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.

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