Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Truly Madly Guilty - Liane Moriarty

Summary: Six responsible adults. Three cute kids. One small dog. It’s just a normal weekend. What could possibly go wrong?

Sam and Clementine have a wonderful, albeit, busy life: they have two little girls, Sam has just started a new dream job, and Clementine, a cellist, is busy preparing for the audition of a lifetime. If there’s anything they can count on, it’s each other.

Clementine and Erika are each other’s oldest friends. A single look between them can convey an entire conversation. But theirs is a complicated relationship, so when Erika mentions a last minute invitation to a barbecue with her neighbors, Tiffany and Vid, Clementine and Sam don’t hesitate. Having Tiffany and Vid’s larger than life personalities there will be a welcome respite.

Two months later, it won’t stop raining, and Clementine and Sam can’t stop asking themselves the question: What if we hadn’t gone?

In Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty takes on the foundations of our lives: marriage, sex, parenthood, and friendship. She shows how guilt can expose the fault lines in the most seemingly strong relationships, how what we don’t say can be more powerful than what we do, and how sometimes it is the most innocent of moments that can do the greatest harm. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: Have you ever finished a book and sighed with contentment?  What about slammed a book shut, furious at the ending? How about gently closing it because you're crying too hard to do anything else?  Okay, how's this one - confusedly shut the book, cock your head to the side, and think "Huh ...".  Bingo.

I'm still confused about my feelings for this book. I liked it. I like all of Moriarty's books. She knows how to write Mom-Lit so well! And I still think back to her skill with Big Little Lies and can't help but marvel how amazingly well she constructed it. But this isn't Big Little Lies.

Let's start from the very end. Characters who should never cross paths are perfectly connected, not into a forced connection, but so organically it works. The characters are all flawed, as well as deep. They all have stories needing to be told, even if those stories are a little trite.  Their relationships are complex, they ebb and flow, and they, as her other books, are why I enjoy her writing so much.  But the storyline? It wasn't my favorite. The characters felt a little too flawed.  Their conflict felt all-too-real and yet so terribly foreign. I just couldn't identify with this novel as well as I could with the others she's written. Their choices, their immaturities, I kept wanting to shake the book and shout "USE YOUR WORDS!!" at them, in the hopes they'd grow up a bit and start to behave.

Oddly enough, I've never been able to get characters in other people's books to behave the way they should. (Otherwise, Harry and Hermione would be happily married in the epilogue of The Deathly Hallows.) I'm left with this slightly frustrated feeling of a story slightly off.  (That being said, there's one resolution I absolutely love.)

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: One of the characters is a former stripper and takes joy in being a little too sensual.  It's a main theme.



Monday, December 26, 2016

The Empress of Bright Moon: A Novel of Empress Wu - Weina Dai Randel

Summary: In the captivating sequel to The Moon in the Palace, Mei must protect her people from a murderous empress

The second book in this stunning duology, The Empress of Bright Moon follows Mei as she struggles for power within the Emperor's palace, risking her life to dethrone the murderous Empress and establish herself as the new female ruler of China.

After Mei's lover, Pheasant, is crowned Emperor, a power struggle erupts between Mei and Pheasant's wife, Empress Wang. Both women are desperate to secure their name and rank. But when Empress Wang takes their feud to a new level by murdering Mei's supporters, Mei realizes that she must defeat the bloodthirsty Empress—not only to save herself, but also to protect her country.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: Ever since reading the first book in this duo, The Moon in the Palace, I’ve been looking forward to reading this installment. Empress Wu is a fascinating person and this book does a great job of discussing her life. The first one definitely left me excited for what was happening next.

The first book had a few writing issues that I discussed in my review, mostly, I think, due to inexperience on the author’s part. I am happy to report that I think those issues were resolved in this book. The writing was much smoother and less choppy. The dialogue also flowed a lot better, and while I found the dialogue to be distracting in the last novel, it really added to the story in this installment. There was quite a bit of dialogue, actually, and I think that it was actually one of the strong points in this installment. Although this is historical fiction novel, because it is based on the life of Empress Wu and Chinese court life, there is a lot of intrigue and involvement between the different characters and so the dialogue was important. Also, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Chinese court life. The author did a great job of making it come alive and bringing out the intrigue and drama that surrounded the time period.

The story itself was quite tragic, and it is one of those times when it seems apropos to bring out to the old adage “You can’t make this stuff up” or “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Although the author does admit that amidst her vast research she did have to take some liberties of her own, I think the liberties she has taken make sense and add to the story. It’s always hard to recreate the past, especially when things were so different then and the culture is so vastly different, but it is obvious that with the research done that this book is a good description of Empress Wu’s life. Because of the nature of historical documentation and the obvious favoritism that has gone to men and reporting their goings on throughout history, women like Empress Wu serve as a great reminder that men are not the only ones who shaped the world and culture as it is today. These books do a great job of documenting her early life, and even if some of it is conjecture due to the limited comparative resources available, it is enlightening to read about such a woman as Empress Wu and how she came to power in a man’s world.

If you are interested in ancient Chinese culture and especially the life and dynasty of Empress Wu, I really enjoyed these books and would recommend them. They are interesting, intriguing, and really bring to life the dynasty of a very powerful woman who ruled in the ancient world.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and violence, even against women and children. This was not gratuitous, but definitely tragic in its truth. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas from Reading for Sanity



We would love to wish you a very merry Christmas, full of peace, love, and books!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Letters from Father Christmas - J.R.R. Tolkien

SummaryEvery December an envelope bearing a stamp from the North Pole would arrive for J.R.R. Tolkien’s children. Inside would be a letter in a strange, spidery handwriting and a beautiful colored drawing or some sketches. 

The letters were from Father Christmas.

They told wonderful tales of life at the North Pole: how the reindeer got loose and scattered presents everywhere; how the accident-prone North Polar Bear climbed the North Pole and fell through the roof of Father Christmas’s house; how he broke the Moon into four pieces and made the Man in it fall into the back garden; how there were wars with the troublesome horde of goblins who lived in the caves beneath the house.

Sometimes the Polar Bear would scrawl a note, and sometimes Ilbereth the Elf would write in his elegant flowing script, adding yet more life and humor to the stories.

This updated version contains a wealth of new material, including letters and pictures missing from early editions. No reader, young or old, can fail to be charmed by the inventiveness and "authenticity" of J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.)


Review: I am NOT a fan of Tolkien.  I never have been, I don't like the Lord of the Rings series, I can barely stomach The Hobbit, so can someone explain to me why I am SO enchanted with this book?

Perhaps it's the obvious love that Tolkien poured into the letters for his children.  Perhaps it's the handwriting that is so perfectly Father Christmas.  It could be the drawings (the gorgeous drawings), the hilarious characters, or the depth in which Tolkien so succinctly infused the stories he told. Whatever it is, this is by far my favorite example of Tolkien's work. Ever. 

This is a book best left for parents looking to capture some Christmas Spirit.  Some of the letters, penned leading up to and during World War II, are slightly darker than I had expected, detailing a ferocious war with the Goblins. However, they're also fairly realistic for a time where all children knew was war and uncertainty.  However, the telling of the stories, is what absolutely amazed me.  These are the letters penned by Tolkien from Father Christmas.  He has adopted an entirely new way of writing, switching from the hand of Father Christmas (shaky and ornate) to the paw of the Polar Bear (blocky and thick), to the scrawl of the Secretary Elf.  The drawings are gorgeous -- I never knew he was an artist!

I really did love my reading of this book and mourned having to return it to the library.  This one may be going on my Christmas list!

Rating: Five Stars


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story - S.D. Nelson

Summary: His stomach rumbling, Coyote approaches a house on Christmas Eve hoping to trick the family there out of a hot meal by dressing as Santa Claus, but Sister Raven sees the strange events and plays a wonderful trick of her own. (summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: I am an avid fan and collector of Coyote stories.  Coyote is always up to no good--he's the perfect example of how not to be, (though he sometimes also helps people, bringing fire or death or the pattern of the stars).  He can be wise, though much prefers to be tricky, and is often caught up in his own mischievousness, his tricks turning on him.  Coyote is one of those ancient figures who is always the same, never learns from his own mistakes and carries on making a fool of himself over and over.

I've loved this story since I was given a copy for Christmas several years back.  It's a fun twist on the old Coyote tales, as it takes place in a modern setting.  But Coyote is the same Coyote he always is, which lends to the familiarity of his character to those who have followed his exploits.  Thinking he'll get a a free meal by dressing as Santa (and he does), Coyote ends up with more than he bargained for when Raven (also a fellow trickster figure) adds her own brand of mischief, which, while for Coyote turns him on his tail, is a blessing for the little Lakota family he visits, and lends a warm Christmas spirit to the overall story.

Even if you're not familiar with Coyote, this is a fun story for anyone, and kids particularly like a good fellow mischief maker.  The art is lovely, and very expressive, helping to lead this warm and silly story along.


My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Just filled with silly antics.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Peppe the Lamplighter - Elisa Bartone

Summary: In the tradition of Lois Lowry and Paul Fleischman, Elisa Bartone's Caldecott Honor-winning book gives children a glimpse into American history and the immigrant experience.

This is the story of Peppe, who becomes a lamplighter to help support his immigrant family in turn-of-the-century New York City, despite his papa's disapproval. Peppe's family is very poor, and though he is just a boy he needs to find work. Being a lamplighter is not the job his father had dreamed of for Peppe, but when Peppe's job helps save his little sister, he earns the respect of his entire family. (Summary and image from goodreads.com).

Review: This isn't a traditional Christmas story, and yet, it's my husband's favorite.  He loves the simplicity, the pictures are stunning, and the story, although simple, is beautiful. 

Peppe is an Italian-American boy who is struggling to help his family.  With no work to be found, he is thrilled when he's asked to light the lamps for a time.  His father, ashamed of such menial work, doesn't know how to relate, and allows his feelings shame Peppe into inaction.

While the story isn't traditionally Christmasy, I understand why my husband loves it so much.  At its heart, this is a story of perseverance.  It's about doing what is needed, even when it may not be the most glamorous job.  It's about thinking of others, serving them, and helping them find hope and joy, even when you yourself are in need.  At the end, it shows that it's through those acts of service we find hope and joy.

Rating: Five stars

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Small One: A Story for Those Who Like Christmas and Small Donkeys - Charles Tazewell

Summary: This is the story of a small boy who found out quite by chance why donkeys are not really stubborn, as people say, but proud, because one donkey long ago was chosen to go with Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem. Countless thousands who have heard this beautiful story over the radio will find in it the perfect remembrance. (Summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: The Small One is a story I have loved since childhood, though I only realized it was a book several years ago.  I discovered it through the half hour Disney animation, which I would watch every Christmas.  (On a side note, if you are able to locate and watch this gem, please do, it's a unique choice for a Disney short, and loyal to the heart of the book.)

I love stories about friendship, and this one is a strong example.  A little boy is determined to give his best friend, an old donkey named Small One, a good home despite his father's wishes to sell the animal to the tanner for his hide.  The boy works diligently all day in the city, and is constantly rebuffed, mocked, and pushed aside, despite the boy's pleas that his Small One is fit to be in a king's stable. 

The story is a simple one, but in that simpleness is a very sincere and warm sweetness, and a unique view of the Christmas nativity story. Donkeys, as the storyteller explains, have already fulfilled their purpose by carrying Mary into Bethlehem.  They know who they are and the special calling one of their own had.  This is a perfect story for any animal lover, and anyone who wants a gentle tale about friendship and kindness.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Nothing offensive.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas - Melanie Watt


Scaredy Squirrel Prepares for Christmas: A Safety Guide for ScarediesSummary:  Holiday Greetings!  Here's my Christmas guide, in a nutshell.  


'Tis the season for worrying, planning, decorating, buying, wrapping, party entertaining, caroling and fruitcake re-gifting!!!

Therefore I, Scaredy Squirrel, have put together a collection of helpful safety tips and step-by-step instructions to guide you through common holiday obstacles such as avalanches, shopping for difficult individuals and encountering the Abominable Snowman.  (Image from Barns and Noble and summary from back of the book.)

My Review:  "WARNING! Scaredy Squirrel insists that everyone put on mittens before reading this Safety Guide!"  If' you've read anything by Scaredy Squirrel, this quote sums up all of his books.

I have a daughter with anxiety.  She relates to Scaredy Squirrel and can laugh at herself through his books.  Christmas is a big holiday--there are so many things to worry about.  So many things that everyone expects to be done correctly.  And there's always at least one thing that will inevitably go wrong.  Don't you fear; Scaredy Squirrel has you covered. It's set up in chapters, but it's a very fast read with lots of pictures.  Need to explain Santa?  It's in there.  Need ideas for all kinds of people?  Scaredy Squirrel has 15 types of people with 3 ideas each.  Need help dressing for a holiday occasion?  That's in there too.  And my favorite: "If all else fails, play dead!"

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Sum it up:  Got an anxious kid?  This is worth the $$ to prepare for the holidays.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Redwall Winter's Tale - Brian Jacques

Summary: A troupe of traveling players have promised the Redwallers an evening of entertainment in exchange for a grand feast. Late at night after the festivities have ended, Mighty Bulbrock Badger sends the little ones off to sleep with the tale of the giant Snow Badger who comes on the first night of winter, bringing snow across the land. The grown-up Redwallers chuckle at the fanciful tale, but is it only a tale? Bungo the mole-babe isn't so sure, and is determined to stay awake and find out! (Summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: This is a delightful little story from the world of Redwall, complete with adorable illustrations.  Set after the time frame of the original Redwall book, we get a fun winter story filled with the usual Jacques wit and charm, along with fun poems and a classic Jacques riddle that you can try and solve.

Anyone who loves Jacques' work will enjoy this little holiday tale.  There's no threat from vermin in this book, it's just a simple story of wintertime and believing.  I love the character of Bungo, a little Dibbun (toddler) who not only gets into plenty of mischief, but is also lucky enough to get a special visit from the Snow Badger himself.

The illustrations as mentioned before are wonderful.  They're full of life, and the characters from the smallest mouse to the enormous badgers look so cuddly, warm and friendly.  There's a magical aura that the art lends to this charming little story.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: nothing objectionable (unless you count silly little Dibbuns chucking snowballs at everybeast).

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book - Chris McVeigh

Summary: This Christmas, LEGO is moving from under the tree to on the tree! With The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book as your guide, you'll make classic globe and barrel ornaments, all out of LEGO, as well as original gingerbread houses, a merry Santa, arcade cabinets, and many more.

Packed with step-by-step instructions for 15 charming builds, The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book is the perfect family activity this holiday season. Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Are you a Lego house?  This is something I've learned parenting boys - you're either a Lego house or you're not.  If you are, you're a Lego House for life.  And by life, I mean I think my mom still finds random Legos hiding in the carpet, and she's a grandmother.

We're a Lego House. The obsession started young with my oldest and has carried right on through to all of them.  As a Lego House, it's important for me for my kids to think of fun, inventive ways to use their Legos aside from the kits they came assigned to.  Enter: The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book. This is the coolest book ever. My kids (even the slightly-less-obsessed girl) fought over who got to build what, who got to read the instructions, and who got to keep it in their room.  

The instructions are easy to follow and are illustrated in exactly the same way as the actual Lego instructions you get in the kits. Scratch that, I found them easier.  Some of those color choices are impossible to decipher for my old eyes, and I didn't doubt one piece!

If you're shopping for a Lego House this season, this is a great gift to pass on to your Lego obsessed tykes.  (I won't even judge if you give it to the tykes' Lego obsessed aunts and uncles!)

Rating: Five stars 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bright Christmas: An Angel Remembers - Andrew Clements

Summary: A lovely blend of words and pictures presents the Christmas story from an angel's point of view. Daring in its attempt to explain the idea of eternity, the book rises above the mediocre as an angel explains how the supernatural has interacted with the real world to bring truth.--ALA Booklist. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)


Review: It’s always tricky picking up a Christmas book, isn’t it? Either it’s overtly commercialized, making Christmas seem all about presents and candy and greed, or it’s sanitized.  This beautiful book, with stunning pictures, is a simple, wonderful story about an Angel’s memory of THAT NIGHT. 

The symbolism of singing truths, of angels heralding in truth throughout time through music, of the light that their songs bring is much deeper than just a simple story to read to a child.  Yes, children will enjoy the pretty pictures and the message “Christ is Born”.  But it has been written in such a clever and truthful way that adults will find their hearts touched as well.  

I loved the way that Clements tied the Truth of Christ’s coming throughout the Bible, and how the light from the Christmas Star became more than a way to point the Wise Men to the Christ Child’s location, but a symbol of truth, of the culmination of every prophecy leading up to His birth. 
Commercialized Christmas books are fun, and my children truly do enjoy them.  But there are times I find myself hungering for a book that can better impart why Christmas is so special for our family, and this book is an excellent starting point for that.

Rating: Five stars

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett


Summary: Sara Crewe, an exceptionally intelligent and imaginative student at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, is devastated when her adored, indulgent father dies. Now penniless and banished to a room in the attic, Sara is demeaned, abused, and forced to work as a servant. How this resourceful girl's fortunes change again is at the center of A Little Princess, one of the best-loved stories in all of children's literature.

This unique and fully annotated edition appends excerpts from Frances Hodgson Burnett's original 1888 novella Sara Crewe and the stage play that preceded the novel, as well as an early story, "Behind the White Brick," allowing readers to see how A Little Princess evolved. In his delightful introduction, U. C. Knoepflmacher considers the fairy-tale allusions and literary touchstones that place the book among the major works of Victorian literature, and shows it to be an exceptionally rich and resonant novel. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.)

Review: Okay, okay, so this isn't technically a Christmas book, but there's no better time of year to read such a delightful, sweet, touching story than now.  I've read and reread this book so many times, but admit it's been years since I have actually read it, and in preparation for writing a review,  I decided to read it again.  By read, um, I mean devoured.  I forgot how much I enjoy Burnett's writing.  It completely pulled me in and I was happy to go for the ride.

Sara Crewe has always had everything she could hope for.  She's wealthy, adored by almost all around her, imaginative, clever, and kind.  She often pretends little fantasies, simply because doing so brings her joy.  When the terrible news of her father's ruin and death reaches her on her birthday, she finds her fortunes completely reversed.  And, like so many others, she decides it's during the trial that her true nature will be revealed.

I simply can't wait for my daughter to be old enough to read this and love it as much as I do.  It was more difficult for me to read this time through simply because I'm a mother.  The thought of someone treating my children as Sara was treated broke my heart, making the big reveal even more impactful.  (I may have cried.)

This book is, indeed, overly idealistic and optimistic, however, the lessons for children about kindness, imagination, perseverance, and forgiveness are ones that are not only perfectly suited for every child, they're just the right fit for this time of year.


Rating: Five stars

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Scourge - Jennifer A. Nielsen

Summary: When a plague isn’t all that kills…

As a lethal plague sweeps through the land, Ani Mells is shocked when she is unexpectedly captured by the governor’s wardens and forced to submit to a test for the deadly Scourge. She is even more surprised when the test results come back positive, and she is sent to Attic Island, a former prison turned refuge—and quarantine colony—for the ill. The Scourge’s victims, Ani now among them, can only expect to live out short, painful lives there.

However, Ani quickly discovers that she doesn’t know the whole truth about the Scourge or the Colony. She’s been caught in a devious plot, and, with the help of her best friend, Weevil, Ani means to uncover just what is actually going on. But will she and Weevil survive the Scourge—and the gorvernor’s wardens—long enough to make their escape and expose the cruel plan? (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review:  Three hundred years ago, the people of Keldan were barely spared extinction from a disease they call the Scourge.  Frighteningly contagious, always lethal, and with no way to stop it, they still live in fear - especially that now, it seems the disease is making a resurgence.  Fortunately for Ani, the River People--her people, seem to be immune this time around... until she's rounded up by the wardens, tests positive, and is sent to the Colony - a "refuge" for those suffering from the Scourge.  Ani, however, is one that is known for either falling into trouble or creating new trouble out of nothing, and it doesn't take long before she starts to realize that there is more amiss than a disease.

I'm a new fan of Jennifer A. Nielsen's, with the first book of hers I remember reading the amazingly well-done A Night Divided. I found the depth of the characters, the speed of the story, and the maturity of the message so amazing, and I was eager to see the same caliber of writing here.  This is, however, a horse of a different color. While Nielsen has grabbed me in the past, this book lagged a bit, preventing me from feeling the same sense of urgency I had hoped for.  It felt like this book, while more action-packed, was written for a younger audience than the typical Middle Grade novels I'm used to.

The writing in this book felt rushed. Not the storyline, that actually started to get on my nerves to the point that I contemplated skipping ahead to just get to the solution already, but the writing repeated so many of the same threats and waffling from the characters, the efficacy and the urgency I feel like she attempts to convey is diluted into almost nothing. Unfortunately, the characters--good, evil, and ambiguous--also felt underdeveloped, which made it more difficult to care whether they succeeded or failed.  I would have loved to see more depth.  Through my entire reading, I kept thinking that this whole premise could be developed into an amazing series (similar to the Tuesdays at the Castle) series, but instead, it was just ... there.

I wonder if my nine year old girls (from my church group) would like this better. I do appreciate the spunk of Ani and the solidity of Weevil, and I think that a younger reader would appreciate it more than I did.
Rating: Three stars


For the Sensitive Reader: The wardens of the island are cruel - even to a child.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Princess Mononoke: The First Story - Hayao Miyazaki

Summary: An oversized, lavishly illustrated storybook featuring original watercolor art by legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki!

This is the original Princess Mononoke story, created by Hayao Miyazaki in 1980 while he was first conceptualizing the landmark animated film that would be released to universal acclaim seventeen years later. As an initial version of the tale, it offers a new and different perspective from the final version presented in the film. After a long, exhausting war, a samurai lost in a forest encounters a giant wildcat--a mononoke. The beast saves his life, but at the price of his daughter's hand in marriage... (Summary and image from goodreads.com)


My Review: If you're familiar with the wondrous films of Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki, you'll also be familiar with the title of Princess Mononoke (which is my personal favorite film of his repertoire, if not one of my all time favorite films in general).  However, this book has nothing in common with the film of the same name, but is wholly worthwhile just the same.

Years ago, Miyazaki was working on the idea for a new film, and while the Princess Mononoke we received is an unrivaled story about raging gods and humans, this is more of a simple tale, akin to Beauty and the Beast.  For one reason or another, the film never came into play (though the mononoke character is clearly a forerunner of Miyazaki's Totoro), so I'm grateful it was bound into a storybook.

Like Beauty and the Beast, this story has a monster and the girl who tames him, though with a different, Japanese twist, including a Samurai father possessed by a demon. I liked seeing this first pass at a story, complete with gorgeous art by Miyazaki himself, often no more than a quick scribble dashed with watercolor, but so vibrantly full of life.

Whether or not you know Miyazaki, this is a fine book for any collection, with a story of redemption and friendship filled with a heap of lovely illustrations, telling a fun little tale that anyone will enjoy.

My rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader: The father, as mentioned before, becomes possessed by a demon, and this could be a trifle scary for some younger children.

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.

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