Friday, December 15, 2017

The Passion of Dolssa - Julie Berry

Summary: Dolssa is a young gentlewoman with uncanny gifts, on the run from an obsessed friar determined to burn her as a heretic for the passion she refuses to tame.

Botille is a wily and charismatic peasant, a matchmaker running a tavern with her two sisters in a tiny seaside town.

The year is 1241; the place, Provensa, what we now call Provence, France—a land still reeling from the bloody crusades waged there by the Catholic Church and its northern French armies.

When the matchmaker finds the mystic near death by a riverside, Botille takes Dolssa in and discovers the girl’s extraordinary healing power. But as the vengeful Friar Lucien hunts down his heretic, the two girls find themselves putting an entire village at the mercy of murderers. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I chose this book for my book club in kind of a blind draw. The way our library book club sets work is that they have the longest list ever, and then there’s a somewhat confusing calendar on another page, and then you’re somehow supposed to figure out which books are available that you actually want by toggling through the two of them, trying to match up what you want verses what’s available. If this doesn’t sound complicated then I haven’t done it justice. I’ll often just start by trying to see what’s available and then decide if the book is something I want to choose, which is what I did this time. See, my book club is full of women near and dear to my heart, some of my best friends that I have had these ten years living here in this neighborhood. It started as part of a church group, though, and although we’re no longer that,  many of them are quite conservative and very conservative readers, so it’s not like choosing Fifty Shades of Gray is an option. At all. Not that I would ever read that trash. But also—I just want to be careful. I don’t want to be that person who picked the book with all the raunchy scenes and unnecessary language. It’s not like they’re prudes, they understand that sometimes books have some language, but it’s an audience where I want to choose a good book for them that is on the clean side. (Any suggestions would be much appreciated! Leave them in the comments!) Our book club has been going for more than ten years now so you can imagine that we’ve covered quite a few books. Much of the low hanging fruit has been picked.

When I came to The Passion of Dolssa on my toggle fest for the perfect book club book, I was happy that it was already on my “To-read” list. That makes things easier. From there I do lots of info gathering and reading other reviews and Wikipedia, etc., to make sure that I know what I’m getting us all into. Not only do I not want to have a book that would make people uncomfortable, but I also REALLY don’t want to waste people’s time (including my own). Most of the women are gracious enough to read the book, and even if they don’t read the whole thing, most of the time they’ve read at least some and can talk about it. Having a really stupid book is just a waste of everyone’s time and makes for a lame discussion.

I am happy to report that I am very happy with my decision for this book. I think it has a lot of great attributes that make it an excellent book club book:
1.      It’s well-written. Sucky writing, no matter how good the story, just sucks. This writing was beautiful and although it was written for a YA Fic audience, it didn’t feel dumbed down or trite like I think some books in this genre teeter on the edge of.
2.      The story was very interesting. It was in-depth and featured many well-developed characters. Although the book is long, it is still a relatively quick read and I didn’t have anyone complain about the length (which will happen if a book happens to be too long to read in a month for some people’s liking). The story was engaging and even had some surprises and twists in it, which was nice.
3.      The book had a hint of magic, but not too much to turn off those people who are really against fantasy. In fact, it was up to the reader to decide whether it was magical realism, magic, or something entirely religious. This made for some great discussion in my book club, especially considering our religious background.
4.      Which brings me to an essential…this made for some great discussion in our book club. We talked longer about this book than we have any other book in a long time. I had a list of questions that I had gathered from various places, but there was also just a lot of discussion and hashing out details. Part of this is, admittedly, because we are an LDS (Latter-day Saint i.e. Mormon) book club (in the sense that we are all LDS, not that we only read LDS literature), and so these types of religious happenings were a very interesting topic for us to delve into. If you are LDS you’ll know what I mean when you read this book—there’s a lot to discuss.
5.      The female characters are really cool. There are some great male characters, too, don’t get me wrong, but this book is based on real-life female mystics that lived during the Middle Ages. The author had done a lot of research into the original journals and first person accounts of miracles that were performed and what happened. I love me some historical fiction, but it’s so fun when it’s based on true historical facts and real people.

I really enjoyed this book. I had planned on reading it myself sometime, but I am so glad that I read it in a book club so that I had other people to discuss it with. I have, in fact, recommended it to other people as well in the hopes that we can discuss it. As a religious person I just found it really fascinating, and also engaging and well-written. I highly recommend it.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are some minor incidents of language and acknowledgment of sex (and in the afterward there is some discussion of how the female mystics would write about their devotion in an almost sexual manner, although this was never discussed). I was fine reading this book in my book club.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Red - Liesl Shurtliff

Summary: Red is not afraid of the big bad wolf. She’s not afraid of anything . . . except magic.

But when Red’s granny falls ill, it seems that only magic can save her, and fearless Red is forced to confront her one weakness.

With the help of a blond, porridge-sampling nuisance called Goldie, Red goes on a quest to cure Granny. Her journey takes her through dwarves’ caverns to a haunted well and a beast’s castle. All the while, Red and Goldie are followed by a wolf and a huntsman—two mortal enemies who seek the girls’ help to defeat each other. And one of them just might have the magical solution Red is looking for. . . . (Summary and Image from goodreads.com)

Review: I have a weakness for retold fairy tales. I love revisiting stories from my childhood and seeing the reimagined depth an author can breathe into them, especially when it’s well-done. I even like it when they tie in other stories, even if minutely.

Shurtliff has done a fantastic job here in expounding the story of Little Red Riding Hood, creating a world where the wolf may not be as terrible as we’ve come to imagine, and where the real villain may just be time. Her imagery and her characters made everything so immersive that I found difficulty in putting this book down. The storyline, typically one difficult to expand or flesh out, is so masterfully well done, skillfully interwoven with other fairy tales as needed, that it’s taken on a life of its own. 


My daughter had to read this for a school competition and begged me to read it as well. If you’re still looking for a good book to give the MG reader in your life, consider this one. Clean, well-written, fun, sweet - it checks all the boxes!

Rating: Four stars

Monday, December 11, 2017

To the Back of Beyond - Peter Stamm

Summary: After returning from a pleasant holiday with his wife, Astrid, and their two children, Thomas leaves the house. He walks down the street, and he keeps on walking. At first Astrid asks herself where he's gone, and then when he's coming back, and finally whether he is even still alive. 

In precise and hypnotic prose that cuts as cleanly as a scalpel, To the Back of Beyond is a novel that takes away the safe foundations of a marriage and a lifestyle to ask deeper questions about identity, connection and how free we are to change our lives. It is a graceful and resonant work from one of Europe's most important writers. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: Ok so here’s the deal. I have to admit that my review is going to be completely colored by the fact that I am absolutely judging the main character. That’s how book reading goes, though, right? If we relate to them—or even if we don’t—our opinions of the books we read are completely determined by our own human experience. I think one of the ways this has really been emphasized for me over the years is when I go back and re-read a childhood fave, or even one that was especially poignant to me in a certain part of my life. When I read it again I’m not going through the same thing and therefore it doesn’t hit me the same way. Or I like it more. Or I like it less. So although I am not personally someone who re-reads books a lot (there are so many more books to read! I don’t have time for old ones!) I completely understand that there is more to get out from a good book that just a first-time reading can give me. Or even a tenth time reading.

I will not be reading this book again. I got what I needed.

I think the summary on the back of the book pretty much describes all you need to hear within the first paragraph: “Happily married with two children and a comfortable home in a Swiss town, Thomas and Astrid enjoy a glass of wine in their garden on a night like any other. Called back to the house by their son’s cries, Astrid goes inside, expecting her husband to join her in a bit. But Thomas gets up and, after a brief moment of hesitation, opens the gate and walks out.”

So that’s it. The dude walks out. No explanation. Ever. And none ever comes, so don’t worry about waiting for it. Save yourself the grief and pain and struggle and sacrifice and questioning and confusion and loneliness and loss and anger and betrayal and resignation that Astrid had to deal with from this very selfish man with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. I mean, seriously? SERIOUSLY! I was so angry for her I basically couldn’t get over that the whole time. I tried to keep an open mind, though, maybe there would be some sort of human discovery where Thomas has to search his inner soul or something and comes back renewed (or doesn’t come back renewed, but either way, hopefully something went on) but there was no soul searching. The book itself is written in very short little blurbs that switch back and forth between Astrid and Thomas’ respective lives. From the accolades that Stamm has received I would have expected a lot more than I got. The short blips seemed almost like an outline, or maybe something a less experienced writer would do. There was no description, very little discussion of what was actually going on, more like just a report of the basics with no discussion whatsoever. Nothing of substance is said at all, really. Just a report of these people’s lives who were ruined because one stupid man made a very stupid choice that pretty much affected both of them and their children for the rest of their lives with absolutely no explanation from any of them. So there I am, completely annoyed with Thomas and his stupid selfishness and genuinely bad life choices, and there is no comfort of discussion or analysis or anything to quell my annoyance. This only fuels it.

I am willing to accept that maybe something was lost in translation. Maybe there is a subtlety in Switzerland where people are okay with spouses leaving them and having no discussion of it, but I don’t think so. This book was short and I think it was meant to be concise and thought-provoking, but I found nothing to provoke my thoughts. Just my extreme annoyance and anger.

My Rating: 1 Star.

For the sensitive reader: There was a a few swear words and a few sex scenes, although nothing graphic. This is on the tamer side of most adult fic.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Keeper of Lost Things - Ruth Hogan

Summary:  Anthony Peardew is the Keeper of Lost Things.  Once a celebrated author of short stories, now in his twilight years, Anthony has sought consolation from the long-ago loss of his fiancee by lovingly rescuing lost objects -- the things others have dropped, misplaced, or accidentally left behind.  Realizing that he's running out of time, he leaves his beautiful house and all the collected treasures to his unsuspecting assistant, Laura, the one person he trusts to fulfill his legacy and reunite his lost objects with their rightful owners.

Recovering from a bad divorce, Laura is in some ways one of Anthony's lost things.  But when she moves into his lovely old Victorian mansion, her life suddenly begins to change.  Anthony's final wishes set in motion a most serendipitous series of encounters as Laura sets out to realize Anthony's last wish: reuniting his cherished lost objects with their owners.

With an unforgettable cast of characters that includes a teenage girl with special powers, a handsome gardener, a fussy ghost, and an array of irresistible four-legged friends, The Keeper of Lost Things is a heartwarming read about second chances, endless possibilities and joyful discoveries.  (Summary from book flap - Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I'd like to start this review with a disclaimer.  My thoughts on this book might be spectacularly unfair.   I just want to be upfront about it as Ruth Hogan deserves a fair shake.  I may review books in my spare time, but I'm by no means a professional and sometimes my life influences my reading experiences in detrimental ways.  If you want to take this review with a grain of salt or two, I won't be offended.

The Keeper of Lost Things has all the makings of a brilliant book -- a talented author, an interesting premise, and a unique cast of characters -- and yet I spent most of the time reading it in a state of moderate confusion.  I don't know whether to attribute my experience to some indefinable flaw in the book or to an even more unfortunate case of, well...mom brain.   It wouldn't be the first time that I've encountered the former, but given that I am a sleep deprived stay-at-home mother of four, there is also a high probability of the latter.  It could go either way.

 At least some of my confusion stems from hopscotching my way through the two main, seemingly unrelated, story lines.  The first contains Anthony, the lonely keeper of lost things; Laura, his unwitting apprentice/struggling divorcee; Freddy, the gardener hiding from his girlfriend; and Sunshine, the delightful "dancing drome" neighbor girl with a knack for the supernatural.  Oh, and let's not forget a troublesome ghost.  Thankfully, I was able to follow this portion of the story quite easily and enjoyed the time I spent with those characters.

The second story line takes place in a smattering of chapters spread over forty years.  It involves a woman named Eunice, who is desperately in love with her best friend (and boss), a dog-lover named Bomber, and the occasional appearance of his truly dreadful sister Portia.  This is where I ran into problems.  I spent a good majority of my time trying to place their story safely within the context of the other story and failing miserably.  Was I missing some infinitesimal connection? I kept flipping back to previous chapters, trying to pick up the crucial detail I had missed, and it was maddening!  I can't help but think that if someone had just handed me the book with this tiny bit of advice... "Yes, they connect....eventually.  Try not to overthink it, you dope."  that I might have been able to relax and enjoy myself a little more thoroughly.

In my opinion, the best aspect of this book was the artfully constructed vignettes attached to many of the misplaced treasures.  They were deftly woven, delightful little windows of possibility and I savored each one. When all was said and done, things came together quite nicely, and I closed the book wondering if I shouldn't read it again from a less befuddled perspective. 

My advice to you is this: Give it a try.  Everything connects eventually.  Try not to overthink it, you dope.

My Rating:  3 Stars.

For the sensitive reader.  Some moments of extreme profanity and some discussion of sexual matters.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Countdown - Deborah Wiles

Summary: Franny Chapman just wants some peace. But that's hard to get when her best friend is feuding with her, her sister has disappeared, and her uncle is fighting an old war in his head. Her saintly younger brother is no help, and the cute boy across the street only complicates things. Worst of all, everyone is walking around just waiting for a bomb to fall. 

It's 1962, and it seems that the whole country is living in fear. When President Kennedy goes on television to say that Russia is sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, it only gets worse. Franny doesn't know how to deal with what's going on in the world -- no more than she knows how to deal with what's going on with her family and friends. But somehow she's got to make it through.

Featuring a captivating story interspersed with footage from 1962, award-winning author Deborah Wiles has created a documentary novel that will put you right alongside Franny as she navigates a dangerous time in both her history and our history.
 (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I’m not old enough to have been alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in fact my parents were a little bit younger than the protagonist in Countdown. So even though I didn’t experience that time, I have heard some about it from my parents and my in-laws, and of course I’ve heard about it in school, referred to in news, etc. I mean, you’ve all heard about the Cuban Missile Crisis your whole life, right? The bunkers, the preparation for nuclear war, the commercials from the times; those are all part of our culture. Now, more than ever, I think we can understand the fear. I don’t know about you, but turning on the news and reading about North Korea and everything going on there scares me—it scares me for myself, my kids, our world, the future of the world and what the future will look like, etc. And so reading this book not only felt familiar in a lot of ways because of what I’ve been hearing/seeing/reading about my entire life, but because this is what we are experiencing now.

One of the coolest things about this book was that it was like a journal—there were news clippings, pictures, ads, etc. These were really cool to see. I’ve heard so much about this era, but I don’t know if I’ve actually seen some of the original literature and so it was not only cool to see, but really set the scene for the book setting. It was one of those books where the setting is a character itself. There are times in history when you can create the setting and everyone knows exactly when you’re talking about. This is one of those times, and Wiles does an excellent job of transporting the reader back to that time. For those of us who didn’t live through it, the way the book was organized made it easy to feel a part of it and understand why people thought the way they did and did the things they did.

The story in this book was of a little girl living during this time, and it was certainly relatable and familiar. I liked the complexities of the characters and the way she experiences very real problems, but, as in real life, there is humor and sadness. Sometimes things go the way you want them to, and sometimes they don’t. How we face these situations is everything. I loved reading about a girl who was facing very normal things for her age, but was also facing things that were bigger than her. Everyone has to face problems that are going on around them on a bigger scale, but sometimes those affect a person more individually because it changes the way life is lived. I think the Cuban Missile Crisis is certainly one of those times. Dealing with the fear of nuclear war and all of the drama that was going on on an international scale affected people living then in a very real and personal way—at home, at school, with friends, all the time.

I enjoyed this book for what it was—an excellent depiction of a normal girl living during a very tumultuous time of our history. I think the organization of the book was great in creating a setting, and the characters felt real in that they were all good and bad in different ways, just as a real person would be.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean but does feel kind of scary in some ways because of the time period.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

Summary: In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth ...no matter where it leads.
 (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I don’t know about you, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the awesome genre that historical fiction has become of late. I have enjoyed historical fiction for years, and I’ve read quite a bit of it, but I think the past couple of years have been exceptional. Some of my favorites have revolved around women in war, most notably World War II. There are a lot of historical fiction books out there right now about World War II. I’ve been trying to decide why this is, and I think there are several reasons. First, the generations alive today have had a living connection to someone in World War II. Whether this was a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or even great grandparent, we have had real life relationships with these people. We can’t believe what they’ve seen or experienced, and yet they are here to testify of it in a very real and personal manner. Second, I think the more we learn about the atrocities that happened during that war, the more aware we are that we cannot let this happen again. This is difficult, though, because whether it be in our country or in other countries around the world, it’s easy to see the mindset that led to atrocities in WWII sometimes rear its ugly head. Third, WWII is just really interesting. There are so many facets to it—the European front, the Pacific front, the home front in all of those countries; the aftermath, the millions killed…it just can’t be explored enough. I think our fascination with WWII is not limited to now. My grandpa who fought during WWII was always obsessed with it and when he died I inherited many of his books, model planes, war pictures, etc., that were a part of his life.

Some of the historical fiction (let alone the actual accounts) of WWII can be tough to read. There was so much suffering. Just. So. Much. It’s almost impossible to comprehend. Because of that, although I do love the genre, sometimes I have to take a little break from it. I have read several books in the past couple years about it, and I’ve read some other things, so I was ready to get back into it. When an opportunity arose to read The Alice Network, I took it and I am so glad I did.

This book is different from many like it in the genre in that it takes place in World War I and also time hops to just after the end of World War II. Although I have read quite a bit about WWII, I haven’t read nearly as much about WWI, and it was just a really different war. Technology changed so many things from WWI to WWII, so I was really fascinated by the differences there. Also, although some of my fave WWII historical fiction books are based on female spies or females who are doing unsuspecting things in the war, this book is also based on a female spy, and she was super cool. Even better? She was based on a real life female spy, Louise de Bettignies, “The Queen of Spies.” This woman is super cool and she was not on my radar before this. (How fitting for a spy, right?) I so enjoyed the richness of the character that came from her being based on actual historical documents, personal accounts, and accounts from those who were close to her. There were other really cool female characters as well. And let’s face it, a really well-written, strong, realistic, awesome female character is just really cool.

The other women in the time hop portion of this book were cool, too, and were also pioneers in their own way but for different reasons. Charlie St. Clair, the younger female protagonist, is pregnant and unmarried and is also treading a fine line of social propriety with her situation. This made for a rich discussion into two very different situations that were social challenges at their respective times.

The writing in this book was great. It was engaging, meaningful, and very accessible. This book was compulsively readable and I very much enjoyed it. If you are a lover of historical fiction, especially historical fiction during the World Wars that feature strong female characters, you should definitely check out this book.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some language and violent war scenes, as well as a few love scenes. I would say it is on par with others in this genre.

Friday, December 1, 2017

First & Then - Emma Mills

Summary:  Devon Tennyson wouldn't change a thing.  She's happy silently crushing on best friend Cas and blissfully ignoring the future after high school.  But the universe has other plans.  It delivers Devon's cousin Foster, an unrepentant social outlier with a surprising talent, and the obnoxiously superior and maddeningly attractive jock Ezra right where she doesn't want them -- first into her gym class and then into every other aspect of her life.  With wit, heart, and humor to spare, First & Then is a contemporary novel about falling in love -- with the unexpected boy, with a new brother, and with yourself.  (Summary from book flap - Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Some books stick to you like glue and refuse to be forgotten, while others just flow over you and melt away.  I read through First & Then fairly quickly, but when I sat down to put my thoughts on paper for a review...I blanked for a while.  It's not that I couldn't remember what happened, but rather that I didn't find much that was particularly remarkable.  That having been said, here is what I did like...

First, I love the cover.  Were I too judge a book exclusively by its cover, this one would receive fairly high marks.  I even love the cover under the cover; if you take the dust jacket off the hardback version, it is covered in little silver versions of the raindrops that dot the jacket!  .  It's just so pretty and I love the extra detail put into something that not everyone sees.

Second, I think that many YA readers will identify with at least one of the issues that arise in this book.  Mills touches on the pain of unrequited love or abandonment, confusion about the future, agonizing over tests and college applications, wondering who to trust, dealing with life's surprises and navigating the murky waters of puberty and popularity.  There's a little something for everyone, as long as you are content to skim the surface of these issues and aren't looking to delve too deeply.

Finally, I appreciated that while this story had a romantic thread, it didn't go too far in that department.  The main character is a huge Austen fan and I felt that the book mostly stayed true to that type of romance, with a little more kissing.  That having been said, there was a strange dichotomy between the delicate intimacies of the book and the sheer level of profanity.  If I were to rate this book solely on the romantic aspects, I'd put it at PG.  For language, it would be R.  The juxtaposition felt odd.

Ultimately, despite the better qualities I've listed, First & Then didn't much move me one way or another.  Though I admit that others have liked it and a YA reader might identify more with the story,   I closed it without looking back.  It was an mildly enjoyable, utterly forgettable read.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  R levels of swearing.  Some teenage drinking, usually portrayed in a negative light.  Nothing beyond kissing, though there is one secondary character who is already pregnant at the beginning of the story.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Chester and Gus - Cammie McGovern

Summary: You meet your person and you connect. You know that you’re meant to be together. Then you learn what that person needs and you do it for them. I can’t imagine anything else quite so fulfilling.

Chester has always wanted to become a service dog. When he fails his certification test, though, it seems like that dream might never come true—until a family adopts him to be a companion for their ten-year-old son, Gus, who has autism.

But Gus acts so differently than anyone Chester has ever met. He never wants to pet Chester, and sometimes he doesn’t even want him in the room. Chester’s not sure how to help Gus since this isn’t exactly the job he trained for—but he’s determined to figure it out and show he’s the right dog for the job. Because after all, Gus is now his person. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)



My Review: If you know me, you know I love love love dogs.  However, books about dogs can be very hit and miss, I don't like them all, and some are just silly fluff (which isn't bad--seriously, one of my favorite books when I was in elementary school was called Santa Paws, about a stray dog who went around saving everyone at Christmas time.  Awesome when I was a kid, but going back, it's no piece of art, and not something I'd read now.  Just goes to show that a book can be right for you at one part of your life, and not another.  Books are magic.).

That being said, though I love dogs, I am hesitant when I pick up a book about a dog.  It doesn't stop me though, and I will almost always inevitably snatch up a book to see what it's about if there is a dog on the cover.  So when I saw Chester and Gus at the bookstore, I decided to give it a go, and quickly put it on hold at the library.

To my immense pleasure, I could not put this book down.  Narrated from the point of view of a failed service dog, I found Chester's voice to be innocent and pure.  He was very clearly a dog, and he spoke the way I would imagine a dog to speak and think.  He focused on smells and actions and feelings, and was able to grow to understand the autistic boy he lived with.  Obviously he is able to perceive things better than a real dog would, being a character, but I didn't feel that detracted from the realness of the story.  It added to the depth and sincerity for me.

Another thing I loved was Chester's view of autism.  Being a dog with different senses than humans, he's able to connect--and even communicate--with Gus in a way the humans can't.  At first, he's hesitant of Gus's strange ways, but the more time he spends with the boy, the more he understands that certain things are harder for him, and acutely perceives why certain things annoy, bother or intrigue him.  Chester is careful not to touch Gus, careful not to startle him or be in the way.  He's simply there for him when Gus decides to open up to his new friend.

This was a sweet book with a charming narrator, inspired by a moment the author witnessed between her own autistic son and dog.  Dog lovers will particularly like this story, but I think it has enough heart that anyone looking for a sweet tale of friendship between a dog and a boy will enjoy it.

My rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader: Nothing offensive.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!  
We here at Reading for Sanity are thankful for many things, 
not the least of which is BOOKS!   
We're also huge fans of this meme...


...and gravy.  

Normally we post on Friday's but I'm pretty sure we're still going to be in food comas, so we will see you on Monday.  May your Thanksgiving be full of gratitude, gravy, and plenty of books!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

We Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, A True Story - Josh Sundquist

SummaryWhen I was twenty-five years old, it came to my attention that I had never had a girlfriend.  At the time, I was actually under the impression that I was in a relationship, so this bit of news came as something of a shock.  

Why was Josh still single?  To find out, he tracked down each of the girls he had tried to date since middle school and asked them straight up:  What went wrong?

The results of Josh's semi-scientific investigation are in your hands.  From a disastrous Putt-Putt date involving a backward prosthetic foot, to his introduction to CFD (Close Fast Dancing), to a misguided "grand gesture" at a Miss America pageant, this story is about looking for love - or at least a girlfriend - in all the wrong places.  Poignant, relatable, and totally hilarious,this memoir is for anyone who has ever wondered, "Is there something wrong with me?"  (Spoiler alert: The answer is no.) 

(Summary from book flap - Image from Goodreads)

My Review: Josh Sundquist is an author (obviously), but he's also Paralympian, motivational speaker, and comedian.  Oh, and he's an amputee with a penchant for amazing Halloween costumes...but that's another post for another blog.  I stumbled into his world while watching random videos on YouTube with my daughter.  The clip that caught our attention was Sheltered Homeschooler Reads Harry Potter #1 and we thought it was so funny that we quickly snickered our way through the rest of them.  As soon as I realized he had published a memoir, I knew I had to read it.   

In We Should Hang Out Sometime, Josh rehashes his past relationships (and not-so-relationships) in all their gloriously gory detail in an attempt to discern what exactly went wrong and why he is still single.  Josh even goes so far as to track down past girlfriends or crushes to ask why things didn't work out.   His knack for presenting horrifyingly awkward situations in a hysterical light won us over in a heartbeat.  I kept stopping to read portions of the book aloud to my daughter and we were practically hyperventilating with laughter. Whether Josh is roundhouse kicking his prosthetic leg back into place (and horrifying nearby golfers), divulging the embarrassing way he learned about the existence of Caller ID, or dissecting failed first kisses, his candor, graphing/diagramming abilities, and self-deprecating wit will keep you rolling.


However, if snort-inducing humor isn't enough for you, rest assured, this memoir is also laced with moments of heartbreak, sweetness, and better-than-average insight.  Sometimes reading a book can feel like work, but in this case, it was a delight. I highly recommend it if you're looking for an easy, entertaining read. 

Pssst.  If' you'd like to get a taste of what this guy is all about, check out his full YouTube Channel, here.  I haven't watched all the videos but those I've seen have been great.

For the sensitive reader: I was completely ready to hand this book over to my 14-year-old until the chapters where Josh went to college.  Thinks got a little more mature then, but not graphically so.  I think I'd probably still hand it over, but maybe have a little preparatory conversation about it.

My Rating: 4 Stars



Monday, November 20, 2017

The Excellent Lombards - Jane Hamilton

Summary: "This is the book Jane Hamilton was born to write... [it is] magnificent." - Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of Commonwealth 

"Everything you could ask for in a coming-of-age novel-- funny, insightful, observant, saturated with hope and melancholy." - Tom Perotta, author of Little Children and The Leftovers

"Tender, eccentric, wickedly funny and sage...gives full voice to Jane Hamilton's storytelling gifts." - Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Mary Frances "Frankie" Lombard is fiercely in love with her family's sprawling apple orchard and the tangled web of family members who inhabit it. Content to spend her days planning capers with her brother William, competing with her brainy cousin Amanda, and expertly tending the orchard with her father, Frankie desires nothing more than for the rhythm of life to continue undisturbed. But she cannot help being haunted by the historical fact that some family members end up staying on the farm and others must leave. Change is inevitable, and threats of urbanization, disinheritance, and college applications shake the foundation of Frankie's roots. As Frankie is forced to shed her childhood fantasies and face the possibility of losing the idyllic future she had envisioned for her family, she must decide whether loving something means clinging tightly or letting go. A new classic from the author of Oprah's Book Club picks A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth*Includes Reading Group Guide* (summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I really enjoyed this book. I wasn’t sure what to expect, really. I mean, when I pick up books to review, I often have some inkling that I’ll like them—I’m not ridiculous enough to saddle myself to something I know for sure I won’t enjoy. That happens, of course, but for the most part I know what I like. So I wasn’t surprised when I found out I liked it, but I was surprised by the kind of book it was. Many of the quotes used to describe the book compared it to something like To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, even though I enjoyed this book, I just think that you can’t ever be To Kill a Mockingbird. By the very nature of that book—the one SO MANY people list as their favorite and undoubtedly one of the most popular and best books of all time—cannot just be topped willy nilly. I’m telling you right now this book is not that book. But it is a fun coming of age novel with a really fun main character.

One of the things I loved about this book was the main character, Frankie. Right off you know she’s not a reliable narrator, which I think is actually a fun twist from the normal omniscient or even future-telling narrator. Frankie, however, is just a young girl complete with weird stories from her childhood that she misinterprets in weird ways. Here’s what I mean—I’m sure that you and your siblings have some weird stories of stuff that happened. Looking back, you can see that it was probably pretty normal and had a very reasonable explanation, but as children, something normal was just interpreted as just so outside of your realm of experience or just so wrapped up in the magic of it all that you just can’t help but think that it somehow defied all logic and possibility. My sisters and I have tons of memories like this—we’ll tell stories of some adventure we went on or some neighbor we encountered or some game we invited and inevitably something crazy happened that we still talk about. As a parent myself now I can totally see how a kid can interpret something very normal as something very strange. This book is full of that. And I loved it! Hamilton does an excellent job of creating a character that is very believable in this way. As Frankie gets older she continues to be believable—she is moody, she is unpredictable, her tumultuous inside is often not clearly interpreted by those on the outside. It’s pure character development gold. Even though I may not be like Frankie in many ways, I could easily find myself relating to her and understanding her and easily accepting how authentic she was as a character.

The story itself is charming and evokes a strong time and place, which I really enjoyed. The setting is as much a character as the humans in the book, and I love reading about places that create a weight and substance in the lives of those who live there. Hamilton does a great job of creating characters both human and non-human that evoke nostalgia and familiarity, even though I’ve never lived in this place or time. I just felt a warm connection. When things were bad and hard I felt that, too. It was easy to get wrapped up in the lives of these very ordinary people.

I thought the writing in this book was great. It was fluid and poignant without being too stodgy. It was beautiful but still believable that a young girl would exist and speak within the story and the writing. The writing made for a quick, enjoyable read. I happened to be on vacation when I was reading this book and I read it in pretty much one day, which I love to do with books that I am enjoying.

I think this is a book well worth the time it takes to read it (it isn’t very long, that being said). It’s not a riveting adventure story or a deep literary read that will keep your mind churning late into the night, but it was a lovely character-driven book that fulfills something I find that many books fail to touch within my soul.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some language but is clean

Friday, November 17, 2017

Everything, Everything - Nicola Yoon


Summary: My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster. Summary and image from goodreads.com.

Review: Oh, young love! The agony, the ecstasy, the inevitable heartache. It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s entirely another to experience it. For Madeline, stuck in her allergen-safe room, she has resigned herself to only know of young love through her precious books. When a family moves next door with a gorgeous, mysterious, perfectly-suited-to-a-YA-romance teenager, Madeline knows her life has forever changed.

The movie is coming out soon, which is why I wanted to read the book, and it’s cute. It’s an easy read, perfect for a vacation or a rainy day, it follows the typical YA romance fairly closely. If you liked The Fault in our Stars, I’m guessing you’ll enjoy this novel as well. 

There are a few detractors that irked me. First, there is absolutely no conflict between the two young lovers. While I know that teens are prone to the “Romeo and Juliet complex”, zero conflict felt too faked. I mean, even Prince Philip and Aurora had that pesky curse to deal with. Second, it was difficult to buy their everlasting and perfect love through the rushed and barely-mentioned IM conversations the reader is shown. (Think Twilight meets TFIOS now.) Finally, the twist. I had an inkling of what it would be, and I was right, but where there should have been resolution (if even a slight amount), I felt like the narrative abandoned it in favor of the love story, which again, felt a little too shallow. I’m sure it’ll be a cute movie, though.

Rating: Two stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is a sex scene that is a little much.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia - Lisa Dickey

Summary: Lisa Dickey traveled across the whole of Russia three times—in 1995, 2005 and 2015—making friends in eleven different cities, then coming back again and again to see how their lives had changed. Like the acclaimed British documentary series Seven Up!, she traces the ups and downs of ordinary people’s lives, in the process painting a deeply nuanced portrait of modern Russia.

From the caretakers of a lighthouse in Vladivostok, to the Jewish community of Birobidzhan, to a farmer in Buryatia, to a group of gay friends in Novosibirsk, to a wealthy “New Russian” family in Chelyabinsk, to a rap star in Moscow, Dickey profiles a wide cross-section of people in one of the most fascinating, dynamic and important countries on Earth. Along the way, she explores dramatic changes in everything from technology to social norms, drinks copious amounts of vodka, and learns firsthand how the Russians really feel about Vladimir Putin.

Including powerful photographs of people and places over time, and filled with wacky travel stories, unexpected twists, and keen insights, Bears in the Streets offers an unprecedented on-the-ground view of Russia today. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I’m sure you’re aware that there has been quite a bit about Russia in the news. U.S./Russia relations are not great right now, and so I found this to be a super interesting dive into people across Russia.

I really enjoyed how this book came about—a journalist who, initially, went on the trip with a photographer to escape a career that wasn’t quite happening yet. This does not come out of the blue, as her mother had also been to Russia and traveled as well, and Dickey was interested in seeing some sights her mother had described as well. The initial journey was not something she was actually prepared to do. The other two journeys were Dickey’s ideas, and were planned with the purpose of seeing the same people again and catching up with them. I really liked this. I thought it was a really cool way to experience people across Russia and learn about them—not just random people, but the same selection of people who had lived through 30 years of changes, both personally and culturally. It was fascinating to see what had happened, who was still alive, who wasn’t, and where things had landed in the wake of the modern world. Here is where pretty much only one of my complaints comes in—I wish this book could have been a little more organized. The book was divided into people (and therefore areas, because each person/set of people is in a different area in Russia), but I wish each chapter would have also been divided into years as well. I understand that that may not have made for as smooth a transition in the writing, but sometimes I was confused whether it was the second or third trip when events were happening. This is a minor thing in the great scheme of the book, but it is something that I thought of several times throughout.

I have mentioned before that I am an anthropology nerd. My undergrad degree is in sociocultural anthropology, and so this sort of book about studying culture and people is totally my jam. I love learning about other people and their lives, especially people in other places. It’s easy to get caught in my own little world, just living along, and either thinking that other people are probably pretty much just like me, or some variation on the same theme, but then I read anthropology books such as this one and it totally blows my mind. I love the diversity of the world, and because Russia is such a huge country covering a vast distance geographically as well as culturally, there is a very large diversity of people and cultures there as well. Many of the people in Dickey’s book are as far away from each others’ worlds in Russia as I am from their world here, both geographically and culturally.

One of the questions that Dickey brings with her is what the different people she meets think of America. I found that really interesting as well. I’m sure you’re aware (and if you’re not, well, this may come as a shock to you) but we don’t always hear both sides of the story from the news. Whether the news is intentionally biased or not, we don’t know the whole story of every person we hear from. I feel like Russia is just such a place. It’s so easy to get caught up in the politics of it all, and so easy to forget that underneath all the political drama and the leaders who make decisions at the top, are just people—people like us—who are doing their best to be happy and take care of their families and do what they can to live a fulfilled life. I think this book did a good job of highlighting this, and also bringing some perspective on people and culture as a whole, not just in the backdrop of Russia.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some language and some detailed description of an animal being harvested in a traditional way. There is also some discussion of homosexuality. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Auschwitz Testimonies: 1945-1986 - Primo Levi and Leonardo de Benedetti

Summary: In 1945, the day after liberation, Soviet soldiers in control of the Katowice camp in Poland asked Primo Levi and his fellow captive Leonardo De Benedetti to compile a detailed report on the sanitary conditions in Auschwitz. The result was Auschwitz Report, an extraordinary testimony and one of the first accounts of the extermination camps ever written. The report, published in a scientific journal in 1946, marked the beginnings of Levi's life-long work as writer, analyst and witness. 

In the subsequent four decades, Levi never ceased to recount his experiences in Auschwitz in a wide variety of texts, many of which are assembled together here for the first time. From early research into the fate of his companions to the deposition written for Eichmann's trial, from the ?letter to the daughter of a fascist who wants to know the truth? to newspaper and magazine articles, Auschwitz Testimonies is a rich mosaic of memories and critical reflections of great historic and human value.

Underpinned by his characteristically clear language, rigorous method, and deep psychological insight, this collection of testimonies, reports and analyses reaffirms Primo Levi's position as one of the most important chroniclers of the Holocaust. It will find a wide readership, both among the many readers of Levi's work and among all those who wish to understand one of the greatest human tragedies of all time. Summary from goodreads.com, image from wiley.com. I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: 

*Disclosure: I’m writing this review within days of the sickening events at Charlottesville.*

There is no one who can deny that the Holocaust is one of the—if not the definitive—darkest moments in human history. The scale of devastation has been well-documented, studied in countless schools worldwide, and is something that anyone can prove with a ten-second google search. However, this wasn’t always the case. Shortly after the liberation of the camps, and shortly after the survivors started to trickle home, those who hadn’t been exposed to the truth (or those who chose not to believe what was happening miles from their doors) denied their experiences as a vilification of their captors. Men like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Victor Frankl were instrumental in speaking for those whose voices were silenced, in bringing to light the atrocities they had suffered under the hands of the Nazis, and in giving us a realistic glimpse into what humanity is capable of with a little nudge—both good and evil.

This book is a new compilation of articles, testimonies, and entries by Primo Levi and Leonardo de Benedetti which testify of their experiences being removed from Italy, their internment in the Monowitz camp, and their experiences upon liberation. This was my first exposure to Levi, and I was astounded at how poetic and how heartbreaking his writing is. I entered this book certain that nothing would be new to me, and found myself reaching for a highlighter within the first few pages.

Levi discusses how each generation of artists leaves a mark, finds a new voice to better their art. He talks about the great playwrights of the past, the artists who experiment and improve everyone that comes in their wake through their creations and innovations. His assertion is that the contribution his generation must make is the art of testimony. The passage where he makes the case for testimony as art is hauntingly beautiful — it seriously took my breath away. 

This assertion is the impetus for this collection. Levi’s testimony of his experiences and the testimony of de Benedetti functions in numerous manners. Of the articles included, some of them are true sworn-in testimonies given at various trials throughout their history. Some are testimony as an art form, and the difference between the two is hardly noticeable. Levi was a chemist by trade, I would argue that writing was his calling. His voice is so clear through every medium contained in the book, it was truly beautiful.

Unlike most books published about the Holocaust, there is no overarching narrative in this book. As such, it reads like facts that are laid bare for the world to witness. Considering the events of our current time, this is a style we need more of. By dismissing this book as “yet another”, we run the risk (edit: we are encountering the risk) of a generation who doesn't know (or refuses to see) what happened. By not knowing, by not recognizing the steps that were taken to get to such a heinous period, we begin down the same path. Instead of reading a book that is becoming ancient history, the events of the past few weeks have proven that this is more relevant now than ever before.

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader: While this is a direct testimony of what happened in the camps, it is well-handled. It is blunt without being sensational.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Daughter of the Pirate King - Tricia Levenseller

Summary: There will be plenty of time for me to beat him soundly once I’ve gotten what I came for.

Sent on a mission to retrieve an ancient hidden map—the key to a legendary treasure trove—seventeen-year-old pirate captain Alosa deliberately allows herself to be captured by her enemies, giving her the perfect opportunity to search their ship.

More than a match for the ruthless pirate crew, Alosa has only one thing standing between her and the map: her captor, the unexpectedly clever and unfairly attractive first mate, Riden. But not to worry, for Alosa has a few tricks up her sleeve, and no lone pirate can stop the Daughter of the Pirate King.

My Review: Well! This was swashbuckling! Given that this book was YA Fic, I knew that it wasn’t going to be too much serious pirating and more along the lines of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series. I was right.
The story starts out awesome: “It should not be this difficult to stay prisoner on a pirate ship. This is the second time I’ve had to stage my own capture. Ridiculous.” I mean…right?! Super fun. I liked the main character, Alosa, and loved the idea of a female captain. Her back story is cool, too, and she has a secret that I won’t reveal here that makes for some fun depth to the story, both for Alosa and for her father, the pirate king. In addition—and this cannot be discounted—Alosa is a pretty awesome pirate. She fights well, knows her stuff, has a ship and crew of her own, and can definitely hold her own in all the piratey situations. I don’t want to say a lot about this, either, because I feel like in a lot of ways this was an introductory book. There was a story there, but much of the novel was spent discussing Alosa, her father the pirate king, and the other main players that I assume will be with us in subsequent books. I will let you discover those things on your own.
This book does not create its own realm of pirating, and indeed it is basically as if it were swiped right out of one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. The characters were stereotypical of the ones we all know and love from the movies, including the villains, the heroes, the comic relief, and even the ships as characters. If you have seen any of those movies (and I assume if you’re reading this book you probably like pirates and therefore have seen all of the movies) the setting and characters will feel very familiar to you. There aren’t any blatant rip-offs of characters or storylines, but this story and its characters can easily exist in that world.
Now let’s talk story. I enjoyed the story, actually, and although I didn’t find the twists and turns it took to be too shocking or surprising, maybe a YA Fic audience would (although I don’t think so). It was entertaining, at least, though not completely original or shocking.
The writing of this book is standard YA Fic fare. I wasn’t blown away by its poetic prose or its profound truths, but it was a fun little read. It wasn’t the kind of book I couldn’t put down, and the end really didn’t surprise me at all, but it was innocuous and a fun edition to the realm of fantastical creatures that mill around in the YA Fic world. Why aren’t there more pirates there, anyway? There should be more pirates. Pirates are cool.
Overall, I found this to be a fun and quick little read. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to buy the sequel, but I can see that should I be missing my more swashbuckling adventures I may go ahead and take the plunge (see what I did there?) and read it. This is a fun book for those who love the “Pirates” movies and who wish that the adventure could just go on and on.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some piratey violence and some discussion of love, but I would say this is on the tamer side of YA paranormal romance. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Pearl Thief - Elizabeth Wein

Summary: Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: Capitalizing on the success of Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein takes us back to the world of Julie Stuart, providing a glimpse into the kind of girl it took to create our favorite ill-fated British spy. Julie Beaufort-Stuart is looking forward to a relaxing and bittersweet holiday from boarding school when she’s found unconscious by a stream on her grandfather’s estate. With no ability to ascertain her identity, she’s brought to the village hospital by two travelers (who we would call gypsies). It’s not until she learns of the extent of her injuries and as the missing memories start to resurface that she realizes that there is much more to her “accident” than she originally thought. 

This was a quick and fairly light-hearted read. While it didn’t pack the same punch or rise to the stimulating and ingenious twists of its predecessor, it was a quick, easy, perfect-for-summer book to pick up. To be frank, it took me about one-third of the book to realize that the main character was in fact the woman who would become Verity. Part of that could be on me and my quick reading, part of it was because the immaturity and impetuousness of Julie was hard to reconcile with Verity’s calculating, thought-out, brilliant ability to think and survive. I couldn’t tell if that was by design or if there was a bit of the “resting on the laurels” of Verity. The mystery itself wasn’t anything earth-shattering, even though there were two parts - the missing pearls of her grandfather, and the assailant who knocked Julie unconscious and left her for dead. It was intriguing to see the development of Julie’s theories and her discoveries, but again, it just failed to grip me the same way Wein has managed in the past. 

Julie and Verity are both impetuous, high-spirited, and easy with their affections. This time around, Julie’s object of affection is the beautiful, proud Ellen—the sister of the traveler who rescued her. The romance is handled like a summer crush, relatively PG but to be honest, it felt forced. I got the distinct and uncomfortable impression that the relationship was written as such in order to conform to current social expectations rather than because it’s how Julie would have acted of her own accord. To be honest, it’s not the same-sex relationship that bothered me as much as the feeling that Wein was pushing it on the characters to be hip, or edgy, or au courant. I’m a big fan of letting the writing stand on its own, and I didn’t quite feel like that was happening here.

Rating: Three stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Same sex kissing, fairly gruesome discovery of a body, destruction of an ancient artifact (which really upset me more than anything else).

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