Monday, May 25, 2015

50 Things You Should Know about the First World War - Jim Eldridge

Summary:  The story of the War, brought to life through illustrations, photographs, diaries, and newspaper reports.

In this illustrated exploration of World War I, readers discover what caused the war and why it eventually affected every corner of the globe.

The key battles, events, and figures are all explored and recounted in succinct and easy-to understand text while illustrations and photographs bring the past vividly back to life. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  I can think of  no better time to review this book than today, Memorial Day.  I know that history is taught differently from state to state, but I remember very little about World War I in my U.S. and World History classes.  I was taught the basics, what ignited the war, who fought whom, why, and who won, but it felt like all we learned was just to set the stage for World War II.

I feel like with the successes of series like Maisie Dobbs and Downton Abbey, visibility and recognition of the First World War is increasing.  At least mine is.  This was the War to End All Wars, it was in memory of the men, women, and children who lost their lives (and those who have since sacrificed so much) that we celebrate Memorial Day and other nations celebrate Remembrance Day on different dates.  How can I allow my kids to just hear the basics, (an assassination, land grabs, Lusitania, the end) and move on?

Eldridge has done an incredible job collecting, designing, and presenting fifty facts (definitely more, but fifty key points) for children.  The layout is incredible -- the background to most of the pages are photographs of the events discussed, but then each page is organized like an infographic.  Timelines of each year of the war are interspersed.  The facts are laid out chronologically within this layout, which was so helpful.  With two children  obsessed with nonfiction books (thank you, National Geographic Kids!) Ive noticed that the infographic is a layout that draws kids in.  Eldridge's relaying of the facts is succinct, but detailed enough that I learned so much more than I had in school.  

A secondary benefit of the book is that Eldridge is British.  I found it fascinating learning about the War from that perspective, since America entered the war near the end.  Not only did it impart a different perspective, important dates and events that are often overlooked in America were given more prominence.

This is one of those books that has become a treasured book almost instantly.  I appreciate the humanity it imparted the history.  I honor the work that went into it, and it greatly increased my gratitude for those who sacrificed so much.

Rating:  Five Stars

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath


Summary:  Joan of Arc’s close companion on the battlefield, one of the wealthiest and most respected men in France, became a notorious serial killer, nicknamed Bluebeard, who performed bizarre sexual rituals, brutal mutilations and murders on hundreds of children.  How could this happen to Baron Gilles de Rais, a Marshal of France, a renowned intellectual, a paragon of the high medieval prince, almost Renaissance in his talents and accomplishments?

There is no clear explanation. There is only speculation. Yet historic evidence indicates strongly de Rais, a returning soldier, suffered from severe PTSD, which perhaps triggered his latent psychopathic personality. His extreme depravity, his shocking fall from grace and explosive end, add fuel to the precept that the barbarity of war turned this celebrated hero into a monster. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)


Review:  My entire knowledge of Bluebeard has typically been fairy-tale based. I knew the story of Bluebeard's wives, but I never thought more about it until I listened to a podcast about the real man. Not a week later, I received a review request, and, my interest piqued, I requested it. I've always had a weak spot for the "man behind the curtain", especially with fairy take characters. 

Ogden is a meticulous researcher and an academic writer. She has done an exceptional job researching fifteenth century France, its customs and quirks, superstitions, politics, beliefs, and battle strategies. As her area of focus was a Marshall of France, she disects the battle strategies and history of the wars with the English, specifically the rise and fall of Joan of Arc. To my surprise, Ogden makes a strong case for de Rais' downfall being strongly linked to the loss of Joan of Arc, who had fought alongside and commanded de Rais in battle. To hear her research so clearly presented was gripping. She posits that his downfall, partially due to his childhood andl lack of moral upbringing, is also closely linked to severe PTSD.  And she makes quite a case.

Her thorough research, however, has a drawback.  No detail is spared in the recounting of his crimes.  Although it takes up a mere chapter in the book, I was left quite literally ill and couldn't even fathom tackling this review for days.  It disturbed me. It disgusted me.  In my opinion, it was wholly unnecessary to recount the atrocities in such vivid, disturbing detail.  I was simply umprepared for how truly evil de Rais was. I don't tolerate violence toward children well, and children were de Rais' preferred victims.  History will never know how many acutal victims perished or suffered at his hands, but estimates are upwards of 140.  

I don't know how I was able to continue reading after that fateful chapter, but I suspect it was because I was determined to see what punishment de Rais would suffer.  The details of his trial, conviction, and sentencing were fascinating.  What sickened me further, however, was that de Rais still considered himself a faithful, heaven-bound Catholic.  Just, no.  However, the differences between Church and State trials were unbeknownst to me and I enjoyed reading the implications of both.

This was a hard book to shake.  There was so much good information in it, but I felt like a little more sensitivity and tact could have been judiciously applied in that one terrible chapter.  Ogden's writing skills are good enough that I feel she could have clearly indicated how evil and how disturbed de Rais was without the sickening and unnecessary detail she divulged.

Rating:  Three stars (I averaged writing style and content.)

For the Sensitive Reader:  Bloody battles, brutal sexual and physical violence toward children, various devient sexual acts ... stay away.  For those who are a little less sensitive, I would still recommend skipping that chapter.  You'll know it when you get to it.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Date Night In - Ashley Rodriguez

Summary: Sweethearts, spouses, and parents Ashley and Gabe Rodriguez found themselves deep into marriage and child-rearing when they realized they were spending most of their evenings staring at their computers. Determined not to let their relationship deteriorate, they instituted a weekly date night and reconnected over simple but thoughtful dishes. Just carving out time to talk, cook, and eat together became the marriage-booster they needed, and now Ashley invites you to woo your partner all over again with food, drink, and conversation. (summary from book, photo from perrysplate.com)

Review: Just to clarify, it IS a cookbook, but it's so much more than that. I have never in my life read a cookbook cover to cover like a novel. Nor has one ever brought me to tears.  When I finished the book I was alone in my bedroom, almost afraid that my kids would come in and see the tears streaming down my face. I hadn't even tried out a single recipe, but judging from the to-do list I jotted down as I was reading, I knew it was going to be one of my absolute favorites.

In Date Night In, Ashley shares sweet courtship stories and weaves you in and out of the past as she tells how she and her husband reconnected through weekly date nights at home. She recreates food memories they shared early in their marriage and even opens up and shares some rough patches they struggled through. Ashley put her whole heart into this book, and I admire the couple's determination to intentionally carve out time for each other. I loved her writing and felt like she included me in her experiences -- as if we were sitting down in a little cafe together as friends. I felt like I really connected with her because our life circumstances are very similar as well as our desire to climb out of the child-rearing trenches and reconnect with our spouses more often. Ashley is also the talented chef and blogger behind the blog Not Without Salt.

Ashley organized her book by season (which I LOVE). Within every season she groups recipes into entire meals, and every meal begins with a personal story. This is what I meant about reading it like a novel. Oh, the stories. They're sometimes super sweet and sometimes a little heart-wrenching, but always beautifully written and meaningful. 

The meal I chose from the book was her Caribbean-Style BBQ Chicken Legs, Mango Miso Slaw, and Thyme and Parmesan Roasted Sweet Potatoes. Also, the Caramelized Pineapple Sundaes with Candied Coconut which turned out to be one of my favorite ice cream sundaes ever.

If you'd like to hear more about the meal (and snag the recipe for those chicken legs), head over to Perry's Plate and read my review over there!

Rating: 5

Sum it up: A cookbook with heart. And a whole lot of delicious content to woo your loved one.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mossflower - Brian Jacques


Summary:  The thrilling prequel to "Redwall". The clever and greedy wildcat Tsarmina becomes ruler of all Mossflower Woods and is determined to govern the peaceful woodlanders with an iron paw. The brave mouse Martin and quick-talking mouse thief Gonff meet in the depths of Kotir Castle's dungeon. The two escape and resolve to end Tsarmina's tyrannical rule. Joined by Kinny the mole, Martin and Gonff set off on a dangerous quest for Salamandastron, where they are convinced that their only hope, Boar the Fighter, still lives. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Brian Jacques is back with another epic adventure in the world of Redwall - but this time, Jacques is introducing us to the legendary Martin and relaying the origins of the Redwall Abbey.

Martin is a warrior mouse that has been driven out of his home by marauding sea rats and is searching for a new home.  He stumbles into an idyllic forest called Mossflower -- well, it was idyllic before the murder of the king and the usurpation of the throne by his daughter, the brutal, insane, and devious Tsarmina.  She's enslaved the residents, is waging war on them as they try to resist, and worse, she's framed her brother for the murder of the king and has taken two little hedgehogs hostage.

Under the direction of Bella the badger, the rightful ruler of Mossflower, borrowing on the courage of Martin and the cunning of Gonff (the prince of mousethieves), they launch a longterm plan to retake the forest, protect their futures, and restore Bella's father Boar to his daughter while they're at it.  

This book is a little more intense than Redwall, and it didn't grab me as much.  I'm not sure if it was my state of mind, or if it was just that the novelty had worn off, but it wasn't as magical as the first.  Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it quite a bit.  I just found it easier to set it down than I did with Redwall.  The story was also a little bit more formulaic - and while it's a successful formula, I would have hope to see a little bit of a shake-up.  Then again, I'm not the target audience, and middle readers like formulas (Babysitters' Club, anyone?), so this may bother your readers less than it did me.

My Rating;  Three stars

For the sensitive reader:  Again, there are battles and deaths, patricide, and one particularly intense battle between an eel and an otter that was truly intense.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Secrets of Life and Death - Rebecca Alexander

Summary:  In modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret--She's Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won't rest until they've taken the magic that keeps her alive.... 

In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess' malady, is the magic that might be able to save her...


As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  History.  The Occult.  Vampires, revenants, and the Inquisition.  Oh, my.

Rebecca Alexander's foray into the world of Edward Kelley (a real historical figure) was a truly mind-spinning adventure.  Not only were we jumping between two different timelines, Alexander has done a masterful job explaining the mythology of the world she's created, injecting enough realism into the storyline to make the fantastical seem more tangible, but she has also managed to do so without losing the sense of urgency or reality that her endeavor demands.

The story, which was easy enough for me to follow post-surgery, still twisted, turned, demanded a suspension of belief, and held me on the edge of my seat.

However, this is a horror story.  It's dark.  It's intense.  It's worrisome, but I believe it was well done.  I'm not typically one to dive into the horror genre, so when I do, I demand that the book taking me there is worth the read.  I wasn't disappointed.

Rating:  Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This is a horror novel.  There is a lot of what you'd expect in this genre.  If you're a squeamish reader, there are certainly books in the genre that could fit your need (Frankenstein).  But this is more gory than a sensitive or squeamish reader would appreciate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Boys in the Boat - Daniel James Brown

SummaryThe Boys in the Boat celebrates the 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic eight-oar rowing team—nine working class boys who stormed the rowing world, transformed the sport, and galvanized the attention of millions of Americans.

The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West, the boys took on and defeated successive echelons of privilege and power. They vanquished the sons of bankers and senators rowing for elite eastern universities. They defeated the sons of British aristocrats rowing for Oxford and Cambridge. And finally, in an extraordinary race in Berlin they stunned the Aryan sons of the Nazi state as they rowed for gold in front of Adolf Hitler.

Against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, they reaffirmed the American notion that merit, in the end, outweighs birthright. They reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together. And they provided hope that in the titanic struggle that lay just ahead, the ruthless might of the Nazis would not prevail over American grit, determination, and optimism.

And even as it chronicles the boys’ collective achievement, The Boys in the Boat is also the heart warming story of one young man in particular. Cast aside by his family at an early age, abandoned and left to fend for himself, Joe Rantz rows not just for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard, to dare again to trust in others, and to find his way back to a place he can call home.
Image and summary from the author's website, http://www.danieljamesbrown.com/

My Review: The Boys in the Boat is the story of the University of Washington rowing team and their quest towards gold at the Olympic games in 1936. Yet it is so much more than this. The story begins in the early 1930's, a time when the United States was suffering through the Great Depression. Times were hard and this story recounts the perseverance these boys' possessed,not only in terms of rowing but in also earning enough money to make it through another year of college year after year. The story paints a vivid picture of life in these times. Earning a dollar often required backbreaking work,building roads in the heat or blasting massive tree stumps or scaling mountains. The story also takes into account the tough living conditions and what family life looked like. It demonstrated the importance of the sport of rowing for both the teams and the spectators alike.

More than anyone this story belongs to Joe Rantz, one of the nine on the winning rowing team. The book documents his childhood struggles. It shows his great work ethic and will. It journeys through his courting of Judy and his very personal family issues. The story does not shy away from Joe's bouts of insecurity, making his character all the more likable and easy to relate to. Viewing the story through Joe's eyes gives it such a personal touch and makes it all the more heartfelt.

Intermingles with the story of rowing are details of Germany at this time when Hitler is coming into power and the country began to change. Lives of both minor and major players in the upcoming war are touched upon. Details of the film star Leni Riefenstahl, who filmed the actual races and captured additional unforgettable footage of Nazi Germany during this time, are mixed in. Although this tidbits are not added in a seamless fashion they do add a greater depth to the tale.

 Time and time again while reading this I found myself amazed a Brown's incredible writing style. Who thought that a book where the ending is well known from the beginning could be so suspenseful. Yet I found myself at the edge of my seat and  holding my breath each time the boys raced, sure that it wouldn't go as planned. This is an amazing story, one that will leave any reader with the utmost admiration for these boys and the others who played a part in their success. You don't want to miss this one.

My Rating: 5 Stars

To Sum It Up: Narrative nonfiction at it's finest. Read it, You won't regret a minute of the time you spend within these pages.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Years of Zero - Seng Ty

Summary:  The Years of Zero-Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge is a survivor's account of the Cambodian genocide carried out by Pol Pot's sadistic and terrifying Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. It follows the author, Seng Ty, from the age of seven as he is plucked from his comfortable, middle-class home in a Phnom Penh suburb, marched along a blistering, black strip of highway into the jungle, and thrust headlong into the unspeakable barbarities of an agricultural labor camp. Seng's mother was worked to death while his siblings succumbed to starvation. His oldest brother was brought back from France and tortured in the secret prison of Tuol Sleng. His family's only survivor and a mere child, Seng was forced to fend for himself, navigating the brainwashing campaigns and random depravities of the Khmer Rouge, determined to survive so he could bear witness to what happened in the camp. The Years of Zero guides the reader through the author's long, desperate periods of harrowing darkness, each chapter a painting of cruelty, caprice, and courage. It follows Seng as he sneaks mice and other living food from the rice paddies where he labors, knowing that the penalty for such defiance is death. It tracks him as he tries to escape into the jungle, only to be dragged back to his camp and severely beaten. Through it all, Seng finds a way to remain whole both in body and in mind. He rallies past torture, betrayal, disease and despair, refusing at every juncture to surrender to the murderers who have stolen everything he had. As The Years of Zero concludes, the reader will have lived what Seng lived, risked what he risked, endured what he endured, and finally celebrate with him his unlikeliest of triumphs.  (Summary and review from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  My goodreads page says it took me four months to finish this book. It didn't. I started the book in December, things got busy, and I picked it up yesterday. And finished it in an afternoon. It stole my breath, broke my heart, and left me filled with hope. 

Ty's story is not an easy one to read. Born to a large family with an educated background in prewar Phnom Penh, his life was devastated when at five years old, the Khmer Rouge took over the city and drove all residents out. Ty fled with his family, was separated from four of his siblings shortly after, and as the youngest, had to watch helplessly as his parents and his closest brother died. He stole to survive, smuggling frogs, snails, or tiny shrimp from the rice fields. He endured mental and physical torture. But he survived. 

He was able to reunite with his surviving family for a time before he realized Cambodia was no longer the place for him. Embarking on his own, at only nine, he crossed the border to Thailand, found a refugee camp, and found himself the focus of a Time article, "The Children of War". This led to his eventual adoption by his American family. 

Ty has seem more and survived more than many of us ever will, but his resilience and his attitude touched me. As he says, "Suffering has demanded that I become better than myself." His further observations  about how doing good and living a full, educated life is the best revenge he could give his former oppressors was so inspiring. Attitudes like that just aren't as prevalent anymore. 

Despite the heavy subject material, this is a fast read. It's obvious that English isn't Ty's first language, but his voice is clear throughout the book, and it somehow purified the narrative for me. I wish I could explain it better. 

The atrocities wrought by the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide are not as familiar to me as others that have occurred in the past 100 years. But I maintain that the burden of educating us falls to individuals like Seng Ty. In this case, he has borne the burden well. 

Rating: Five stars

For the sensitive reader: As a book about revolution and genocide, clearly this is a difficult book. There are numerous recountings of beatings, torture, murder, and the deplorable stare of starvation endured by the people. There are also many mentions of how many bodies littered the roads, lakes, and streams. It isn't for the faint of heart. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Artisan Caramels - Sandy Arevalo

Summary: Create without the wait! Homemade treats for the holidays don't have to be made from scratch. Skip the baking and get right to the decorating. (Summary and Pic from goodreads.com.  I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review: I’ve never made real carmels before. I’ve made those microwave kind, which are obviously not real carmels, so I was excited to get this book. First off, there are tons of delicious-looking recipes. There are so many different things to try! There are lots of different options, and lots of different recipes that can be modified into even more recipes by adding a different flavoring or topping or cookie crust.

I have to admit, however, that my first go-round wasn’t so smooth. Make that first two go-rounds. I tried to follow the instructions exactly—using all the right ingredients, going to the exact temperature, etc. It was pretty obvious that I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not a novice baker/cook or anything, but I haven’t made a ton of candy in my life, so I was trying to follow the directions exactly. There really isn’t a ton of direction given, but I didn’t feel really lost, despite making such a mess of things. My first batch of carmel was a $10 worth of ingredient failure. And it took forever to make. Forever. Like an hour and a half. And I had somewhere I was supposed to be but I obviously couldn’t just leave carmels a’bubblin on the stove. And then, to add insult to injury, the carmel was so hard that I couldn’t break it (even on my granite counter tops). I took it unceremoniously to my garbage can and dropped it in there where it rested, in one very large unbroken rectangle until it was whisked away to its final resting place. Lather, rinse, repeat again. I don’t learn from my mistakes, obviously.

The second (well, third) batch, I wised up. I bought a nice candy thermometer from Williams-Sonoma and threw away my old glass one with the paper slipping that was, at that point, totally sketch. And then I called my candy making neighbor and asked her about temperatures because it was clear to me that I had cooked it for entirely too long. After a nice chat, I realized that the temperatures in this book were for carmels being made in the Midwest and I live in a totally different climate and altitude than that, so I adjusted accordingly. My next batch, after all of this, turned out great. So great, in fact, that I made another batch of another kind and it was deelish as well.

So the long and short of it:
1.       The carmels, when made right, are delicious. And pretty.
2.       Each batch makes a ton so it uses a lot of ingredients but also you have a ton to share and give away (and then presumably people think you’re cool and a carmel guru).
3.       The book makes no mention of temperatures varying in different areas, but I am here to tell you that that made a huge difference for me, so plan accordingly.
4.       Use a good candy thermometer. It’s worth the investment.
5.       Plan a lot of time when you make the carmels. It takes longer than you’d think.

I’m excited to have this book in my recipe book collection. It’s a really fun addition.

My Rating: 4 stars.

For the sensitive reader: This book is all about sin in the best kind of way.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cheep Laughs - Darren Walsh

Summary:  Darren Walsh, the UK’s first Pun Champion™ and the comedy circuit's Tallest Comedian™, debuts his first and greatest joke book encompassing four misspent years of scribbling and doodling.
Look upon these works and despair and/or giggle:
I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It's Hans free.
Went to my allotment and found that there was twice as much soil as there was the week before. The plot thickens.
Green men make me cross
’My nephew would like to borrow your Toy Story costume.’
‘Oh, Woody?’
If Catwoman decided to go to Nepal, what would Catman do?
Got a free chimney the other day. It was on the house.
K e v i n (Kevin Spacey)

Summary and image from amazon.com.uk.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Darren Walsh, the UK’s first Pun Champion™ and the comedy circuit's Tallest Comedian™, debuts his first and greatest joke book encompassing four misspent years of scribbling and doodling.
Look upon these works and despair and/or giggle:
I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It's Hans free.
Went to my allotment and found that there was twice as much soil as there was the week before. The plot thickens.
Green men make me cross
’My nephew would like to borrow your Toy Story costume.’
‘Oh, Woody?’
If Catwoman decided to go to Nepal, what would Catman do?
Got a free chimney the other day. It was on the house.
K e v i n (Kevin Spacey)

Review: Okay, okay, so last year I gave a scathing review for a book that was too full of puns, and today I'm bringing you a book dedicated to them?  What gives?  Well, for starters, Darren Walsh is a British comedian known as the "King of Puns".  He has a mastery of, in my opinion,  one of the more difficult arrows to yield in a writer's shaft.  If not properly executed, or if too plentiful, the puns fall utterly flat, making the author look juvenile or untrained.  This book comes with a warning to NOT read it all at once; rather, to read it in short snippets for fear of getting buried by puns.

I read it all at once. 

I giggled.  I guffawed.  Some puns were either over my head or just didn't culturally translate.  But there were enough witticisms and sketches to keep me happily entertained for a few short hours.  In all fairness, I agree with Walsh.  Under normal circumstances, this is a book best nibbled, not devoured.  However, I'd just had back surgery and didn't have the brain capacity to read anything more daunting, and couldn't sit up to watch a show.  It was a perfect fit!

I read a few of these to my husband and son, and my husband couldn't stop rolling his eyes.  However, I'd see him giggling about them a second or two later.  My son is quite literal, and to our chagrin, doesn't get puns.  At all.  It didn't stop him from giggling -- gotta love the social laugh!

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are some puns and cartoons that are a little saltier than others.   Some could be naughtier than I realized, and I just didn't get the British connotation.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Public School Princess - Augusta Blythe


Summary:
In the world of Hollister Bucksey-Breiten fame, money and power are as prevalent as plastic surgery. Sixteen-year-old Hollister is heiress to the Bucksey real estate empire on her mother's side, as well as a bonafide princess thanks to her deceased royal father. After her troubled mother heads yet again to rehab, the celebutante suddenly finds herself shipped from the privileged halls of Shotley Academy in Los Angeles to a backwoods New Jersey high school. Life at Franklin High isn't what Hollister expects. Instead of being worshipped by her lesser-blessed peers for the usual superficial reasons, Hollister feels ostracized because of them. With the help of her estranged brother and a few new friends, she discovers what's really important not only to her but about her, and that a good heart is her most valuable asset.
Summary and cover art from Goodreads.com

My review:
Cute, predictable, and morally rewarding, this is a book version of a straight-to-video riches-to-rags-but-happily-ever-after movie. The book was a fun, quick read. Hollister was a fun character (think Cher from Clueless) who learns to expect more from herself and sees the good others during her exile to painfully impoverished suburbia.

There’s a little romance, because why not?, but the focus of the story is on Hollister’s transformation from privileged rich girl dealing with her mother’s addictions to empowered young woman making the world a better place by enlisting her new friends in a fashion show to raise money for charity. The concept could make a good episode of Saved by the Bell.

It’s a simple book that reads really young. Like how the High School Musical audience is not really teenagers but 7 year olds? It feels like that. Except there is enough bad language and sexual references to make it inappropriate for audiences younger than 14. There are no outright sexual scenes. The depicted romance is very sweet. But in true 21st century mean-girl fashion, photos of genitalia and sexual acts are texted around in a bullying fashion. Those things are real in modern high schools and I don’t necessarily mind that they were addressed, but the overly simplistic writing style and characterization did not match up with a few of the more mature plot points, making the book feel like it had a bit of a personality disorder. Princess Diaries with a few HBO-worthy scenes thrown in.

My rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: Mild swearing, crude humor, reference to sexual acts, bullying. 


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Please Remember


Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We were contacted by Ms. Klein's publisher about this article, and while we haven't reviewed the book We Got the Water: Tracing my Family's Path through Auschwitz, we were moved by Mr. Klein's words and felt compelled to share them with you today.

Please remember.

Please Remember: Holocaust Embrace Day
Gene Klein (with Jill Klein, author of We Got the Water: Tracing my Family’s Path through Auschwitz)

It has been 70 years since I was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. I was just a teenager then; I’m 87 now.  Holocaust Remembrance Day is April 15th, and I have been thinking about what I want you and your loved ones to remember about the Holocaust. I speak frequently about my experiences, and I am able to remind people about what happened, provide them with vivid descriptions, and answer their questions. But I am among the last of the survivors, and one day—sooner than I would like to think—we will all be gone.

Here is what I want you to remember after we are gone, when our memories must become yours, so that future generations will have the knowledge and compassion to avoid the mistakes of the past:
Please remember the life we had before it all started; before the name-calling, the bricks through the windows, long before the cattle cars and the camps. I was born into a middle class Hungarian family in a small town in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Our town was charming. We sat in outdoor cafes on summer evenings, and skated on the river on winter afternoons. My father owned a hardware store, was an avid soccer fan, and loved to tend to his garden. My mother took care of my two sisters and me, and was preoccupied with getting me—a naturally skinny kid—to eat more. We were not wealthy, but we had everything we needed. In the most basic of ways, we were not unlike you and your family. And we felt as secure as you do now.

Please remember that all of this was taken away. Within a few weeks in the spring of 1944, my father’s store was confiscated, my Jewish friends and I were told that we were no longer welcome at school, and we were forced to wear a yellow star. Then we were forced from our home, crowded into cattle cars, and taken to Auschwitz. When we arrived, the men were separated from the women, and then my father was separated from me. My father had been a POW in World War I, and during his years of imprisonment he learned to play the violin and to speak five languages. He was intelligent and humorous. I loved him the way any 16-year-old boy loves a wonderful father. The way you love your father, if you are lucky enough to have a good one. So imagine this: a man in a black uniform sends you to one direction and your father to another. You don’t know why, until the next day a veteran prisoner points up at the smoke coming out of a chimney and says, “Your father is up there.” Please remember my father.

Please remember that it is terribly easy for one group to strike another group off the roster of humanity, to see others as vermin or pests, as an affliction that must be destroyed. It happens again and again. And once it does, people are capable of inflicting terrible hardship and pain on others, and to feel they are righteous in doing so. None of the SS officers who ordered me—a starving teenager—to carry heavy steel rails up a hillside thought of themselves as monsters. They were adhering to their beliefs, and they were serving their country. We must be constantly vigilant for the descent that takes us from self-righteous beliefs, to the dehumanization of others and into the sphere of violence.
Please remember that while we are capable of all of this, we can also rise to amazing heights in the service of others. For two weeks I had the good fortune to have a respite from hard labor while I was assigned to work with a civilian German engineer who was surveying the landscape where future roads would be built. He saw the terrible conditions I was living under and decided to help. Everyday he hid food for me from the SS kitchen where he ate lunch. Chicken, milk, rice, and cheese left under a bench in the back corner of a barracks. He cared, he took a risk, and he saved my life. Please remember him.

And finally, remember that no one should be judged because of his or her nationality, religion or race. We were sent to the camps because propaganda was believed, individuality was erased, and hate was rampant. When asked if I am angry with Germans, I think of the German engineer, and know that individuals must be judged by their own personal actions. If I can hold this as a guiding principle after what happened to my family and me, then you can, too.
Please take my memories as yours, share them, and carry them forward. It is by doing so that you can help keep the next generation from forgetting, and help fill the space that we survivors will leave behind when we are gone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Announcement: Hiatus

Good morning, Readers!  

I've debated about this post and this decision for quite some time.

Reading is one of my passions in life.  It makes me who I am.  Unfortunately, another integral part of who I am involves my physical prowess.  I'm an epically clumsy individual. Truly, it's miraculous that the only bones I've ever broken are my pinkie toes and my pinkie.  I've alluded to my back in the past and my initial surgery was immensely successful.  So successful, in fact, that I felt more capable than I was, and I've reinjured the same disc.  Tomorrow,  I go in for the same surgery to correct the damage.

After consulting with our amazing reviewers and Mindy, we've all made the decision to put the blog on a month-long hiatus.

We're not going anywhere, I promise! I have some posts scheduled on our Facebook page, so you don't forget about us, but until I'm able to sit for two minutes without pain, we won't be publishing reviews here.  We have a wide variety of reviews scheduled, some incredible, some to watch out for, and some that may ruffle feathers (but that's the business of opinions!)  Look for us in May, and I look forward to catching up with you, then!!


Monday, March 16, 2015

Whisper Hollow - Chris Cander

Summary: Set in a small coal-mining town, a debut novel full of secrets, love, betrayal, and suspicious accidents, where Catholicism casts a long shadow and three courageous women make choices that will challenge our own moral convictions.

One morning in Verra, a town nestled into the hillsides of West Virginia, the young Myrthen Bergmann is playing tug-of-war with her twin, when her sister is killed. Unable to accept her own guilt, Myrthen excludes herself from all forms of friendship and affection and begins a twisted, haunted life dedicated to God. Meanwhile, her neighbor Alta Krol longs to be an artist even as her days are taken up caring for her widowed father and siblings. Everything changes when Myrthen marries the man Alta loves. Fourteen years later, we meet Lidia, a teenage girl in the same town, and her precocious son, Gabriel. When Gabriel starts telling eerily prescient stories that hint at Verra’s long-buried secrets, it’s not long before the townspeople begin to suspect that the boy harbors evil spirits—an irresistible state of affairs for Myrthen and her obsession with salvation. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I like books that, from the very first sentence, suck you in, set the tone, and demand your attention. Admittedly, a lot of books do this, but then they don’t deliver. By the time you’re a few chapters in, you feel kind of duped. I like the books that really suck you in, and that, after sucking you in, can back it up with a compelling story and good writing. It’s a rare book that has both. This is not to say that some books don’t survive on one or the other, because that’s okay, but if a book has both? Well.

Whisper Hollow has both. I love that right from the start, the writing is solid. This is rarer than you think. A lot of authors can tell a good story, but they’re not great writers. They’re passable and it doesn’t ruin the book, but it is a great author indeed who actually writes well and has a good story and can maintain it. Cander definitely does this. Her writing is compelling and beautiful, but accessible as well. Being accessible is key. There are authors who write beautifully, but their writing is a slog to get through. Not true with this book. The writing is beautiful and well-crafted and easy to read. This, my friends, is a great combination. It’s not just not bugging you, but it adds to the story and is a better book because of it.

I also really enjoyed the story of this book. It has a lot of heartache but it also has some great ups, too. It takes place in West Virginia, in the coal mines and mining towns, so right there you know that it’s not going to be all rainbows and sunshine. It’s a hard life there, and this book does a great job of weaving a story that doesn’t vilify or glamorize things unnecessarily. The characters are believable, too. No one is too good or too evil, and like real people there are some that have more good or more evil but no one is infallible and that makes them very relatable.

I have to admit that at the end, I almost couldn’t finish the book because there was a part I saw coming—hoped it wasn’t coming, dared the author not to do it, etc.—but I just had to because I had to know. That is the sign of a good book, peeps. That you care enough about what is going on and are caught up enough in the characters and the environment that you almost can’t bring yourself to read about a disaster you see coming, but you have to in the end. No matter what.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book would be rated PG-13. There is some sexual content, including a rape scene, as well as violence. It is not excessive or outside of the realm of the genre.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Redwall - Brian Jacques

Summary:  As the inhabitants of Redwall Abbey bask in the glorious Summer of the Late Rose, all is quiet and peaceful. But things are not as they seem. Cluny the Scourge, the evil one-eyed rat warlord, is hell-bent on destroying the tranquility as he prepares to fight a bloody battle for the ownership of Redwall. This dazzling story in the Redwall series is packed with all the wit, wisdom, humor, and blood-curdling adventure of the other books in the collection, but has the added bonus of taking the reader right back to the heart and soul of Redwall Abbey and the characters who live there.

My Review:  Do you remember the PBS Redwall series that aired in the mid-to-late 90s?  My brothers were obsessed.  It was one of those shows that I never actually watched, but I could probably still sing the opening song, and I had a rudimentary knowledge of the characters.

I was lamenting to my mom that I needed a good series to hook my oldest into, and she suggested I just try Redwall.  She warned me that it wasn't her cup of tea, but I told her I'd read it first and see if it was something I'd be willing to pass along to my son.  I grabbed a few books from the series from her library, packed them away, and went to bed - but I made the mistake of starting the first book before I fell asleep.  And I didn't sleep much that night.

Brian Jacques has created an entire world that is enchanting.  The forest creatures are divided into good and evil, and I'll be honest, I spent a lot of time googling images of the different species so I could see them better in my mind.  However, despite my lack of knowledge of woodland creatures, I found myself pulled into the story and didn't want to look back.  

This is definitely a book written for a middle-age reader, but it's full of adventure, just a hint of romance, legends, destiny, and just good writing.  I passed it to my son with a little trepidation, but he's really been enjoying the books.  As for that PBS show?  Our library has it on DVD, and our entire brood has devoured them.

My Rating:  Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are quite a few deaths in the novel, and some of them are a little gruesome.  Also, some of the wrong characters die.  Again, I would recommend this for middle readers - no one under the age of nine or ten, despite their maturity.

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