Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Fuzzy Mud - Louis Sacher

Summary: ”Be careful. Your next step may be your last."

Fifth grader Tamaya Dhilwaddi and seventh grader Marshall Walsh have been walking to and from Woodbridge Academy together since elementary school. But their routine is disrupted when bully Chad Wilson challenges Marshall to a fight. To avoid the conflict, Marshall takes a shortcut home through the off-limits woods. Tamaya reluctantly follows. They soon get lost, and they find trouble. Bigger trouble than anyone could ever have imagined. 

In the days and weeks that follow, the authorities and the U.S. Senate become involved, and what they uncover might affect the future of the world. Summary and image from

Review: WARNING: This novel is NOT the funny, happy Louis Sacher we  all know and love. It’s spooky.  It’s creepy.  It may spawn a fear of mud and forests.  Proceed at your own risk.

Louis Sacher has truly outdone himself blending biotech experimentation, school politics, adolescence, evolution, and ethics into a perfectly spooky short novel. The action sections of the novel are gripping enough, but cut away to a future testimony of a Biological Engineer trying to defend and promote his discovery of an engineered life form capable of solving the fuel crisis — if it doesn’t mutate. 

Fuzzy Mud asks the reader to answer the questions: Because we can, should we? Is there ever a time when progress isn’t good? How many experiments and tests are enough?  These are difficult questions for the majority of people, but posing them to a Middle Grade reader is genius.  It sparks dialogue between readers of the book and their unwitting parents (who may have been followed around unceasingly being told to read the book), and assumes that the reader is rightly smart enough to start analyzing ethical dilemmas. 

I understand that’s a lot of pressure to put on a book that barely numbers over 100 pages, but I’m still shocked that Sacher pulls it off.  This is the perfect spooky, quick Halloween read — especially since it’s set in the Fall.  

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There are a few scenarios of bullying that escalates to physical violence, and the side effects of the fuzzy mud are grotesque.

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps - Barbara Rylko-Bauer

Summary: Jadwiga Lenartowicz Rylko, known as Jadzia (Yah′-jah), was a young Polish Catholic physician in Lódz at the start of World War II. Suspected of resistance activities, she was arrested in January 1944. For the next fifteen months, she endured three Nazi concentration camps and a forty-two-day death march, spending part of this time working as a prisoner-doctor to Jewish slave laborers. A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps follows Jadzia from her childhood and medical training, through her wartime experiences, to her struggles to create a new life in the postwar world.

Jadzia’s daughter, anthropologist Barbara Rylko-Bauer, constructs an intimate ethnography that weaves a personal family narrative against a twentieth-century historical backdrop. As Rylko-Bauer travels back in time with her mother, we learn of the particular hardships that female concentration camp prisoners faced. The struggle continued after the war as Jadzia attempted to rebuild her life, first as a refugee doctor in Germany and later as an immigrant to the United States. Like many postwar immigrants, Jadzia had high hopes of making new connections and continuing her career. Unable to surmount personal, economic, and social obstacles to medical licensure, however, she had to settle for work as a nurse’s aide.

As a contribution to accounts of wartime experiences, Jadzia’s story stands out for its sensitivity to the complexities of the Polish memory of war. Built upon both historical research and conversations between mother and daughter, the story combines Jadzia’s voice and Rylko-Bauer’s own journey of rediscovering her family’s past. The result is a powerful narrative about struggle, survival, displacement, and memory, augmenting our understanding of a horrific period in human history and the struggle of Polish immigrants in its aftermath. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.) 

Review: The German invasion of Poland was so swift and so complete that the world scarcely had time to react.  Brutal policies, the seizure and reallocation of property and position, and the mandates imposed by the Nazi regime left little for True Poles.  Jadwiga Lenartowicz is no stranger to adversity, being one of the first female physicians in Poland.  She finds herself drawn to the Resistance, albeit in the smallest of roles.  While that compulsion to help her fellow Poles makes her who she is, it also landed her in a concentration camp. 

Barbara Rylko-Bauer is the daughter of this amazing woman. She’s compiled her mother’s story through interviews, research, family letters, and news stories around the times she covers.  The depth to which she explains her mother’s decisions and actions is amazing - it made me wonder how anyone else could have made any other decision.  

This is a rarer take on the World War II biographies, and one that is vastly undertold.  I loved reading about Lenartowicz’s education and training as a physician.  Her storytelling ability made the scenery come alive, not only in pre-war Poland, but through the camp and on that ghastly death march she was subjected to.  The resilience she displayed after the liberation of the camp, assisting as a physician in the refugee camps and meeting her husband were astounding.

My heart broke reading how difficult life was for postwar immigrants in America.  That’s an aspect of our history that is too often glossed over, or outright swept under the rug.  Rylko-Bauer’s forthright portrayal and depiction of the situations her parents faced was refreshing—and sad.

Rylko-Bauer chronicles not only her mother’s journey through medical school, the War, internment, rescue, and settling in America as a new mother and wife, but interweaves her own journey of research and discovery through the narrative.  While I’m typically a purist when it comes to biographies, I appreciated how much of Rylko-Bauer’s strength came from her mother’s journey. 

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some recounting of executions.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jack Bates and the Wizard's Spell - Leslie Grantham

Summary:  “Jack Bates and the Wizard’s Spell” is the first in a series of books chronicling the adventures of Jack and his friends in the wonderful world of the OTHER.

It’s a rollercoaster ride, full of drama and colour, strange creatures and strange landscapes. Full of magic! The book is unique in its genre, as it combines true history with myth and legend. It’s a story that’s different than any other you may have read. Could it be true? Who knows?

“Jack Bates and the Wizard’s Spell” will be enjoyed by kids of all ages, from eight to eighty – and beyond. It has everything – action, adventure, enchantment, romance, wizardry and total charm. The reader will travel with Jack on his journey from a shy, introverted boy, to a courageous young leader and his character will resonate with and appeal to kids and adults alike – boys and girls, men and women.

The narrative is “simple but sophisticated”, and that’s not a contradiction in terms. The story is simple enough for younger readers to understand, yet the style is sophisticated enough for older readers to appreciate. You won’t just like “Jack Bates and the Wizard’s Spell”, you’ll love it! You’ll be captivated from the very first page, wanting to know what’s going to happen next, feeling as if you’re a part of the story – inside the pages yourself! (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Meet Mint.  Upon first glance, Mint is a blackbird, but view him while holding a four-leaf clover, and you’ll see who he really is - a faerie, and quite a dandy at that.  He’s got a story to tell, all about the princes Richard locked in the Tower of London, Merlin and Morgan’s feud, and a boy named Jack.

I love a good reimagining of the Arthurian legend and am usually game for a new take.  However, I’m also particular about what I like and why. When retelling a story that’s been retold a thousand times over, the “fresh take” had better be unbelievably good.  I want to see a new side of the story, a new spin, or a point of view never before explored, and I want to see it well-written. Unfortunately, this retelling is none of those. 

I found myself so discombobulated as I read—between the jumping points of view and scene changes mid-paragraph, the storytelling style, and the assumption that if it makes sense to the author, clearly it makes sense to everyone else—it was impossible to follow the story.  I felt like the storyline kept wandering off, and the author was just going to follow whatever trail he was on when he lost it until he found it again, whether it was pertinent to the story or not. I could almost see the editor’s margin notes “This makes no sense, please explain” and then the author’s plunking in whatever two sentence explanation he thought would suffice.  In short, I felt like I was reading the love child of a demented dream journal and a five-year-old’s story time.

Couple the misguided, confusing, chaotic storytelling with the myriad grammatical and spelling errors, and I just can’t give this a good review.  A few spelling and grammar errors  I can overlook. But when there are so many I find  myself wondering if I’ve been given a first draft and reaching for my red pen, there are issues.

There are so many amazing retellings and continuations of the Arthur/Merlin legend, I can’t in good conscience recommend this one as one to read.  There are too many issues that need fixing first.

Rating:  One star. 

For the Sensitive Reader: Some bloodshed, satyrs kidnapping and threatening to eat children, your being used for you’re and vice versa.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Moon in the Palace - Weina Dai Randel

Summary: There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power
A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
In the breakthrough first volume in the Empress of Bright Moon duology, Weina Dai Randel paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life of death—and the woman who came to rule it all. (Summary and pic from
I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
My Review: Whenever I read anything about Chinese history, I’m always shocked at how violent it is. This is not necessarily just related to Chinese history, as there are definitely many cultures in the world who have utilized violence in many forms for cultural advances. Reading this book, however, really brought to light what a harsh life the ancient world was. If you were not born into privilege—and even then sometimes that was perilous—you were basically doomed to a life of struggle, strife, and often violence. I think one good example of violence in this book can be that the servants in the courts are eunuchs. Eunuchs have become, quite obviously, eunuchs because of an initial violent act. They were made eunuchs so that they could not threaten the current dynasty by fathering children of their own. It was a sure guarantee that they wouldn’t be presenting their own progeny to take over the dynasty. Another example from this book is the practice of not only killing an individual to prevent them from taking over the throne, but also killing their entire family and progeny so that no one can ever come back and claim that they have a right to the throne, essentially wiping out an entire line of people. And I can’t write about protecting your own line in this book without mentioning the killing of your own siblings or children in order to direct the line of dynastic inheritance. It’s all pretty harsh, really. We may think we live in a cutthroat political world (which we do, no doubt) but it’s hard to compare to the bloodshed and violence of ancient China.

The main character in this book is fascinating. On the one hand, as a reader, you feel bad for her because she’s really been put in a bad spot and that’s hard. However, she’s cunning and there’s no doubt that there is also a trail of heartache and sadness (and much more) that she herself has created. It’s a cutthroat world, no doubt, and she is just playing the game to the best of her ability. Compared to some of the other characters, she is definitely virtuous, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a fair share of blood on her hands by the time the book is over. Such is life in the palace, however. If you don’t look out for yourself then not only will no one else look out for you, but others will certainly be plotting your downfall and demise.

My only complaint about this book is that the writing is kind of clunky. I’m not sure if this is because of a non-native English speaker (the author is Chinese, but she is well-educated and I’m not sure of her native language) or if it’s just because she hasn’t hit her writing groove yet. There’s also the possibility that it is written in order to have the same cadence of Chinese. I’ve read other books by Asian authors and have encountered the same style of writing, so I’m not sure what the exact purpose was. The writing doesn’t take away from the story, however. It’s just not the beautiful and lyrical prose that I think would have elevated this novel even more. I’m hoping that in the sequel (which I am looking forward to reading!) she will have hit her stride and overcome some of the clunkiness.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some violence and sexual discussion, but it is not extreme and fits in with other historical novels.

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Time to Speak - Nadine Brandes

Summary: What happens when you live longer than you wanted to?

Parvin Blackwater wanted to die, but now she’s being called to be a leader. The only problem is, no one wants to follow. 

The Council is using Jude’s Clock-matching invention to force “new-and-improved” Clocks on the public. Those who can’t afford one are packed into boxcars like cattle and used for the Council’s purposes. Parvin and Solomon team up to rescue the people. Instead, they find themselves on a cargo ship of Radicals headed out to sea. What will the Council do to them? And why are people suddenly dying before their Clocks have zeroed-out? (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The last time we saw Parvin, she was reeling from her return to the “safe side” of the Wall and the betrayal she suffered at the end of A Time to Die.  She is still struggling with knowing that God wants her to do something, but deciding what that something is and whether she can actually complete her calling is proving more difficult.

I love the organic development of this book.  It had been a while since I’ve read A Time to Die, but Brandes’ voice was so clear that the story came back vividly as I read, which frankly amazed me. (There are a lot of stories rattling around up in my noggin, not to mention bits and pieces of ones.) Brandes' writing has clearly matured through this series, giving her more power as a writer and a grander scale for her stories.Moving forward in the story, I truly can’t imagine how else Parvin’s life and actions could unfold differently.  Her dedication as a character to her cause and her faith, her growth in helping those Radicals cast out of the wall after her return, and her strength in her relationships were wonderful to see.

I love the books that I pick up for a quick, easy read and they make me examine my own life, my own convictions, and the areas I could improve.  This book, while still an easy, summery read, accomplished that as well.  I can’t wait for the final installment.

Rating: Four and a half stars

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kate Culhane: A Ghost Story - Michael Hague

After disturbing a dead man in his grave, an Irish girl nearly pays with her life, but thanks to her cleverness and bravery she finds love and riches instead. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I love a good, weird, and dark fairy tale.  This has led me to discover fairy and folk tales from all over the world.   Now, Ireland has a treasure trove of fairy tales, because the land itself is the land of the fae, the little people, the daoine sidhe, the other folk.  That being the case, Ireland's stories are rich with fantastical elements, both whimsical, and dark.

This story, as the forward explains, comes from a time when it was feared the old tales would vanish with a changing Ireland.  Many storytellers and scholars worked to transcribe these old tales to keep them from disappearing forever, and this story was among those saved.  As someone who believes a peoples' stories are deeply intertwined with their culture and history, I applaud their efforts, particularly because now we can enjoy these deliciously odd tales.

In the story of poor Kate Culhane, she's forced to--wait for it--carry a dead man on her back and do his horrible bidding.  After accidentally treading on his grave, Kate has no choice but to follow the dead man's orders, which is bad news for a certain merchant and his family, and includes a meal of blood porridge.

How delightfully dark and twisted! (says my dark and twisted mind.)

I will vouch that stories like this are not for everyone (Hague himself states in the forward "Beware--it's not for the weakhearted!"), and I will not fault them.  It is a ghost story, it is weird and frightening, and it is odd.  But I think people nowadays have a penchant for steering towards the watered down and safe versions of fairy tales, and while it is wise to know what young kids are reading, I am also of the camp that they need to understand the world, they need to know what it out there so they can face it.  And the perfect way to do this is through fiction and fairy tales, fantasy though they are.  As Neil Gaiman once said, "If you are protected from dark things, then you have no protection of, or knowledge of, dark things when they show up."

Personally, as a kid, I recall watching and reading things that terrified me, and I loved it. I would devour them over and over.  There is something exciting about being able to participate in something spooky, and be in a safe place while doing so.  To quote Frank Oz speaking of Jim Henson: "Jim thought it was fine to scare children.  He didn't think it was healthy for children to always feel safe."

The story of Kate Culhane is well paced, spooky, and fun, not to mention how well the deep, rich watercolor illustrations add to the dark tale.  I also love a good clever character who can outwit those around her, and Kate steps up to the plate.  It's a perfect ghost story for Halloween.

My Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader: Involves death, dead people, murder, and blood porridge.  That's right, all in a children's picture book.  Fairy tales aren't safe.  But they sure are fun.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Summary: A warm, funny and acutely perceptive debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of the shared inheritance that has shaped their choices and their lives.

Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems. 

Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.

This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I picked up this book largely because of the hype associated with. I feel like I was seeing it everywhere—Goodreads, bookstores, Amazon, various random book lists, etc. It gets to the point where as a book reviewer I feel like I’m not representin’ (see the pressure I feel?!)  if I don’t read some of the really popular books, like maybe I’m missing out or purposely omitting them. I have to admit that when a book comes to me this way, it’s often a disappointment. I don’t think I’m high and mighty and so much better than everyone, but I think you’d agree that not all of the books that get all of the hype are worth the hype they’re getting. (I’m looking at you, Twilight!) Some of them are downright awful and you wonder how they ever ended up on the public radar when there are books that are really so much better that don’t get nearly as much publicity.

I believe that this book is firmly in the “not worth the hype they’re getting” category. It wasn’t awful. I mean, there weren’t sparkly vampires running amok, which is always kind of where I draw the line of truly awful, but there were several things I really didn’t like about it. First and foremost, I really didn’t like the characters. From reading the description of the book, it’s not surprising what they turned out to be—selfish, greedy, self-serving, whiny…oh, they delivered. That and so much more. I’m not sure the author intended them to be so unlikeable, but they really were. It was hard to find one to really like. The siblings were especially awful. They were so entitled and ridiculous in an I’m-so-sorry-you’ve-been-planning-to-inherit-all-this-money-because-you’re-a-money-grubber-and-so-you’ve-become-completely-irresponsible-and-greedy-and-downright-nasty-because-of-it kind of way. I mean, really. I know there are people out there like this. I’ve seen people in my extended family become absolutely horrible people over inheritance and what they think they’re owed, and this book just encapsulated that. I think that D’Aprix Sweeney meant for all of this to be tongue and cheek and just kind of funny in a “look at these pathetic adults kind of way,” but I didn’t think it was funny. No. I just thought it was pathetic and that someone should’ve given them a kick in the pants long ago.

The book itself was decently written. I read it quickly, and the story was compelling enough that despite the characters I actually did finish it. It’s one of those books that is kind of a guilty pleasure in that you’re delving into badly behaved adult’s lives and laughing at them because of their ridiculousness. Except I wasn’t laughing. I was just annoyed.

Because I can’t stand it when there are no likeable characters, especially when I feel like they were supposed to be likeable but just fell short, I am giving this book two stars. A book is all about its characters. If that fails, the book flops.

My Rating: 2 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Some bad language and badly behaved adults lead to a soft PG-13 rating. PG-13 from the early 2000’s, not PG-13 now.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Six More) - Roald Dahl

Meet the boy who can talk to animals and the man who can see with his eyes closed. And find out about the treasure buried deep underground. A clever mix of fact and fiction, this collection also includes how master storyteller Roald Dahl became a writer. With Roald Dahl, you can never be sure where reality ends and fantasy begins.  (Summary and pic from

My Review: Every Roald Dahl day (September 13) I treat myself to another of his books for my collection.  This year it was Dahl's hundredth birthday celebration, so I treated myself to two: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Six More).

This is a collection of seven short stories by Dahl.  Dahl started out in short stories before delving into novels and children's books alike, (his very first story is included at the end of the collection), and while those familiar with the Dahl of chocolate factories, witches, and BFGs might not find any of their dark quirky nature in these tales, they are very good, nonetheless.  

Though I found this in the children's section, and it had the whimsical illustrations of Quentin Blake on the cover that would associate it with Dahl's other children's fare, I wouldn't categorize it as such.  While there's nothing of questionable matter, it's just not what children would be interested in, and I would gauge it as later teens to adult.

I thoroughly enjoyed each of these stories, and anyone who is familiar with Dahl knows he has a knack for the fantastical.  What's fun about these tales though is he crosses the line from reality to fantasy in such a fine way that you wonder to yourself, could this be true?  (Only three of the stories in the collection are true tales, as Dahl states in Lucky Break: "For me, the pleasure of writing comes with inventing stories.")

You get tales of a boy who can talk to animals, a strange hitchhiker, discovery of buried treasure, a bullied boy, the rich and conceited Henry Sugar, the tale of how Dahl came to be a writer, and his very first short story.  While I loved all the tales, my particular favorite was the longest of all the short stories in the collection, that of the titular Henry Sugar.  Millionaire Sugar stumbles across a doctor's fantastical writings of a man who could see without his eyes, and Henry strives to develop the same skill so as to cheat at cards and become a billionaire.  Clever Henry Sugar, sure; deceitful Henry Sugar, definitely; but wonderful Henry Sugar, you ask?  The clincher comes with the twist in this story.

Anyone who loved Roald Dahl growing up should give this book a go and see just how much more he has to offer.  While my favorites are his zany children's stories, I loved delving deeper into his quirky imagination to see just what else he had to tell us.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: some mild language in one or two of the stories, but otherwise, nothing else offensive.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Adventures on the Queen Mary...tales of a teenage crew member! - Dave Wooders with James Radford

Summary: Take an exciting trip back in time to the Golden Age of Ocean Travel on board the world's favorite liner -- the RMS Queen Mary. Enjoy a visual feast of new and archival photographs, many never before published. At 16 years of age, in 1957, Dave Wooders worked as a bellboy on the Queen Mary!

(Summary from and pic from

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

My Review: I was originally interested in this book because my Granny rode over on the Queen Mary from Scotland during World War II as a war bride. (Is that not cool? I mean, come on. That’s awesome.) Anyway, I was super excited, hoping that there would be some insights into what it was like to ride on the Queen Mary as a war bride. Although I did talk to my Granny quite a bit about her life while she was alive, I didn’t get to ask a lot of details, mostly because I was young and didn’t really know what to ask. I wish I could go back in time and ask her lots of different stuff. She had a fascinating life. The moral of this story: ask your grandparents about their lives—in detail—before they’re gone. Okay. Now onto the book.

This book was not about the Queen Mary during the time it was a warship or the time it carried war brides. It’s actually about the ship after all of this, starting in the late fifties. By this time it had been restored to its former glory and was a beautiful sailing ship with excellent, world-class accommodations, and famous people riding it back and forth. Now, although I do wish that I had known more about the Queen Mary as a ship when she carried the war brides across the ocean to their new lives, this book was still really interesting. It doesn’t go into a lot of history about the Queen Mary. There are definitely tidbits here and there, and there are some great nuggets of info that I think would only be discussed in a memoir-type situation and for that it was really cool. I really enjoyed the human element of the story. This man obviously had an incredible time serving on the Queen Mary (in different service-oriented capacities) and it was fun to read about his experiences. I’m pretty sure that there are tons of information-based books that only discuss the Queen Mary and her long history as a luxury liner and her successful history as a warship (including the war brides). So this isn’t that book.

The writing is very memoir-like. Wooders is obviously a really nice man, and I really appreciated his gratitude for all things in life as well as his happy and upbeat outlook. Because it’s a memoir, there’s repetition here and there about various things, but it’s not like I felt like there wasn’t tons of new information in every chapter. He has a lot of fun stories and experiences to share, and it was fun to read about them.

One of the strengths of this book is the pictures. It really has a ton of pictures in it and I loved that. I really felt like I knew about the ship—what it looked like then, what it looks like now, etc., from the pictures and his descriptions. It’s just a fun little book to have.

Wooders’ love of the Queen Mary is infectious. I really learned to love the ship and although I’ve wanted to go and see it because of my Granny’s war bride history, now I would really like to go and would appreciate the luxury liner that it was and still is, even if it is permanently docked. I fully plan on eating at the famous brunch and maybe even staying on the ship/hotel.

If you love the Queen Mary or just want to know more about her from the perspective of one who worked there, this is an excellent book. The pictures are great and the stories are a lot of fun.

My Review: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Someday Someday, Maybe - Lauren Graham

Summary: A charming and laugh-out-loud novel by Lauren Graham, beloved star of Parenthood and Gilmore Girls, about an aspiring actress trying to make it in mid-nineties New York City.

Franny Banks is a struggling actress in New York City, with just six months left of the three year deadline she gave herself to succeed. But so far, all she has to show for her efforts is a single line in an ad for ugly Christmas sweaters and a degrading waitressing job. She lives in Brooklyn with two roommates-Jane, her best friend from college, and Dan, a sci-fi writer, who is very definitely not boyfriend material-and is struggling with her feelings for a suspiciously charming guy in her acting class, all while trying to find a hair-product cocktail that actually works. 

Meanwhile, she dreams of doing "important" work, but only ever seems to get auditions for dishwashing liquid and peanut butter commercials. It's hard to tell if she'll run out of time or money first, but either way, failure would mean facing the fact that she has absolutely no skills to make it in the real world. Her father wants her to come home and teach, her agent won't call her back, and her classmate Penelope, who seems supportive, might just turn out to be her toughest competition yet. 

Someday, Someday, Maybe is a funny and charming debut about finding yourself, finding love, and, most difficult of all, finding an acting job. (Summary and image from

First things first, did you know Lorelei could write?!  I didn’t! I only stumbled upon this book because I was trying to add Lauren Graham’s upcoming memoir to my TBR shelf.  To my delight, this novel did not disappoint, capturing the essence of what I imagine Graham would be like in person: sweet, unaware of how talented she really is, clumsy, driven, but still a little flighty. 

Before we get into the story, let’s just appreciate the fact that a celebrity wrote a book that is well written.  (I’m looking at you, Modelland, still looking at you.)  Franny’s father is an English professor, and the literary references sprinkled throughout the novel are as much fun as cleaning out the pantry and finding an unopened bag of SF chocolate you’d forgotten you had.  The story would have been fine without them, but their inclusion just added that much more delight to an otherwise content story.

The story itself is relatively predictable, but is presented in such a fun manner that you can’t help but allow yourself to be swept up in the fun of it. At the beginning of every chapter there is an illustration of Franny’s Filofax planner during the time of the chapter.  I can’t begin to tell you how delightful I found those illustrations! It made Franny and her New York more real and even more relatable.  

This is the perfect Beach/Road Trip/Rainy Day/Lazy Day read. It’s fun, it’s playful, it’s sweet — in short, it’s a great palate cleanser to rely on.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There are a few steamy scenes of the fade-to-black variety, a few expletives, and I found myself personally offended for Franny at one point. But overall, it’s much cleaner than I thought it would be.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Brink of Dawn - Jeff Altabef & Erynn Altabef

Summary: Follow-up to the multiple award-winning Wind Catcher

They walk among us as if they are gods.
Only the Chosen know what they are.
Only the Chosen know to fear them.
And only the Chosen can defeat them.

Evolved Publishing presents the second book in the multiple award-winning Chosen series of young adult mystery thrillers, which feature an American Indian fantasy and supernatural theme, from the same author who brought you the award-winning thriller Shatter Point, and his daughter.

Juliet Wildfire Stone and her best friend, Troy Buckhorn, barely escaped their sleepy Arizona town alive. Now they’re speeding to New York City to find the three other Chosen. The Chosen must band together to face an ancient foe that threatens all humanity.

Yet Juliet doesn’t know whom to trust, and strange things are happening in the City.

The Chosen will be tested, their resolve questioned, and their flaws exposed. Each must decide whether he or she will fulfill their destiny—or run. To defeat the enemy, they must stop battling among themselves and overcome their own struggles.

Only one can lead them. Will Juliet embrace her powers in time?

Brink of Dawn picks up where the multiple-award-winning first book in the Chosen series, Wind Catcher, left off, but it can also be read as a stand-alone novel. Continue the adventure! And be sure to watch for the third and final installment in this exciting series, Scorched Souls, to launch in late 2016.

WINNER: Readers' Favorite Awards -- Gold Medal 2015: Young Adult Coming-of-Age

WINNER: Mom's Choice Awards -- Silver Medal: Young Adult Books

WINNER: Beverly Hills Books Awards - 2015: Best Young Adult Fiction

WINNER: Awesome Indies -- Seal of Approval: "A treat to read."
(Summary and pic from

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

Review: Sometimes it’s difficult to read a sequel either because it starts so fast that unless you just barely finished the one before it you have no idea what is going, or­—and this is just as bad—it starts off so slowly that you probably didn’t even need to read the first one to know exactly what’s going on. I am happy to report that Brink of Dawn was actually a good mix of both—it started out with an exciting scene but there was enough back story as things went on that I remembered what was going on. I don’t usually re-read the first book in a series, so I was happy about this. I like knowing what’s going on but I don’t need the entire book again. All I need is just a few refreshers and this is a strong point in this book. The Altabefs do a good job of keeping the pacing. I think that adventure novels—especially YA novels—need to have good pacing. Without it the story falls flat and it stops feeling like an adventure and more like a slog. This one moves along quickly, covering a good amount of ground while still giving the reader a sense of what’s going on. I really appreciated that.

As far as the story, I would put this on the upper end of YA paranormal fantasy/dystopian fare. It had lots of elements to make it interesting, and the special powers given to the characters were interesting and unique. It’s got the standard “chosen” thing going on, which is obviously not unheard of for a book like this, but I think that that’s okay in the YA genre. I don’t expect everything to be unique and never heard of not only because it’s YA and readers enjoy what they enjoy, even if they’ve read something similar to it before, but also because these features may actually be unique to younger readers. They’re probably not as old and jaded as many adult readers, so that makes it okay. That being said, I think the storyline and the book is unique enough. It doesn’t make me immediately think of any other book, and it’s a cool story with some fun twists and differences from the other books in the genre.

I also liked the variety of characters. There were people of varying abilities, which always make for some fun character and story tension. I liked the characters, too. I thought they were relatable and realistic-esque. You know, as realistic as you can be with superhuman powers.

I think what I really missed about the first book was the Native American lore. This particular addition to the series doesn’t talk much about that, and in fact has switched more to aliens, which I don’t like nearly as much. I really liked the interweaving of Native American culture with a paranormal element, and I missed that.

Overall, I think this book stands strongly in the YA paranormal/fantasy/dystopian genre. If that‘s your thing, you should check this out. It’s an indy book, which makes it cool and different and something maybe you haven’t heard of before.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language but nothing too serious.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Ella's Will - Jessilyn Stewart Peaslee

Summary: Will Hawkins is just a mere stable boy. How can he ever think to woo Ella, his once-wealthy childhood friend who is stubbornly independent, especially when his competition is the prince? Without any magic or fairy godmothers, Will must show Ella that he is her true prince charming in this perspective twist of the Cinderella story. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  We know the story of Cinderella.  But what if there was no fairy godmother to make everything right?  What if there was just a sweet, strong-willed girl, a kind and ignorant village, and her best friend—a former stableboy of her father’s, now working for the king, who just happens to be desperately in love with her?

I loved, loved Peaslee’s retelling of the classic Cinderella story.  I loved the depth and the humanity she brought to her characters, the sweet moral of her story (which, refreshingly, wasn’t a pretty dress and cute shoes will get you all your heart desires), and the best possible ending I could have hoped for.  We’re revisiting the story in this novel, but this time watching it unfold from the eyes of Will, the stableboy and Ella’s best friend.  (Think Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun, but not hacked and leaked online.)

As a standalone novel, this is cute.  It’s sweet, it introduces a new dynamic into the story, delving into the lives of the servants charged with pulling off a  kingdom-wide ball in a week, the havoc such a ball wreaks on the lives of betrothed couples in the kingdom, and the hopes, dreams, and fears of a relatively minor character in the first novel. I loved that side of it.  Again, Peaslee has a real talent for fleshing out a character quite quickly and efficiently.


I don’t know if it’s because I enjoyed the first novel so much, but this one disappointed a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I love Will.  I love his humor, his perceptive nature, his personal goals to be a gentleman, even if he’s not born into the breed. But he simpers.  He is so desperately, hopelessly, idiotically in love with Ella that she got on my nerves a bit in this book. Will, frankly, has a coke-bottle-thick set of Love Goggles on, in super extra thick strength.  Unfortunately, it cheapened the story for me having a main character who could see the worst in everyone but his ONE TRUE LOVE, who is perfect and has the tiniest feet ever in the whole wide universe of feet.  Because they’re tiny.  Did I mention how tiny they are? (Will, it seems, is a little fixated on little feet.)

I’ve recommended Ella to every mom I know with a tween or up girl in the house.  I don’t know if I could recommend this book as heartily, but if they asked what I thought, I could honestly say it’s cute.  I don’t regret reading it, but I wish it had toned down the mushy-gushy and dialed up the secondary characters’ storylines.  

Rating:  Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There are scenes that could be triggers for those sensitive to abuse.  There’s a perpetually drunk and lecherous character (don’t worry, he gets his reward), but that’s about it.  This would be a solid PG in the movie world.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio - Peg Kehret

Summary: Ten years ago, in a riveting story of courage and hope, Peg Kehret wrote of the months she spent in a hospital when she was 12. The book deeply touched readers of all ages and received many awards and honors. This anniversary edition includes an updated and extended Epilogue, 12 pages of new photos, and a new section about polio.  Summary and image from

Review: My generation and subsequent generations will never know the terror that came with a polio diagnosis.  As a formerly pervasive and deadly disease, our generations have benefitted from its eradication in most of the world, predicted to be global eradication of the disease.  However, it wasn't that long ago that many children and even more parents feared the word, knowing it could be a death sentence.

Small Steps chronicles the long, terrifying, and difficult year of Peg Kehret, a survivor of this horrid disease.  Her words, written for children, are so sweet and pure as she describes the pain, the fear, and even the boredom that came with her diagnosis.  Because her diagnosis came during a time of research and experimentation, she was blessed with cutting-edge therapies that saved her life and preserved her ability to walk. 

My son and I read this book together. and it touched me to see how much Kehret's story impacted him. He was so amazed at her resilience, at her ability to live in a hospital for the better part of a year, and her physical therapy and her determination.  Even better, he read this book two or three more times on his own. 

As a mother, this was a difficult book for me to read -- simply because of the emotions that were involved. Putting that aside, it's one everyone should read. 

Rating: Five stars

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

City of the Lost - Kelley Armstrong

Summary: Casey Duncan is a homicide detective with a secret: when she was in college, she killed a man. She was never caught, but he was the grandson of a mobster and she knows this crime will catch up to her. Casey's best friend, Diana, is on the run from a violent, abusive ex-husband. When Diana's husband finds her, and Casey herself is attacked shortly after, Casey knows it's time for the two of them to disappear again.

Diana has heard of a domestic violence support town made for people like her, a town that takes in people on the run who want to shed their old lives. You must apply to live in Rockton and if you're accepted, it means walking away entirely from your old life, living off the grid in the wilds of Canada: no cell phones, no Internet, no mail, no computers, very little electricity, and no way of getting in or out without the town council's approval. As a murderer, Casey isn't a good candidate, but she has something they want; she's a homicide detective, and Rockton has just had its first real murder. She and Diana are in. However, soon after arriving, Casey realizes that the identity of a murderer isn't the only secret Rockton is hiding - in fact, she starts to wonder if she and Diana might be in even more danger in Rockton than they were in their old lives. (Summary and pic from

My Review: I am surprised how much I liked this book. I didn’t expect it to be as compelling or interesting as it was. I’ve read a lot of crime novels, and I’ve read a lot of crime novels recently, actually. I expected this one to fit squarely in the middle of all the others, somewhat unremarkable but a decent crime story. I have traditionally liked Armstrong’s writing; I’ve read at least one series that she’s written as well as another book here and there, and some I liked more than others. But like I said, this one surprised me.

There are a few things that stood out in this book that made me really like it. First of all, I enjoyed the writing. I always think Armstrong does a good job of writing a very conversational book that is easy to read and understand. When I read her books, I’m not expecting literary genius, I’m just expecting to enjoy it and know what’s going on and not have to think about every sentence. I want to just enjoy the book. She certainly accomplished that in this book. Secondly, I usually like her characters. The main female character is not completely dissimilar to others I’ve read of hers, but that’s okay. I like that they’re intelligent and snarky and sarcastic. I connect with that. I like cool female leads and this is certainly one of those. Her other characters are usually great as well, and this book definitely had some fun and interesting characters.

I think the strength of this book, though, was the storyline. I thought it was fascinating. I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for reading about weird hidden communities where strange stuff goes on and they operate by their own rules. My love of cultures really shows here, and I thought the community and the situation was fascinating. Put it in a remote, rugged place with hostiles and unpredictable people and you’ve got a great mix of stuff going on. I really enjoyed it, like I said.

I read this book in about a day and a half. I usually don’t read books like this in that short of time. This one had me captivated. There was a lot going on and the storyline was interesting. There is a romance, as with all things Armstrong, and there is plenty of drama, so be prepared for that. I’m definitely looking forward to the second installment in the series.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is has some seriously bad language (one of the characters uses the “F” word in almost every sentence. And sometimes that’s the only word in the sentence). There is violence and also some sex scenes. I’ve reviewed Armstrong before and feel that sometimes her sex scenes are gratuitous, and I think that in this case, she was elevating some of the language and violence and sex scenes to try to keep up with others in the genre. It’s not Scandinavian author quality, but it is definitely not “Murder She Wrote.”

Monday, September 19, 2016

And After the Fire - Lauren Belfer

Summary: The New York Times-bestselling author of A Fierce Radiance and City of Light returns with a new powerful and passionate novel—inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.

In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him.

In America in 2010, Henry’s niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family’s history—and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past.

In Berlin, Germany, in 1783, amid the city’s glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach’s son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come.

Interweaving the stories of Susanna and Sara, and their families, And After the Fire traverses over two hundred years of history, from the eighteenth century through the Holocaust and into today, seamlessly melding past and present, real and imagined. Lauren Belfer’s deeply researched, evocative, and compelling narrative resonates with emotion and immediacy. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  I’ve been very, very vocal about how stringently I critique time jump novels.  Writers, take note:  This is how it’s done.  The two stories Belfer tells, the story of an unpublished, never performed, inflammatory in words but exquisite in music cantata written by the Master himself is so perfectly handled.  The stories are dependent on each other, and both are well-crafted, well researched, and touching in their own rights.  The story of the fictional cantata, entrusted to a Jewish aristocrat in 1783 and kept from the public until, through a series of twists and turns, it falls into the hands of the present day protagonist Susanna, enraptured me.  I was taken with the love that Sara showed her niece and nephews and their progeny, I loved nearly every main character that touched the cantata, trusting their discretion and valor.

Belfer’s novel deals with a few main themes, chiefly the recovery from sexual assault, anti-Semitism not only in 18th century Europe but in today’s society as well, the loss of one’s faith, and intertwined in it all is the role that music plays in soothing, healing, and uplifting a soul.  Obviously, this is slightly bittersweet. But the masterful way Belfer handled these themes, juxtaposing the doubts of one of the protagonists with the peace he feels listening to a particular section of Bach made me ache for my days working at the Utah Symphony.  Her deft writing ability was able to simply portray the problems while allowing the reader to view them and draw conclusions based on their own life experiences, not having Belfer’s desire for the text forcefully imposed upon them.  I loved that.  I love it when I put down a book and are able to think about it for a while, how it impacted me as a reader, whether it made me a better person, or wondering how I could improve.  Books like that are ones I’m happy to recommend.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Susanna is raped and recalls the rape in simple honesty. The theme of recovering emotionally and physically from the assault are key themes in the book, and it’s mentioned frequently.  There is also a love scene that is fairly blunt, although sweet and sensitively written.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Morgue: A Life in Death - Vincent DiMaio, Ron Franscell

 Summary: In this clear-eyed, gritty, and enthralling narrative, Dr. Vincent Di Maio and veteran crime writer Ron Franscell guide us behind the morgue doors to tell a fascinating life story through the cases that have made Di Maio famous-from the exhumation of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to the complex issues in the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Beginning with his street-smart Italian origins in Brooklyn, the book spans 40 years of work and more than 9,000 autopsies, and Di Maio's eventual rise into the pantheon of forensic scientists. One of the country's most methodical and intuitive criminal pathologists will dissect himself, maintaining a nearly continuous flow of suspenseful stories, revealing anecdotes, and enough macabre insider details to rivet the most fervent crime fans. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Unless you’ve been living under a [internet repelling] rock, you’re probably fully aware that there is a huge public focus on wrongfully convicted criminals. If you haven’t heard of Serial, the podcast, and its many spinoffs including Crime Writers on Serial, Truth and Justice, and Undisclosed, then maybe you’ve watched the Netflix show “Making a Murderer,” or at least seen it mentioned in the news. My point is that stuff on wrongfully convicted criminals is everywhere right now. I’ve listened to Serial and Undisclosed, and my husband and I binge-watched “Making a Murderer” (with the rest of America). The point is, for me, who enjoyed these things very much and watches “CSI” for comfort viewing, this book was really interesting. It’s another look at those who are wrongfully convicted. And sometimes those who were not convicted, but should have been.

First of all, I loved the mix of cases DiMaio presents. They’re all really different. Some are high profile, some are more small town, but I think they offered a really interesting viewpoint into what a medical examiner does and how a properly trained one can make a difference. The statistics he presented on the amount of doctors specializing in forensic medicine are shocking in that the need is always rising but the actual doctors going into this field is shrinking dramatically. It’s relatively low pay for a lot of training and difficult work. I think that made his book even more poignant. Medical examiners can make or break a case, and the evidence they find is often in complete opposition to what the defense or prosecution is saying. In light of all the hype around the criminal justice system, I thought that this book was really timely and eye-opening. I had no idea the difference between normal medical examiners, who can be elected and can come from whatever field of study they come from versus the medically trained medical examiners. It is, as you might imagine, the difference of night and day.

In light of the cases discussed in this book, it became completely obvious that examining the body by a correctly trained medical professional is a crucial step in the process of determining whether a suspect is guilty or not. I found that one of the most memorable episodes of the podcast Undisclosed talked to a medical examiner who basically discounted the original findings or the medical examiner. These results would have completely changed the state’s timeline, rendering all of their evidence almost obsolete. I mean…this is serious stuff.

One of the things I liked most about this book is DiMaio’s candid honesty. He doesn’t pull any punches when he talks about the guilty or why they did what they did, and I found it refreshing. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get a little tired of all the political correctness that makes an issue almost more confusing. Instead of saying what the truth is, authors often feel like they must dance around it or use language to mask what they’re really saying. DiMaio is not like this. I appreciated it a lot.

I thought this was a really interesting book. It’s not so heavy of medical terms that it’s confusing or hard to read. It’s very accessible and if you’re into all the criminal justice system discussions going on, this is definitely a book you should check out.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: If you’re sensitive, I wouldn’t read this. There isn’t a lot of language or gratuitous sex, but there is a lot of discussion of violence, and one chapter in particular discusses violence against children. 


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