Monday, October 31, 2016

Dracula vs. Hitler - Patrick Sheane Duncan

Summary: Ravaged by the Nazi Secret Service during World War II, Romanian resistance forces turn to one of their leaders, Professor Van Helsing for any way out. To fight these monstrous forces, Van Helsing raises a legendary monster from centuries of slumber... Prince Dracula himself.

Once he was the ruler of Transylvania. Prince Vlad Dracul, is, above all else, a patriot. He proves more than willing to once again drive out his country’s invaders. Upshot: No one minds if he drinks all the German blood he desires.

In Berlin, when Hitler hears about the many defeats his forces are suffering at the hands of an apparent true vampire, he is seduced by the possibility of becoming immortal. Thus two forces are set upon a collision course, the ultimate confrontation: Superpower against superpower. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Romania isn’t faring well.  The Nazis have taken over so swiftly, so effectively, and the Resistance is struggling to stay afloat.  Saddled with two British spies sent to buoy their efforts (one is starry-eyed, one hit his head parachuting out of the plane and is now mentally deficient), Professor Van Helsing, leader of the Resistance, realizes that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that times have never been more desperate than now.  What his adopted country needs is a force greater than that of the Nazi War Machine.  It’s time to fight fire with fire.

The premise of this book just thrilled me to my core.  Written as a continuation of Bram Stoker’s novel (while also poking fun at the “liberties” Stoker took to sensationalize the story), the reader joins Van Helsing as an aged professor, his daughter (who has always been drawn to the forbidden story of her father’s past), Jonathan Harkness’ grandson, and the crowning glory-a reanimated Dracula as they reach a temporary truce in order to rid Romania of the Nazi invasion.  Dracula, it seems, was semiconscious throughout the passing years, and while imprisoned in his coffin, has reevaluated his life, um, undeath, erm, existence.  His charm and charisma have grown, as has his desire to control his own bloodlust.  

I loved how this book married the legend of Dracula with the historical Vlad the Impaler, and brought a gothic novel to a new life. Even better, Duncan has seamlessly connected Hitler’s known obsession with the occult and anything supernatural to the story, creating a deeper and more suspenseful storyline.  While at times the story drags (one attack by a virtually unstoppable creature is very similar to every other), the culmination is heart-poundingly gripping.

As a warning, this book is much too bawdy for my taste.  I felt like the lewdness of the soldiers, the sex scenes, and the lurid details were utterly superfluous and unnecessary for the story, even detracting from the drive and the urgency of the Resistance’s goals.  It’s a pity, too, because without them, the story would have been stronger.  

Rating: Three stars


For the Sensitive Reader: This is not for you. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Dracula - Stoker Rocks Glass - theuncommongreen

DescriptionOne 11 oz rocks glass showcasing the first edition cover and opening lines of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
3May. Bistritz. --Left Munich at 8.35 p.m. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but the train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place..." (Description and pic from www.theuncommongreen.com)
I was given a free rocks glass in exchange for an honest review.
Summary: You guys. Okay. I am seriously excited about today's review. First of all, I don't know about you, but I love fall, I love Halloween, I love the colors outside, fall clothes, costumes, scary decorations, crisper weather, changing seasons, trick or treating and trick or treaters, etc., etc., etc. I don't think I'm alone here. I feel like LOTS of people love fall and Halloween and the whole season in general. If my kids had their way, we would decorate for Halloween on September 1st. I can usually hold them off until at least mid-month, and in a pinch October 1st, but if it goes much past that then I have a full-blown riot on my hands. This year we decorated earlier rather than later, and we've been enjoying our cob-webbed (this time on purpose) home complete with all kinds of scary and creepy beloved decorations. When I saw this fabulous rocks glass, I knew I had to add it to my collection of cool Halloween stuff.
As a book reviewer it probably does not surprise you at all that I'm a bit of a nerd. I'm not apologetic of this, and I fully embrace that I am married to a geek (nerds and geeks are not the same--get your facts straight) and that geeks rule the world, so I am happy to admit that we are both pretty excited about this fun and smart rocks glass that I received. First of all, we love Dracula. If you have not read Dracula, you are not only missing out on a seriously scary Halloween season read, but also on a piece of classic literature. This is the book that started it all, folks. This tumbler embraces this. I love the script on the front of it, I love the first chapter of the book on the back of it, I love that I look wordy and smart and classy all in one when I've got it. I mean, it is really very cool. Admittedly I am not a consumer of alcohol, but I do love this glass for other things. First of all, it's really heavy and the glass is really nice. I may not drink alcohol, but I certainly understand the difference between cheap glass from IKEA and legit heavy glass that keeps things cold and looks classy. I did drink out of this, and the weight was really great as well. It feels substantial. Honestly, though, it was so awesome that I couldn't just keep it in my cabinet for a drink here and there, so it is now featured prominently in my Halloween decorations in my formal music room and I have gotten many compliments on it. It looks really cool and others are totally jealous of how witty and awesome it looks (and presumably think I'm super smart because I have it. haha) 
If I had a complete set of these I would absolutely use them for a dinner party or a Halloween party. They would be perfect served with appetizers and drinks, or even a drink after dinner. Like I said, they're smart, they're beautiful, they're really quite fun. I think they really capture the essence of Halloween and the season. There are other classic book rocks glasses available, so you could even mix and match and look awesome at book club or any social gathering, really. They're the ultimate conversation piece. I love dishes that tell a story--no pun intended here--and these ones really do the trick.
My Rating: 5 Stars
For the sensitive type: These have first chapters of classical literature on them. They're clean and classy.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fool Me Once - Harlan Coben

Summary: #1 New York Times bestseller Harlan Coben delivers his next impossible-to-put-down thriller.
 
In the course of eight consecutive #1 New York Times bestsellers, millions of readers have discovered Harlan Coben’s page-turning thrillers, filled with his trademark edge-of-your-seat suspense and gut-wrenching emotion. In Fool Me Once, Coben once again outdoes himself.

Former special ops pilot Maya, home from the war, sees an unthinkable image captured by her nanny cam while she is at work: her two-year-old daughter playing with Maya’s husband, Joe—who had been brutally murdered two weeks earlier. The provocative question at the heart of the mystery: Can you believe everything you see with your own eyes, even when you desperately want to? To find the answer, Maya must finally come to terms with deep secrets and deceit in her own past before she can face the unbelievable truth about her husband—and herself.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: One thing that I really love about Coben’s stories is that he’s a take no prisoners kind of guy. He doesn’t balk at sacrificing a main character when necessary, and I think that adds an element to surprise and unpredictability to his books that’s really fun. Many authors hold their main characters or their really likeable characters sacred. They don’t hurt them. They may get in trouble, they may be close to dying or being in danger, but in the end they’re okay. On the one hand I like this—who wants things to be realistic? I mean, if you like someone, they should be infallible, right? Not so with Coben. He doesn’t care. He does what he has to do in order to keep the story going and keep the readers engaged. He doesn’t do it gratuitously, either. Sometimes a character is killed just so that an author can be all tough and like “I don’t care about my characters! I don’t care what you think! I’ll kill anyone!” Not with Coben. At the end of a book you can look back and feel comfortable that this was coming all along and it just added to the story when it actually happened.

Fool Me Once is no exception to this great Coben tactic. I don’t want to spoil the book so I’m not going to go into details, but his books really do keep you interested around every corner and switchback. There are secrets being hidden by everyone, and that makes it fun. Like I’ve said before, I’m not one of those who tries to figure out whodunit, I just like to be surprised, and so I really enjoy Coben’s writing style.

I think Coben’s characters are fun. They’re not super detailed or beautifully, literarily written, but they are the kind of characters that are understandable. They’re people you know and people you relate to, so it’s easy to fill in the gaps yourself. I think this really speaks to Coben’s talent at novel writing, actually. He is able to make characters that are everyman, and that ability is easier said than done. It’s easy to try to make characters that don’t need a lot of details but still be fleshed out, but actually making that happen is difficult. It’s the little details, the boiling people down to their basics—what we observe, how they act, what they wear, what they say, etc., that can create a person that we instantly understand. Coben does this masterfully. This character detail allows the reader to assign their own beliefs to the person, and I believe that makes the story stronger and more relatable.

Now. Is this a literary masterpiece? No. Do I recommend this to English professors to have their upper level grad students dissect and discuss in a semester-long class on classics? No. However, if you’re looking for a quick read, a great diversion, and a fast-paced wild ride, then this is certainly your thing. Plane rides, vacations, commuting, even reading just for distraction…this is your thing. This is a good old-fashioned potboiler with a fun story line and a satisfying ending.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Coben’s books have some language and some sexual content. This book is on par with others he’s written and is pretty standard for the genre.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Big Sheep - Robert Kroese

Summary: Los Angeles of 2039 is a baffling and bifurcated place. After the Collapse of 2028, a vast section of LA, the Disincorporated Zone, was disowned by the civil authorities, and became essentially a third world country within the borders of the city. Navigating the boundaries between DZ and LA proper is a tricky task, and there's no one better suited than eccentric private investigator Erasmus Keane. When a valuable genetically altered sheep mysteriously goes missing from Esper Corporation's labs, Keane is the one they call.

But while the erratic Keane and his more grounded partner, Blake Fowler, are on the trail of the lost sheep, they land an even bigger case. Beautiful television star Priya Mistry suspects that someone is trying to kill her - and she wants Keane to find out who. When Priya vanishes and then reappears with no memory of having hired them, Keane and Fowler realize something very strange is going on. As they unravel the threads of the mystery, it soon becomes clear that the two cases are connected - and both point to a sinister conspiracy involving the most powerful people in the city. Saving Priya and the sheep will take all of Keane's wits and Fowler's skills, but in the end, they may discover that some secrets are better left hidden.

Kroese's The Big Sheep is perfect for fans of Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!, and Scalzi's Old Man's War. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Blake Fowler is the assistant of NOT a private investigator Erasmus Keane. That’s not Keane’s real name, and not even Fowler is quite sure what it is he’s supposed to do.  But if it means playing Watson to Keane’s off-the-wall Sherlock antics, he’s game.  Except for there are two utterly bizarre cases in his lap.  One, a paranoid and confused actress afraid for her life, and more perplexing, a genetically altered sheep is missing.  As things progress on both fronts, it’s clear to Fowler that the two are connected.  How, he doesn’t want to fathom.

This was a much more interesting read than I thought it would be.  While the language was a little salty in places, the dystopian aspects of the novel were so subtle and so craftily sprinkled through the narrative it was totally believable.  Honestly, this is how dystopian fiction should be done. Some of the more minor characters seemed larger than life, and I was a little annoyed about it until I realized that they were larger than life because they needed to be.  Once their motives became clear, the annoyances I had with them clicked into place, forming a more complete picture than I had thought possible.

So many novels feel like they’re quickly tossed together that when I read one that is more developed than I initially expect, I’m pleasantly surprised.  The depth that Kroese has brought to his characters, to the settings, and to the storyline in itself surprised me enough to propel me through the book in a matter of hours. The twists were fairly predictable, but I didn’t care.  I enjoyed the ride enough that it didn’t matter.

Rating: Three and a half stars


For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few fight scenes, probably a dozen uses of the F word, and some truly unnecessary and vulgar jokes about interspecies relations. Most of these were unnecessary to the story and dinged my rating.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Lilac Girls - Martha Hall Kelly

Summary: Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and secrets that were hidden for decades.

New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I can’t remember if I knew this book was about Ravensbruck when I first put it on hold at the library, but I have to admit that I’ve certainly read a lot of Ravensbruck historical fiction books lately. Check out my reviews of Rose Under Fire and Ravensbruck: Everyday Life in a Women's Concentration Camp for some of my favorites. I’m not sure if it’s because there are a lot of them coming out right now and it’s a hot topic (probably), or if I seek them out (not consciously), but this is another one of those heartbreaking historical fics about Ravensbruck and the horrors that took place there.

Lilac Girls is written in the rotating perspective of the three main characters. These characters are not connected until the end of the book, and although I usually really enjoy this kind of organization, in this case, it was actually kind of confusing at times. There were a lot of different people in each woman’s life (not surprisingly, of course) but because of that it was sometimes hard to keep track of whose friend was whose and what had happened. Usually this seems to work out better than it did in this book. I don’t find myself as confused in other books that are written this way, so I’m not sure why this one was different, but I suspect it’s because although the author started out with the women being very different and having different opinions, their actual voices in the writing weren’t that different. This wasn’t true all of the time, of course, and there were very significant things going on in each of the character’s lives that would direct me to exactly what was going on, it was just more confusing than some books written this way are to me.

The stories in this book were really interesting. When I found out (after reading it) that they were based (some loosely) on real people in history, that made it even more interesting. I didn’t know that when I was reading it and I think that would have been even more interesting, although I really enjoyed it at face value. It being based on true stories was just that much better.

If you’ve ever read any Ravensbruck historical fic (or memoirs or anything about Ravensbruck), you know that it’s exceptionally heartbreaking. The almost exclusively women’s concentration camp was particularly harsh, especially considering the experiments that were done on the women known as the “rabbits.” It’s really quite horrifying. This book doesn’t dance around those topics, and there is much war-based horror that goes on, some of it detailed. I wouldn’t say it’s gratuitous or unnecessarily grotesque, but it is descriptive and by its very nature is horrible. Really. As I mentioned above, I’ve read quite a bit about Ravensbruck and all of that didn’t make reading this book any easier.

Fundamentally, this book has a really good story and some really great characters, especially because they were based on real historical women. If you’re into reading the plethora of WWII historical fiction that is out there right now, this would be a great one to check out. It’s certainly in the top tier of those books, and that is saying something as there are a lot of them.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and the horror of WWII and the concentration camps are fully explored in this book. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Two-Family House - Lynda Cohen Loigman

Summary: Brooklyn, 1947: in the midst of a blizzard, in a two-family brownstone, two babies are born minutes apart to two women. They are sisters by marriage with an impenetrable bond forged before and during that dramatic night; but as the years progress, small cracks start to appear and their once deep friendship begins to unravel. No one knows why, and no one can stop it. One misguided choice; one moment of tragedy. Heartbreak wars with happiness and almost but not quite wins.

From debut novelist Lynda Cohen Loigman comes The Two-Family House, a moving family saga filled with heart, emotion, longing, love, and mystery. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I enjoyed this book quite a lot, actually. It sounded interesting when I was reading the description, which is obviously why I requested it and am reviewing it, but I am happy to report that it even surprised me how much I liked it.

First off, I love how the book was divided into different perspectives. Each chapter was named after the different person’s perspective. I’m a sucker for this kind of writing. I’m kind of a black and white person like that. I don’t like guessing who’s saying what or doing what. Plus, it’s nice to be able to refer back to the chapter title if I get confused (which I didn’t). The chapters are concise, which keeps the story flowing and moving quickly.

Secondly, I think the story itself was really compelling. Children switched at birth and raised right next to each other as cousins? And it’s all a secret? I mean, you can see the drama coming a mile away, right? And of course this raises all types of interesting questions regarding nature versus nurture, how people react in stressful and uncharted territory, and, ultimately, what secrets should be told and what ones shouldn’t. It’s really very interesting. It’s not like the story pounds you over the head with this either. It allows the reader to think and draw conclusions on their own. There’s no forced opinion or belief of how things should be or how things should go. For this reason I think it would be an excellent book club book. There’s so much to discuss. I can see some very fun discussions about this.

I also enjoyed the writing. I felt like it wasn’t too wordy and yet it wasn’t just writing that didn’t get in the way. It was written such that you can understand the subtlety and appreciate the beauty of what’s going on, and a lot doesn’t have to be spelled out in order for a lot to be said. I admire authors that can do that. It’s a rare author that can make a book so accessible and yet have the writing be more than just not annoying.

This isn’t a super long book (another reason it would be great for a book club), but it certainly got a lot accomplished. I found myself thinking about it long after I’d finished reading it. It’s the kind of book that just brings up those questions that are fundamental and often taken for granted. I think it is especially pertinent to women, especially those who are pregnant or who have children, although I don’t think it excludes women in general from the discussion.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this. If you are looking for a book that is well-written and thought-provoking minus the heavy, this is your book.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Fuzzy Mud - Louis Sacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Five stars

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Four stars


For the Sensitive Reader:  Some recounting of executions.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jack Bates and the Wizard's Spell - Leslie Grantham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:  One star. 


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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Moon in the Palace - Weina Dai Randel

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

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

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

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

A Time to Speak - Nadine Brandes

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rating: Four and a half stars

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kate Culhane: A Ghost Story - Michael Hague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: Four stars

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

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: 2 Stars

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

Monday, October 3, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating: Four Stars

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

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