Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Please Remember


Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We were contacted by Ms. Klein's publisher about this article, and while we haven't reviewed the book We Got the Water: Tracing my Family's Path through Auschwitz, we were moved by Mr. Klein's words and felt compelled to share them with you today.

Please remember.

Please Remember: Holocaust Embrace Day
Gene Klein (with Jill Klein, author of We Got the Water: Tracing my Family’s Path through Auschwitz)

It has been 70 years since I was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. I was just a teenager then; I’m 87 now.  Holocaust Remembrance Day is April 15th, and I have been thinking about what I want you and your loved ones to remember about the Holocaust. I speak frequently about my experiences, and I am able to remind people about what happened, provide them with vivid descriptions, and answer their questions. But I am among the last of the survivors, and one day—sooner than I would like to think—we will all be gone.

Here is what I want you to remember after we are gone, when our memories must become yours, so that future generations will have the knowledge and compassion to avoid the mistakes of the past:
Please remember the life we had before it all started; before the name-calling, the bricks through the windows, long before the cattle cars and the camps. I was born into a middle class Hungarian family in a small town in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. Our town was charming. We sat in outdoor cafes on summer evenings, and skated on the river on winter afternoons. My father owned a hardware store, was an avid soccer fan, and loved to tend to his garden. My mother took care of my two sisters and me, and was preoccupied with getting me—a naturally skinny kid—to eat more. We were not wealthy, but we had everything we needed. In the most basic of ways, we were not unlike you and your family. And we felt as secure as you do now.

Please remember that all of this was taken away. Within a few weeks in the spring of 1944, my father’s store was confiscated, my Jewish friends and I were told that we were no longer welcome at school, and we were forced to wear a yellow star. Then we were forced from our home, crowded into cattle cars, and taken to Auschwitz. When we arrived, the men were separated from the women, and then my father was separated from me. My father had been a POW in World War I, and during his years of imprisonment he learned to play the violin and to speak five languages. He was intelligent and humorous. I loved him the way any 16-year-old boy loves a wonderful father. The way you love your father, if you are lucky enough to have a good one. So imagine this: a man in a black uniform sends you to one direction and your father to another. You don’t know why, until the next day a veteran prisoner points up at the smoke coming out of a chimney and says, “Your father is up there.” Please remember my father.

Please remember that it is terribly easy for one group to strike another group off the roster of humanity, to see others as vermin or pests, as an affliction that must be destroyed. It happens again and again. And once it does, people are capable of inflicting terrible hardship and pain on others, and to feel they are righteous in doing so. None of the SS officers who ordered me—a starving teenager—to carry heavy steel rails up a hillside thought of themselves as monsters. They were adhering to their beliefs, and they were serving their country. We must be constantly vigilant for the descent that takes us from self-righteous beliefs, to the dehumanization of others and into the sphere of violence.
Please remember that while we are capable of all of this, we can also rise to amazing heights in the service of others. For two weeks I had the good fortune to have a respite from hard labor while I was assigned to work with a civilian German engineer who was surveying the landscape where future roads would be built. He saw the terrible conditions I was living under and decided to help. Everyday he hid food for me from the SS kitchen where he ate lunch. Chicken, milk, rice, and cheese left under a bench in the back corner of a barracks. He cared, he took a risk, and he saved my life. Please remember him.

And finally, remember that no one should be judged because of his or her nationality, religion or race. We were sent to the camps because propaganda was believed, individuality was erased, and hate was rampant. When asked if I am angry with Germans, I think of the German engineer, and know that individuals must be judged by their own personal actions. If I can hold this as a guiding principle after what happened to my family and me, then you can, too.
Please take my memories as yours, share them, and carry them forward. It is by doing so that you can help keep the next generation from forgetting, and help fill the space that we survivors will leave behind when we are gone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Announcement: Hiatus

Good morning, Readers!  

I've debated about this post and this decision for quite some time.

Reading is one of my passions in life.  It makes me who I am.  Unfortunately, another integral part of who I am involves my physical prowess.  I'm an epically clumsy individual. Truly, it's miraculous that the only bones I've ever broken are my pinkie toes and my pinkie.  I've alluded to my back in the past and my initial surgery was immensely successful.  So successful, in fact, that I felt more capable than I was, and I've reinjured the same disc.  Tomorrow,  I go in for the same surgery to correct the damage.

After consulting with our amazing reviewers and Mindy, we've all made the decision to put the blog on a month-long hiatus.

We're not going anywhere, I promise! I have some posts scheduled on our Facebook page, so you don't forget about us, but until I'm able to sit for two minutes without pain, we won't be publishing reviews here.  We have a wide variety of reviews scheduled, some incredible, some to watch out for, and some that may ruffle feathers (but that's the business of opinions!)  Look for us in May, and I look forward to catching up with you, then!!


Monday, March 16, 2015

Whisper Hollow - Chris Cander

Summary: Set in a small coal-mining town, a debut novel full of secrets, love, betrayal, and suspicious accidents, where Catholicism casts a long shadow and three courageous women make choices that will challenge our own moral convictions.

One morning in Verra, a town nestled into the hillsides of West Virginia, the young Myrthen Bergmann is playing tug-of-war with her twin, when her sister is killed. Unable to accept her own guilt, Myrthen excludes herself from all forms of friendship and affection and begins a twisted, haunted life dedicated to God. Meanwhile, her neighbor Alta Krol longs to be an artist even as her days are taken up caring for her widowed father and siblings. Everything changes when Myrthen marries the man Alta loves. Fourteen years later, we meet Lidia, a teenage girl in the same town, and her precocious son, Gabriel. When Gabriel starts telling eerily prescient stories that hint at Verra’s long-buried secrets, it’s not long before the townspeople begin to suspect that the boy harbors evil spirits—an irresistible state of affairs for Myrthen and her obsession with salvation. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I like books that, from the very first sentence, suck you in, set the tone, and demand your attention. Admittedly, a lot of books do this, but then they don’t deliver. By the time you’re a few chapters in, you feel kind of duped. I like the books that really suck you in, and that, after sucking you in, can back it up with a compelling story and good writing. It’s a rare book that has both. This is not to say that some books don’t survive on one or the other, because that’s okay, but if a book has both? Well.

Whisper Hollow has both. I love that right from the start, the writing is solid. This is rarer than you think. A lot of authors can tell a good story, but they’re not great writers. They’re passable and it doesn’t ruin the book, but it is a great author indeed who actually writes well and has a good story and can maintain it. Cander definitely does this. Her writing is compelling and beautiful, but accessible as well. Being accessible is key. There are authors who write beautifully, but their writing is a slog to get through. Not true with this book. The writing is beautiful and well-crafted and easy to read. This, my friends, is a great combination. It’s not just not bugging you, but it adds to the story and is a better book because of it.

I also really enjoyed the story of this book. It has a lot of heartache but it also has some great ups, too. It takes place in West Virginia, in the coal mines and mining towns, so right there you know that it’s not going to be all rainbows and sunshine. It’s a hard life there, and this book does a great job of weaving a story that doesn’t vilify or glamorize things unnecessarily. The characters are believable, too. No one is too good or too evil, and like real people there are some that have more good or more evil but no one is infallible and that makes them very relatable.

I have to admit that at the end, I almost couldn’t finish the book because there was a part I saw coming—hoped it wasn’t coming, dared the author not to do it, etc.—but I just had to because I had to know. That is the sign of a good book, peeps. That you care enough about what is going on and are caught up enough in the characters and the environment that you almost can’t bring yourself to read about a disaster you see coming, but you have to in the end. No matter what.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book would be rated PG-13. There is some sexual content, including a rape scene, as well as violence. It is not excessive or outside of the realm of the genre.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Redwall - Brian Jacques

Summary:  As the inhabitants of Redwall Abbey bask in the glorious Summer of the Late Rose, all is quiet and peaceful. But things are not as they seem. Cluny the Scourge, the evil one-eyed rat warlord, is hell-bent on destroying the tranquility as he prepares to fight a bloody battle for the ownership of Redwall. This dazzling story in the Redwall series is packed with all the wit, wisdom, humor, and blood-curdling adventure of the other books in the collection, but has the added bonus of taking the reader right back to the heart and soul of Redwall Abbey and the characters who live there.

My Review:  Do you remember the PBS Redwall series that aired in the mid-to-late 90s?  My brothers were obsessed.  It was one of those shows that I never actually watched, but I could probably still sing the opening song, and I had a rudimentary knowledge of the characters.

I was lamenting to my mom that I needed a good series to hook my oldest into, and she suggested I just try Redwall.  She warned me that it wasn't her cup of tea, but I told her I'd read it first and see if it was something I'd be willing to pass along to my son.  I grabbed a few books from the series from her library, packed them away, and went to bed - but I made the mistake of starting the first book before I fell asleep.  And I didn't sleep much that night.

Brian Jacques has created an entire world that is enchanting.  The forest creatures are divided into good and evil, and I'll be honest, I spent a lot of time googling images of the different species so I could see them better in my mind.  However, despite my lack of knowledge of woodland creatures, I found myself pulled into the story and didn't want to look back.  

This is definitely a book written for a middle-age reader, but it's full of adventure, just a hint of romance, legends, destiny, and just good writing.  I passed it to my son with a little trepidation, but he's really been enjoying the books.  As for that PBS show?  Our library has it on DVD, and our entire brood has devoured them.

My Rating:  Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are quite a few deaths in the novel, and some of them are a little gruesome.  Also, some of the wrong characters die.  Again, I would recommend this for middle readers - no one under the age of nine or ten, despite their maturity.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Major's Daughter - J.P. Francis

Summary:  Like Snow Falling on Cedars, a stirring tale of wartime love
 
April, 1944.  The quiet rural village of Stark, New Hampshire is irrevocably changed by the arrival of 150 German prisoners of war.  And one family, unexpectedly divided, must choose between love and country.
 
Camp Stark is under the command of Major John Brennan, whose beautiful daughter, Collie, will serve as translator. Educated at Smith and devoted to her widowed father, Collie is immediately drawn to Private August Wahrlich, a peaceful poet jaded by war. As international conflict looms on the home front, their passion blinds them to the inevitable dangers ahead.
 
Inspired by the little-known existence of a real World War II POW camp,The Major’s Daughter is a fresh take on the timeless theme of forbidden love. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)


My Review:  In wartime, everyone has to make sacrifices. Collie has had to leave school to assist her father, a capable Major suffering physically from his chlorine inhalation in WWI, mentally from the strain of running a Prisoner of War camp, and emotionally from the loss of his wife. As a loving daughter, that part isn't difficult, but as the only person fluent in German she is asked to serve as camp translator and doesn't feel quite up to the task. It doesn't help matters when a prisoner arrives who steals her heart - a soft-spoken, well-mannered poet who just happens to be gorgeous. How can she allow herself to fall in love with him? But what if her heart doesn't listen to her head?

I don't really know the best way to review this novel. Was it a sleepy historical fiction romance? Yes, except for when it wasn't. Was it a page-turner? No, except for when it was. Did it have a direct message or idea to impart?  Yes ... ?  To be honest, I found myself a little confused about what this book was trying to be. Things happened, people fell in and out of love, hearts were broken and mended, But I'm not sure if lessons were truly learned. 

Francis has created a well-rounded cast of characters who are all generally good people. There are a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, this is an amalgam of people I'd sit down and chat with. However, I was left feeling dissatisfied, and I'm not even entirely sure why. No one gets their fairy tale and no one gets their comeuppance, but that's life, right? 

I think I was frustrated by the lack of growth in the characters. There were situations that demanded growth or regression, and it felt like the characters were too comfortable with the status quo and stayed static. As a reader, I walk away from books like that unfulfilled and slightly frustrated. It makes me wonder if that was Francis' point, that living a life of complacency is never fulfilling. But it made me want to move, to act, to do something to shake off the dust settled on me by the inactions of the characters. 

Overall, this is a comfortable book to read.  It flowed easily, and it was easy to get lost in the imagry. I just wished for more movement, however slight. 

My Rating:  Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is one character who is utterly revolting, and there isn't one scene he's in that isn't uncomfortable. There is unwelcome groping, foul language, and as a "joke", this character forces girls to undress in public for a ride home. There is also a brutal beating, and two brutal deaths. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Paper Towns - John Green


Summary:
Who is the real Margo?

Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificently adventurous Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs into his life—dressed like a ninja and summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. After their all-nighter ends, and a new day breaks, Q arrives at school to discover that Margo, always an enigma, has now become a mystery. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they're for him. Urged down a disconnected path, the closer he gets, the less Q sees the girl he thought he knew...

Summary and cover art from Goodreads.com

My review:
I’d spent a lot of time reading political fantasy and was reading for some heart-wrenching teenage angst-y YA. Who is the master of that? John Green. Duh.

Since Paper Towns is being made into a movie and I’ll surely be exposed to it that way, I figured I’d choose this one. I’ve read two John Green books previously (Looking for Alaska, which was a powerful experience that reshaped my book-loving soul and The Fault in Our Stars, which was definitely good and worth recommending) and so I knew I was in for a treat.

If you consider rice cakes a treat.

Sure, Paper Towns might be caramel-flavored rice cakes, but it’s still nothing compared to death-by-chocolate Looking for Alaska or banana-split-with-extra-fudge-sauce The Fault in Our Stars.

For a short book, it took me five days to read. It was interesting, but not gripping. The characters were believable, but not lovable. The ending was believable, but not satisfying (not even in that painfully unsatisfying way like in Looking for Alaska). I mean…rice cakes…you’re still hungry after you eat ten.

I didn’t like Quentin. I really didn’t like Margo. The sidekick friends were unrealistic caricatures. The humor was trite. Green's usual thought-provoking approach was a string of existential questions that I had no desire to really think about. The combination of meh characters and a meh plot just gave me a meh experience. Green's anchoring device in this book was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, so that was a +1 (I, too, was a nerdy teenager that studied and highlighted Leaves of Grass.)

To give Green a break, Paper Towns was the follow up to his award-winning Looking for Alaska. And that’s a tough act to follow. I hope there’s a way the movie will improve on the book. The concept is interesting, but the delivery petered out.

My rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: Teenage swearing and crude humor. 


Friday, March 6, 2015

Jailhouse Doc: A Doctor in the County Jail - William Wright

Summary: Dr. William Wright gave up a suburban practice as an ear surgeon to become the doctor at Colorado's maximum-security prison. After that, running a medical clinic at the county jail should be a snap, right? Oh, brother...Hoards of desperate people fresh from the streets, homeless addicts, illegal aliens, and gangbangers all ruled by a corrupt sheriff and his concubine sidekick made the supermax look almost pastoral.

Told with humor and biting wit by the best-selling author of Maximum Insecurity, Jailhouse Doc follows Dr. Wright and his struggles with scamming inmates, corporate bureaucrats, and a sheriff who wants to be a doctor.

Peek behind the bars at the operations of a city jail and the daily battles to deliver medical care to a population on the edge.  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I really enjoyed this book. First of all, I liked the voice. Dr. Wright is funny and I liked his sarcastic humor. He’s not rude, he wasn’t disrespectful, but he also doesn’t beat around the bush or pretend like the patients he sees are just normal everyday people like he saw in his practice before he became a jail house doctor. He was able to be forthcoming and also sensitive, which I appreciated.  Because while this population is definitely unique, they are also vulnerable and I would have felt uncomfortable with a doctor who was not sensitive to this. Dr. Wright is and I appreciated that.

Dr. Wright has some really interesting stories and experiences. Working in the jail is obviously something really unique and different than a doctor would normally see in a standard practice, and I found this really interesting.  The jail population is really different from the normal doctor/patient population at large, and I learned a lot from reading this book. He has had a lot of interesting experiences and if nothing else, it was fascinating to read about a population that is somewhat overlooked in the healthcare realm.

I also found the discussion of the jail inner workings interesting. It seems obvious that there would be drama with the inmates, but I also found it eye-opening to see what the jail staff was like and what was successful and what was dysfunctional.

My only complaint about this book is that I wish it had been longer and included more stories. I guess that’s as good as a complaint as you could ask for.

My rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has some minor language and slightly disturbing content, but it is certainly not gratuitous or disrespectful. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Echo - Pam Muñoz Ryan

Summary:  Lost and alone
in a forbidden forest
Otto meets three mysterious sisters
and suddenly finds himself entwined
in a puzzling quest involving
a PROPHECY,
a PROMISE, and
a HARMONICA.

Decades later,
Friedrich in Germany,
Mike in Pennsylvania, and
Ivy in California

each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives.  All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together.  And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.

Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, Echo pushes the boundaries of genre and form and shows us what is possible in how we tell stories.  The result is an impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck.  (Book given free at NCTE as an Advanced Reader Copy during a Scholastic luncheon.  Summary from inside book cover.  Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Wow.  For many reasons, wow.  For the length--587 pages.  For the thoroughly planned and executed plot.  For the artfully crafted characters.  For a beautifully structured organization.  But, should you expect anything less from Pan Muñoz Ryan?  I think not.

Three are four clear stories in this novel, although one could argue there's a fifth that isn't clearly articulated.  Because there are four full stories, this is a long book and could be quite daunting to read for a young reader.  That is, unless they've already conquered Harry Potter.  I'm sure this wouldn't scare a child away after that.  I think that Muñoz could have possibly broken this isn't four different stories, but then you wouldn't have had the incredible arch story line that ties up so nicely at the end.  You really have a sense of closure when this book finishes, a come full circle effect.

Since this is an Advanced Reader Copy, I'm assuming there's a possibility of minor changes.  I don't know if I could find something that needs changing though.  The only reason I gave it 4.5 stars instead of 5 stars is that I didn't understand the structure going into it (the back of the book doesn't have the description on my ARC and it wasn't until I was already 3/4's through the book that I realized it was on the back page of the front cover) and so it seemed to wander without direction.  That is, until the end and you have a very satisfactory conclusion.  But because of this long story  (almost 600 pages!) line, I found myself not always lured back to read.  So, I took off .5 stars for that.  Maybe I shouldn't.  But, I did.  Still, this is a good book, one I'd definitely recommend to friends and family.  Muñoz is an incredible writer.

My last plug is that I got to listen to Muñoz read the first handful of pages with a couple other authors while at the National Council Teachers of English convention in November.  It wasn't hard to want the book without knowing anything about it (it's Pam Muñoz Ryan!), but to have her wet our appetites was amazing!  She's a very engaging speaker and reader as well as a talented writer.

For the sensitive reader:  Nothing in here I'd be worried about my elementary aged-daughter reading.  Clean, through and through.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up:  An intricately woven tale of fulfilled dreams despite dire circumstances.

Monday, March 2, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex - Nathaniel Philbrick

Summary:  In the Heart of the Sea brings to new life the incredible story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex—an event as mythic in its own century as theTitanic disaster in ours, and the inspiration for the climax of Moby-Dick. In a harrowing page-turner, Nathaniel Philbrick restores this epic story to its rightful place in American history.

In 1820, the 240-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, it was repeatedly rammed and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, made for the 3,000-mile-distant coast of South America in three tiny boats. During ninety days at sea under horrendous conditions, the survivors clung to life as one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.

In the Heart of the Sea tells perhaps the greatest sea story ever. Philbrick interweaves his account of this extraordinary ordeal of ordinary men with a wealth of whale lore and with a brilliantly detailed portrait of the lost, unique community of Nantucket whalers. Impeccably researched and beautifully told, the book delivers the ultimate portrait of man against nature, drawing on a remarkable range of archival and modern sources, including a long-lost account by the ship's cabin boy. At once a literary companion and a page-turner that speaks to the same issues of class, race, and man's relationship to nature that permeate the works of Melville, In the Heart of the Sea will endure as a vital work of American history.
   (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  The story of the Essex is more well-known than you may think.  The destruction of the Essex,  a fine and seaworthy vessel, sent shockwaves through whaling communities.  Not only because of the loss of lives, the financial repercussions, or the extreme measures taken by the handful of survivors, but because the destruction of the vessel was a deliberate attack by its prey - a sperm whale.  The whales were thought to be docile - almost tame - so to have one deliberately and maliciously attack a ship was the stuff of nightmares.  Sound familiar?  The story was so incredible, so shocking that when Herman Melville heard it, it became the backbone of his classic Moby Dick.  

I'm a sucker for a shipwreck survival story.  To be honest, though, this one was one of the most difficult I've ever read.  The survivors of the initial sinking are divided into three different whaleships, none of them seaworthy and all equipped for short whale-slaughtering travels.  Their provisions are slight, their luck dismal, the captain is a good man with good instincts but little backbone, and their decisions are deadly.  Philbrick's exhaustive and incredible research made me very much appreciate their trials, but this was definitely a book where there were no winners.  The survivors, while welcomed back to their community and forgiven for whatever happened, can't even be considered winners, their circumstances were so tragic.

I very much appreciated Philbrick's attention to detail.  He made the Nantucket Quaker community come alive.  Their traditions and the impacts it had directly and indirectly on the sailors were well-explained, but not obnoxiously so.  The politics of whaling, the effects of starvation and shipwreck psychology, and the maritime ethics of the time are not areas of my expertise (I know, shocking!).  However, Philbrick had researched them so well and relayed the relevant matter in such an organic way it greatly enriched the book.  I greatly appreciated it.

This has been adapted into a movie, and I have a feeling it'll get quite a bit of buzz.  A real-life Moby Dick!?  Definitely grab this one before you see the flick!

My Rating:  Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are accounts of cannibalism, the effects of starvation and dehydration on the men (boils and edema) which can be a little tough to handle if you're sensitive.  There are also difficult accounts of sailors dying from their ordeal.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Seek and Find Book of Mormon Stories - Jason Pruett

Summary:  Search for Nephi, Moroni, and other hidden prophets and characters from the scriptures in this fun picture game book. Featuring scenes from the Book of Mormon, this book will keep kids entertained as they look for their favorite scripture heroes and hidden objects in the colorful illustrations. Perfect for home, church, or on the go, it makes learning the scriptures fun for everyone.  (Summary and image from amazon.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  To start, how can I give a poor review to a book my three kids have been fighting over for weeks?  It's a good thing, then, that I don't want to give this a poor review!  Each page is filled with hilarious and relevant drawings depicting scenes from the Book of Mormon, as well as other little jokes and easter eggs to be discovered.  Each double page covers either one or more books of the Book of Mormon (Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni are all together), with clues to search for stories and characters on each page.  It's a little tricky to see Lehi preaching next to a broken bow, but, hey.  It's a Seek and Find book!  There are also extra items in the back to search for on every page, so the life of the book will be lengthened.

My three year old has had a little difficulty with the clues.  They're a little too old for him, but my older two have taken to the book like a fish to water.  It's a wonderful way to help them remember some of their favorite Book of Mormon stories, and gives them the opportunity to tell them back to me using the book as their prompt.  There are also enough silly pictures in the book to keep my youngest from getting frustrated if he can't find what he's looking for right away.


One thing I wish this book had was a Solve Sheet in the back.  We are still trying to find the darn Liahona!  It's like it walked right out of the book!

My Rating:  Four Stars



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Blackmoore - Julianne Donaldson

Summary: Kate Worthington knows her heart and she knows she will never marry. Her plan is to travel to India instead—if only to find peace for her restless spirit and to escape the family she abhors. But Kate’s meddlesome mother has other plans. She makes a bargain with Kate: India, yes, but only after Kate has secured—and rejected—three marriage proposals.

Kate journeys to the stately manor of Blackmoore determined to fulfill her end of the bargain and enlists the help of her dearest childhood friend, Henry Delafield. But when it comes to matters of love, bargains are meaningless and plans are changeable. There on the wild lands of Blackmoore, Kate must face the truth that has kept her heart captive. Will the proposal she is determined to reject actually be the one thing that will set her heart free?

Set in Northern England in 1820, Blackmoore is a Regency romance that tells the story of a young woman struggling to learn how to follow her heart. It is Wuthering Heights meets Little Women with a delicious must-read twist.
Summary and cover art from Goodreads.com 

My review: After falling in love with Donaldson’s Edenbrooke*, I moved on to Blackmoore. Another regency-era, sweet romance, Donaldson uses her recipe from Edenbrooke—romantic settings, a dashing hero, chaste love, and a saccharine heroine with a flummoxed heart—then adds a layer of tenebrific weight.

 Oh, Kate. Let's chat. You should have seen it earlier. The deal you struck with your mother--luring in suitors only to reject them--makes you no better than her. But you're just as scheme-y as she is, so I knew you'd find a way. Yet somehow, you've forgotten that all those schemes have a price.

Kate's mother never said the proposals had to be from three different men. It seems so simple. So Kate enlists the help of childhood friend Henry Delafield—who is SO OBVIOUSLY more than a friend—to help her out. He's got an almost-fiancee waiting in the wings and Kate has sworn she'll never marry. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom. Henry will propose three times, Kate will reject him three times. India, here she comes! Except…well, Henry. (Swoon…I think Henry Delafield is my favorite book boyfriend. He's just…perfection.) Even Kate has to see that rejecting him three times is not going to be an easy feat.

Kate, one more thing…I know you have very good reasons why you've decided to never marry, but did you SERIOUSLY think you could weather THREE proposals from HENRY and walk away unscathed? Lady, you're a masochist.

During the first third of the book, I wasn't even sure why I was reading it. Everything was so awful (what was happening to Kate, not the writing) that I was not enjoying it at all. Disappointent after disappointment. Setback after setback. Horrible neighbor and horrible mother. It was too painful to read! But there was Henry. I fell instantly in love with Henry, so that kept me turning the pages. And I loved Julianne Donaldson's first book, Edenbrooke, enough to be persistent with Blackmoore.

The mid-third of the book was de-lic-ious. Things were getting goooood and the plot unraveled and went in a direction I could get on board with.

 The final third of the book — I was terrified of the ending! How could it end decently? I could think of a sad but okay ending, an awful ending, and an even awfuller ending. Nothing was going to be okay. I was panicking and a fit of nervous energy as I kept turning pages. Things kept getting worse and worse and worse for poor Kate. And poor Henry! GAH! (Though I was quite willing to pick up the pieces of poor Henry's broken heart.)

I persisted and found an extraordinarily perfect ending that I could have never imagined. It was stressful to read, but so perfectly wonderful in the end. The chemistry between Kate and Henry is palpable through the pages, and as a reader, I just wanted to smack Kate over the head and say, “Stop it, dummy! He’s right there!” Kate isn’t truly that thick-skulled, and her reasons to never marry are less about her and more about Henry. A more complex character with a more complex background than Marianne in Edenbrooke, Kate’s secrets had me desperate to turn each page. As soon as I finished Blackmoore, I flipped back to the front and started reading it again.

My rating: 5 stars. Blackmoore is to my library what Dirty Dancing is to my DVD collection. It may be cheesy, and it may not change how I see the world, but I devoured every bit of it like a luscious chocolate cake and immediately went back for seconds. It’s a guilty pleasure I know I’ll return to time and again.

For the sensitive reader: Unless you have problems with amazingly noble, dashing heroes or pure selfish sacrifice and heartbreak, then you'll be fine. 


*Read Mindy's review of Edenbrooke

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hook's Revenge - Heidi Schulz

Summary:  Dear Female Offspring,

Since you are now reading this epistle, the thing I fear has most assuredly happened.  I am dead.

A cold-blood nightmare stalks my every waking minute.  I am haunted by rows of razor-sharp teeth and the ticking of a fiendish timepiece.

You are my only heir.  As such, you must avenge my death.  I lay this charge upon you:  Come to the Neverland.  Hunt the beast and destroy it in my name.

I have no doubt you will fail, for you are practically an infant, and a girl besides.  However, as my only progeny, you must try.  With my blood in your veins, you may yet overcome these weaknesses and bring me victory.

Floreat Etona!

JAS. Hook

You've just been privileged to read a letter from Captain Hook--yes, that Captain Hook--to his thirteen-year-old daughter, Jocelyn.  The girl accepts his charge, of course; but being a pirate is far more difficult than she'd ever imagined.  As if attempting to defeat the Neverland's fearsome crocodile isn't enough to deal with, she must try to captain a crew of woefully untrained pirates, outwit cannibals wild for English cuisine, and rescue her best friend from a certain pack of lost children (not to mention that irritating Peter Pan who keeps barging in uninvited).

As the world's foremost expert on Captain Hook, I am more than familiar with Jocelyn's story.  I don't care for children, in general, but if you'll back up a bit and try not to breathe on me, I might be persuaded to tell you the whole tale.  (Summary from book jacket and image from amazon.com.  Book given free for honest review.)

My Review:  I read this with my oldest daughter, so I didn't get the same experience I would have if I'd read it alone.  Meaning, this took way longer to finish and while irksome to me (I wanted to know what happened next!), it was more important to enjoy the ride together.

This book borders on Children's and YA literature.  In other words, I believe both can enjoy it, although for younger readers they'll need a strong vocabulary or have it read to them.  Schulz doesn't shirk from using pirate vernacular--super fun to read aloud!

Schulz takes you on a journey to Neverland you probably weren't expecting.  The first half of the book is more about Jocelyn's life before Neverland--and definitely gives a fun twist to how little girls behave in environments that don't fit every unique personality.  (I think my youngest daughter will eat this book up, as she's my wild one!)  Neverland is everything you hope it still is: lost boys, cannibals, fairies, pirates galore, and of course Peter Pan.  And yet, it's not exactly the same either.  I think my favorite twist Schulz pulls is how you experience Peter Pan.  It's refreshing, at least from a girl's perspective.

Some of the strengths of this book are Schulz's comedic timing, sarcastic humor, situationally appropriate vocabulary, and characters that break gender-role rules.  But, I must mention that there are still morals held within and lessons on believing in yourself despite the odds.

While I find this a great girl-empowering story, I know boys would enjoy the ride.  There's plenty of adventure, lots of male characters, and a fast-paced plot.  Did you ever want to experience being on a pirate crew?  Have you ever wanted to explore Neverland?  Did you ever wonder what the Lost Boys do when Peter's not around?  These are all answered and more.

I'd like to share one last thing before I conclude my review, and it's my favorite opening to a children's book yet:

(Image from http://blog.heidischulzbooks.com/)

I've been given many books for review, and this is one I can unquestioningly say deserves at least a 4.5 star rating.  Additionally, if you live in the Pacific Northwest and would like to have an author visit, Heidi Schulz is great to come speak to schools.

For the sensitive reader:  Clean through and through.  Some minor violence with a large crocodile and sarcastic humor.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up:  Ever wanted to know what happened to the crocodile that ate Captain Hook?  Read this and you will.


Friday, February 20, 2015

The Lazarus Game - Stephen J. Valentine

Summary:  An amazing new video game has the power to resurrect the brightest minds of the past and see what they’d create in the modern world. There’s just one catch—it requires another person’s soul. Carter Chance, who is a teenage genius, must find a way to stop his generation from exchanging their souls for a computer-generated fantasy. This action-packed thriller delves into the enticement and dangers of virtual reality. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for a review.)

My Review:   There aren't many kids who can say they've been named Most Likely to Succeed - by the President.  There also aren't too many who would hunt down and arrest a Russian mobster to impress a girl.  You'd think that something like that would make Carter Chance, teen genius, somewhat likable, but it doesn't.  The downfall with him being a genius is that he's well aware of it, and crazy proud.

It seems almost insulting to him when The Lazarus Corporation opens a new video game store in his town and then offers him a job.  He's asked to assist Geoffrey Chaucer, president and CEO of the Lazarus Corporation in updating and perfecting the Lazarus Game.  He's offered wealth, fame, toys, power, oh, and immortality.  Why not?  However, there's that pesky Hobo Warrior that keeps popping up.  And what's with the changing features of the Lazarine (the employees of his new comrade)?

Stephen Valentine has crafted a story in the same thread of Inception meets Spy Kids, with a little Hocus Pocus thrown in.  Worlds within worlds, lives being drained to sustain the lives of geniuses that should have long passed away, and the intrigue that surrounds it all - honestly, while it was a fast-paced ride, it felt a little jumbled and a little too forced into the mold.  Carter is a jerk to everyone around him, and I understand that that was part of the character development, but he is so arrogant, so demeaning to those around him that when the clues of why he behaves like that and the expected character growth emerge, it doesn't feel real.  It certainly isn't an organic change, and it made me unsure whether I wanted to root for him.

Aside from the flaws of our hero, this book was a difficult one for me to love.  A big part of that was truly my disdain for Carter -- at one point, I was cheering for the Russian mobster -- but I didn't feel like the impetus of the book was as well-explained as it could have been.  I felt like the only reason anything was moving forward was because the book said so, and that just makes for a clunky read.  

I liked the premise of the book.  Pit a genius against THE genius in a battle of worlds within worlds, for the sake of humanity.  Unfortunately,  the genius displayed by our protagonist was no greater than that of most fairly-bright kids.  It just didn't resonate with me.

My Rating:  Two and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Violence, a few beheadings, and just some serious arrogance from the protagonist.  This book may be better received by a 13-15 year old boy.  I fully admit I'm not its target demographic.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Inca's Death Cave: An Archaeological Mystery Thriller - Bradford G. Wheler

Summary: Adventure, archaeology, technology, and mystery mix to form a breathtaking action-packed tale. INCA'S DEATH CAVE An Archaeological Mystery Thriller A 500-year-old puzzle catapults an archaeology professor and his brilliant grad student into the adventure of a lifetime in INCA'S DEATH CAVE, a new mystery thriller from author Bradford G. Wheler. What happened to a band of Inca rebels who journeyed north in Peru to seek the fabled cave of the true gods - and escape the disease and destruction brought by Spanish conquistadors? They were never heard from again. Did they just melt back into their villages or was something more sinister involved? What trace or treasure did they leave behind? The ingenious plot of this thriller is full of twists and turns, excitement and adventure, archaeology and technology. Readers will meet fascinating characters they'll never forget: a high-tech billionaire, a quick-witted professor, his beautiful young student, and her still-tough grandfather, a retired Marine gunny sergeant. Cornell University professor Robert Johnson and his star PhD student are hired by a billionaire entrepreneur to solve a 500-year-old archaeology mystery in northern Peru. But first, they will have to survive corporate skullduggery and drug-lord thuggery. And why, 6,700 miles away in Vatican City, is the old guard so upset? What dark secrets could centuries-old manuscripts hold? This assiduously researched, fast-paced novel brings the Incas and their ancestors to life against the backdrop of the Peruvian Andes. Along with riveting action, INCA'S DEATH CAVE contains 22 illustrations and photos. Wheler draws on his own expertise in engineering, technology, and business to help readers feel that they are living the adventure. Mixing the action of David Baldacci's The Hit, the tech thrills of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, and the dialogue of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, INCA'S DEATH CAVE is a true pleasure to read. (Summary and Pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review:  We’ve all had that professor who wrote and published a book and then required their students to buy it for class. Or maybe that was just me and my budget conscious professors. Anyway, I had several professors—especially in grad school—who wrote their own books and then we, the poor put upon students, had to buy them.  Some of them were really good, actually, and some of them, even though written by a professor who was the top of his field, weren’t that great.

I have a point.

This book was written as if by a professor who was doing archaeological work. In a good way. He was mild-mannered and studious and had kind of a nerdy professor-like sense of humor. He interacted with his students in a very professor-like way. He was chummy and enjoyed being ironic in a way that the students probably rolled their eyes at but still liked. I mean seriously. It’s like this book was actually written by a real archaeological professor. And I’ve read books by archaeological professors.

The good thing about the way this is written is that it feels authentic. It has a day-to-day feel even though there are some dramatic things that happen. They are taken in stride as a mild-mannered professor might do. It’s written conversationally, which makes for an easy read, and the author obviously did quite a bit of research, which made it feel realistic as well.

The downside of this style, unfortunately, is that it made the ending somewhat anti-climatic. It builds up to this really cool place and then just kind of skips past it. I thought that was somewhat disappointing. Don’t get me wrong—there is action and drama and all that—but the actual BIG event is alluded to, and then the book just kind of ends without discussing it.

I enjoyed this book and although it wasn’t heart-pumping all the time, it was interesting and the characters were enjoyable.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language, although it is not excessive. 

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