Monday, February 27, 2017

The Orphan Keeper - Camron Wright

Summary: Based on a remarkable true story.


Seven-year-old Chellamuthu’s life is forever changed when he is kidnapped from his village in India, sold to a Christian orphanage, and then adopted by an unsuspecting couple in the United States. It takes months before the boy can speak enough English to tell his parents that he already has a family back in India. Horrified, they try their best to track down his Indian family, but all avenues lead to dead ends.

Meanwhile, they simply love him, change his name to Taj, enroll him in school, make him part of their family—and his story might have ended there had it not been for the pestering questions in his head: Who am I? Why was I taken? How do I get home?

More than a decade later, Taj meets Priya, a girl from southern India with surprising ties to his past. Is she the key to unveil the secrets of his childhood or is it too late? And if he does make it back to India, how will he find his family with so few clues? 

From the best-selling author of The Rent Collector, this is a deeply moving and gripping journey of discovering one’s self and the unbreakable family bonds that connect us forever. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Have you ever thought about how Joseph of Egypt (you know, with the amazing technicolor dream coat, that one) felt as he sat in the pit and listened as his brothers—his family—sold him to slavers? We all know it turned out just fine in the end, but think of his despair. Of the panic. What about anger? Now, we all know Joseph ended up being pretty darn awesome, but how do you think it impacted him for the rest of his life?

What if he had been a kid? Does that betrayal ever heal, ever fully go away?

Chellamuthu’s life in India was perhaps not ideal by a Westerner’s standards, but he was loved. He was constantly engaged. He was desperately missed when he was kidnapped at eight years of age and sold to an orphanage—and he was nearly destroyed when he was told by the director of the orphanage that his father was the one who had sold him. In a matter of weeks, he was ripped from his new normal in the orphanage, put on a plane, and deposited in a cold land with new and strange customs, surrounded by people who don’t speak his language and who are apparently named “Mom” and “Dad”, and told to adapt. 

I’ve never thought about the ramifications that adoptions could have on older kids. This novel — while based on a true story, this has some elements of fiction to move it along and make the narrative flow — explores exactly that question. How does an international adoption affect the adoptee throughout life? How does it impact the bonding with the adoptive family? There’s a scene, told from Chellamuthu’s adoptive mother’s point of view, when Chellamuthu arrives from India at the airport. She envisions a little boy who will run to her, thank her in halting English for rescuing him, and they’ll all live happily ever after. What she gets is a terrified little boy who is overwhelmed — probably way more common and much less talked about. Further, even though there’s a jump of ten years, it’s clear that the circumstances of Chellamuthu’s adoption affected every aspect of his life. HIs relationship with his adoptive parents and siblings suffers, his relationships with girls is tenuous because he always feels like they’re dating the novelty and not the guy, and how do you decide what to do with your life when you’ve had that kind of upheaval?

Chellamuthu’s journey from Indian child to americanized—and then rediscovered Indian heritage—Taj is an amazing read. I couldn’t put the book down. Literally, I was in the middle of another book and couldn’t get back to it, I was too worried about Taj. His two families, both incredible, both so loving are families I want to know. The circumstances, coincidences, and miracles that came together to reunite Taj are incredible, even if they’ve been slightly dramatized for a book, wow. Doesn’t matter. 

Because this is a story based on real life, there are some unanswered questions. Taj never found out whether his father really sold him, or whether that was creative storytelling on the part of the orphanage director — a truly Machiavellian character when it comes to “saving” the children he’s chosen to help. Oh! (That’s another character I want to sit down with. Someone who truly believes he knows best and is doing what is right, and whether that means stealing, bribing, kidnapping, and deception, it’s all good, right?! Interesting fellow.)

This is one of those books that makes me want to travel, to start a humanitarian fund, to volunteer to do more and help more, and to go find the real Taj and hear the whole story. And meet his wife, because their love story may be one of my favorites I’ve read this year.

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is one scene where Chellamuthu’s father brands his feet for running away — it’s difficult to read, but integral to the story. Also, there’s an allusion to sexual abuse of one of the characters, but it’s a very broad allusion.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Jurassic Classics: The Presidential Masters of Prehistory - Saskia Lacey

Summary: Using humorous dinosaur mashups as a creative way to introduce and explore history, The Presidential Masters of Prehistory explores the lives of six famous presidents.

The endearingly illustrated Jurassic Classic series uses humorous, prehistoric dinosaur mashups as a creative way to introduce and explore nonfiction and history. With a mix of "dino" puns and fun wordplay, The Presidential Masters of Prehistory features six famous presidents and explores their lives and contributions as dinosaurs, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, or Abraham Lincolnathus as the dinos might say. Each "prehistoric" president featured in the book includes a brief biographical history with a prehistoric twist, as well as a clever parody on each president's most famous contributions to our nation's history. Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)


Review: I'm so mad at myself I didn't get this up for Presidents Day! What a delightful way to spend the day - enjoying learning about the greatest presidents of our nation through the lens of Prehistory. 

Like the first book in this series, Lacey has let us peek into the Prehistoric era by viewing our presidents' dinosaur counterparts. She's included adapted factoids about each prehistoric leader, (like FDRex leading us through the Second Intercontinental War), a short biography of each dino-president, and a factual account of the presidents we learn about in history class. The illustrations are just fun, inviting the reader to find joy in the learning that is subtly taking place.

I found myself lately scrambling for books to read to an elementary school class. I never know where the average student's attention will land, because my kids are goofballs with really weird tastes. This is the kind of book that would be perfect for such an occasion -- funny, succinct, educational, and a good balance of silly and serious.

Rating: Five stars

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

1918: The Great Pandemic, A Novel - David Cornish

Summary: *FIRST PLACE, LITERARY FICTION -- Independent Publishers of New England Book Awards (IPNE.com). Written by a doctor of Internal Medicine, "1918" is a rigorously researched and accurate historical novel about the pandemic that killed up to 100 million people. The story is told through the eyes of Dr. Edward Noble, an army major and infectious disease sub-specialist, whose unique position in Boston allows him to detect an emerging influenza strain that is an unprecedented global threat. The actual medical literature and terminology of the time, plus real personal accounts of the pandemic, are used to put the reader in the mind of this early 20th century physician. KIRKUS REVIEWS said, ..". (Dr.) Noble is an appealing, knowledgeable focal point in this fictionalized rendering of the great pandemic. ...Affecting characters and dramatic storytelling..." BOOKIDEAS.com said, "5 Stars." "I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone... A great story that weaves the reader between a macro view of one of the most deadly pandemics in history, yet within the chapters there are precious, personal moments that humanize the hero that Dr. Noble unwittingly, yet humbly portrays to the rest of the world. A great read on all levels!" *AWARD WINNER, HISTORICAL FICTION, READERS' FAVORITE INTERNATIONAL BOOK AWARD - READERSFAVORITE.com said, "5 Stars." ..".1918 is a must read..." The meticulous narrative undeniably has the ability to transport readers back to the era..." (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: One of the things I really love about historical fiction is how it not only brings to life the particular topic it is discussing, but also what is going on at the time. So many times I’ll be reading historical fiction and the author will mention other things going on that I had no idea about—inventions that were happening, famous people that were involved or around, and I just really love how a good historical fiction book will tie a whole lot of loose ends together and make sense of an era.

1918 is just such a book. Now, don’t get me wrong. 1918 has a subtitle, and it really lives up to its subtitle. Those parts of the book were quite frightening, actually. In case you are not well-versed in the great pandemic and this mother of all streams of influenza, right before people die they turn a shocking blue. Like legit blue. Also, the people dying would cough up tons of frothy pink phlegm, so much so that entire rooms would be covered with it, and that would just be from one person. Being the good little modern day gal that I am, I googled images of this, trying to find what this would actually look like. It’s not as easy as you might think to find images of people who have turned blue, and that is not in no small part due to the fact that photography was black and white back then. So I never actually found images of this horrific part of the end for some of these very unfortunate people, but it scared me enough that after I looked through lots of pictures I just couldn’t take it anymore and I abandoned my search and got back to reading about the horror instead of trying to Google Image the horror. Also, I spent a lot of time washing my hands while reading this book since the flu is particularly bad this year and I have a new baby.

This is one of those books whose horror is such that it’s just almost impossible to believe. So many people died in such horrific ways, and it basically crippled society for quite awhile. Although I wouldn’t say this is a book that is written with particular literary acumen, Cornish is an MD and obviously knows his stuff about the flu and the history of it and what it was like back then. A lot of research went into this book, and there is a lot of detail, all wrapped into a story that brought the era into light.

Although this book did have a lot of good things going for it, it had a few flaws as well. The writing was not amazing, and I would say that it was quite immature at times. There wasn’t potty humor or anything, but it was obviously written by a novice novel writer. Also, the book was long. Loooooooonnnnnnggggg. 767 pages long, and that doesn’t include an extensive list of sources cited or anything. I really think that this book could have been cut in half or in a third and it still would have retained the story and the impact. There were a lot of minute details (like every patient’s ever vital sign) that could have been taken out just to save space. Lastly, there were quite a few editorial errors—missing words, missing punctuation, etc. One or two of these is fine, and I’m kind of persnickety about this, but it was definitely noticeable.

All of these things being said, I have to say that I learned quite a bit about the pandemic and the era in which it took place. I am officially getting my flu shot religiously (which I have done for the past several years anyway) and am even more vigilant about hand washing and such. I appreciated understanding the magnitude of what was going on, and I feel like this book did a great job of getting its message across.

My Rating: 3 Stars


For the sensitive reader: This book is disturbing in its reality of discussing the 1918 influenza, but it is not gratuitously insensitive. Also, there is some veiled discussion of love and tender moments in between the two main characters, but this is very clean.                 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Rejected Princesses: Tales of History's Boldest Heroines, Hellions, & Heretics - Jason Porath

Summary: Blending the iconoclastic feminism of The Notorious RBG and the confident irreverence of Go the F**ck to Sleep, a brazen and empowering illustrated collection that celebrates inspirational badass women throughout history, based on the popular Tumblr blog.


Well-behaved women seldom make history. Good thing these women are far from well behaved . . .

Illustrated in a contemporary animation style, Rejected Princesses turns the ubiquitous "pretty pink princess" stereotype portrayed in movies, and on endless toys, books, and tutus on its head, paying homage instead to an awesome collection of strong, fierce, and yes, sometimes weird, women: warrior queens, soldiers, villains, spies, revolutionaries, and more who refused to behave and meekly accept their place.

An entertaining mix of biography, imagery, and humor written in a fresh, young, and riotous voice, this thoroughly researched exploration salutes these awesome women drawn from both historical and fantastical realms, including real life, literature, mythology, and folklore. Each profile features an eye-catching image of both heroic and villainous women in command from across history and around the world, from a princess-cum-pirate in fifth century Denmark, to a rebel preacher in 1630s Boston, to a bloodthirsty Hungarian countess, and a former prostitute who commanded a fleet of more than 70,000 men on China’s seas. Summary and image from goodreads.com

Review: It's no secret that women have been around for quite some time. You know, since the beginning of it, and all. But reading the history books and one might think we were either a relatively new addition to the globe, or that women in general were so rare, so secret, that that's why only a few get mentioned. Rejected Princesses aims to fix that by relaying many forgotten stories and legends over many cultures. 

I had so much fun losing myself in this book. Each illustration is beautifully detailed and holds so many clues and references to the original time of the legend, key elements of our heroine's story, and provides a tongue-in-cheek reference for the reader. Beneficially, most illustrations also have a short explanation pointing out many of the details that those unfamiliar with the time or setting would miss. But enough about the pretty pictures, I want to talk about the stories!

Porath has an affable, colloquial style of relaying the information he’s dug up. Sometimes such a style can backfire on the author, driving away the reader, but in Porath’s case, and with this subject matter, it serves to showcase how amazing, resilient, resourceful, and awesome these women were. Some of these stories are difficult. Some are stomach-turning. Some make you want to take up arms and jump through time to fight along some of these women, and some had me cheering out loud. 

The author has drawn inspiration from women all over the globe from every fathomable period of time. I loved reading about South American rebels, jumping to Chinese pirate queens, running over to Europe in the Middle Ages, and then flying down to Africa in the middle of the colonization of the continent. Even better, you know that “For the Sensitive Reader” section of our blog we feature? Porath has done the work for me, giving each story Maturity Rating 1-5, and then color coding what rates each — violence, self-harm, abuse, rape — so that the reader (or, in the case of my daughter), the reader’s mother knows which stories are acceptable for the maturity level of the partaker.

A note on that - since Porath has done the work for me as for labeling what’s appropriate, he doesn’t pull punches in the story. There’s no glossing over the unpleasantries, he respectfully and forthrightly states the  matter and moves forward. Please understand, this isn’t a gratuitous relay of salaciousness, since most of these biographies are only a page or two long, any information is pertinent to the narrative. 

I really loved this book. It infuriated me on some level (ahem, on the New Feminism level, cough, cough) that these women are so rarely heard of. If you’re looking for Amelia Earhart or Sacagawea, they won’t be in this book. This is for the princesses History books have chosen to leave out. It’s their ball this time.

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Maturity levels 1-2 are safe. Higher than that, and pay attention to Porath’s ratings. He’s honest.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hard to Die - Andra Watkins

Summary: No one knows what happened to Theodosia Burr, the fiery daughter Aaron Burr serenades in Hamilton: An American Musical. When she disappeared she fell into an in-between called Nowhere. For her soul to rest, she has one assignment: Help someone navigate a life-changing crossroad or be forgotten forever.

Theo is running out of time when she encounters Richard Cox, a West Point cadet who’s desperate. After someone from Richard’s past presents him with an impossible ultimatum, he has two choices: Return to spying on the Russians…or die.

As Theo and Richard battle adversaries, treachery collides with their growing passion. Can they trust each other enough to elude their enemies? Or are they pawns for a bigger foe determined to destroy them?

Hard to Die is the first book in the Nowhere Series, a speculative blend of riveting suspense, forgotten history, and a dash of paranormal fiction. If you like edge-of-your-seat action, compelling characters, and white-knuckle emotion, you’ll love the first installment in Andra Watkins’ page-turning series. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was given a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Theodosia Burr Alston was a woman out of time when she was alive. Educated as much as any man while she was alive, taught to ride, shoot, negotiate, pursue what she wants and get it, this isn't a woman who was the standard for the early 1800s. Even in death, she's not normal. Her death is a mystery -- either attacked by pirates, or lost at sea during a storm -- which has locked her in the Nowhere until she either helps guide someone through a life-changing decision, or until she has failed to do so thirteen times. But Theo, as she prefers to be called, has plans of her own. Revenge upon the man whom she blames for the death of her son and the political death of her father Aaron Burr.

Andra Watkins has certainly chosen interesting heroes and villains for her newest series. I loved the tidbits of real history scattered throughout her narrative, even when the paranormal aspects start to spiral a bit. Watkins has certainly done her research as to Burr Alston's life, personality, and her death. Kidnapped by pirates or lost at sea is actually the presumed theory for her death (which totally surprised me!). Her nemesis in the series, Gen. Wilkinson, is indeed the man responsible from Aaron Burr's fall from any grace he had after the whole Hamilton duel. However, it seems that Watkins chose to follow Burr Alston's relationship with Meriweather Lewis based on rumors and speculation.

The storyline itself was unfortunately quite convoluted.  I felt like it was a disservice to Burr Alston and how intelligent she is reported to have been. Her actions seemed to only have been driven by carnal desire and revenge, caring little for whatever mission she has been assigned and more interested in how to either seduce her charge or clumsily, foolhardily, and ridiculously trying to murder Gen. Wilkinson. Truly, the further along in the storyline we got, the worse her plots became. For a genius, the woman stinks as a spy.

Further, it felt like using Burr Alston as the heroine was really just a grab on the success of Hamilton as her purpose in the book was to blunder into trouble. Her charge, Richard Cox, is faced with either returning to the spy game by spying on the Russians for the same Gen. Wilkinson that Theodosia is after, or remaining at West Point. His story is compelling, although drawn out. Through the entire novel, I couldn't see any help or guidance that Watkins was trying to portray. There were too many instances of stupid decisions, self sabotage, and lust--too much lust. It disturbed me to have the "heroine" in the book, so celebrated for her intelligence, wit, strategy, and ability in life, reduced to nothing more than a sexual object. And unfortunately, that's exactly where the book went. 

Theodosia Burr Alston is a complicated and amazing woman in history and deserves to be studied. But not like this.

Rating: One and a half stars


For the Sensitive Reader: So much sex. So many pages skipped. Stay away.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Loser - Jerry Spinelli

Summary: Zinkoff is like all kids -- running, playing, riding his bike.  Hoping for snow days, wanting to be his dad when he grows up.  But he also raises his hand with all the wrong answers, trips over his own feet, falls down with laughter over a word like "Jabip." The kids have a name to describe him, but Zinkoff is too busy to hear it.

Once again, Newberry Medal-winning author Jerry Spinelli uses great wit and humor to create the unique story of Zinkoff as he travels from first through sixth grades. Loser is a touching book about the human spirit, the importance of failure, and how any name can someday be replaced with "hero." (Summary from back of book)

My Review: I received this book as an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) back in 2001 when I was in college and working as assistant manager at an independent bookseller.  Since then it has sat on my shelf, overlooked and unread.  Honestly, I felt kind of bad for it.  Poor little book.  Well, no more.  It's time has come!

Donald Zinkoff, is a bit of an outcast.  He can't play sports to save his life, has the most atrocious handwriting, poor coordination, and a tendency to vomit, but is blessed with an innocent, indefatigable spirit.  Put simply, he's an underdog that doesn't know he's an underdog, and I couldn't help but root for him.  After all, who wouldn't fall head over heels for a first grader sporting a three-foot tall giraffe hat, I ask you?  Only the heartless.

Loser is filled with moments both heartwarming and heart-wrenching as you follow Donald from 1st to 6th grade, seeing the world from both his perspective and occasionally from those who don't really appreciate him.  Whether he is facing the Furnace Monster, mucking up Field day, playing mailman for the day, spying on Waiting Man, or collecting his own earwax, Donald Zinkoff is a character of unique dimension, and blissfully unaware of the world's opinion of him.  My "mama bear" roared when he was mistreated by bullies or misunderstood by teachers and my mama heart soared when he kept on laughing, kept on searching, kept on trying, kept on just being... Zinkoff.  I highly recommend this book for anyone who is looking for a quick (218 pages), uplifting, occasionally snort-inducing read.

My Rating:  4.25 Stars

Sum it up:  Loser won me over in a matter of minutes.

Monday, February 13, 2017

In Farleigh Field - Rhys Bowen

Summary: World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

Inspired by the events and people of World War II, writer Rhys Bowen crafts a sweeping and riveting saga of class, family, love, and betrayal. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The early '40s in England are an interesting time. Fully embroiled in a war that isn't going well, incessant fears of a German invasion, and no help in sight from America, the upper class finds itself swimming in rumors. It doesn't help that a new group--the Ring--is rumored to be recruiting upper class members in an effort to either reinstate a more Nazi-sympathetic king to the throne, or to just support the coming German forces. Matters aren't helped along by the discovery of a possible spy. The parachutist (victim of a failed jump) is in local military garb, but something just isn't quite right ...

This novel took a lot on. Not only are Bowen's characters investigating this potential spy, there are various subplots to keep afloat.  Love triangles, escaped RAF pilots, Bletchley Park, MI5, black markets, fleeing artists (or spies?!), and displaced persons from London--there is a LOT to remember in this book, and Bowen does a surprisingly good job making it all fit together. All of these moving pieces play some role in the overarching plot, each lending a hint here, some depth there, and allowing the reader to get a little closer to the truth. While on paper, or in the midst of reading, one may question how on earth it all matters, at the end I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement with her plot choices.

However, sometimes too many subplots can bog down a novel, and I felt like that that happens here to some extent.  It was subtle. There wasn't anything glaringly out of place, nothing that felt overly fabricated. But there was just a little too much weight for the novel to carry.  Instead of a sports car, we ended up with a station wagon--albeit, a really nice, fully decked out station wagon.

Despite being weighed down, this is a really enjoyable read. The story is a little predictable, as are the characters, but it's comfortable in its own right. Sometimes you just need predictability, you know what I mean? That being said, some of the secondary characters in this novel just stole my heart. I wish I could have seen more of Lady Phoebe and her antics, and I'm dying to uncover the history of her governess. Those fleeing artists I told you about? They get part of a chapter as they are vetted and cleared by our MI5 agent, but I'd have been happier to see them get a larger chunk. So much spunk!

It was these bright, unexpected, vivid pops of color in this otherwise-pastel book that kept me reading.  Pastel isn't bad. Sometimes, that's exactly what one needs. This is definitely a novel I'd keep around for those times.  (And if Ms. Bowen wanted to do a follow-up and let me revisit those adorably crazy characters again, I wouldn't complain!)

Rating: Three and a half stars


For the Sensitive Reader: There are two scenes where our heroine finds herself in an embrace too amorous for her taste. While our heroine desires a little decorum, her sister emphatically does not, and complicates matters.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Lit by Lightning - Nicole Sarrocco

Summary: From North Carolina comes the electrifying new voice of Nicole Sarrocco, whose debut novel Lit by Lightning--first in the Occasionally Trueseries--is an intensely personal and strangely universal tale of finding grace in chaos, creating meaning from nonsense, and for heaven's sake not making too much of a spectacle of yourself. A witty, hilarious, transcendent and disturbing tale of ghosts, manners, and the family we choose and the ones who choose us.

"I could sweep together the dust of our hearts. The ashes of my grandparents' house that didn't burn. The complete fire that is death. The charred wood and the pulverized concrete and the souls of a million barbecued pigs. The dust in the corners of basements. Everything that isn't the fire itself, the movement through the wires. All of it rolled up together and shot into the sky, into a firework--that's a song you could sing out over the radio. The ones on the other side can hear us, then. If we can roll all of it together and name it out loud, send it out into space on transmitters or something--then they could hear us. If they can hear us, then we'd be able to hear them, too. That makes sense, doesn't it?" (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: How would your life be different if from the beginning of it, you were surrounded by spirits?  They talked with you, they appeared to you, they caused phenomena that people that couldn't understand this addition to your life, how would you have developed? How would you come to grips with your situation now?

What if your children had the same gift?  Worse, what if your child was one of the spirits?

I think that this is the premise of Sarrocco's first novel.  Granted, her writing is dubbed "mostly true", but it's left to the imagination of the reader what is truth and what is embellishment. This approach further complicated an already-jumbled and disconnected narrative, creating a novel that left me perplexed for days. Wait, that's only mostly true.  I'm still confused. It's been weeks, and I still have absolutely no idea what on earth I read.

Not only was there a lack of a discernible plot anywhere in this novel, there was a glaring absence of a timeline. Anywhere.  Halfway though a paragraph (sometimes even a sentence) the perspective would completely shift from either the story of the author, possibly the story of one of the spirits that haunts her, or just a fictional story she couldn't set down?  I truly don't know.  It made me question my sanity to the point of distraction. 

I didn't enjoy this book.  You know those scenes in movies where hipsters/beatniks are raving about a "piece of art", about how deep and thoughtful and life-altering it is, when really it's either a joke or a literal trash can meant for collecting trash? I felt like this book is struggling to be a piece of art that the most cerebral and "with it" will understand -- and it just completely misses the mark.  Perhaps I'm a luddite. Or perhaps, this particular book just misses the mark.

Rating: One star


For the Sensitive Reader: The language is strong enough that sailors would blush.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Beast Within - Serena Valentino

Summary:  The tale is as old as time: a cruel prince is transformed into a beast.  A lovely madiden comes into this monster's life.  He is transformed by her compassion, and th elove he feels for her in return.  The two live happily ever after.  But any tale, especially one as storied as Beauty and the Beast's, has been told many different times, and in many different ways.  No matter which version one hears, the nagging questions remains: what was it that transformed the prince into the beast we are introduced to?  This is one version, pulled from the many passed down through the ages.  It's a story of vanity and arrogance, of love and hatred, of beastliness, and, of course, of beauty.  (Summary from back of book)

My Review:  Let's just cut to the chase, shall we? Your time is precious, as is mine, and one of us just spent two hundred plus pages reading what can only be described as the most poorly written fan fiction ever published by Disney Press. It was two hours I will never get back, all to spare you the trouble of diving into this acid lake of a fairy tale retelling. You're welcome.  

Here's a slightly more in-depth review if you are in to specifics...  

The Beast Within is touted as a retelling of Disney's Beauty & the Beast from the Beast's perspective.  Traditionally, I enjoy the retelling genre as a good one can lend more detail and emotion to the counterparts we all grew up with on TV and leave the reader feeling as if they have finally heard the "real" story.  And Beauty & the Beast? What book freak wouldn't go weak kneed over that library? If I were Belle, I would have made out with him right then and there, hairy face be damned....but I digress.  Unfortunately, this book did not set my book loving heart a-quiver.  This book was everything I loathe.  The story was a mess -- jumbled and nonsensical at times, thoroughly two dimensional, and completely devoid of authentic emotion.   Everything about it felt forced and utterly obvious, and probably the most frustrating thing was that it was 93% backstory (that's a rough estimate).  Belle appeared in the first chapter (where she uttered ONE sentence), made brief mention of in the middle, and did not appear again until the last few chapters where the book morphed into what can only be described as an albeit thorough CC TV description of the Disney movie version.  Ugh. I'm just glad it's over.  I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. Ever.

For the sensitive reader:  If all you're looking for is "clean"...well, it is...but there are a million better retellings out there, many of them clean.  Read them instead.  

My Rating:  1 Star.   


Monday, February 6, 2017

Talking as Fast as I Can - Lauren Graham

Summary: In this collection of personal essays, the beloved star of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood reveals stories about life, love, and working as a woman in Hollywood—along with behind-the-scenes dispatches from the set of the new Gilmore Girls, where she plays the fast-talking Lorelai Gilmore once again.

In Talking as Fast as I Can, Lauren Graham hits pause for a moment and looks back on her life, sharing laugh-out-loud stories about growing up, starting out as an actress, and, years later, sitting in her trailer on the Parenthood set and asking herself, “Did you, um, make it?” She opens up about the challenges of being single in Hollywood (“Strangers were worried about me; that’s how long I was single!”), the time she was asked to audition her butt for a role, and her experience being a judge on Project Runway (“It’s like I had a fashion-induced blackout”).

In “What It Was Like, Part One,” Graham sits down for an epic Gilmore Girls marathon and reflects on being cast as the fast-talking Lorelai Gilmore. The essay “What It Was Like, Part Two” reveals how it felt to pick up the role again nine years later, and what doing so has meant to her.

Some more things you will learn about Lauren: She once tried to go vegan just to bond with Ellen DeGeneres, she’s aware that meeting guys at awards shows has its pitfalls (“If you’re meeting someone for the first time after three hours of hair, makeup, and styling, you’ve already set the bar too high”), and she’s a card-carrying REI shopper (“My bungee cords now earn points!”).

Including photos and excerpts from the diary Graham kept during the filming of the recent Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, this book is like a cozy night in, catching up with your best friend, laughing and swapping stories, and—of course—talking as fast as you can. Summary and image from goodreads.com.

Review:  Oh, goodness, I just like Lauren Graham.  You know how you watch these actors and you just end up thinking “We’d be friends. She’s my brand of nutty.”? After watching both Parenthood and Gilmore Girls (out of order, forgive me), I was pretty sure I’d like Graham. When I found out she’d written a book, and I liked it, I was convinced we’d be friends given the chance - and I knew that I’d need to grab her memoir the minute it came out.

This laugh-out-loud memoir is delightfully clean, especially for Hollywood standards. I loved the peeks into Graham’s life she offered—her quick impressions of Gilmore Girls and her favorite episodes, as relayed while she watches them for the first time, were fun. Trite, but fun. As a matter of fact, that about sums up the memoir.  It’s fun. Graham is a comedienne and can spin a yarn. Her energy is palpable, her exuberance infectious. That being said, there were times I felt like Graham may have toppled Lorelai’s coffee consumption for the day. It could be a little overwhelming. However, there were some parts of Graham’s book I really enjoyed and took note of. Her “Writing Hour” method is genius—and just almost persuaded me to try it out. But, fear. (Sigh.)

However, this review isn’t about me and my stupid writing fears, it’s about Graham’s. Hearing her explain her fashion sense, her skipping of kindergarten (I was kind of jealous), her fibs to the media about her relationship advice were just fun. It humanized her. It also made me want to go back and rewatch her shows.

I wish this memoir had a little bit more depth to it. Reading it was like indulging in a feast of cotton candy.  I liked it a lot, but I could tell that there was more I wasn’t getting. Unfortunately, I like my books (even the cotton candy ones) with a little bit more substance.

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Clean. Surprisingly and refreshingly clean.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Shell Seekers - Rosamunde Pilcher

Summary: Set in London and Cornwall from World War II to the present, Rosamunde Pilcher tells the story of the Keeling family, and of the passions and heartbreak that have held them together for three generations. The family centers around Penelope, and it is her love, courage, and sense of values that determine the course of all their lives, 

One of Penelope's most treasured possessions is The Shell Seekers, which her father painted and left her as a remembrance and a legacy. It is this painting that symbolizes to Penelope the ties between the generations. It is the link between the past, the present, and the future. But it is the fate of this painting that just may tear the family apart....

Rosamunde Pilcher's writing demonstrates a deep sensitivity to human frailties, desires, and joys. She weaves a story that bursts with emotion, so involving it is impossible to put down. The world she creates and opens up to you becomes a place you feel comfortable, a place you can't wait to return to, a place you will never forget. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I have to admit that I almost didn’t give book a fair shake. For my book club’s December book club we not only all brought our favorite treats to share, but we also brought a book that we loved that we were wanted to share with someone else. These books were wrapped in brown paper (or a paper bag) and had three sentences describing them on the front. All the books were put on a table and we drew numbers to see what order we would pick in. Who the books were from was supposed to be anonymous, but that ended quickly as we were all laughing and guessing who would describe a book in a certain way. I was second to last in choosing, and this book was one of the last ones available. It was brought by the oldest member of our book club. This woman is in her seventies and we LOVE her. She is so amazing. She’s funny, she always brings a basket of little gifts that are funny and personal and go with the book, and she always tells slightly inappropriate stories, which is hilarious. The books she chooses when she hosts (or has a friend choose for her) are almost always cute and short JFic books. She’s picked some good ones—don’t get me wrong—but I wasn’t sure what she would choose when she came to book club. Anyway, to make a long story short, I opened the book and was surprised it was a long novel, but I knew I had to read it anyway because we were all presenting our different books at the next book club. Ya’ll, I couldn’t have been more surprised.

Call me naïve, but the author, Rosamunde Pilcher, was not on my radar. However, after I did a little research I can see that in the late eighties and into the nineties she was a fairly prolific and popular author. She has a lot of books that have gotten really good reviews on Goodreads, and The Shell Seekers appears to be her best-selling and highest rated book. She even has a book out now that was re-released called Winter Solstice. I plan on checking this one out as well.

I loved The Shell Seekers. Like I said, I wasn’t sure what to expect and so when I started reading, I was happily surprised. For one thing, I like the way this book was organized. Each chapter is named after a different character in the book, and although it isn’t written in first person perspective, the reader learns about the character, and I found it really enlightening and a really cool and unique way to write. This doesn’t mean the book skips around annoyingly. Sometimes that happens with books that skip around in perspective. Each chapter would continue the story but then the reader would learn more about the character from the chapter name. That being said, the writing was good. Pilcher is a prolific and obviously well-seasoned author and it shows. It’s one of those books where you read along and you’re enjoying it and you’re thinking about how you’re enjoying it and wishing that it wouldn’t end.

The strength of this book, and the reason why so many people have loved this book, no doubt, is that it is about relationships—family, friends, acquaintances, etc. It was just a really rich and rewarding discussion on a human life and who we meet and interact with and what it means to be a good person. Pilcher obviously has her favorite characters, and they received more positive discussion than ones she didn’t like so much, but that was okay. I think that’s realistic to life as well. It’s just a really beautiful, really well-written story about an exemplary woman’s life. It’s about those she meets, those she touches, and is a detailed and enlightening discussion on family relationships. I feel like I learned a lot from this book. I loved the story, and I loved Pilcher’s insights as well. I highly recommend this book. It’s long, but it would be awesome for a book club. I’ve recommended it to several women in my book club already.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison - Piper Kerman

Summary:  With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before.  But that past has caught up with her.  Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424—one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system.  From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules.  She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.  Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison – why we lock so many away and what happens to them when they are there. (Summary from back of book).

My Review: I first heard about OITNB when everyone and their dog was squawking about the Netflix show.  About a year ago, I thought I would give it a shot (who doesn’t love a good Netflix binge?), but only made it about five seconds into the show before I decided it wasn’t for me. There’s just something about a show starting with two naked women making out in the shower that got me (and the TV) turned off.  I wasn’t even aware that OITNB was based off a book until I stumbled onto it at a local thrift shop and the blurb on the back caught my eye.  I cautiously thumbed my way to the first page.  It took place in an airport.  *Whew* I figured the book might be better.  It usually is, right?!

At first glance, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is decidedly up my alley. I have always been fascinated by experiences outside my realm of understanding and this book offered a glimpse of a world that I hope to better comprehend without actually being compelled there by court order.  I wish I could say that it fulfilled all my expectations, but that wasn’t quite the case.

The author, Piper Kerman, introduced a so many diverse characters in rapid fire throughout the book, that I had a difficult time keeping them straight in my head or feeling their depth.  Thought it was clear that Kerman made meaningful connections with many people in her life and her fellow inmates, I failed to make even a shadow of the same connection that I feel would have let me to invest more deeply in the story.  Despite this disconnect, I did find many aspects of Kerman’s story quite interesting. Whether she was discussing the intricacies of obtaining a prison pedicure, the fine art of smuggling food in one’s pants or imparting tips on how to make prison “eyeliner” or treat chapped lips while fully shackled, I was consistently amazed by the ingenuity of the female prison population in making the best out of a bad situation.  After all, the creativity required to make microwave cheesecake out of pilfered ingredients must not go unappreciated. 

On a more serious note, Kerman’s experiences during incarceration shed light on the desperately flawed prison system, the injustices and humiliations frequently suffered by inmates, and the administration’s apathetic attitude toward providing meaningful rehabilitation services.  At times, I could only shake my head as the absurdity of certain rules kept families apart or deprived women of desperately needed opportunities.  While the author had a healthy support system in place and a job lined up when she got out, it was frustrating to see many of her newfound friends leave the confines of the prison without the necessary skills and opportunities to help them successfully move forward with their lives.

Did I love the book?  No.  To be honest, I’m not even entirely sure that I liked it.  It’s hard to delve into the unpleasantness of long term confinement and feel jolly, you know?!  It was an interesting read.  If nothing else, this memoir serves as a stark reminder that people in prison… are still people, after all.  Most of them have family that love them.  All of them have hopes and dreams for the future.  We can sit back, ignore the problems in the system, and gripe about the results or we can do something to change it and perhaps inject a little more compassion into the system.  Definitely something to think about. 

*SIDENOTE*  In her book, Piper frequently makes mention of reading and often took note of the lack of reading materials available in certain prisons.  If you have some uplifting books you are looking to pass on, why not see if your local jail or prison is running low? It might not seem like much, but I know that if I were on the other side of the bars I would certainly appreciate it.

My rating:  2.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Make no mistake, this book explores a darker world and is peppered with the kind of language you would expect to find in prison (or a very rated R movie.  Discussion of sexual matters was there, but usually only in passing and definitely not a focus of the book.  The author is (or would seem to be) bisexual and talks freely (but not graphically) about past relationships with both men and women.  

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