. Though the death of this violent man is welcome news to those who live in that region of southern Appalachia, few could imagine that long-ago events at a frontier Methodist academy in central Kentucky – as well as a succession of circuit riding preachers, a troubled Shaker village, as well as a mountain community plagued for decades by witches, ghosts, “haynts,” and deadly clan warfare—all led up to the death of this reviled figure, Enoch Slone. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I don’t think I’m the only one who finds the people of the Appalachians really interesting. First off, they’re really isolated. Those steep mountains not only create a natural geographic barrier, but families and clans stick together there in order to survive and thrive. They live with generations of family, passing down their culture and cultural stories. It’s just fascinating. As with lots of books I read, especially if they’re really interesting, I do a little research during and after reading the book. The research I did for this book mentioned that the communities in Appalachia have been lost and found several times, one of the notable times they were found was before the Civil War, and then after the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, they were forgotten again. This book takes place right in that timeframe, so it was especially pertinent when I read this. Also, I looked up lots of pictures. Google Images is awesome for this kind of thing. As with many places of isolated cultures (and not just isolated cultures, actually) the land plays a huge role in the culture. I mean, how could it not? It affects what people eat, what sort of shelters they have, what industry the local community has, and in this case, how isolated they are geographically. It’s beautiful in the Appalachians, ya’ll. I would love to hike the Appalachian Trail someday. But I digress…

There’s no use beating around the bush, this book is a fictional and re-named account of the longstanding feud of the Hatfields and McCoys. Wasn’t there even a reality show about them recently? Apparently feuds are not easily forgotten. Cook has obviously done his research. You can see from his author’s biography and tell from his deft use of conversation that he is very familiar with the Appalachian people and the Hatfields and McCoys. I don’t think that this is based on actual stories or history within the Hatfield/McCoy feuds, but certainly some of the history of the land and cameos of historical figures was real.

As far as this story goes, it was interesting. And sad. There was a period of time in the book where people were just killing people from the opposing family for revenge, and then the other family would kill those people’s family for revenge for the revenge, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s rough. No one was safe—children, women, old people, etc. It was tragic. Although I was fairly aware of what was going on for most of the time, I was very confused at the beginning. The story skips from place to place and in some instances goes back in time, so it is confusing. This isn’t super well marked in the reading, so sometimes you’re just reading along and then in the next paragraph you’ve skipped a generation. Since the back story was covered mostly at the beginning of the book it got less confusing as the story went on. I think this is basically due to inexperience on the author’s part. Once the feud is resolved the book ends quickly, although it is a peaceful ending and wraps everything up nicely.

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is violence in this book. Some of this violence happens to children, women, and older people who are defenseless. There is some language as well. I would say this book would be rated PG-13.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor - Nathan Hale

Summary: Araminta Ross was born a slave in Delaware in the early 19th century. Slavery meant that her family could be ripped apart at any time, and that she could be put to work in dangerous places and for abusive people. But north of the Mason-Dixon line, slavery was illegal. If she could run away and make it north without being caught or killed, she’d be free. Facing enormous danger, Araminta made it, and once free, she changed her name to Harriet Tubman. Tubman spent the rest of her life helping slaves run away like she did, every time taking her life in her hands. Nathan Hale tells her incredible true-life story with the humor and sensitivity he’s shown in every one of the Hazardous Tales—perfect for reluctant readers and classroom discussions. (Image and summary from goodreads.com)

Review: I struggle with enjoying books that are biographies, history, and non-fiction in general.  Unless, of course, they have lots of pictures and make non-fiction fun and accessible.  Nathan Hale is a genius in this department.

While this is the fifth book in the series, you do not have to have read the other books to understand it, other than there are three characters that carry over in every book: Nathan Hale (not the author, but a Revolutionary War spy), a British officer, and a hangman.  Taking a twist on history, Nathan Hale (the spy, not the author) is swallowed by a US history book before he is to be hanged.  When the book spits him back out, he takes Scheherazade-like action to delay his hanging by telling the hangman and the officer about what will happen in the future.

This particular tale introduces us to Araminta 'Minty' Ross (better known as Harriet Tubman).  I loved learning about her history, about her escape to freedom, and then her grit and determination to keep returning to the danger to save her family and other slaves.  I loved how she would put herself into harm's way to make sure others had what she had gained and what they deserved, freedom, and how she was clever and steadfast, and brought that gift to so many, becoming the Moses of her people.

What I love about these books is that while they teach you history with a humorous twist, they are also not afraid to tell the truth.  Slavery is a huge scar on American history, and Hale makes it known.  Terrible things happen in history, and ordinary people rise to meet them.

The humor comes mainly from the British officer and the hangman (my personal favorite), as they remark on what is happening in the story.  They bring a lighter side to what could be a very dreary story, showing us the humor even in darkest times.  That being said, there is also humor from the historical characters themselves.  We learn that Tubman was a narcoleptic, and there's a great running gag that follows this.

The art is fantastic.  What I love about these books is they each have a specific color, and only shades of that color are used in the book, Tubman's being purple.  The action, characterization and story flows beautifully with Nathan Hale (the author, not the spy)'s artwork. One of my favorite bits of art in this tale was the representation of those hunting the slaves.  They appear as very creepy horse-riders-of-the-apocalypse-type characters, which adds a visual for the ever present danger the the slaves are constantly in.  Another favorite are Tubman's visions, which are illustrated so beautifully.  Hale will also often tell little side stories that relate to the main story as well, in this case, the tale of Tiny Frederick Douglass. (Why tiny? Because that's the only way to fit it in!)

This was probably my favorite so far of the Hazardous Tales, though I would also highly recommend the other graphic novels in this series.  Hale makes history interesting and fun for even the most reluctant readers.  Graphic novels are a good way to get reluctant readers reading, and in the case of this series, get them into history.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a book that, while for children, deals with the harsh facts of slavery in America, and doesn't shy away from what really happened.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Boy on the Wooden Box - Leon Leyson

Summary: Even in the darkest of times—especially in the darkest of times—there is room for strength and bravery. A remarkable memoir from Leon Leyson, one of the youngest children to survive the Holocaust on Oskar Schindler’s list. Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and his family was forced to relocate to the Krakow ghetto. With incredible luck, perseverance, and grit, Leyson was able to survive the sadism of the Nazis, including that of the demonic Amon Goeth, commandant of Plaszow, the concentration camp outside Krakow. Ultimately, it was the generosity and cunning of one man, a man named Oskar Schindler, who saved Leon Leyson’s life, and the lives of his mother, his father, and two of his four siblings, by adding their names to his list of workers in his factory—a list that became world renowned: Schindler’s List.

This, the only memoir published by a former Schindler’s List child, perfectly captures the innocence of a small boy who goes through the unthinkable. Most notable is the lack of rancor, the lack of venom, and the abundance of dignity in Mr. Leyson’s telling. The Boy on the Wooden Box is a legacy of hope, a memoir unlike anything you’ve ever read. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I can’t think of a better book to discuss today than this.  I’m a firm believer that our children need to know the history of the world when they’re ready, but sometimes that history can be too heavy to easily address. The atrocities of the Holocaust are ones we can never forget, but all too often, the heroes that emerged during that time take a backseat to those horrors.  Oskar Schindler did so much, sacrificed so much, and now we read the story of a little boy whose life was spared because of Schindler’s kindness.

Leon Leyson recounts his time as a Polish Jew, the confusion of being expelled from school, the terror of witnessing his brother’s arrest, the difficulties and horrors of the ghetto and camp life in Plaszow and offers a firsthand experience into living under Schindler’s protective shadow.  Leyson was so small as a child that he was frequently sorted “to the left” with those too weak or too useless to survive, but through his tenacity and fearlessness, and through his father’s reputation as a good and honest worker, he found himself perched upon a wooden box working for Schindler.  He recalls fondly the small kindnesses Schindler would pay he and his brothers, father, and mother, from a “dropped” packet half-full of cigarettes, priceless on the black market, to a few extra slices of bread.  

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust-era books, and never has one left me with such a feeling of hope and peace.  Leyson was a child old enough to feel the terror of the Holocaust, but young enough to be blessed with that indomitable spirit that children have enabling them to survive anything.  His accounts of meeting Herr Schindler years after the war, and of Schindler’s recollection of him brought me to tears — and it’s in the beginning of the book!

I struggle with finding emotionally appropriate books for a young, advanced reader, and this is one I would hand to my son with no worries.  Leyson’s writing is forthright, appropriate, intelligent, and conversational - truly one of the memoirs in this genre that should be read time and again.

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This is a Holocaust book - retellings of men being shot, tragic arrests, the terror and pervading sense of fear that Leon felt are all present.  However, I believe that they are handled appropriately for the intended audience.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Mexican Slow Cooker - Deborah Schneider

Summary: Now you can prepare delicious Mexican meals like sopa Azteca, chile verde, and enchiladas en salsa roja with The Mexican Slow Cooker, a book whose recipes are designed to make the most of your slow cooker so that you can spend less time in the kitchen. Just prepare the ingredients as directed and load them into your slow cooker. Four to six hours later, you'll have mouth-watering meals whose flavors have benefited from the long, slow cooking that tenderizes meats and infuses simple ingredients with the rich flavors of chiles and vegetables. In addition to classic soups and stews, The Mexican Slow Cooker features chapters on "Street Food Favorites" and "Basics, Rice, Beans, and Other Sides." A chapter on deserts instructs you how to use your slow cooker to make delectable puddings and cakes. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: It is possible that you are like me and believe that when you see “slow cooker,” it means that you can just dump everything willy nilly into a Crockpot and in 6-8 hours WA-LA! You’re the hero. Your food has magically married into something scrumptious and fabulous. Maybe you’re also like me in that you have lots of slow cooker recipes, and some are good, some are great, and lots are just so so.

Have I mentioned the two main beliefs about slow cookers?

So let’s have a chat. When I got this cookbook I was super excited. I thought I would, without a doubt, be throwing in a whole bunch of ingredients from my pantry that would then turn into Mexican food magic and I would never look back. Now, some of this is true. We did have some really delicious food. However, there was very little throw it in and leave it going on.

Perhaps the thing that should tip you off is that this book is written by a chef. Like a legit Mexican-food making chef who has restaurants and who has won awards and such. This should tell you that she is not going to settle for dumping cream of anything in with a random meat and walking away and calling it good. Oh no. These recipes are time consuming. Many of them require several steps and quite a bit of prep before the slow cooking even begins, and then sometimes in the middle of the cooking or even at the end there is still quite a bit to do before you can sit down and eat. Also, the prep can take awhile as well. The recipes require ingredients that I was able to find in my big box store, but there were some that I couldn’t find right away. I probably could have found them at a Latin foods specialty market, of which we have several, but I was able to find what I needed for the recipes I used in the big box store in a well-stalked Mexican section.

With so much prep and sometimes in-depth cooking, I would say that what came out of my slow cooker was definitely delicious. One of our favorites was the carne con rajas (slow-cooker fajitas), which, on the surface, seems simple, but what came out was complexly flavored and I could tell that this was not just pinterest-grade Mexican food recipes. It was more like restaurant food. Another thing we loved in this book? The sides. The beans and rice were super delicious and the rice was actually really easy and throw-together. I made it several times. Also, many of these recipes are spicy. I eat spicy food. Like really spicy food. I didn’t think these recipes were too spicy, but they definitely had some kick. It’s for someone who really eats Mexican food and appreciates the different peppers and what they bring as opposed to someone who considers Taco Bell Mexican food. Which I don’t.

In a nutshell, this is a really yummy cookbook that is for the home cook who is looking to elevate their slow cooker skills. Instead of throwing everything in and walking away, you are using the slow cooker to bring out the depth of flavors in both tried and true and unique Mexican dishes. If you are a cookbook connoisseur and looking for something maybe a little outside of the Mexican cooking norm, this is a great cookbook for you.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is spicy! (haha! See what I did there?)

Friday, April 29, 2016

Series Spotlight: The Selection Series - Kiera Cass

I am a firm believer in everyone needing some down time.  I remember reading a baby book that told parents to watch out for their new child's needs, keeping in mind that as much as we cherish our alone time, some babies do, too.  It stuck with me.  I started noticing how much I needed alone time, mental break time, and physical rest.  Sometimes you just need some fluff.

I have a dear friend I go to church with who has anxiously been awaiting my reading of this series for over a year.  After some mandated down time in October, I figured it was time and reluctantly picked one up.  Two hours later, I was frantically searching through my friends to see who had the rest of the series so I could read it THAT NIGHT.  

Two days later, and not only had I read the four books in the series, I'd researched when the new book was coming out, read all of the novellas, and laughed at myself for delaying my downtime with this series for as long as I did!  I give you - The Selection.

The Selection is an interesting concept.  Part "The Bachelor", part The Hunger Games, the girls are competing to be the prince's bride.  It's no secret that girls from better sectors have a better chance, but their challenges are not only date-related, but have to do with decorum, likability, intelligence, and intrapalace politics.


The first book introduces us to this new world on the American continent.  While the changes and the time has made it nearly unrecognizable, relying on a caste system to maintain order and determine who could marry whom, the main character America is thrust into a world of cameras, higher caste assignments,  and isolation, despite being in the public's eye all the time.  She is unsure of whether she wants to love anyone other than her childhood sweetheart, but knows that her presence in the competition is helping her family.

The Elite, oh my.  Prince Maxon has narrowed his choices to eight ... is America still the favorite of the people?   Will her outspoken attitude hurt her chances with her beloved?  And is that beloved still her childhood friend, or has it become Prince Maxon?  Setting the Bachelor-esque parts aside, the true instability of the current regime starts to manifest.  Attacks upon the castle and upon the Elite increase, drawing everyone closer and causing a sense of urgency to drive the plot.

The choice has been made.  Up until now, I won't lie, this was a guilty pleasure series.  Okay, it still is.  but the final book truly showcases how far Cass has thought out the story.  While at some points I was tempted to shake the book and shout "Use your darn words, dagnabit!!" at the characters, the underlying political unrest and subversive underground movements come into the forefront of the series in a dazzlingly breathtaking and unexpected way. 

It's been years since the last Selection, and Princess Eadlyn finds herself in the unique position of being the first woman to rule the nation -- after her father steps down.  In an attempt to appease the upswell of discontent, she and her family agree to a new Selection - one where this time, the princess selects her groom. She has the support of her father who had to make brutal and life-changing choices, but does she have the strength to make her own?

I quite enjoyed the series.  It was exactly what I needed at a time my brain needed something fun and light. Is this something I'd give to someone who needs to write a critical analysis on a novel they choose?  Nope.  But would I hand it to the same reader after completing their paper?  Yep.  This is a toes-in-the-sand kind of series.  Grab a yummy, cool drink, your favorite shades, some sunscreen, and enjoy!

Series Rating: Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are some pretty intense kissing scenes, some milder cat fights among the contestants.  The conclusion to The One is brutal - much more so than I would have anticipated.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sky On Fire - Emmy Lambourne


Summary: Trapped in a superstore by a series of escalating disasters, including a monster hailstorm and terrifying chemical weapons spill, brothers Dean and Alex learned how to survive and worked together with twelve other kids to build a refuge from the chaos. But then strangers appeared, destroying their fragile peace, and bringing both fresh disaster and a glimmer of hope. 

Knowing that the chemical weapons saturating the air outside will turn him into a bloodthirsty rage monster, Dean decides to stay in the safety of the store with Astrid and some of the younger kids. But their sanctuary has already been breached once. . . .

Meanwhile, Alex, determined to find their parents, heads out into the darkness and devastation with Niko and some others in a recently repaired school bus. If they can get to Denver International Airport, they might be evacuated to safety. But the outside world is even worse than they expected. . . (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: The last time we saw our Monument 14, they had split into two groups in order to find help.  Those who are safe - or who at least don't turn into monsters in the contaminated air - are taking the bus to the Denver Airport to bring back a rescue squad.  Dean, Astrid, and a handful of the younger kids decide to wait it out in the store, in the hopes that rescue will come quickly.

The prospect of waiting around for an unknown period of time sounds interminably dull, but this book was even more gripping than the first.  The struggles and fears, trials and triumphs of these kids still rings true to the world that Lambourne has created.  It's terrifying.  It's plausible. It's compelling.  It's certainly entertaining.

This book is marginally darker than the first - not only that the group is dealing with those who have been living outside shelters, but that they're encountering the full measure of the chemical spill and the ramifications that the chemicals have wrought.  At one point I started to wonder if we had crossed into zombie apocalypse genre, Maze Runner style, but I think the Lambourne has found a good way of balancing her world in the midst of so many apocalyptic books and creating her own little niche.  Understandably the violence has increased, but it didn't feel gratuitous.  

Lambourne is writing from the perspective of boys, and while I understand that boys are hormonal and that when they are locked in a building with their crush, things can happen.  But I hated how prevalent it was in the story.  It was unnecessary and tarnished a series that honestly could have been one of my new favorites of the year.  Warning: If you plan on continuing with the series, just go ahead and have Savage Drift, the final book in the series, waiting for you when you finish this one.  It's a heart pounding ending.

Rating: Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Murders, brutal beatings, and teen hormones running rampant



Monday, April 25, 2016

Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai - Stan Sakai

Summary: Yokai are the monsters, demons, and spirits of Japanese folklore, such as the shape-changing kitsune, the obakeneko demon cats, and the evil oni ogres. Usagi faces all these and more when a desperate woman begs for his help in finding her kidnapped daughter. Tracing the abducted girl deep into the forest, Usagi finds it haunted by creatures of Japanese legend and discovers that they are amassing for a great raid on the countryside! Fortunately, Usagi is joined by Sasuke the Demon Queller, who is also fighting to prevent the invasion, but things aren't always as they seem; especially when dealing with the supernatural! (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My ReviewUsagi Yojimbo is a graphic novel series about an anthropomorphic rabbit who is a ronin--a masterless samurai--traveling through Edo period Japan.  While this series is a fun and worthwhile read, (and I have highly enjoyed the volumes I've read) you don't need to in order to enjoy and understand "Yokai."

As someone who loves monsters of all sorts, "Yokai" was a fun read, following Miyamoto Usagi as he becomes lost in a wood filled with these Japanese demons. It's also a good introduction to the creatures that have inhabited Japanese culture for centuries, and still embody themselves into everyday life.  If you're like me, it will only make you want to search out more information on these monsters.

The story itself is a quick read and straightforward.  Yokai can be scary, but they can also be silly, and this book has a good mix of both. Sakai has always offered a lovely blend of humor mixed with drama, and this book is no exception.

The art is gorgeous--while the regular series implements only black and white line work, in this volume Sakai employs his watercolors, which add another layer to Usagi's world, and are visually pleasing and enriching.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: sword-wielding ronin rabbit action.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Series Spotlight: No Safety in Numbers - Dayna Lorentz

I went on a reading binge at the end of last year.  It was a combination of illness, recovery, surgery, and bedrest needs, as well as getting thoroughly bored with everything on Netflix.  Unfortunately, despite my need for smart books, I couldn't handle it.  I turned to friends for recommendations and was shocked to find quite a few I hadn't read before.  The Monument 14 series was in that group, as was the Selection series.

A friend suggested a series by Lorentz and said it was heart-pounding and just a touch too realistic.  Intrigued, and in need of new books, I checked it out. (All images and blurbs from goodreads.com)



When a strange device is discovered in the air ducts of a busy suburban mall, the entire complex is suddenly locked down. No one can leave. No one knows what is going on.

At first, there's the novelty of being stuck in a mega mall with free food and a gift certificate. But with each passing day, it becomes harder to ignore the dwindling supplies, inadequate information, and mounting panic.

Then people start getting sick.

Told from the point of view of two guys and two girls, this is a harrowing look at what can happen under the most desperate of circumstances, when regular people are faced with impossible choices. Some rise to the occasion. Some don't.

And for some - it's too late. 

The first book in the series does a good job of setting up the frustration and the fear that a mall complex and its occupants would feel finding themselves in quarantine with little information, little contact, and way too little supervision.  I was so intrigued at the thought of a mall-based chemical attack - but initially found concern in some of the more unrealistic aspects of the series.



It's Day 7 in the quarantined mall. The riot is over and the senator trapped inside is determined to end the chaos. Even with new rules, assigned jobs, and heightened security, she still needs to get the teen population under control. So she enlists Marco's help--allowing him to keep his stolen universal card key in exchange for spying on the very football players who are protecting him.

But someone is working against the new systems, targeting the teens, and putting the entire mall in even more danger. Lexi, Marco, Ryan, and Shay believe their new alliances are sound.

They are wrong. Who can be trusted? And who will be left to trust?

The virus was just the beginning.

Fans of Life As We Knew It and those who love apocalyptic plots will love this modern Lord of the Flies. The sequel to No Safety in Numbers is a pounding, relentless rush that will break your heart and keep you guessing until the end. 


Hmm.  I started to get a little disillusioned with the series at this point.  There was enough excitement in the first book to keep me reading, but man, Lorentz did an amazing job of capturing how boring it would eventually be to be stuck in the same place with your freedoms being systematically stripped on a daily basis. It truly started to feel like I'd been stuck in the mall for as long as the victims.  The series also started to darken at this point - heading into a more anarchist area.




Perfect for fans of Life As We Knew It and Michael Grant's Gone--this conclusion to the No Safety in Numbers trilogy will make your heart race, your palms sweat, and will leave you wondering exactly what you'd be willing to sacrifice in order to survive.

First--a bomb released a deadly flu virus and the entire mall was quarantined.

Next--the medical teams evacuated and the windows were boarded up just before the virus mutated.

Now--the power is out and the mall is thrown into darkness. Shay, Marco, Lexi, Ryan, and Ginger aren't the same people they were two weeks ago. Just like the virus, they've had to change in order to survive. And not all for the better. When no one can see your face, you can be anyone you want to be, and, when the doors finally open, they may not like what they've become.

If you think it's silly to be afraid of the dark, you're wrong.
Very wrong.

And now we enter the Lord of the Flies territory.  The action is more intense here, but it's brutal, violent, true anarchy reigns, and it seems that the goal is to show how little it takes for the worst of humanity to come out.  I lamented reading this far (I have issues with leaving things unresolved) and the redemption I hoped for on so many levels never came.


This isn't a series I could in good faith recommend.  It left me depressed and slightly bitter, and life is too short for books that aim to depress for no other reason than to depress. I think part of the problem I had with the series is that I had just read Monument 14, a series along a similar thread with many differences.  That was so well-executed, this was like reading a penny dreadful in comparison.

Overall rating: Two stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Anarchy reigns.  Brutal violence, drug and alcohol use, Lord of the Flies but with teens and hormones.  

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lincoln's Grave Robbers - Steve Sheinkin


Summary: A true crime thriller -- the first book for teens to tell the nearly unknown tale of the brazen attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln's body!

The action begins in October of 1875, as Secret Service agents raid the Fulton, Illinois, workshop of master counterfeiter Ben Boyd. Soon after Boyd is hauled off to prison, members of his counterfeiting ring gather in the back room of a smoky Chicago saloon to discuss how to spring their ringleader. Their plan: grab Lincoln's body from its Springfield tomb, stash it in the sand dunes near Lake Michigan, and demand, as a ransom, the release of Ben Boyd --and $200,000 in cash. From here, the action alternates between the conspirators, the Secret Service agents on their trail, and the undercover agent moving back and forth between the two groups. Along the way readers get glimpses into the inner workings of counterfeiting, grave robbing, detective work, and the early days of the Secret Service. The plot moves toward a wild climax as robbers and lawmen converge at Lincoln's tomb on election night: November 7, 1876. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review:  In the 1870s, it still hadn't occurred to anyone that the President of the United States needed guarding.  In fact, the Secret Service wouldn't assume control over guarding the president until two more had been assassinated. Yet the Secret Service existed with the express intent to hunt down, arrest, try, and remove counterfeiters from the nation's money supply.  Counterfeiting was so easy that it's estimated that at some points during the 1800s, half (HALF) of all the currency being circulated was fake.

So, what does this have to do with robbing the tomb of President Abraham Lincoln?

Sheinkin delves into a fascinating, head-scratching, bewildering story of a group of counterfeiters who plot to steal Lincoln from his grave.  The logic they show is sometimes flabbergasting,  but the methodical way they plan to execute their plot is frankly unsettling.  At the same time, Sheinkin tells the story of the Secret Service agent who stumbles upon the plot and works tirelessly to foil the attempt.

This book is fascinating.  Not only reading about how counterfeiters worked, how prevalent it was at the time, and how truly powerful they were, but reading about the methods used to push the money into mainstream currency flows, how they were tracked and prosecuted, and the lengths they'd go to in order to continue their business, this was a world I knew nothing about! Throw in a good whodunit, a botched attempt of grave robbing (or two), politics, and the influence of a presidential election in the investigation into the mix, and you're sure to be entertained.

I had heard about the plot to rob Lincoln's tomb before, but really only in passing, and never as detailed as this.  I devoured this book in under a day, and immediately passed it along to my son who hungers for nonfiction books.  As a side note, why are nonfiction books like these so hard to find for Middle Readers?  Seriously, that's an untapped audience.  

If you've got a budding historian in your life, or if you need a quick and educational book, this is definitely one to add to your list.

Rating: Five stars

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Pumpkin Lover's Cookbook - Lyuba Brooke

SummaryUse your fall decor for more than just jack-o-lanterns! 

These delicious pumpkin treats will make your friends and family turn orange with envy. With over seventy recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizers, and desserts, this book is stuffed with tasty and tempting treats you’re sure to love. 

Try the 

Pumpkin Streusel Muffins 
Pumpkin Cheesecake Angel Trifles 
Pumpkin Curry Sauce 
Mushroom & Onion Dip in Roasted Pumpkin 
Baked Pumpkin Gnocchi and Cheese 

And then wash it all down with some pumpkin hot apple cider! Perfect for autumn or all year round, this cookbook will have your whole family falling in love with pumpkins! (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I am one of those people who is obsessed with pumpkin. Pumpkin cookies. Pumpkin cupcakes. Pumpkin ice cream. Pumpkin hot chocolate. Pumpkin bread. The list goes on and on. If it has pumpkin in it, I wouldn’t guarantee I’ve tried it because there are a ton of things with pumpkin out there nowadays for obsessed people like me, but I have tried quite a few things. I have loved, almost unequivocally, all of it. Now. Sometimes it doesn’t work—and I get that. I haven’t tried ALL the things because of that. However, it is my humble opinion that pumpkin is deelish.

I have a friend who unabashedly indulges me in all things pumpkin. She buys me pumpkin treats all year round, and keeps my pantry, fridge, and freezer well-stocked. Imagine my delight when she also got me this cookbook for my birthday! Oh my heck! I was seriously excited. I love cookbooks anyway, but considering my love of cookbooks AND my love of pumpkin? This was a dream come true.

Here is what I love about this cookbook—the recipes are really delicious, and not just because I’m a pumpkin freak (which I am). The recipes are actually legit recipes of normal things (from breakfast, to lunch, to dinner, to dessert, and beyond) with pumpkin as one of the main ingredients. I was a little skeptical, if not cautiously optimistic. My family and I ventured from the normal things (cookies, treats) to the not necessarily normal (pumpkin alfredo, pumpkin enchiladas, etc.). They were all good! I have to admit that when I made different pumpkin recipes four days in a row my kids, who are notoriously picky and ridiculous, were crying uncle, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t like it, just that they maybe would like something a little different than a daily dose of pumpkin. So maybe my suggestion would be to not make all the recipes in the space of a week. Because of this initial binge I’ve had to space things out a bit, but the things we have tried have been really, really good. Surprisingly good, actually. Even I wasn’t sure of the levels of my pumpkin love, but this cookbook has assured me that yes, I do love pumpkin, and yes, it is good in things that aren’t just sweet or snacky.

The book itself is soft cover and has pretty pictures. The author is a food blogger so you know that there are some great pics and some fun writing going on. It’s a really good addition to a specialty cookbook collection.

If you are a person who loves having lots of cookbooks for all kinds of things, and especially if you are a lover of pumpkin, this book is for you!

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Neptune Project - Polly Holyoke


Summary:  With her weak eyes and useless lungs that often leave her gasping for air, Nere feels more at home swimming with the dolphins her mother studies than she does hanging out with her classmates. Nere has never understood why she is so much more comfortable and confident in the water than on land until the day she learns the shocking truth—she is one of a group of kids who have been genetically altered to survive in the ocean. These products of the "Neptune Project" are supposed to build a better future under the waves, safe from the terrible famines and wars and that rock the surface world.

But there are some big challenges ahead of her: no one ever asked Nere if she wanted to be part of a science experiment; the other Neptune kids aren't exactly the friendliest bunch, and in order to reach the safe haven of the new Neptune colony, Nere and her fellow mutates must swim across hundreds of miles of dangerous ocean, relying on their wits, their loyal dolphins and one another to evade terrifying undersea creatures and a government that will stop at nothing to capture the Neptune kids ... dead or alive.

Fierce battle and daring escapes abound as Nere and her friend race to safety in this action-packed marine adventure. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: Hunger Games meets Splash, sort of.  Life on land has gotten too hot, too dry, and too dystopian for the citizens of what used to be California.  When disastrous news is announced that their town is being shut down and they'll be relocated inland, Nere's mother gathers her and a handful of other children, injects them with something painful, and then frantically explains that they're part of an experiment to see if humans could be genetically modified to live underwater, in order to form a better, safer community.  Before she can fully explain the purpose and the intent of this project, let alone find the forgiveness of her daughter, police arrive to arrest all of them.  Nere and her companions are left adrift in the ocean with meager supplies and more questions than they have answers for.

Holyoke does a good job creating a world under the sea for her readers to explore.  Threats of wildlife and the government are easy to understand and grasp, and the dynamics of a group of teenagers and tweens traveling together felt honest.  It surprised me that within hours of finding another mutant group heading to the same coordinates, cliques form and little love interests start popping up, but it was all very sanitary.

I had a difficult time sometimes remembering that they were underwater, but mainly because I've never read any mermaid books.  Ever.  Outside of The Little Mermaid, this was my first exposure.  Although, to be honest, these are still humans, just with an enhanced ability to breathe underwater and with better underwater vision.  But the terminology confused me, causing me to have to keep reminding myself that sprinting meant swimming really fast.  That yes, it would be totally natural for sharks to be following them.  But those failings are mine alone.

As far as dystopian fiction goes, this wasn't bad.  There are attacks (both from humans and animals), there are love triangles, there are unanswered questions, but it felt like the kind of book I could give someone who wants to read The Hunger Games but isn't quite emotionally prepared for the series.  I wonder if that will remain true throughout.

Rating: Three and a half stars


For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few deaths, shark attacks, and an attack by a giant squid.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy - Rachel Joyce

Summary: When Queenie Hennessy discovers that Harold Fry is walking the length of England to save her, and all she has to do is wait, she is shocked. Her note had explained she was dying. How can she wait? 

A new volunteer at the hospice suggests that Queenie should write again; only this time she must tell Harold everything. In confessing to secrets she has hidden for twenty years, she will find atonement for the past. As the volunteer points out, 'Even though you've done your travelling, you're starting a new journey too.' 

Queenie thought her first letter would be the end of the story. She was wrong. It was the beginning. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I must admit that I came into this book with some very heavy expectations. I really enjoyed the first book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and so I really wanted this one to live up to that. It’s so hard with sequels. So many times they just don’t deliver like they should. A lot of times they just don’t deliver like they should.

I was pleasantly surprised by the writing in this book. I believe that Joyce is a talented writer. I really enjoy her ability to tell a beautiful story without all the wordiness. I would describe her writing as “gentle.” A lot gets said, a lot gets told, but it’s almost like you’re just going along for the journey and learning it. It’s really quite awesome.

This book is sad, as you might imagine. If you’ve read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (and if you haven’t, you should) then you know that Queenie is dying in a nursing home while she waits for Harold Fry to come. With this environment comes a lot of sadness­—there’s just no way to avoid it, really. There’s also loneliness and hopelessness and pain, but there is also a lot of fun and there are some very hilarious people and situations. I found myself really enjoying reading about the shenanigans of the people living in Queenie’s nursing home. So I guess it’s a lot like real life, really. There are funny people, there are funny situations, but there are sad times, too. It just is what it is.

So did this book live up to my expectations? Well, I have to say that in some ways it did and in some ways it didn’t. One thing that I found to be confusing was that I felt like I almost knew too much. With The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry some of what is magical about it is that you don’t know what’s happening. The whole back story is there, you can feel it, but the mystique of it is almost as important as the knowing. In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy we learn a lot of the back story, and that’s maybe not what I wanted, even though I thought I did. I could see that it would be realistic in the way Joyce created it—it’s not like it couldn’t have been there—but it certainly lost some of its subtlety. Also, I wasn’t really sure I wanted Queenie to love Harold in the way she did. I’ll leave that there and let you read it.

So, yeah, I did like this book. I thought it was beautiful and sad and a good counterpart to the first book. I’m glad I read it, even though maybe I wished I didn’t know some of what I learned. I don’t think it’s as good as the first book (although it gets better ratings on Goodreads), but it’s certainly a good companion.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language in this book, as well as an incident of suicide. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Those We Fear - Victoria Griffith

Summary: What do you get when you cross The Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre with Psycho? Victoria Griffith's latest thriller.

When Maria becomes a summertime au pair to the children of a Scottish lord, she discovers the family is living under the shadow of two suspicious deaths. Vanishing portraits, cloaked figures, and bizarre shrines add up to a compelling Modern Gothic psychological mystery. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review)

Review: Within the span of a bag of potato chips, Maria's life has been turned upside down.  Her mother murdered, her own life in danger from a terrorist organization, she is forced to enter the Witness Protection Program, quickly briefed on her new identity, and sent to Scotland as an au pair for the summer, a safer location than she worries anywhere else in the U.S. would be.  But the circumstances of the job get odder and odder, and Maria finds herself wondering if there's something more going on in the estate than is of this world.

Griffith is clearly a fan of some of my favorite gothic works, specifically Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Turning of the Screw.  She borrows liberally from all three sources to craft her world, either from plot points, the presence of the works in the story, or having her characters pointing out the similarities in certain passages.  The suspense she is able to paint is quite real, propelling the reader through a quick and creepy read.

Unfortunately, there was quite a bit that didn't work with the story.  The fact that Griffith relies so heavily on the tropes so perfectly executed in the three works doesn't allow her to have her characters react authentically for this era or the world she has created for them.  They're doomed to repeat the actions, mistakes, and triumphs of the classic characters they are based upon. The problem with that is that, invariably, I ended up comparing them quite critically to the characters I know and love, and hers were found wanting.  There were too many suspenseful passages that were left unresolved and forgotten, the effort to modernize the stories wasn't strong enough to make it feel realistic.

Finally, I had an extremely difficult time with the numerous grammatical and spelling errors throughout the book.  Not only were words misused (rivets were cried instead of rivulets), dialectal words were used inconsistently. Had this been an ARC, I would have dismissed them, but sadly that wasn't the case.  It's too important as an author to assume the intelligence of your reader.  If they're able to find a correct usage or etymological history in a six minute google search on their phones, so should an author or an editor.  

I was left feeling wanting at the end of the book. It was definitely a book that could have been a bang, but ended up being a whimper.

Rating: One and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few murders, some fade to black scenes, allusions to infidelity, nothing terrible but much was unnecessary to the plot either.

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