Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Top Secret Recipes Step-By-Step: Secret Formulas with Photos for Duplicating Your Favorite Famous Foods at Home - Todd Wilbur

Summary: A knockout full-color cookbook from America's Clone Recipe King
For more than twenty-five years, Todd Wilbur has been obsessed with recreating America's most iconic brand-name foods at home. In his first cookbook with color photos, the New York Times bestselling author brings you 125 new clone recipes: 75 first-time hacks and 50 overhauled all-time favorites. Each recipe comes with easy-to-follow step-by-step photos so that even novice cooks can perfectly recreate their favorite famous foods with everyday ingredients. And your homemade versions cost just a fraction of what the restaurants charge! The result of years of careful research, trial-and-error, and a little creative reverse-engineering, Top Secret Recipes® Step-by-Step hacks: 

• KFC® Original Recipe® Fried Chicken and Cole Slaw 
• Cinnabon® Classic Cinnamon Roll 
• IKEA® Swedish Meatballs 
• Pinkberry® Original Frozen Yogurt 
• Raising Cane's® Chicken Fingers and Sauce 
• Arby's® Curly Fries 
• Lofthouse® Frosted Cookies 
• Wendy's® Chili 
• Panera Bread® Fuji Apple Chicken Salad 
• Starbucks® Cake Pops 
• Cafe Rio® Sweet Pork Barbacoa 
• McDonald's® McRib® Sandwich 
• The Melting Pot® Cheddar Cheese Fondue 
• P.F. Chang's® Chicken Lettuce Wraps 
• The Cheesecake Factory® Stuffed Mushrooms 
• Ben & Jerry's® Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream 
• Chick-fil-A® Chicken Sandwich 
• Chili's® Baby Back Ribs 
• Chipotle Mexican Grill® Adobo-Marinated Grilled Chicken & Steak 
• Cracker Barrel® Hash Brown Casserole 
• Mrs. Fields® Chocolate Chip Cookies 
• Ruth's Chris Steakhouse® Sweet Potato Casserole 
And over 100 more delicious dishes, from snacks and appetizers to entrees and desserts!

(Summary and pic from

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

My Review: I thought this was a really fun recipe book. First of all, it had lots of recipes from places I really like. I must admit that I probably won’t be making a Burger King burger at home—just because I can easily go buy one for super cheap about five minutes from my house—but I did like making stuff from restaurants that are not as easily accessible for me. For instance, there’s a Cheesecake Factory about 45 minutes from my house, but getting there and then waiting in line (which can sometimes be hours!) is just not feasible all the time for me. I tried a couple really yummy recipes from Cheesecake Factory.

One of the coolest things about this book is the recipes that from restaurants that I don’t have access to here. For example, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. isn’t even located in my state, and one recipe in particular, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Shrimp New Orleans, was super fabulous and I was indeed dreaming about the sauce the next day, just as promised. I even made some apps from restaurants that I have here and it was fun to have them at our dinners. We even used the mozzarella cheesesticks from Applebee’s as part of our fun Christmas dinner.

Now—these recipes are not always easy. They’re not necessarily complicated, but some of them seem like a heckuva lot of work when you could just easily go buy them at a fast food joint, and for that reason I probably wouldn’t make all of the recipes listed. However, some of them are totally worth it, and I really liked the introduction that Wilbur had written about why copycat recipes are fun and relevant. I thought his points were great. He’s obviously been asked this before, and clearly states his points: cost, customization, discontinuation, scarcity, location, mixed-up menu, fun, and adulation. After reading his points, I totally got why he does what he does and it was even more fun to try the different recipes. I even looked at his website and I’ll probably buy some of his recipes (which are available for individual purchase at a nominal price). Chili’s Chicken Enchilada Soup, anyone?

As far as whether or not these recipes are exactly like the originals, I’m not totally sure. I think some are closer than others. He doesn’t recommend brands of ingredients, and I think we can all agree that in some situations that really makes the difference. Although the recipes I made were delicious, some I made were closer to the originals than others. That’s okay, though. They were still yummy regardless of their authenticity.

I think this is a really fun series of cookbooks and I recommend it for anyone who’s thought, “I should try to make this at home!” after eating something really yummy at a restaurant.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean, but certainly not clean eating.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Hidden Oracle - Rick Riordan

Summary: How do you punish an immortal?

By making him human.

After angering his father Zeus, the god Apollo is cast down from Olympus. Weak and disorientated, he lands in New York City as a regular teenage boy. Now, without his godly powers, the four-thousand-year-old deity must learn to survive in the modern world until he can somehow find a way to regain Zeus's favour.

But Apollo has many enemies - gods, monsters and mortals who would love to see the former Olympian permanently destroyed. Apollo needs help, and he can think of only one place to go . . . an enclave of modern demigods known as Camp Half-Blood. (Summary and image from

Review: Summer just demands a good, fun book from Rick Riordan, doesn’t it? Just me? I love his books.  I love how accessible he makes the Greek myths, I love how intertwined all of his series are, I just enjoy his writing.  Sometimes you just need fluff, hence the summertime need for a Riordan book.  This is his newest series, delving back into the Camp Halfblood world from the perspective of a now-mortal Apollo.  

Riordan hasn’t sacrificed his protagonist’s ego for his humanity, nor has he made human-Apollo entirely unlikeable.  Part of this is the amnesia tool - since becoming human, Apollo can’t remember everything he did as a god - but part of it is the humility that Apollo must require to regain his immortality.  While the stories themselves are relatively predictable, I don’t get the feeling that Riordan ever calls it in, and as such, these are always good books to turn to when you’re either in a rut, or when you’re trying to find something to entice a reluctant reader.  

I would recommend reading the first two Camp Halfblood series first, as the events in them are heavily referenced.  However, this series feels like it’s written for a younger audience than series number two.

Rating: Three and a half stars. 

For the Sensitive Reader: Greek swears, references to adultery, betrayal.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Ghost Tree - Sara Bain

Summary: A newcomer to a small town must contend with a 17th century poltergeist intent on murder

Five years after the death of his wife, MacAoidh Armstrong moves into a smallholding in southern Scotland with the intention of living a self-sufficient existence. Although he’s heard the steading has a reputation for being haunted, the pragmatic Highlander does not believe in ghosts. On a hill by the steading stands the Ghost Tree: all that remains of the former Ringcroft of Stocking. Local legend says, when the last of the Ghost Trees dies, the Rerrick Parish Poltergeist will return. The Ghost Tree is dying and, just days after MacAoidh moves in, he is forced to contend with a number of strange and terrifying events that put his very life at risk. This series of bizarre and increasingly threatening occurrences at The Ring defy all logical and scientific explanation, and compel MacAoidh to face phenomena that will make him question his very beliefs. (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: When I got this book, I was expecting a book on Scottish lore and some creepy ghosts that go along with it. I was not wrong. There is a small dose of Scottish lore and a healthy dose of very creepy ghost happenings. That being said, the book is actually a light chick-lit romance with the main characters falling in love over the scariness and aftermath of a very angry ghost.

So. I’m Scottish. Well, my granny is full Scottish which makes me at least ¼ Scottish with everybody else’s genes mixed in. I’ll spare you the rest of my genealogy, but suffice it to say that I was really looking forward to some fun Scottish lore and ghost stories. What I was hoping for was possibly one of those books where there are parallel stories going on—the modern story as well as the deep and intricate re-told or re-invented Scottish lore—but this was not the case. There was a small chapter at the beginning that kind of introduced the ghost and the lore around it, but that was kind of it. This was disappointing because that story was really cool and I loved the idea of the three trees that were standing as sentinels against the ghost and that when the final one died, it was unleashed. I mean, that’s ghost story gold right there! This was not to be, however.

That being said, it’s not like there was no ghost. Oh, there was a ghost. And he was a somewhat terrifying ghost who did scary things and gave the story a very creepy feel. The novel was not written like a horror story (I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not), but the ghostly happenings were certainly creepy and could have totally been amped up to make the book just terrifying.

Most of the book was was a good old-fashioned man-meets-woman-and-they-fall-in-love story. The man, of course, is strapping and handsome and all the women around him just can’t believe what a handsome movie star-esque hunk of a man he is. The woman is quirky and rude but beautiful in an unconventional way and the man is inexplicably drawn to this even though she’s pretty unlikeable. They fall in love, but not without some drama from the family and misunderstandings and general shenanigans. In this, the book is pretty typical as far as the love story goes. I was surprised how unlikeable Libby, the main character was. At one point I could tell that Bain had wanted her to be this really cool enigma of a person who was deep and layered with a heart of gold, but I think he failed. She was just rude. Whew. I’m stuffy. Or maybe I’m just jealous and I really want the hunk of a man? (My husband just snorted indignantly.) I mean, everybody else does.

To be fair, I’m not a huge reader of chic lit and romance. I don’t enjoy the mismatched but perfect specimens of people that end up together. I do like ghost stories, though, and I think if you were a reader of chic lit who wanted a little Scottish lore and ghosts to tantalize you, you’d love this book.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and sexual content of this book. However, I was pleasantly surprised how mild it was compared to what I think it would have been. I would rate it a soft PG-13.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Chronicles: The Art of War - Daniel Falconer

Summary: The ultimate celebration of the spectacular battle in the final Hobbit movie reveals in stunning detail the full creative vision of Peter Jackson and the filmmakers, together with extensive commentary from the director, cast, crew, and almost 2,000 exclusive photos, illustrations and visual effects imagery.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Chronicles – The Art of War goes behind the lines to explore how thousands of artisans brought the defining film of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the screen. More than 1,000 intricate illustrations, stunning photographs and never-before-seen imagery illuminate fascinating insights shared by cast and crew, including exclusive content from the extended edition of the final film. Also included is an exclusive fold-out battle map illustrated by Weta Workshop Designer, Nick Keller!

From the sorcerous ruins of Dol Guldur and the fiery conflagration of Lake-town, follow the filmmakers on to the blood-soaked battlefields of the Lonely Mountain, and climb the steps of Ravenhill to witness the final, tragic duel of Thorin Oakenshield and Azog, the Pale Orc.

Discover the challenges and reactions of the stars of The Battle of the Five Armies as they recount their experiences and excitement. Join the choreographers of the film’s action to examine the battle strategies and formations of each of the five armies, and learn how a dozen stunt performers became thousands of digital troops. Pore over archive-quality photography of staggeringly detailed weapons and armour and browse galleries of fearsome war beasts and monsters.

As the story of The Hobbit reaches its shattering climax amidst an epic landscape of war and tragedy, join Weta Workshop senior concept designer Daniel Falconer behind the scenes one last time as this sumptuous final book in The Hobbit: Chronicles series celebrates the epic conclusion of The Hobbit film trilogy. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: As a bigger fan of the Tolkien movies than the books, I think the final movie, The Battle of the Five Armies may be the exception.  Not because the movie isn’t breathtaking, but because it’s such a small part of The Hobbit, it’s almost like Peter Jackson out-Tolkien’d J.R.R. Tolkien.  That being said, the craftsmanship that went into the film is still extraordinary.  

The Art of War delves into all of those incredible details.  From the histories behind the armors worn by the armies and the Houses of dwarves, to the history of Thranduil’s Elk (because, WOW.  That’s an ELK.), to the legends behind the gems and the foes, everything is displayed in exquisite detail and described by the masters who made them.  The photographs show those details that you can’t notice in the movie-viewing experience to their best advantage. It’s just mind boggling to see the amount of work and love that went into this last movie.

As with the last book in the series I reviewed, this made me want to rewatch the movie and look for the details I came to love through the book.  Whether you’re a Tolkien Purist or a superfan, these books are well worth owning.

Rating: Five stars

Monday, July 18, 2016

Welcome to Deadland - Zachary Tyler Linville

Summary: In a thrilling debut from Nerdist, a ragtag group of survivors struggles to hold on to hope.

A widespread disease has ravaged humanity—symptoms include: animalistic rage, violent outbursts, and a ravenous hunger for human flesh. Among the few people left are Asher, Wendy, and Rico, thrust together to fight for their lives and find sanctuary, before the world becomes overrun by the infected. Although fear of the infected is ever present, the group finds themselves facing some very human concerns, as well as new adversaries.

Asher is Wendy’s only friend, and she fears that she’ll lose him if he ever discovers the dark secret she’s been harboring. Reeling from heartbreak, Asher clings to Wendy as he struggles to heal. Rico is a teenaged delinquent used to ditching school and partying all night—but can he outgrow his debauched behavior in order to protect a six-year-old boy who has suddenly fallen under his care? These three will have to overcome their own demons in order to save not only themselves, but the last vestiges of humanity. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Asher and Wendy weren’t close until they had to be.  Now, they’re all the other has.  Rico truly cared about nothing but his kid brother, now he’d give anything to keep the boy safe.  Everything in their worlds have changed, including the World.  No one knows how the world’s end started, but as sure as zombies will get you if you’re not on your toes, they’re smack dab in the middle of it.

Every time I think I’ve read my last ZombieLit book, another one comes along that reels me  in.  I had the opportunity to review this before its publication, and it grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.  Not only was this the cleanest ZombieLit book I’ve ever read, it was possibly one of my favorites.  I loved how Linville’s characters were still fleshed out enough to undergo personal development while dealing with an apocalypse, how even minor characters were so well-written I wanted to know their back stories, and how this was by far the most realistic ZombieLit book I’ve read.  As a matter of fact, it ended on such a cliffhanger that I emailed my contact at Nerdist and demanded either answers to my biggest questions or a sequel.  The choice was hers.  You may have heard me cheer when I found out that a sequel is definitely on the way!

I was stunned to find out that this is Linville’s first book. You know me well enough by now to know how picky I am with A) Time jumps and B) Present Tense writing.  This book has both, and it is so well done. The pre-apocalyptic flashbacks are all written in past tense (as well they should be, thank you!), and the present tense goings-on are all written in Present Tense - conveying the appropriate sense of urgency and doubt to the reader.  I loved it.  I loved that Linville didn’t shy away from stories difficult to tell, that even the knights in shining armor were humans with human flaws.  I loved the interactions of all the characters, even the ones that had me on edge.  And dagnabit, if a book makes me email the publisher within minutes of finishing to demand answers, it’s a book worth reading!

Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few sex scenes, but nothing too shocking.  There are a few big swear words yelled by a drug dealer.  Teenage drug dealing/use.  Hints of an affair between the main (flashback) couple. One of the main characters deals with his sexuality during the flashbacks and I found it very tastefully done. Also, it's a ZombieLit book.  There's some gore.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook - Kate White

Summary: Hard-boiled breakfasts, thrilling entrees, cozy desserts, and more--this illustrated cookbook features more than 100 recipes from legendary mystery authors. Whether you're planning a sinister dinner party or whipping up some comfort food perfect for a day of writing, you'll find plenty to savor in this cunning collection. Full-color photography is featured throughout, along with mischievous sidebars revealing the links between food and foul play. Contributors include Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben, Nelson DeMille, Gillian Flynn, Sue Grafton, Charlaine Harris, James Patterson, Louise Penny, Scott Turow, and many more. (Summary and image from  I was provided a book in exchange for an honest review.)

Rating:  How delightful! If you have ever wondered what your favorite authors would serve at a dinner party, and why, this is the kind of cookbook you’ll want to dive into.  Enclosed within are tidbits of why and how these recipes were chosen, how they have either impacted the authors’ lives or the lives of their characters.  I have enough of a snoop in me that reading tidbits like that just delight me.

Many of these recipes aren’t ones I will be able to enjoy, either because of the inclusion of alcohol (religious reasons) or sugar to the extent I couldn’t modify it out (allergies.  Yes, I’m allergic to sugar.), but I love reading good recipes.  Many of these are ones I can’t wait to make — in fact, there’s one I’ve been craving since I read it. I have all the ingredients in my kitchen, I just haven’t had the time to make it yet.  But I can’t wait!

The pictures and illustrations included in the book are so much fun.  They quietly reinforce you’re reading about mystery writers, whether it’s by the butt of a revolver included next to a plate of pasta, or a skull and crossbones thumbnail introducing the next section of recipes.  At the risk of sounding repetitive, all of these little details came together to make reading this cookbook an absolutely delightful experience.  

Rating: Four stars

Monday, June 20, 2016

Geek Parenting: What Joffrey, Jor-El, Maleficent, and the McFlys Teach Us About Raising a Family - Stephen H. Segal & Valya Dudycz Lupescu

Summary: It takes a starship to raise a child. Or a time machine. Or a tribe of elves. Fortunately, Geek Parenting offers all that and more, with thoughtful mini-essays that reveal profound child-rearing advice (and mistakes) from the most beloved tales of geek culture. Nerds and norms alike can take counsel from some of the most iconic parent–child pairings found in pop culture: Aunt May and Peter Parker, Benjamin and Jake Sisko, Elrond and Arwen, even Cersei and Joffrey. Whether you’re raising an Amazon princess, a Jedi Padawan, a brooding vampire, or a standard-issue human child, Geek Parenting helps you navigate the ion storms, alternate realities, and endless fetch quests that come with being a parent.

Includes parenting experts from across time and space, such as:

Luke and Vader
Korra and Tenzin
Wednesday and Morticia Addams
Frodo and Bilbo
Rose and Jackie Tyler
Carl and Michonne
Thor, Loki, and Odin
Starbuck, Apollo and Adama
Stewie and Lois
Sarah Manning and Mrs. S.
T'Challa and T'Chaka
Spock, Sarek, and Amanda
Claudia and Lestat
San and Moro
Perseus and Zeus
Dorothy and Auntie Em
Bruce Wayne and Alfred
Buffy and Giles
Meg Murry and Aunt Beast
Orpheus and Morpheus
Paul Atreides and Lady Jessica
Kal-El and Jor-El
Chakotay and Kolopak
Scott and Dr. Evil
Diana and Hippolyta
Alexander and Worf

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

Review: Ever wanted a parenting manual?  Preferably one offered by a wise old man with a pixelated beard who hands it to you and says “It’s dangerous to go alone.  Take this.” and then gives you all the wisdom you need? Parenting is hard, and it’s doubly difficult when it’s important to you and your spouse to not only raise well-adjusted, independent, intelligent, kind individuals, but also ones who are firmly rooted in the Ways of the Geek.

I, ladies and gentlemen, am a Geek. Or a Nerd. I’m proud of my love of Star Trek (all series).  My phone ringtone is the TARDIS. We celebrate Star Wars Day. It’s vitally important to me that my children appreciate and embrace this lifestyle. 

When I received this book, I think I was thinking it would be a tongue in cheek response to Parenting for Dummies.  I was pleasantly surprised and mistaken.  Inside I found numerous essays about parenting lessons from my favorite fandoms, from fandoms I don’t subscribe to, and from some I’d never heard of.  Some were reaching a little - searching for profound, meaningful metaphors where there were little to be found - but some were truly amazing, offering insight and analysis I’d never even considered. It made me want to look at my favorite fandoms again in a new light, not solely for the entertainment value, but for the deeper lessons that I could glean from them.

I quite enjoyed this book for what it is, but were I to revisit it, I wouldn’t read it in one sitting like I did.  As a collection of essays, this book is best nibbled upon, sampling those essays that best apply to your mood at the time.  That doesn’t mean, however, it’s worth passing up. 

Rating: Four and a half stars

Friday, June 10, 2016

Out for the Summer

Mindy here.
I know what you are thinking.
Who's MINDY?!?!

It's been a while, I know.  I miss reviewing fiercely and am contemplating a comeback in the not-so-near future, but unfortunately I am only here today because Elizabeth had to have back surgery again (her sixth in the  last year, if you can believe it).  She needs some time to rest, recuperate, and READ, as do all of our awesome reviewers, without worrying about deadlines.  There might be a review or two that sneaks in throughout the summer (because...deadlines), but otherwise look for us to return mid-August.  We'll be the ones with strange tan lines from falling asleep with our books on our faces.

May you have a FABULOUS SUMMER filled with all the best books!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Nick and Tesla's Solar-Powered Showdown - Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

Summary: Super-smart kid inventors Nick and Tesla Holt have outsmarted crooks, spies, and kidnappers, but now it’s time to crack their biggest mystery yet: where the heck are their parents? With the help of their eccentric Uncle Newt, the twins trace the clues to their missing Mom and Dad, scientists working on solar-power research for a clandestine government project. They’ll need all their wits, along with an assortment of homemade gadgets, to outsmart the criminal mastermind who’s trying to turn solar power into a secret weapon. Featuring instructions for building and using five awesome solar-powered contraptions—a hot dog cooker, alarm bell, listening device, model car, and nighttime LED signal cannon—this sixth installment is sure to please budding scientists and sleuthers alike. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: They’re back!!  Nick and Tesla are sick of not hearing about their parents.  They are sick of knowing Agents McIntyre and Doyle are out there and doing something, but they want to know what’s going on.  It’s time to take matters in their own hands - and one way or another, they will find their parents, this time, with their Uncle Newt’s help.

Pflugfelder and Hockensmith are back in full form for this book - possibly the conclusion of the Nick and Tesla series.  From the very beginning chapters, I could tell a difference in the storyline and writing.  They had somewhere to go, and they were anxious to get there.  It made me so excited to keep reading.  That kind of energy was perfect for the book, as it showcased the anxiety two intelligent and frustrated twelve year olds would naturally experience in Nick and Tesla’s situation.  The pace didn’t let up, either, propelling the story all the way through to the last page.  And unlike so many Middle Grade books, there isn’t a chapter or two of sappy, perfectly ending fluff.  The action literally ends with the last sentence.

The science experiments that are inherent in the series are awesome.  My oldest, a huge fan of this series, can’t wait to get started on any of them — and as they’re all solar-powered, my environmentalist seven year old can’t either.  However, I don’t know how our neighbors are going to feel about solar powered spy gear being deployed in such close proximity to their homes … 

As I said earlier, this could possibly be the last book in the Nick and Tesla series.  I hate to see this series end, but this is a good and a natural conclusion point.  I look forward to any more collaborations between Pflugfelder and Hockensmith - definitely a team that shouldn’t part ways!

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Ninja grandmas aren’t nice.  The bad guy also plans to microwave the White House.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Me Before You - Jojo Moyes

Summary: Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn't know is she's about to lose her job or that knowing what's coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he's going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn't know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they're going to change the other for all time.

Image and summary from 

My review: Let me start by saying the trailer for the movie led me to read this book. I’d heard the title a few times, but seeing the charm and emotion in the trailer gave me the final push to begin reading this book. I think the movie trailer (more than the book summary) gives some pretty big clues that this story will be a The-Fault-In-Our-Stars-level tearjerker. I was right about that. Definitely a three Kleenex book. Maybe four. (I put The Fault in Our Stars at two.) I had mascara streaks down to my collarbones by the last page.

Quirky Louisa Clark, age 26, lives a safe, small, contented life the same English town she’s always lived in. When the café she has worked at for seven years closes up, she’s out of a job and her family is out of its primary source of income. In desperation, she takes a six-month position providing companionship and basic care to quadriplegic Will Traynor, an ex-financial wiz, ex-adventure-seeker. He’s horrible to her and she hates her days tiptoeing around his hostile moods. She only keeps the job because she has no other financial options.

After working at the Traynors’ for about a month, she overhears a conversation she wasn’t meant to hear about how Will intends to end his life via assisted suicide in a clinic in Switzerland—hence the six-month contract. Louisa’s employment has less about making meals and tidying up after an invalid and more of a last-ditch effort on the part of Will’s family to inject his life with friendship and hope.

The burden is too much for Louisa and she immediately resigns, but changes her mind after Will’s mother insists he responds to her in a special way and she’s the only hope the family has of keeping Will from making an unfathomable choice.

With a countdown calendar, quadriplegic chat rooms, unlimited funds from Mrs. Traynor, and her own brand of sunshine, Louisa has five months to show a broken man that life—even a diminished one—is worth living.

I couldn’t put this book down, and I found myself sneaking off to extended bathroom breaks and neglecting my family for two days straight. The book was well written and well paced. It’s written in first-person through Louisa—except four random chapters from four other first-person points of view that confused me more than added to the story. I felt that switch in narration was a glaring mistake.
When I finally reached its conclusion in the middle of the night, I wanted desperately to have someone to talk to about this book, but didn’t know anyone else who had read it. Thoughts of the story kept me awake, replaying scenes over and over again.

I literally laughed so loudly at parts, that my husband kept asking what was so funny. I cried—big ugly cries. I raged. I pondered. I fell in love. This book makes you feel all the emotions. It is effective and powerful in that respect. Yet it also broke me apart a little bit. I very much considered throwing my Kindle at the wall as soon as I read the last page and my good view of certain characters instantly blotted out. So be warned—you probably need a support group to read this book. I’m here if you need me. I’m still quite uncertain if I’ll watch the movie or read the sequel.

My rating: This is actually really hard…the book is well-written and does what good books do—transports you into another world and makes you feel things you would likely never feel in your own life—but they are not emotions I am comfortable feeling and can easily deal with! The book is quite effective…yet also quite unpleasant…I’ll give it 3.75 stars

For the sensitive reader: Assisted suicide is a controversial topic and the main topic of this book. The book presents both sides of the argument as valid and fair. But it is an incredibly touchy subject and you’ll question the morality and the selfishness/selfleslness of all the characters in the book. (And shouldn't a good book present new, uncomfortable ideas for us to think about?) A peppering of swear words, including about five F-words. Scenes of sexual intimacy between two consenting adults (not graphic). Reference to alcohol use, a little drunkenness. A past memory including drunkenness and recreational drugs which resulted in repressed memories of a likely sexual assault.

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Rosie Project - Graeme Simsion

Summary: An international sensation, this hilarious, feel-good novel is narrated by an oddly charming and socially challenged genetics professor on an unusual quest: to find out if he is capable of true love.

Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.

Yet Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also beguiling, fiery, intelligent—and on a quest of her own. She is looking for her biological father, a search that a certain DNA expert might be able to help her with. Don's Wife Project takes a back burner to the Father Project and an unlikely relationship blooms, forcing the scientifically minded geneticist to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that love is not always what looks good on paper.

The Rosie Project is a moving and hilarious novel for anyone who has ever tenaciously gone after life or love in the face of overwhelming challenges.

Image and summary from 

Review: Within the first minute (page??? I listened to the audiobook) I knew I would love this book. And I did. An instant favorite for me. I told everyone I knew (who doesn’t mind a little strong language) to read it ASAP.

Professor Don Tillman is socially awkward and he knows it. Though he’s at peace with his singleness, a friend surprises him by saying he would make a wonderful husband and Don figures, statistically speaking, there must be a woman out there who would be an ideal match for him and decides to find her the only way he knows how—through the scientific method.

With a survey created to weed out unacceptable candidates, Don begins his journey. His best friend Gene—who helps Don with his data collection—decides to throw Don a curveball and sends him on a date with Rosie. Rosie is all wrong for Don. She smokes. She dances. She’s a vegetarian. She’s spontaneous and outrageous. And though she is completely the opposite of everything Don is seeking, after their first date together, he can’t deny that he had a good time and that he wants to see her again.

Since Rosie is out of consideration for the Wife Project, Don offers to help her find her biological father—The Father Project—thus enabling him to spend time with Rosie without the social pressures of dating. As the The Father Project concludes and Don turns his attention back to The Wife Project, will his heart defy his logical mind and bring him back to Rosie?

I’ve never experienced a POV character quite like Don Tillman before. Reading (and writing) is all about emotion, right? How exactly will it work to have a first-person narrator who is completely unemotional? It’s simply brilliant. It’s a perfect example of the untrustworthy narrator. While Don is nothing but logical and works very hard to understand the linguistic acrobatics of metaphors and humor, the reader can easily find humor in between the lines and heart on every page.

My review: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a fair amount of swearing, including about two dozen uses of the F word.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Early One Morning - Virginia Baily

Summary: Two women's decision to save a child during WWII will have powerful reverberations over the years.

Chiara Ravello is about to flee occupied Rome when she locks eyes with a woman being herded on to a truck with her family.

Claiming the woman's son, Daniele, as her own nephew, Chiara demands his return; only as the trucks depart does she realize what she has done. She is twenty-seven, with a sister who needs her constant care, a hazardous journey ahead, and now a child in her charge.

Several decades later, Chiara lives alone in Rome, a self-contained woman working as a translator. Always in the background is the shadow of Daniele, whose absence and the havoc he wrought on Chiara's world haunt her. Then she receives a phone call from a teenager claiming to be his daughter, and Chiara knows it is time to face up to the past. (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: WWII historical fic is a big deal right now. There are tons of books about it, and tons of books with lots of acclaim. I think this is very valid—WWII had a huge impact on the entire world (possibly an understatement, I realize), and I don’t know about you, but I personally know/knew people (like three of my four grandparents) who were involved. So beyond its historical significance, I feel like I have a great personal connection to it and love reading about it. I’ve also really enjoyed the emphasis of women during WWII in much of the recent historical fiction. I’ve read several books of late about women on the home front, women pilots, women serving as part of the resistance, etc., and I think Early One Morning is definitely right in that money spot of what is popular right now.

And it had great potential. It really did. In a lot of ways, it was really great.

First off, I enjoyed the writing. It wasn’t poignantly beautiful or really stylized or anything, but it had a nice flow to it and the descriptions were such that I definitely understood the characters—what they looked like, what they were like, what mannerisms they had, etc. This is a big deal, actually, because if you can’t imagine your characters then it is really hard to fully understand what’s going on in the book. Secondly, I think it had a good story.

But all that being said, there’s a lot of competition in this little historical fiction genre. There have been some remarkable books about women in WWII, and some of them are excellent. Just within the books I’ve reviewed you’ll find the wonderful Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire, and The Nightingale. Others in the genre are just okay, and of course, some are not that great. Early One Morning is on the higher end of the books in the middle. Here’s why.

While the story was ambitious and had a lot of great elements, it had a hard time coming together. There are three main elements of the story going on, and they don’t start coming together until three fourths of the way through the book. That doesn’t give much time to develop the rest of the story. Because of that, I felt like the end was kind of rushed, especially in the way the individual plots were resolved. It’s not a huge, long book, so I think it could have gone on a little longer and been fine. It had everything it needed to be really interesting—and in some ways it was—but it didn’t deliver to the degree that it could have. I think this may due in part to the author’s inexperience in writing novels. Baily is obviously a talented writer and very experienced in writing short stories (her bio proves this), but I think Early One Morning lent itself to a longer, more fleshed out ending and resolution than Baily was equipped to write. That being said, it’s a good book with realistic-feeling characters. If you are noshing through a ton of WWII historical fic that feature women, this is one you should consider.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is mostly clean and has only mild language. It is on the clean side of the genre. It would be safe for a church book club or other conservative group.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Savage Drift - Emmy Lambourne

SummaryThe stunningly fierce conclusion to Emmy Laybourne's Monument 14 trilogy.

The survivors of the Monument 14 have finally made it to the safety of a Canadian refugee camp. Dean and Alex are cautiously starting to hope that a happy ending might be possible.

But for Josie, separated from the group and trapped in a brutal prison camp for exposed Type Os, things have gone from bad to worse. Traumatized by her experiences, she has given up all hope of rescue or safety.

Meanwhile, scared by the government's unusual interest in her pregnancy, Astrid (with her two protectors, Dean and Jake in tow) joins Niko on his desperate quest to be reunited with his lost love Josie.

Author Emmy Laybourne reaches new heights of tension and romance in this action-packed conclusion to the Monument 14 trilogy.

Review: Whew!  Is your heart still pounding from that ending?  I'm fairly outspoken about my views of POV switches, but I think Lambourne carried it off brilliantly at the end of Sky on Fire, and I was grateful I'd checked out the entire series to just launch into the final book.

My expectations were high.  Lambourne has done such a good job with the series so far that I expected a truly grand finale.  While the book itself started a little slow, it quickly escalated into what I hoped to find.  

Not all of the Monument 14 have made it to the refugee camp, one being lost and one having run away for the safety of the group.  Those who have made it miss Josie, the "mother" of the group, but they are starting to find some normalcy in their new way of life.  However, Astrid has started to notice that the girls who are pregnant are disappearing, and she's scared.  She wants to flee, but how? And why should she with no proof?  The appearance of an article with Josie's picture in a concentration-camp-like facility, and the hope they can reunite her with the rest of the group, gives Dean and Astrid the reason they need to flee, but are they truly better off on their own?

Lambourne has truly crafted some incredible characters, and watching them complete their journeys was not in one bit disappointing.  The overt sex that bothered me in the other books is missing in this book, and honestly, it made it better. We get to see the true motivations of the characters, seeing their growth and their failings.  It was amazing.  It was terrifying.  It was gripping.  I loved it.

It's funny to me how much I want to see all the characters, even the ones I don't like, grow and learn, and how upset I get when that doesn't always happen.  However, every character behaved exactly how they would have had they been real people.  Lambourne recognized who her characters truly were, spots and all, and held them true.

This was a satisfying end to an incredible series.  I'd suggest it for slightly more mature teen readers, though, given some of the more mature themes of the series.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is an attempted rape scene, some brutally violent outbursts in the concentration camp, horrid guards, and a few more incidents with those exposed to the crazy-making chemicals.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) - George R. R. Martin

Summary: Here is the third volume in George R.R. Martin's magnificent cycle of novels that includes A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Together, this series comprises a genuine masterpiece of modern fantasy, destined to stand as one of the great achievements of imaginative fiction.

Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage as alliances are made and broken. Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, victim of the sorceress who holds him in her thrall. Young Robb still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun. Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenerys, mistress of the only three dragons still left in the world. And as opposing forces manoeuver for the final showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost limits of civilization, accompanied by a horde of mythical Others—a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable. As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords...
Image and summary from

My review: A complex tale grows even more complex as war rages all across the seven kingdoms. Five men claim the title of king and mean to subdue the continent. Robb Stark makes sweeping victories on the battlefield, but disastrous decisions regarding his love life. What can you expect from a 17-year-old with raging hormones?

King Joffrey’s reign seems secure in King’s Landing as his forces deal with the threat of the four other self-proclaimed kings with ease. Politics are muddy at best, and everyone is down in the dirt ready to play. This book brings about two infamous weddings, one that has infamously outraged readers and another that tastes of sweet, sweet justice. (Sidenote: don’t have a wedding in Westeros.)

Queen Dany and her dragons continue their trek across the other continent, Essos. She is learning who she is as a ruler and has some seriously awesome moments. She detests slavery and frees the slaves in every city she passes through, but after seeing the havoc that can happen after overthrowing a government—even a terrible one—she settles into the next city after overthrowing its government to try her hand at governing herself.

In the north, a new threat emerges. As Jon Snow spends time spying on the wildlings, he begins to understand and respect them, even taking a wildling woman as lover for sometime. The Night’s Watch on the ranging north of the Wall have a skirmish with the zombie-like Others, introducing readers to the true threat of the series.

We see the plot shift from avenging Ned Stark to wanting nothing more than King’s Landing to go down in flames. The rank rule of the Lannisters seems impervious even though readers hope for a weak spot that any—ANY—of the opposing characters can exploit. Queen Dany has settled down to rule another land for the foreseeable future. Jon becomes more burdened by the demands at the Wall, even as he rises to power. And King Stannis is focused on aiding the realm against outside invaders. Even so, the game of thrones still has plenty of players. Our best hope might not be in a conqueror swooping in to save the day, but in the politicians of King’s Landing destroying the reign from within. As the Lannister family itself fractures, age-old alliances fall away and enterprising schemers might just have the opportunity to put a new king—or queen—on the Iron Throne.

In this book, we experience an absolute breaking of trust between reader and author. The idea that no character is safe is firmly cemented. No character—hero or villain—is too central to do away with. “Central” plots will just develop somewhere else. Heroes are cut down and villains become heroes. Knowing what outcome to root for is ambiguous at best. The backstories and characters are so gorgeously elaborate that, by this book, readers are rabidly invested in numerous fan theories and rereading the lengthy series for more clues and foreshadowing. Oh what fun it is to be a fan!

Rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: These books are not for you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Stranger - Harlan Coben

Summary: #1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense Harlan Coben's most shocking thriller yet, proving that a well-placed lie can help build a wonderful life-- and a secret has the same explosive power to destroy it.

The Stranger appears out of nowhere, perhaps in a bar, or a parking lot, or at the grocery store. His identity is unknown. His motives are unclear. His information is undeniable. Then he whispers a few words in your ear and disappears, leaving you picking up the pieces of your shattered world.

Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, two wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream: a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life.

Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corinne, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears as if it never existed at all. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corinne's deception, and realizes that if he doesn't make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy he's stumbled into will not only ruin lives--it will end them. (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: One of the things I love about Harlan Coben’s books is that they’re a super fast, super fun read. I’ve read several of his books and every one of them has a good mystery that’s equally disturbing and a lot of fun. It’s a careful balance, I know. I don’t know if some of his books deal with the supernatural, but the ones I have read do not. They’re just fun old-fashioned pot boilers with lots of twists and turns. The Stranger is certainly one of those super fun reads that keeps you page turning until the book is over.

Now. If you’re looking for some serious literature with a touch of nostalgia and a whole heaping helping of inspiration, this book is not for you. And Coben isn’t trying to be that way, either, so it’s not like he’s missing the mark. The Stranger is decently written in that the writing is very characteristic of Coben. It’s not about the writing, it’s not trying to be time-honored literature. It wants to be what it is. And boy, is it. I love how Coben uses somewhat clichéd examples of things—i.e. golf playing men are very stereotypically dressed, gym-going housewives are very stereotypically coiffed, etc. He operates within a familiar world and that allows the reader to not only know right what’s going on, but to relate not only on an “I’ve read this before” scale but also on a real life level. We know people like this. We understand the clichés. These clichés are real life. I feel like Coben purposefully writes like this to throw his books into a setting that’s familiar. And that’s what makes the mysteries and plots and turns work really well, actually. Because these situations feel real and the plots and turns are just cannily enough like a normal life that it’s easy to put yourself in the situation of the main character.

That’s the crux of the books, actually. The mysteries and plots and turns are not super tricky or deep, but they’re so much fun. And they seem like they could really happen, which adds a delicious layer of creepiness to the whole thing. There’s always that edge where you feel like this could actually happen, and that’s creepy. And fun. Coben is the master of excitement and twists and turns and mystery thrillers that are fun to read.

I loved reading this book after a stream of very serious and very heavy books. It was a nice break. I had just read a huge biography that, while interesting, was not exactly one I would take to the beach or in an airplane to page turn and just be immersed in. Like I said, it came at just the right time. I finished it in probably two days. It’s a fast, fun read that was totally characteristic of Coben, which, to me, was awesome.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language here and there and some light violence (more discussed instead of described intimately). It is on the cleaner end of books of this genre.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lara's Favorite Reads

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

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

Friday, May 20, 2016

Reagan: The Life - H.W. Brands

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Born to Treason - E.B. Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Four stars

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

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Winter Sea - Susanna Kearsley (Slains #1)

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

Image and summary from 

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3.5

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


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