Thursday, February 25, 2016

Blood Brothers - Ernst Haffner


Summary: Originally published in 1932 and banned by the Nazis one year later, Blood Brothers follows a gang of young boys bound together by unwritten rules and mutual loyalty.

Blood Brothers is the only known novel by German social worker and journalist Ernst Haffner, of whom nearly all traces were lost during the course of World War II. Told in stark, unsparing detail, Haffner’s story delves into the illicit underworld of Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, describing how these blood brothers move from one petty crime to the next, spending their nights in underground bars and makeshift hostels, struggling together to survive the harsh realities of gang life, and finding in one another the legitimacy denied them by society.  (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Berlin! The lifeblood of Germany, the city with a life and a history all its own.  The home to many gangs of escaped welfare-youth hiding from the police in an effort to stay out of the institution.

Blood Brothers follows the gang of such boys called, of course, the Blood Brothers.  A mishmash of boys and men, these troubled youth are concerned with fleeing the law, staying out of their assigned institutionalized homes, finding somewhere warm to sleep, something warm to eat, and all other pursuits that hormonal late-teenaged boys care about.

This is a raw, unfiltered, gritty look at life on Berlin's streets.  Haffner deals with the material, as difficult and as uncomfortable as it may be to read, in an honest, forthright, matter-of-fact manner that made it feel a little more sterile than I had anticipated.  It was heartbreaking to read about these boys' fears of abuse of all kinds, their desires leading them to questionable decisions, their robbing of working-class credits and papers in a bid to survive, but it felt real. While I felt sickened, I certainly didn't feel like Haffner was going out of his way to play up the gritty factor in a way that authors now would feel necessary.

I have to admit that I did get quite frustrated with the translation.  Translating works is extremely difficult, with the translator's personal views and experiences bleeding through regardless of how hard the translator tries to divorce from the material.  In this case, the actions, expressions, and even the feeling of the book was so peppered with Britishisms that would certainly not have been expressed in pre-WWII Germany that it detracted from the story. To be fair, had I zero knowledge of the German land, language, and people, it wouldn't have mattered much to me.  But considering that Haffner has written Berlin to be one of the main characters, having the spirit of the story transported to London through translation was distracting in the extreme.

Because this is a translation, I don't know if the short, terse sentences was by design or translation.  In some parts of the book, it provided a sense of urgency and stress to the work that heightened the experience of reading it.  Other times, this sense failed and it felt slightly immature.

I struggle with social exploration books.  They make me sad, they make me feel sick to my stomach and to my heart, and then I don't know if it's the book I don't like or the state of Things As They Are in the book. My initial reaction was to give this book a low rating, but Haffner truly did an incredible job shining a harsh light on a tragic subsection of life in pre-war Berlin.  That they are what they were, I can not blame him.

Rating: Three stars.  I still couldn't get past my hangups with the translations.


For the Sensitive Reader:  There is frank talk about prostitution, both male and female, gang fights, whippings, gang initiations regarding sex, and underage drug and alcohol use.  It's a book about boys living on the streets in Berlin.  It's not going to be pretty.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Crenshaw - Katherine Applegate

Summary:  Jackson and his family have fallen on hard times.  There's no more money for rent.  And not much for food, either.  His parents, his little sister, and their dog may have to live in their minivan.  Again.

Crenshaw is a cat.  He's large, he's out-spoken, and he's imaginary.  He has come back into Jackson's life to help him.  But is an imaginary friend enough to save this family from losing everything?

Beloved author Katherine Applegate proves in unexpected ways that friends matter, whether real or imaginary.  (Summary from book jacket and image from mundiekids.blogspot.com)

My Review:  Finding books that deal with difficult issues specific to a child's experience that are done well, in good taste, aren't always easy to find.  The issue of losing your home, whether an apartment or house, for a child is traumatic.  Finding a book that talks about it in a way that kids can relate to and understand, even harder.  And yet this experience is more common than many of us are even aware of.  The discussion in today's schools among teachers and librarians is to find books that children can relate to, books they can see themselves in.  While there are still strides that need to be made to address this fully, Crenshaw is a step in the right direction.

Jackson is a typical boy--maybe kinder than some, but he has the same frustrations with his sister and parents that kids his age have.  His struggle to understand why his parents make the decisions they do are relateable even to children who don't have the looming fear of becoming homeless.  The desire to be taken seriously, to be treated with more maturity is frustrating.  Even with the growing up that Jackson has done, there's still a part of him that is a child.  And as a child, he still has vulnerabilities.  that's where Crenshaw comes in.  He wasn't as large a part of the story as I expected.  He comes and goes as often as Jackson needs him and maybe because he's older it's not very much.

If you're looking for a feel-good story, despite the sad premise of losing your home and going hungry, this is the book for you (or your child).  Jackson is worth getting to know; his story is real.  It may just be the book a student  you know needs.

For the sensitive reader:  Clean as a whistle.

Rating: 3.5 stars  (I've rated it on how it felt for an adult reader--I'm guessing a student reader would rate this higher.)

Sum it up:  A sweet tale of a young boy navigating a family crisis.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

Summary: A debut psychological thriller that will forever change the way you look at other people’s lives.

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: As a reader of this blog, I’m assuming that you’re quite well-versed in what is going on in the reading world. And if not, that’s what we’re here for! This book has gotten a ton of media hype. It was also the winner for the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Awards 2015 for Mystery & Thriller. That being said, my expectations were high. Some of them were met, some of them were not, but I think that’s pretty much to be expected. It’s hard to get so much hype and live up to it.

First off, there’s no doubt that this book is exciting. There’s a lot going on and Hawkins is well-versed in keeping you guessing. She doesn’t give too much away, but just enough to make you think you know what’s going on (only later to find out that you were wrong!). The book is written from the first person perspective of several of the main characters. I don’t think these characters had super distinctive voices, and a few times I had stopped in the middle of a chapter to go back and make sure I knew who was talking. Still, each of the characters was definitely interesting. And stopping in the middle of a chapter was a rare occurrence, actually, as this book is really exciting! You keep turning pages no matter what. It’s definitely a quick read, one of those that you can pick up and finish off. It didn’t shake me to my core like it apparently did some people, but I think a lot of that is that this book reminded me of Gone Girl (the book, not the movie. The movie was hypersexual to the point of being offensive. Don’t get me started). So since I had read Gone Girl and already been shocked by all that and the way it was written, The Girl on the Train lost its shock factor. (It’s certainly not the same book, but if you liked Gone Girl then I HIGHLY recommend this one. They are very similar in their story style.)

The main character in this is an alcoholic, and I felt that was a convenient way to tie the entire story in and keep the surprises coming. At first I felt it was too convenient that she couldn’t remember, but her alcoholism seemed very real and having worked in a rehab center at one time, I could totally recognize the sadness and tragedy that was her life and the horror that came about because of it. In that way, this book could be a huge trigger for those who have suffered with such problems, so be aware of that.

When it comes right down to it, I’m only giving this book three stars because I thought it wasn’t that shocking and the mystery seemed a little bit contrived.  The book is supposed to challenge your every belief about strangers and the way you look at them, but apparently I’m more jaded than the usual gal because I didn’t feel shocked. And also, the mystery resolved itself a little too conveniently because of the blackouts from the alcoholic main character. The blackouts gave Hawkins a lot of freedom to fill in other parts of the story that the reader was not privy to. I realize this could be the point, too, but I found it to be a crutch.

This is not a huge, deep story with well-built characters and an epic moral, but it was a lot of fun and a quick read. It’s certainly worth your time if you’re in to mystery and thrillers.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has language and sexual content. It is on par with others of its genre.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Carry On - Rainbow Rowell

Summary: Simon Snow is the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here—it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story—but far, far more monsters. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review:  If you took Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, put them in the same dorm, and then turned the whole Harry Potter series into a hormone-charged race to the finish, you'd have Carry On.  Truly, the similarities were overwhelming.  Orphan with ridiculous amounts of magic who happens to be the favorite of the Headmaster (and also has crazy messy hair).  Serious vitriol oozing toward the Hero from the son of the richest wizard around.  A bushy-haired best friend who knows more than the professors.  A sidekick (oh, wait! This one's a girlfriend!) who is totally expendable.  Don't forget the groundskeeper who just gets the hero, and asks for nothing in return. Add hormones, shock value, shake, and poof!!  New novel!

As an obvious lover of the Harry Potter series, I had a really hard time with it.  It felt like it was as close to plagiarism as you could get without actually crossing the line.  It felt like a reimagined fanfic of my favorite series.  It made me laugh in some places, but I fear I was more entertained guessing who each character was ripped off (oops) based on, than I was on the actual story.

I don't want to belittle Rowell.  I like her style of writing.  She's a clever writer, with a fun voice to read. But I felt like this was beneath her.  She's clever enough to come up with her own material, and if anyone is going to rip off Harry Potterperhaps be a little more discreet?

I will give her this - the ending was a touch of a shock.  And her epilogue isn't as nice and tidy as Rowling's.  But still, I was left feeling like I'd stumbled into a bad fanfic corner of the interwebs.

Rating: Two stars.  It made me want to finish the book.

For the Sensitive Reader:  Vampires, hormonal teenagers, homosexual relationships and explorations, hormones.  More hormones.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Shattered Silence - Melissa G. Moore & M. Bridget Cook

Summary:  Throughout her life, Melissa Jesperson Moore had to hide her true identity. She had pretended that life was perfect after her parents divorced and she was suddenly uprooted from everything familiar and loving. She had to be silent, and to pretend not to be disturbed or upset by her father's actions. Those experiences prepared Melissa to hide the deepest, darkest secret of all. As she began making different choices, building a successful and loving life on her own, her heart began to fill with rays of hope, though she could never quite rid herself of the dark shadow of secrecy and shame. Then one day, her beautiful, innocent daughter looked into her eyes and said, "Mommy, everybody's got a daddy. Where's your daddy?" 

Shattered Silence is an astonishing, true narrative of personal and spiritual transformation. From her secret life as "the daughter of The Happy Face Serial Murderer" to a woman that bared her soul and inspired millions, Melissa leads the reader on the vulnerable, compelling, and sometimes very raw journey of what it took to shatter the silence, and claim her own life.
 (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)


Review:  Melissa had it tough growing up.  Her father was larger than life, this giant of a man that always made everything fun and magical and wonderful. But while he always made it clear that his kids were the most important thing to him, he had a temper. One that terrified Melissa and her siblings, even though he never laid a hand on him.  Her father is known as the Happy Face Serial Killer, Keith Jespersen.

Moore describes the choices she's made in her life, from very young until now, and how learning about her father's crimes has impacted her.  As she writes, there are many guide books for the families of the victims, but there is nothing out there for the families of the criminals.  Shattered Silence is her way of reaching out to the families left behind after these tragedies.  A way to give a face to the other victims, the ones who live with the guilt and the remorse and the pain despite their innocence.

As a memoir, this was well written.  Moore's voice is clear throughout the book as she talks about how she felt compelled at times to prevent her father from telling her what she now believes would have been the truth of his actions.  She talks about her difficult, jarring, emotional adolescence, the choices she made and how when she ignored what she felt was best or right, it didn't end well.  It was amazing to see how strong of a woman she has become in the face of so much adversity, and my heart broke for teenaged Melissa as she discovered the truth behind her father's crimes.

In digging a bit about the history of the Happy Face killer (I only remembered snippets) I was shocked to find that Moore has come under attack numerous times by her father for writing this book.  His vitriol toward his daughter served to validate what I had read, which, while flattering to the father she remembered, felt honest to the truth of what he did.  I caution you, don't let yourself fall down the same rabbit hole I did in that regard.  It was dark.

Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader:  Melissa talks about a rape and an assault by the boy who raped her in an attempt to abort the subsequent pregnancy.  It also touches on domestic violence, emotional manipulation, and inappropriate conversations between her father and his children.  In all honesty, it is handled with as much tact as could be expected, but it is difficult to read.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassins #1) - Robin LeFevers

Summary: Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?
Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Image and summary from Goodreads.com

My review: A unique twist on historical fiction, the real historical figures and events associated with Brittany's stand against the French crown's encroachment is retold with an infusion of pagan religion and imagined magic powers.

Ismae has always been shunned, ever since her mother hired an herb witch to purge her womb of pregnancy and Ismae survived the attempted abortion. She is deemed a demon, a daughter of Death. At 17, her father can be finally rid of her after marrying her off to a brutal farmer in their village. Moments after the wedding, Ismae is rescued by a priest of the ancient, pagan religion and taken to the convent of Mortain—of Death—where she learns that she is, in fact, Death's daughter, and therefore blessed with certain gifts and abilities that will help him do his bidding. Ismae is finally given power over her own fate, power over a cruel patriarchy that has harmed her time and again, and a way to take revenge. She has no hesitation about life in a convent, but can she really commit to becoming an assassin?

When Ismae is sent to Brittany's court to help protect the 12-year-old Duchess, who is in danger of being sold to any number of terrible French suitors, she is fully committed to serving her father, Death, and the convent. Her assignment is not what she expected and the intrigue and lies at court whisper of a betrayal that Ismae barely understands. Amidst it all, she must deal with a different kind of betrayal as she finds herself falling in love with the man she is meant to kill.

Grave Mercy plays with dark subject matter, but does so in a way that is not gruesome or abhorrent. The assassins do kill numerous people - but only those marked by Death himself, giving way to some kind of moral code that helps justify all the bloodshed. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the characters, rooting for Ismae every step of the way. I'm a big fan of historical fiction and I was not familiar with this piece of history (magical infusion aside) from the 15th century. It wasn't until the Afterword that I learned that the story setting and many characters were real as well as certain elements from the old religion. A perfect escapist novel that had a little more meat on its bones than the usual fare.

My Rating: 4 stars

Sum it up: Romance, intrigue, magic, beautiful dresses, a historical setting, and kick-butt heroines? I'm in!

For the sensitive reader: This book is about an order of assassins. As such, there are murders/assassinations, but there is a moral code that "justifies" them in context of the story. The description of the violence is not extreme or gratuitous. There is mention of abortion and allusions of domestic abuse. There is a love story and a non-graphic love scene.








Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk - Kelli Estes

Summary: The smallest items can hold centuries of secrets...

Inara Erickson is exploring her deceased aunt's island estate when she finds an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. As she peels back layer upon layer of the secrets it holds, Inara's life becomes interwoven with that of Mei Lein, a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before. Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth that will shake her family to its core — and force her to make an impossible choice.

Inspired by true events, Kelli Estes's brilliant and atmospheric debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: Have you ever been to the San Juan Islands? I must admit that I had never even heard of the San Juan Islands until one of my good friends planned a girl’s trip for the two of us to her hometown of Seattle. As part of her growing up years they would go camping in the San Juan Islands, and so we spent about three days on the islands of San Juan and Orcas. Friends, it was amazing! Seriously! Orcas was my favorite. As a girl from a very cold and very dry state, I was utterly blown away by how lush and green and beautiful it was. Seriously. I’ve got to get back. My good news to you today is that this book takes place on Orcas Island! Gah! I was so excited about this when I started reading it. I’m not sure I would have appreciated the beauty and magic of the island had I not actually been there myself.

This book takes place on Orcas Island and in Seattle, and it takes place during two different times. I’ve read many books like this before so it’s not like this was new to me, but I like the two different stories. I’m still not sure that the modern story was completely necessary, I mean, it did provide a good vehicle for the reconciliation of things in the end, and it was a good catalyst for beginning the story, but the historical fiction story was compelling enough that I think I could have stood alone. However, having the two stories worked. There were times when it seemed a little disjointed—almost random—but in the end it had a nice tie-in. As with all books that are able to pull this off, there was that inevitable tension that comes from switching time periods right when things are getting exciting in the other story. This made it a fast read—I was always trying to figure out what was going to happen and so I would keep reading. Then the other story would get compelling, but then I would be thrown back into the other story…lather, rinse, repeat. It really does make for an exciting book.

I felt the book was decently written. In other words, I didn’t notice the writing, per se, which is a good thing in that it wasn’t completely crappy or forced. On the other hand, it wasn’t completely beautiful and poetic. That’s okay, though. I don’t think all books have to be like that. Don’t get me wrong—I love and greatly appreciate beautiful writing—but sometimes I just like a book where the writing stays out of the way of the story. It’s accessible, it’s not clunky, and it allows for a smooth creation of the characters and events.

I did like this book. It was sad. I was completely unaware of this part of history, and I feel like it’s one of those stories that, although not as epic and sweeping as some, is significant enough that I’m glad this author was able to create a compelling story around it. And let us not forget the magic of Orcas Island! I feel like this really played a big part of it. Some authors do a good job of utilizing surroundings and making them part of the story, and I think the author did a great job with this. If you are into historical fiction or chick lit or even Orcas Island, I think you would enjoy this book.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book would be rated PG-13 for some disturbing historical scenes of violence, as well as some minor language and sexual content. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

Summary: The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way--a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a "game" to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved--the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them--are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.

Both playful and seductive, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's spell-casting debut, is a mesmerizing love story for the ages.

Image and summary from Goodreads.com.

My review: This is a book like no other. Don't judge a book by it's cover--that's what they say. It was definitely the cover art that attracted me to this book. And so many good reviews! A comparison to Harry Potter! This has been on my TBR list for ages and I finally got to it with relish and...I was disappointed. (On a side note, I think any comparison to Harry Potter is a kiss of death.)

Morgenstern's prose is like a beautifully woven tapestry. The story is simply stunning - visually impeccable considering that a novel has nothing to do with sight. That makes this novel unique. But I always felt I was kept at arm's length from the characters. I was watching a story, a play...I was a member of an audience rather than being part of the story like most reading experiences create. It worked for this book in a way because the reader is in the audience of Le Cirque des Rêves. I never developed an attachment to any of the characters or rooted for any particular outcome. The competition, the villains, the protagonists all fell flat for me. I kept turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen, but nearly anything could have happened and I would've been okay. Everything about the story was quite two-dimensional for me and I couldn't help but feel let down after all the hype around this book.

My Rating: 3.25 stars

To sum it up: A beautiful fairy tale that is more intriguing than enthralling.

For the sensitive reader: One "f" word early in the book had me concerned that there would be strong language throughout, but it was an isolated incident. The romance was sweet, violence was minimal, and language was minimal.












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