Monday, December 5, 2016

The Muse - Jessie Burton

Summary: The Sunday Times Number One Bestseller

A picture hides a thousand words . . .

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn't know she had, she remains a mystery - no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences . . .

Seductive, exhilarating and suspenseful, The Muse is an unforgettable novel about aspiration and identity, love and obsession, authenticity and deception - a masterpiece from Jessie Burton, the million-copy bestselling author of The Miniaturist.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: When I saw the opportunity to get a review copy of this book, I was excited. I reviewed Burton’s first book, The Miniaturist, and I really enjoyed the intertwining of the almost magical and other-worldliness of it all. I was hoping for the same artistry and feeling in this book.

I have to say that I wasn’t completely disappointed by what I was expecting. I think that sometimes authors are able to write something really incredible for their first book—they’ve been thinking about it for a long time, the story has been percolating for years, and someone or something gives them that extra shove to go ahead and write it and it turns out to be just as awesome as they had hoped. This doesn’t always happen, of course, and I think that many authors suffer from a need for more maturity in their writing the first time around. This is often fixed in subsequent books. I felt like Burton had nailed her first book, though. It was so interesting and intriguing and magical. The Muse did have some of this, but I think that overall it wasn’t as well-crafted or as well-written as her first novel.

First—and this may be because I have a reviewer’s copy, so this may have changed—but I felt like some of the transitions between characters and time periods were a little confusing. This is a time hop book, and I’ve read quite a few of those, and sometimes the connection between the two stories is stronger than others. I always prefer a pretty strong connection otherwise it just seems weird that they were put in the same novel. Although there is a sense that obviously it’s going to turn out where there is a connection between these two stories, it isn’t until the very end that it’s drawn and by then it seems tenuous and almost like an afterthought. Secondly, the dialogue was weird at times. The main character in one of the stories is from an island English colony in the West Indies, and comes to London, and periodically she and a friend will slip into what I can only assume is slang from the West Indies. I say this because at times it’s confusing—they don’t speak with slang most of the time, and when she speaks to her boss or friends or anyone else it isn’t written like this, and so the first time it happened I couldn’t decide if the author was leaving out words here and there because it hadn’t been edited or what. Every time it happened it was jarring, but I finally decided that Burton was trying to create the West Indies connection between the two friends. It was kind of weird that it was so sporadic. Thirdly, although I enjoyed the story, I didn’t find it as awesome or compelling as I had hoped. It’s a good enough story—it really is—but I was just hoping for more magic and something extraordinary like I had experienced in Burton’s first novel.

This book does have a lot going for it, though. If you are an art lover, I think you’d really enjoy this book. The way Burton describes the paintings is exquisite, and I was really wishing that I could see in real life what they looked like. Also, I liked the mysterious boss character in the main story, although I would have definitely liked to see more of her and have more revealed about her. I think that too much was hidden and too much inferred. Burton made assumptions that the reader would feel the same way about this character as she did, and yet not enough was revealed to make it so. As a reader you could see the inklings of something more being there, but it just wasn’t carried off.

Overall I think this book was interesting and has potential but it just seemed a little disorganized and unrefined. Indeed I wouldn’t have been surprised if this were Burton’s first novel and then she followed up with a stronger one like The Miniaturist. It just had the feel of a slightly inexperienced writer, and maybe that’s the case, although there is great promise and if you should choose to read it because you enjoyed her first book, you will probably enjoy this one as well with a little hope for something more down the road.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and light sexual content, but it is on par with others in the genre. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Argos: The Story of Odysseus as Told by His Loyal Dog - Ralph Hardy

Summary: From a compelling new voice in middle grade comes a reimagination of The Odyssey told from the point of view of Odysseus’s loyal dog—a thrilling tale of loyalty, determination, and adventure.

For twenty years, the great hero Odysseus struggles to return to Ithaka. After ten years beneath the walls of Troy, he begins the long journey back home. He defeats monsters. He outsmarts the Cyclops. He battles the gods. He struggles to survive and do whatever it takes to reunite with his family.

And what of that family—his devoted wife, Penelope; his young son, Telemachos; his dog, Argos? For those twenty years, they wait, unsure if they will ever see Odysseus again. But Argos has found a way to track his master. Any animal who sets foot or wing on Ithaka brings him news of Odysseus’s voyage—and hope that one day his master will return. Meanwhile, Argos watches over his master’s family and protects them from the dangers that surround a throne without its king.
(Summary and picture from goodreads.com

My Review: Of course I picked up this book, it's about a dog!  And more than that, it's about Odysseus's loyal dog, the one who recognizes him even when in disguise.  The premise for this book intrigued me, and I always love hearing a popular, age-old story told through a different lens, (especially if that lens is a dog).

The writing in this book is polished, and the character of Argos strong.  For twenty years he's waited for his master to come home (a long time for a dog!), and we see his determination and diligence in gathering information about where Odysseus is, as well as protecting Odysseus's wife and son on Ithaka.  Who doesn't love a good, loyal dog story?

However, the difficult thing about a tale like this is the action is happening away from the story.  We hear the happenings of Odysseus secondhand from birds and turtles who relate them to Argos, which in a sense sort of lost the imminent danger for me.  Given, there were things happening on Ithaka that Argos has to deal with (wolves, the suitors, etc), but it was almost sort of secondary to the real story, which is Odysseus's.  A cool take would have been to not just have Argos as the main character, but other animals and creatures in different places along the way, like the Cyclops' sheep, Scylla and Charybdis, the beasts on Circe's island, as well as Argos, of course, when his part came into play.  That's just my opinion, however, and these secondhand tellings may not bother others.

Other than that, however, it was an enjoyable read, and a must for any dog lover, or anyone looking to view a popular story another way.  It was unique and well written, which I enjoyed.

My Rating: Three Stars

For the sensitive reader: Argos is a tough, protective dog.  He does everything he can to protect his master's family, as well as their lands, including from wolves and robbers, where he doesn't hesitate to use his teeth, to dire ends if necessary.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Woman in the Photo - Mary Hogan

Summary: In this compulsively readable historical novel, from the author of the critically-acclaimed Two Sisters, comes the story of two young women—one in America’s Gilded Age, one in scrappy modern-day California—whose lives are linked by a single tragic afternoon in history.

1888: Elizabeth Haberlin, of the Pittsburgh Haberlins, spends every summer with her family on a beautiful lake in an exclusive club. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains above the working class community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the private retreat is patronized by society’s elite. Elizabeth summers with Carnegies, Mellons, and Fricks, following the rigid etiquette of her class. But Elizabeth is blessed (cursed) with a mind of her own. Case in point: her friendship with Eugene Eggar, a Johnstown steel mill worker. And when Elizabeth discovers that the club’s poorly maintained dam is about to burst and send 20 million tons of water careening down the mountain, she risks all to warn Eugene and the townspeople in the lake’s deadly shadow.

Present day: On her 18th birthday, genetic information from Lee Parker’s closed adoption is unlocked. She also sees an old photograph of a genetic relative—a 19th century woman with hair and eyes likes hers—standing in a pile of rubble from an ecological disaster next to none other than Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Determined to identify the woman in the photo and unearth the mystery of that captured moment, Lee digs into history. Her journey takes her from California to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from her present financial woes to her past of privilege, from the daily grind to an epic disaster. Once Lee’s heroic DNA is revealed, will she decide to forge a new fate?
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: The very first review I did for Reading for Sanity was on McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. If you haven’t read anything from the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning, National Book Award winning, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient David McCullough, then you are seriously missing out and should go do so straight away. I promise you won’t be disappointed. He’s an amazing writer, researcher, and historian, and he does an excellent job of bringing history to life in a detailed and poignant way. This could be a love fest for McCullough, but I digress…

I think the biggest strength of this book is how vividly it addressed the issue of the Johnston Flood, particularly the geography of it. Although I had read McCullough’s book (two years ago, to be fair) I learned new details about the flood from reading this book. For one thing, I guess I didn’t imagine that Johnstown itself was in a steep mountain valley, such that the lake was essentially above it in the sky. People would look up and see sailboats silhouetting the sky (weird, right?). Also, the bridge was a main factor in the flood and the neglect and manipulation by the elite at the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club in regards to that bridge and its maintenance played a big part. Probably most importantly—and I’m not sure how I missed this before—this is a story of the very elite versus the working class people. The very elite were the ones who had dammed (and damned) the lake because of their desire to harness it for their purposes, not only preventing the “lesser” people of Johnstown from enjoying its bounties (like the fish that were kept in the lake via a grate) but also putting them in obviously grave danger. I thought The Woman in the Photo did a great job of illustrating these issues and bringing them to light. It made the tragedy of the Johnstown Flood even more heartbreaking and senseless after understanding this back story.

As you can see from the description, this is one of those time hop books that has a historical fiction part and a modern part. I thought both these stories were interesting, although the characters were not super likeable. They weren’t unlikeable, but as with many women’s reads (and I wouldn’t classify this as a woman’s read, necessarily, although the two main characters are women) there is a fair amount of drama when reading about women’s innermost thoughts.

The writing in this book is good. It’s not exceptional and poignant, but it isn’t distracting or juvenile either. I thought it was decently written and enjoyed the stories. I definitely think that this is a book worth reading if you enjoy historical fiction or even time hop books.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some minor language in it.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton - Matt Phelan

Summary: In the summer of 1908, in Muskegon, Michigan, a visiting troupe of vaudeville performers is about the most exciting thing since baseball. They’re summering in nearby Bluffton, so Henry has a few months to ogle the elephant and the zebra, the tightrope walkers and — lo and behold — a slapstick actor his own age named Buster Keaton. The show folk say Buster is indestructible; his father throws him around as part of the act and the audience roars, while Buster never cracks a smile. Henry longs to learn to take a fall like Buster, "the human mop," but Buster just wants to play ball with Henry and his friends. With signature nostalgia, Scott O’Dell Award–winning graphic novelist Matt Phelan visualizes a bygone era with lustrous color, dynamic lines, and flawless dramatic pacing. (Summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: Buster Keaton has always been my favorite of the silent era comedians, his dead pan look, his fantastic stunts, his unique humor.  This story, while the main character is fictitious, does have true elements about Buster Keaton's youth in the town of Bluffton.

I liked the element of showing Buster's young life through Henry, a boy his own age, how Henry wanted to be like Buster, learning his prat falls and tricks, when all Buster wanted was just to be a normal kid and play baseball.  It's a good telling of a part of history some people might not think about, a unique tale with insight into one of the greatest comedians of all time.

And the art--the art is gorgeous.  Sometimes it's little more than a few pencil marks over watercolor, but it is so beautiful.  It is the perfect medium, giving off a strong sense of memory and nostalgia, and sweeps the story along in a gently-paced way.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Not much to report, this is a gentle story.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Man of Genius - Lynn Rosen

Summary: Samuel Grafton-Hall is a man of genius who demands reverence from all. A renowned architect, his point of view is not universally shared by students, critics, and colleagues - but this is of little consequence to Grafton-Hall, for he revels in his misanthropy.

Immune to the barbs of the masses, Grafton-Hall also suffers no qualms about his personal peccadilloes and perversions. An unrepentant womanizer, Grafton-Hall leaves colleagues, friends, and lovers deeply scarred from having known him.

And then there is the murder. The question of guilt is of less consequence than the question of whether the gift of genius makes one irreproachable.

A rich novel that will sweep you into a life of glittering achievement and the core of hubris, A Man of Genius will forever alter your ideas about success and pride. Written in the haunting style of du Maurier's Rebecca, this is a compelling story, told with intelligence and classic style. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: Well this was a fun little story. It’s quite unassuming, actually. The cover is fun, graced with the painting Fame by James Carroll Beckwith, 1878. It’s already deliciously creepy because of that. The book itself isn’t that long, actually, but it’s very satisfying and the mystery was great.

This book is written by an older woman with a lot of education and literary experience and it shows. The writing is complex and deep, but not inaccessible. It’s not written like bubble gum mystery fiction, though, and this isn’t one of those books that will be placed among the shelves of potboiler fiction at the airport. Don’t get me wrong—this is a very worthwhile read—but it is compared to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and I think this is a very fair comparison. It’s got that beautiful, gothic-style writing that is shivery and hidden. There are a lot of secrets but not all is revealed. Still, even after having read it, I have unanswered questions. This isn’t because of the author’s inability to address them, or even lack of clarity in the book, but more like that lovely hidden mystery of it all.

The story itself is fun and complex. It unwinds and shows hidden complexities in the main character as well as the interim and surrounding characters. The characters have depth and are complex, adding to the story and the intrigue surrounding it. There are a couple of different stories going on, but they are all interrelated and make a very nice and cohesive picture of the whole situation—it’s creepiness, its mystery, and the people whose lives have been affected by the unconventional and often unpredictable actions of this one man.

I think this is a great story for a Halloween season read. As I mentioned previously (and is mentioned in the book’s reviews), this has a very Rebecca-esque feel to it. It’s a ghost story without being one, a gothic novel of intrigue and mystery complete with house-as-a-character and people past and present who all come together to make a masterfully concocted story. Rosen is obviously a very competent and talented writer who created a beautiful and complex story that was thoroughly enjoyable.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a small incident of violence and a love scene, but I would say this book is on the cleaner side of the genre.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Sniper - Theodore Taylor

Summary: When Ben's parents go to Africa, they leave the fourteen-year-old in charge of the family's wild animal preserve. Everything seems to be running smoothly until one night when the silence is broken by the sound of peacocks screeching. When Ben leaves the house to investigate, he sees a terrifying sight: two lions shot dead from bullets sent straight to their hearts. Someone is out there, someone with a score to settle . . . and there's no telling who will be the next victim. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: Ben's parents are the best in their fields. His dad is a world-renowned, famous conservationist. His mom is one of the most recognized photographers in the world. Their preserve in California is their life's work, although their careers and their expertise frequently take them globetrotting--and since they need to be in Africa for a few weeks, Ben is in charge of the preserve for the first time.  However, something's wrong.  His parents' right-hand man is in the ICU after being run off the road.  The neighbors, already not happy with the preserve, are getting meaner. And then, the unthinkable.  Two of the preserve's lionesses, the two most like house cats, are found shot by a sniper. Ben's parents are missing, possibly attacked by poachers, and Ben is left with the impossible task of managing the preserve, winning over the town, and becoming a man in the next few days.

I remember reading this book as a kid, but remembered so little about it.  I remember that a cheetah was one of the victims, and since then I have wanted a cheetah for a pet. (This is, however, not the purpose of the book.) I seem to remember liking it a bit more than I did this time around.  Ben's struggle to grow up stems from wanting to make his parents proud, but is encumbered by his desire to simply be a cowboy.

The main conflict - desperately trying to find out who is poaching the preserve's cats - is still compelling. Taylor's ability to highlight Ben's feelings of abandonment, his fears of failure and hopes of success, pairs well with the overarching mystery that just deepens as the novel progresses. As a younger teen, my main takeaway was "Man, I want a cheetah as a pet!", but this time through, I could see the struggle of not only Ben (a chronic underachiever and a boy lacking the drive to motivate himself) but of his mother, who fears his complacency.  I saw myself as a teen this time through, and appreciated the novel on a different level.

Is this one of my favorite books of the year? Nope. But it's one I wouldn't mind keeping in my back pocket for a few years when my oldest is ready for a good coming-of-age story.

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is animal violence, someone takes shots at Ben, there is a scene of underage drinking and marijuana use.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Beyond the Western Deep - Alex Kain and Rachel Bennett

Summary:  Vol 1: For over 100 years, the animal races of the Four Kingdoms have lived side-by-side in an uneasy truce. But when conflict ignites in the north, old alliances threaten to send the world into chaos.

Vol 2: As conflict looms between ancient enemies, the fragile truce that held civilization together has begun to unravel. A small peace envoy travels north to prevent war, while a ragtag army of rebels marches south to create it. Experience the latest chapter of this all-ages fantasy saga in its second collected volume! (Summary and images from amazon.com)

My Review: I've been following the Beyond the Western Deep webcomic for several years now, and have loved watching this vibrant and interesting world grow and develop.  It's a story filled with animals of seven differing races, which adds to the unique nature of their world--how they get along or, in some cases, don't get along.

If you know me, you know I love a good tale about anthropomorphic animals, and this one is no exception. It's a complex world built from the results of chaos and war, in which prejudices remain thick, and alliances are beginning to crumble.  There's humor and heartache and cleverness all wrapped up in an intriguing tale, with characters that are well rounded, have their foibles and strengths.  The rich history of the land of the Western Deep is thick with culture that makes this world feel genuine and true, which has me hooked for the coming chapters.

The artist is a university colleague and friend of mine, and I love her mastery of expressions that she gives the different animal characters--they have so much life and vibrancy, not to mention the character design in general.  Her command of environments and clothing is also to be admired, as well as the kinetic action of each panel, giving the whole story a very energetic and polished feel--it's truly a visual treat.


Fans of any well-woven story matched with fantastic art should definitely give Beyond the Western Deep a go.  It will also appeal to those who love the Redwall series.

These books comprise the first two chapters of the ongoing saga, and the comic can be read on the creators' website, beginning here.

My Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader: This story is a tale of budding war, and skirmishes happen along the way, including some blood, though nothing gory.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Salt & Stone - Victoria Scott

Summary: How far would you go to survive?

In FIRE & FLOOD, Tella Holloway faced a dangerous trek through the jungle and a terrifying march across the desert, all to remain a Contender in the Brimstone Bleed for a chance at obtaining the Cure for her brother. She can't stop - and in SALT & STONE, Tella will have to face the unseen dangers of the ocean, the breathless cold of a mountain, and twisted new rules in the race.

But what if the danger is deeper than that? How do you know who to trust when everyone's keeping secrets? What do you do when the person you'd relied on most suddenly isn't there for support? How do you weigh one life against another?

The race is coming to an end, and Tella is running out of time, resources, and strength. At the beginning of the race there were one hundred twenty-two Contenders. As Tella and her remaining friends start the fourth and final part of the race, just forty-one are left . . . and only one can win.

Victoria Scott's stunning thriller will leave readers' hearts racing! (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Well. This was a fun little book. I must admit that I have been thinking about the prequel to this book, Fire & Flood, ever since I reviewed it all those years ago. I’ve been wondering what happened, and I’m not sure why I haven’t reserved and read the sequel until now.

These books are fun. They are reminiscent of The Hunger Games series, but they don’t take place in a dystopian society so in some ways they’re less shocking and more relatable. The characters come from our world, and although it is completely barbaric that they’ve been put in a situation where they have to fight for a cure for one of their loved ones (especially when the people running the “race” are the ones who infected the loved ones), it is easier to relate to characters and why they do what they do. The main character actually has quite a few references to what she would be doing were she back living in her normal life, and that keeps things in perspective.

Another thing I liked about this book were the pandoras, who were animal companions that were genetically modified to have special powers that can uniquely help in different situations; they’re also specifically made to serve their competitor, which makes it fun and interesting. It adds a depth to the story that I liked. Plus, superhero animal companions that are not speaking and acting like humans but are still animals are endearing. Like having the best. Dog. Ever. Except a cool exotic animal.

I think one of the strengths of this book is the characters. I loved the voice of the main character, Tella. She’s funny, she’s sassy, she’s sarcastic, and she straddles the line of being awesome but also being really real and vulnerable, and I think Scott did a great job creating her. The other characters are cool, too, and I felt like although they weren’t as multi-dimensional as Tella, they still had cool characteristics and personalities that made for a fun and enriching story.

The story itself is really exciting. It’s a really fast read, and I thought it was innovative and a lot of fun. I wouldn’t say it’s completely unique, because, let’s face it, this type of book is just everywhere, but it certainly holds its own in the genre. I would recommend this series if you are a Hunger Games fan, or even any of the books from this genre. One warning, though. Although this book doesn’t end on a complete cliff hanger, there is obviously much more to the story and it hasn’t been renewed for a third book yet, and I’m really hoping that happens soon because I would love to know what happens next. It will be disappointing if a renewal doesn’t happen.

My Review: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some mild language and some teen romance but nothing serious. I would say it is on par with others in the genre.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

When Bees Flew in for Breakfast - Nigel Tetley

Summary: When Bees Flew in for Breakfast is a collection of forty original poems written specifically for the 11-16 age group. The poems cover a wide range of themes, from nonsense humour to Gothic horror to logical puzzles to the Natural World. The poems are playful, surprising, thought-provoking and intriguing. This is a book that young people will want to read. (Summary from goodreads.com.  Image from amazon.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Poetry has a reputation, doesn’t it? I always imagine some hipster or beatnik who reads poetry just to show others how smart and refined they are, which is a ridiculous stereotype, I admit, but seriously. That’s the image I have. It’s a pity, too, because poetry can be an amazing outlet for emotions, short stories, observations … really, it’s just an overall pity.

This amazing little book by Nigel Tetley is an excellent reality check.  The poems range from scary to silly, short to long, and grace all sorts of genres.  I really enjoyed it.  I’m surprised how much I enjoyed it. One of the short-story-type poems was probably better written and certainly more gripping than many of the novels I’ve read this year.  It was such a surprise to me to remember that poetry can truly be amazing, and is not a type of literature I should so easily overlook.

As someone who thinks that everyone is a reader - some just may not have found their favorite book yet, this is definitely a book I'd hand to reluctant teens and preteens.  Short enough that it can be read in an afternoon, well-written enough that I found myself wanting to go back and revisit my favorite poems, it's a keeper.

Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Some of these poems are spooky.  But clean.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Siren - Kiera Cass

Summary: ”You must never do anything that might expose our secret. This means that, in general, you cannot form close bonds with humans. You can speak to us, and you can always commune with the Ocean, but you are deadly to humans. You are, essentially, a weapon. A very beautiful weapon. I won't lie to you, it can be a lonely existence, but once you are done, you get to live. All you have to give, for now, is obedience and time..." 

The same speech has been given hundreds of times to hundreds of beautiful girls who enter the sisterhood of sirens. Kahlen has lived by these rules for years now, patiently waiting for the life she can call her own. But when Akinli, a human, enters her world, she can't bring herself to live by the rules anymore. Suddenly the life she's been waiting for doesn't seem nearly as important as the one she's living now. Summary and image from goodreads.com.

Review:  Sometimes, a girl just needs to read something fluffy.  I’m a fan of Cass’ Selection series for that very reason, and stumbled upon this book while updating my Goodreads account. Also, when you’re preparing/recovering from major surgery, fluff is the most your medicinally addled brain can handle, so I checked it out. 

I was pleasantly surprised.  I loved the premise, the story of a Siren and the constraints that such a power would place on a person.  I was surprised at the humanity and the moral challenge Cass injected into her characters, including the Ocean.  Yes, the Ocean itself is a character, and one that I found myself sorrowing for. The moral and intellectual growth that the Sirens can undergo, the potential they have versus the power they wield, this fluffy, brainless book proved to be a little more thought-provoking than I’d originally expected.

While there’s a part of me that wishes that the heroines in our books could feel complete without a Man, I also recognize love makes life complete and that it can fill a hole that only it can fill.

Whoa, I nearly went on a tangent there!  This is a book I’d recommend if you just need something happy and a little fluffy.  I’d also have no qualms handing it to a thirteen year old girl.  Sweet and clean.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Squeaky clean.  Although there is an implication of murder.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Neverending Story - Michael Ende

Summary: This epic work of the imagination has captured the hearts of millions of readers worldwide since it was first published more than a decade ago. Its special story within a story is an irresistible invitation for readers to become part of the book itself. And now this modern classic and bibliophile's dream is available in hardcover again.

The story begins with a lonely boy named Bastian and the strange book that draws him into the beautiful but doomed world of Fantastica. Only a human can save this enchanted place--by giving its ruler, the Childlike Empress, a new name. But the journey to her tower leads through lands of dragons, giants, monsters, and magic--and once Bastian begins his quest, he may never return. As he is drawn deeper into Fantastica, he must find the courage to face unspeakable foes and the mysteries of his own heart.

Readers, too, can travel to the wondrous, unforgettable world of Fantastica if they will just turn the page....  (Summary and picture from goodreads.com)


My Review: Let's be honest, who hasn't seen that ridiculous 80s film?  For me it was a staple of childhood, even with the bad puppetry, poor acting, choppy storyline, and screaming children.  Revisiting the film a few months back, I thought it was high time I actually read the book.

One of the first cool features of The Neverending Story is the book itself--it alternates between red and green text depending on which world we're experiencing, Bastian's or the land of Fantastica.  There are also cool illustrations at the beginning of each chapter (not to mention each chapter's first letter is the alphabet, A-Z).

The first half of this book hooked me with its vivid, unique story.  I loved following Atreyu's quest, and watching how Bastian is unknowingly being drawn--literally--into the world of Fantastica.  The story itself flows really well, the characters are simultaneously amusing and heartbreaking, and the trials that Atreyu faces are faced vicariously by Bastian as well, not to mention us as the reader, which plays a vital role for the first climax of this book.

I won't lie, the second half was a little slower in my opinion, and the excitement to hurry to my lunch break and read it lagged.  While I see the merit of it now having finished the entire book, it was a bit hard to slog through after the intrigue and exciting nature of the first half.  It felt a little as if it had hit a brick wall and trickled down like molasses until the finale.  Mind, I'm not saying that stories have to be fast paced every second to be good, the first half wasn't always this way, the second half just felt like an entirely different story, which, in a sense, I suppose it was.   


What I do love about the second half is this: who doesn't want to escape, literally escape, into the pages of a good book?  Bastian is able to do so through the power of the Auryn and the Childlike Empress, where he actually becomes a character in the Neverending Story.  Only, as he grows in power (including making things happen and appear by simply telling a story about it), he becomes a bit of a jerk and Atreyu's foil, and there were times I just wanted to smack him.

Still, his friendship with Atreyu holds firm and comes full circle at the end, and I liked how everything was sorted, and in hindsight, this second half was important for the completion of the story and Bastian's growth.

There was also a trending theme throughout the book that I rather loved.  When Atreyu or Bastian would interact with a character, before that character departed from the story, the author would give them a short paragraph stating all the things they would go on to do, ending with, "But that is another story and shall be told another time."  We never hear these stories, and it's a fascinating concept that they could be happening somewhere else in some realm or other.

Any book lover should read The Neverending Story.  It's as if this book was written for anyone who's ever had the desire to actually escape into a good book and become who they're meant to be.  Because books really can do that, even if you don't physically get to enter into their world.

My Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader: That scene with Artax in the film?  Remember it?  It's far more heartbreaking in the book.  There are also fantastical monsters and beasts, along with peril, death and battles, but all tastefully done.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Night Divided - Jennifer A. Nielsen

Summary: From New York Times bestselling author Jennifer A. Nielsen comes a stunning thriller about a girl who must escape to freedom after the Berlin Wall divides her family between east and west.

With the rise of the Berlin Wall, twelve-year-old Gerta finds her family divided overnight. She, her mother, and her brother Fritz live on the eastern side, controlled by the Soviets. Her father and middle brother, who had gone west in search of work, cannot return home. Gerta knows it is dangerous to watch the wall, to think forbidden thoughts of freedom, yet she can't help herself. She sees the East German soldiers with their guns trained on their own citizens; she, her family, her neighbors and friends are prisoners in their own city.

But one day, while on her way to school, Gerta spots her father on a viewing platform on the western side, pantomiming a peculiar dance. Then, when she receives a mysterious drawing, Gerta puts two and two together and concludes that her father wants Gerta and Fritz to tunnel beneath the wall, out of East Berlin. However, if they are caught, the consequences will be deadly. No one can be trusted. Will Gerta and her family find their way to freedom? (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: A few weeks ago my husband and I watched Bridge of Spies for our date night.  About three quarters of the way through the movie, we realized that our two oldest (the little interlopers) were avidly watching from their "rooms", and we reluctantly allowed them to join us.  They're getting to the age where history is interesting and they're smart enough to want to know the causes and effects of some of these historical events.  The watching of the show prompted a few questions, including a discussion on the creation of the Berlin Wall, and a family viewing of Night Crossing (anyone remember that movie?  Anyone?).  Sometimes, however, I'm not sure I'm putting the events into context that my children can grasp, and when this is the case, I look to books to help that gap.

A Night Divided is one of the perfect books for this era in history.  Greta and her mother and brother find themselves frighteningly separated from her brother and father, who were in West Berlin looking for an escape when the wall went up.  For five years, she and her East Berlin family struggle to survive, missing their family in West Berlin desperately, until a silly dance viewed from across the wall and a mysterious drawing land in Greta's hands.  She and her brother race to dig under the wall before her brother is drafted and taken away for good, all the time hiding their work from their mother, neighbors, and friends.

Because this story is written for the newer Middle Grade levels, it's more simplistic than a history book.  However, the emotions that Greta feels through the separation, the work, and the living under repression are perfectly captured for the age group.  It is one I have no fears turning over to my own kids or recommending out.

Sadly, our discussions about the Berlin Wall led to my first "I'm so OLD" moment. My kids were flabbergasted that I was old enough to remember the wall coming down, to see families reunited, and to watch the celebrations of a city reunited on the news.  To them, that's ancient history (it was, after all, almost THIRTY years ago. Sheesh.). To me?  I can still smell the toast cooking as we watched the news in my grandmother's kitchen.

Rating: 4.5 stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There are a few deaths, one takes place in front of Greta, and an abduction of a neighbor.  All tastefully handled.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Renegade Queen - Eva Flynn


Summary: Two Renegades So Controversial, They Were Erased From History Discarded by society, she led a social revolution. Disgusted by war, he sought a new world.

She was the first women to run for President, campaigning before women could vote.
He was the Hero of Vicksburg, disillusioned with the government after witnessing the devastating carnage of the Civil War.

Their social revolution attracted the unwanted who were left out of the new wealth: the freed slaves, the new immigrants, and women.

Who were they?

This is the true story of Victoria Woodhull and the love of her life, James Blood.

Adored by the poor, hated by the powerful, forced into hiding during their lifetimes and erased from history after death, the legend of their love lives on.

It’s 1869 and Victoria has a choice to make. She can stay in an abusive marriage and continue to work as a psychic, or she can take the offer of support from handsome Civil War general James Blood and set about to turn society upside down. Victoria chooses revolution.

But revolutions are expensive, and Victoria needs money. James introduces Victoria to one of the wealthiest man in America--Commodore Vanderbilt. Along with her loose and scandalous sister, Tennessee, Victoria manipulates Vanderbilt and together they conspire to crash the stock market”--and profit from it. Victoria then parlays her fortune into the first female-owned brokerage firm.

When her idol Susan B. Anthony publishes scandalous rumors about Victoria’s past, Victoria enters into a fierce rivalry with Susan to control the women’s movement. James supports Victoria's efforts despite his deep fears that she may lose more than the battle. She might lose part of herself.

Victoria starts her own newspaper, testifies to Congress, and even announces her candidacy for President. But when Victoria adopts James's radical ideas and free love beliefs, she ignites new, bruising, battles with Susan B. Anthony and the powerful Reverend Henry Beecher. These skirmishes turn into an all-out war, with Victoria facing prejudice, prosecution, and imprisonment. Ultimately, Victoria and James face the hardest choice of all: the choice between their country and their love. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: No matter what you think of tomorrow’s upcoming election (and believe me, I’m thinking a lot) we can all agree this is a historic election. The two most unpopular candidates ever? Check! A woman running in a major political party? Check! However, before we delve too deeply into what those other (read: political) blogs talk about, let’s talk about what’s important here. Books. Forgettabout the impending doom of tomorrow! Forgettabout your “I voted” sticker! Forgettabout long lines at the polls and results going late into the night! Don’t worry about your election day snacks! (You know you wanna have Election Day snacks.)

I’m sure you know that Hillary is not the first woman candidate to run for president, right? Right? She may be a historic candidate and all, but she is certainly not the first woman to run or even to be nominated to run. Many women have run for president, some more colorful than others. I don’t know if you’re a podcast listener, but I totally am and one that I really enjoy listening to is “Radio Diaries.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with this fun and interesting podcast, but a few episodes back they had a series called “Contenders” in which they discussed interesting presidential candidates. Episode 50 was all about women candidates. You should go give it a listen if you’re into podcasts.

In the spirit of tomorrow’s pending election, then, today’s book review discusses the largely forgotten (and purposely buried) first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull.

I don’t know how much you’ve read about the women’s right to vote movement; I haven’t read much. It was a wild time, people. This book made me aware of things I hadn’t realized before. For instance, the women’s right to vote and the male African American’s right to vote were going on at the same time. Some people that were for the African American’s right to vote were not okay with the women’s right to vote, and would be willing to exchange one for another. That being said, people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe (and her family, which I was unaware of) were all involved at this time. Also, the women’s rights women were not necessarily a cohesive group. They were feisty, they were opinionated, and they often didn’t support each other. I learned quite a bit about Susan B. Anthony, and not all of it is flattering. Victoria Woodhull herself was quite the colorful character. She comes from a very tumultuous background, wrought with abuse and drama and weirdness all around. I don’t want to give too much away here. She lead quite a colorful life, though, and her strength and resilience is commendable, as is that of her sister, Tennessee, who also plays a large role in the story.

As far as the book itself goes, it is historical fiction, and some of it is made up, although a lot of it is based on fact and Flynn has obviously done a lot of research. It’s not literary genius as far as the writing goes, but it it is interesting and fast-paced. It lacks some finesse in the transitions from section to section and chapter to chapter, but that doesn’t make it confusing. I always knew what was going on.

Overall, I thought this little slice of history was really interesting. I have vaguely heard of Victoria Woodhull in my myriad of poli sci classes, but I really learned a lot from this novel. It is a timely read given all that is going on in our political climate today.

My Rating: 3.5 stars


For the sensitive reader: This book has language and quite a few sex scenes, some romantic and some incestuous or rape. I would rate it PG-13.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Fire and Steel Vol. III: The Shadow Falls - Gerald N. Lund

Summary: How do good people mistake evil for good? Is it possible for an entire nation to be deceived?

In the third volume of master storyteller Gerald N. Lund's dynamic new series, the Eckhardt family finds itself clinging to hope in a nation on the brink of collapse. Work is scarce, food has become an extravagance, and money is practically worthless. War-torn Germany has been battered down and humiliated on an international scale, and the people have lost the pride and conviction that once carried them.

Living in such desperate circumstances leaves the people vulnerable to fall for a wolf in sheep's clothing, and Hans Eckhardt is not immune. His friend Adolf is charismatic, driven, a man of vision—seemingly, everything that Germany needs. While a few suspect that this rising new political leader may not be the rescuer they seek, many more are quick to turn a blind eye to the warning signs.

But there are bright spots amid the bleakness. Faith and family continue to provide joy and solace as life journeys forward. And a visit from two former LDS missionaries and their families brings a spark of excitement to the Eckhardts. Family life seems to be the one area unmarred by the turmoil all around them—until personal tragedy strikes.

Join the Eckhardts and their American friends the Westlands as they unknowingly dive into a momentous turning point in the world's history. (Summary and image from deseretbook.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  I didn’t review the second book in this series. After the first, I was unsure whether I’d continue with reading them, but I felt that Reader’s Guilt — oh, come on, you know the one.  You start a series, so you have to finish the series.  If you don’t, it’s like you need to turn in your Bookworm Card.  I approached this book with trepidation, for, while the second book was slightly more accelerated and interesting than the first, it felt extremely formulaic.

And then came Book Three.

To be fair, there is definitely a Lund Formula to these books.  Jokingly, while talking about how much this third installment had captivated me with friends, they asked about the first two and I summed it up thusly, "World War I, people find the church, happy, sad, gospel. And Hitler is there." Simplistic, but the general gist is there.  Not a lot happened — it felt like the first two books in the series were really just the most extensive volumes of backstory ever.  The characters behave so similarly to Lund’s famed Work and the Glory series that I think that’s why I didn’t connect with them in the first two.  I’d already known and loved that storyline, I wanted something new and wasn’t finding it.  The formula is still playing out here, but Lund has found his voice.

We join the third book at the beginning of 1919.  Our characters are doing fine although the political climate in Germany is unsettling.  And Hans’ war buddy Adolf has started to drop by more and more.  First, it’s to ask Hans’ help in assessing this new, struggling political startup called the German Workers’ Party.  Then, it’s to resolve a question about coups—why they work, why they fail.  Before we know it, Adolf Hitler is a welcome and frequent guest in our main characters’ home and a major influence in their lives.

Remember that scene from Friends when the boys are betting the girls over who knows them better, and in a frenzy, the boys raise the bet to switching apartments?  And Monica shouts “It JUST. Got. INTERESTING!!”?

That.

Gerald N. Lund is an astounding researcher.  It’s one of his greatest strengths in any series.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen his talent and his ability of bringing his research to life better than this book.  For the first time in this series, I was gripped.  I needed to know how he’d marry history and his fictional families—and while I knew the history he was talking about, I couldn’t believe how real it became.

It’s in this third book of the series that Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in the GWP is illustrated.  As a fictional friend of his, Hans Eckhardt is one of his right-hand men, allowing the reader the inside glimpse into those first crucial years of what we all recognize now as the Nazi party.  Again, Lund’s research is overwhelming.  Using Mein Kampf, historical transcripts, news articles, journal entries, etc. Lund has recreated the pivotal scenes—how Hitler literally seized power from the party leaders, how he accelerated their growth and their vision, his direct hand in the party’s flag, salute, name, and rankings--along with some of Hitler's earlier orations.  The talent Lund exhibits in this book blows the preceding two books out of the water.  

However, more importantly, Lund has captured the national unrest and insecurity that allowed such madness to happen in the most chilling and clear manner.  I’ve heard clips of Hitler’s speeches, enough that as I read Lund’s story, I could hear his voice.  I know the German people, and the Austrian people, and I love them dearly. This book rang so true to me in presenting the Germans as wonderful, wonderful, loving people who were terrified of losing everything.  They were humiliated beyond compare after the Great War, feeling like their very essence had been stripped away.  They were lost, they were scared, they were starving, and they just wanted to make it better.  At the core of it, Lund has encapsulated that the general feeling among the Germans was one of correction - the desire to improve their quality of life instead of losing their lives through starvation and humiliation.

It was this terror and searching for anything that might improve their positions that gave Adolf Hitler his perfect petri dish for his political experiment, and to see Lund lay it out as such chilled me to the very core. I read this book in two days (I finished it Thursday morning after the World Series, because I was too excited to sleep.  Go CUBS!!), and as I read it, it struck me how eerily similar this plot is — how spookily parallel things can become without our realizing it.  I don’t want to get political (go vote), but reading this book truly scared me for what can become with the right orator, the right flame, and the right kindling.

I also need to mention that this book is a marriage of political history and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ in Germany at this time.  Because I served a mission for that church in Germany and Austria, the historical recounts and statistics that Lund propels his characters’ personal storylines brought tears to my eyes and a desire to serve another mission there.  It was fascinating to hear how much the Church grew at a time where there were hardly any missionaries. Also, to hear the financial and agricultural aid the Church provided was amazing.  It warmed my heart. 

Overall, I’m astounded by this book.  I don’t want to wait for another year or so for the next one to come out, however chilling it’s going to get.  In my review of the first book in this series, I implied that Lund’s ability had slipped with age.  He’s back, and this book is better than ever.

Rating: Five stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Lund recounts a barroom brawl meant to end the Nazi party and it’s quite unsettling.  Antisemitism is also introduced as a political tool.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the Californian - David Dyer

Summary: As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanicwas at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction. Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel--the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author's own experiences as a ship's officer and a lawyer.  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I found the topic of this book compelling. I mean, who doesn’t love stuff about the Titanic? I was in high school when the Titanic movie came out, and that just fueled the interest of it. It really brought to life what it looked like—its luxury, its splendor, and the awesomeness of it all. And the tragedy. It was tragic without the movie, of course, but in high school, seeing this tragedy played out on the screen made it more real and tangible.

This book was interesting in that it addressed a part of the Titanic saga that I wasn’t aware of. I knew there were other ships around the Titanic, but I had no idea that there was one as close as the Californian, let alone one that had seen the distress flares and yet ignored them. I mean, this is huge. If the Californian had come to the aid of the sinking Titanic, so much would have changed. There is no doubt that many lives would have been saved, and the tragedy of 1500 dying would have been reduced by quite a bit.

Midnight Watch is told from the perspective of a journalist trying to tell the “real story” of the Californian and what happened that night on the…ah…midnight watch, and although this perspective wasn’t my favorite, it did provide a unique opportunity for a character to have access to information and people that a lay person of the time may not have.

Overall I didn’t love the writing in this book. Although the research was obviously there, and Dyer definitely has the street cred to know what’s up (his author bio is really impressive and he probably knows as much or more about the Titanic than anyone I’ve ever heard of) but the writing was quite juvenile, especially at the beginning. It’s not like it was using immature wording or potty language or something, but it just didn’t flow like a more experienced author might have. It did get better as the book went on, but in the first half I feel like the book almost read like a juvenile fiction book, and indeed I think that its simplicity was more on that level. As the book went on I either got more into it or the writing improved (or both), but the writing was definitely the weakest part of this book.

I found parts of this book to be really slow and would have liked to hear more about the Titanic and the Californian in general. I wasn’t as interested in the story of the journalist, and although it was a decent way to tell the story, it wasn’t super compelling. Unequivocally, my favorite part of the book was the very end when the “journalist,” instead of writing a news article, writes a human interest piece about a family that was on the Titanic. This part of the book had the best writing, the story was interesting and compelling, and it had that human factor that really made it easy to relate and understand the real tragedy of the Titanic. The rest of the book made it easy to dismiss the tragedy of the Titanic because you weren’t living it as the reader, but this last part definitely affected me and that is when I felt the most connected.

I think this book is an interesting addition to the Titanic stories, and although the writing wasn’t super strong, the knowledge and perspective of Dyer is definitely valuable and interesting.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean, but it is tragic, just as you might imagine a story of the Titanic to be.

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails