Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Happy, happy birthday, Lara!!

We'd like to wish our very own Lara a most happy birthday! We wish you all the books (and the time to read them) you could hope for!!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Never Fade - Alexandra Bracken

Summary:  Ruby never asked for the abilities that almost cost her her life. Now she must call upon them on a daily basis, leading dangerous missions to bring down a corrupt government and breaking into the minds of her enemies. Other kids in the Children’s League call Ruby “Leader”, but she knows what she really is: a monster. 

When Ruby is entrusted with an explosive secret, she must embark on her most dangerous mission yet: leaving the Children’s League behind. Crucial information about the disease that killed most of America’s children—and turned Ruby and the others who lived into feared and hated outcasts—has survived every attempt to destroy it. But the truth is only saved in one place: a flashdrive in the hands of Liam Stewart, the boy Ruby once believed was her future—and who now wouldn’t recognize her. 

As Ruby sets out across a desperate, lawless country to find Liam—and answers about the catastrophe that has ripped both her life and America apart—she is torn between old friends and the promise she made to serve the League. Ruby will do anything to protect the people she loves. But what if winning the war means losing herself? (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Ruby walked away from her friends, from her love, and from any chance of security she had in order to save them.  She's joined the Children's League - a splinter organization labeled a terrorist group by the government - not only to keep her friends safe, but to figure out what to do next.  Uneasy about the choices she's made, worried that the Children's League may truly not have the interest of the children in mind, and desperately missing Liam, an opportunity presents itself giving Ruby the means to fix things.

Middle novels are always tricky.  There's just so much information to convey, but there's also no resolution - just movement.  And sometimes, (really a lot of times), the movement can feel forced.  That isn't the case here!  Bracken has done a wonderful job moving the story forward, creating tension, showing the hazards of the promise of a utopia, and reuniting the majority of the group we saw torn apart in the first book.  New and old villains resurface, Ruby is compelled into a position of leadership and growth, and yet that urgency and tension that was so delicious in the first book is just as present here.

She also drops a huge bombshell at the end of the book that reminded me of the end of Catching Fire.  And darn it all ... the next book doesn't come out for months!!  Do you know how frustrating it is to wait?!

My Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is definitely more adult language in this book than in the first.  There's also some pretty brutal battles and a scene in "East River" that demonstrates the depravity that power can give.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Inside/Outside - Jenny Hayworth

Summary:  Award winning book - Finalist Beverley Hills Book Awards 2014
Jenny Hayworth grew up within the construct of the Jehovah's Witnesses, which she describes as a fundamentalist, cult-like religion. She devoted her life to it for over thirty years. Then she left it. The church "disfellowshipped" her- rendered her dead to those family and friends still committed to the church.

Hayworth is a sexual abuse survivor. The trauma changed her self-perception, emotional development, trust, and every interaction with the world. Inside/Outside is her exploration of sexual abuse, religious fundamentalism, and recovery.

Her childhood circumstances and tragedies forced her to live "inside". This memoir chronicles her journey from experiencing comfort and emotional satisfaction only within her own fantasy world to developing the ability to feel and express real life emotion on the outside.

It is a story that begins with tragic multigenerational abuse, within an oppressive society, and ends with hope and rebirth into a life where she experiences real connections and satisfaction with the outside world.

Those who have ever felt trapped by trauma or circumstances will find Inside/Outside a dramatic reassurance that they are not alone in the world, and they have the ability to have a fulfilling life, both inside and out. (Picture and description from goodreads.com)

My Review: Honestly, this is a difficult review to write. What do you say when someone has poured their heart out into a book? They've shared their heartaches, their shame, the ups, the downs, everything. And not only that, but those of their children as well?

And I understand that all authors feel this way. The proverbial blood, sweat, and tears go into their writing, and whether or not it actually turns into that epic smash of their dreams, there's something to be said for the actual cathartic process of writing and getting it out and having a physical copy of all that thinking and planning and mental toil.

So with this book, that pain and cathartic process is more obvious than other books. This woman has led a tough life. Really tough. She has had some genuinely difficult problems, many forced upon her by those she loved and trusted, and she has tried her best to overcome them. She made difficult choices and distanced herself from the only support she had, at times making things worse, but always trying again and not giving up.  The writing is not necessarily stellar, although I think it is definitely comparable to others in this genre. It is written in almost disconnected chapters with random anecdotes here and there, which makes it seem journal-like and unfinished in places, but all that being said, it is powerful in its honesty and rawness. And horrible. Because she has encountered some truly horrible people. It's heartbreaking and tough to read, especially when both she as a child as well as her children are involved in repeated sexual abuse.

As far as the Jehovah's Witness aspect is concerned, although her descriptions of them and their practices and beliefs seemed extreme, I'm not sure that labeling it a "cult" was fair, and possibly more just a label from the publishers. However, that does not excuse how she was treated by them or their seemingly close-minded beliefs on things like sexual abuse and mental illness.

I don't feel that this book offered a lot of hope or redemption in the end, but I do think that it was certainly helpful to the author and to any others who have experienced such abuse, isolation, and related problems that go with those unfortunate experiences. This book is a testament to the bravery of the author and the resiliency of the human spirit. It is certainly a book I would suggest to anyone who has experienced abuse in various forms, or persecution from within their own religion and who is looking for someone to relate to and commiserate with.

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

My Rating:  3 stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a tough read that includes sexual abuse of adults and children, and although it is not irreverent in its description, it is graphic.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pets Aplenty - Malcolm D. Welshman

Summary:  Join novice vet, Paul Mitchell, in a further six months of hilarious escapades he experiences while working at Prospect House Veterinary Hospital. He's confronted by a ravenous pig while sunbathing naked in a cornfield. He locks jaws with a caiman with scale rot and battles with Doug, a vicious miniature donkey that's always sinking his teeth into him. It ends with a Christmas pet blessing which erupts into pandemonium as frightened pets and owners scatter through the pews. Throughout his adventures, Paul is loyally supported by the team at the hospital - in particular Beryl, the elderly one-eyed receptionist, and, Lucy the junior nurse - together with whom he shares this merry-go-round of mayhem. It's a gripping, fast page-turner that's guaranteed to keep animal lovers entranced. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  Paul Mitchell is a novice vet in an English vet clinic.  Single, lonely, and trying to find his footing both personally and professionally, he tries to navigate working with his ex-girlfriend, as well as doing his best in Prospect House.

This book should be titled Puns Aplenty.  The novel was rife with them, fairly choking every chapter with them.  A few I could stomach.  But puns on this scale were much too much to handle.  They obscured the storyline entirely, becoming so obvious and so desperate that it distracted me entirely.

Second, I had a really difficult time empathizing with our protagonist Paul.  I didn't find the character extremely likable, and in fact, his, um, excessive hormones nearly made me abandon the attempt to read this book more than once.  Not only were his musings unnecessary, they succeeded in making Paul utterly repellant.  I found myself rooting for the badger, the caiman, and the mad donkey.

My Rating:  One and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Paul's imagination is clearly R-rated.  There is also a bit of foul language.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Smith - Ron L. Anderson

Summary:  What could Abraham Lincoln and controversial Mormon founder possibly have in common?  According to Lincoln Leadership president Ron Anderson, more than you would think.  Using historical records from Illinois, where Smith and Lincoln were living in the 1840s, this book shows you new sides to both men, including their surprisingly similar views on God and their involvement with each others' politics. Find out how two young 'backwoods boys' crossed paths and led parallel lives before each was martyred for his cause in this exhaustively researched dual biography.  Image from goodreads.com, summary from Amazon.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)  

My Review:  Have you ever had a book hangover?  You've read a book so amazing and well-written and perfect that no other book in the same genre will be able to ever compare?  Even years later, sometimes this affliction can strike, and sadly, this was a casualty of my Team of Rivals hangover.  Sadly, it just can't compare.  Goodwin did such an amazing job that I'm STILL recommending it to anyone and everyone who may be interested!  

Please don't get me wrong, Anderson truly did a wonderful job with the writing.  He has an educated and approachable style which I did find enjoyable to read.  However, although there are surprising similarities between the two figures, they never met.  There is no concrete evidence anywhere that there was any interaction or even recognition between the two, and this left Anderson stretching coincidental research to cover the lost ground.  There was a lot of conjecture.  It was distracting.  It wasn't implausible conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless.  Unfortunately, between the Team of Rivals comparisons I couldn't shut off and the amount of conjecture, I just couldn't finish this.  Perhaps someday.  But the timing is just not yet right.  

I'd love to return to this book soon and eat my words.  And I guarantee you that when the time is right to revisit this book and finish it, I'll be updating my review!

My Rating:  For now, two stars. 

For the Sensitive Reader:  Squeaky clean. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

After the Parch - Sheldon Greene

Summary:  It's 2075. California is nothing like we know it. The USA has broken up and California has become an independent refuge dominated by a single omnipotent corporation. Eighteen-year-old Bran, a shepherd, is given a mission to traverse the California republic in ten days, in order to save his rural community from forfeiting its land. On the way, he teams up with a seventeen-year-old girl who has the skills and prowess of a warrior, an eleven-year-old wild boy with uncanny survival skills, and a wandering musician with a secret revolutionary agenda. After the Parch is a fast-paced, vivid, dystopian fantasy with a chilling resemblance to the way we are, and a vision of what we might become. It's a well-crafted story and the plot flows naturally from one crisis to another, with three-dimensional characters right up to the taut and positive climax. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  When I was growing up, I had a dog who loved to chew up puzzle pieces.  Well, the darn dog would chew up anything -- but she had an affinity for puzzle pieces.  The incomplete puzzles would drive me absolutely crazy, and since my family loves doing puzzles, having an intricate, beautiful puzzle completed except for the five or so pieces that our dumb dog had snacked on drove me nuts.   Frankly, the only thing I could imagine that would frustrate me further would be mixing the puzzle pieces together, throwing the boxes  and half the pieces away, and trying to build one puzzle of the mess.

Upsettingly, that's what After the Parch reminded me of.  There were too many puzzle pieces missing.  The characters were frustratingly one-dimensional, and worse - they were despicable creatures with no redeeming qualities to be found.  The writing style, present tense, works so well when done correctly to convey a sense of urgency.  However, since the novel is in the third person, it fell completely flat to me, and frankly made it more difficult to follow the story.  

Bran is tasked with purchasing a patent for the land he and his group have been living on illegally for the last few years.  Things don't go as planned, and he finds himself embroiled in more trouble than he imagined.  A three-day errand ends up with Bran as an outlaw, a terrorist act (I think) gone wrong, and a hodge-podge of characters weaving in and out of the mix. 

I just couldn't bring myself to care about the struggle, because it fell too flat.  It felt more like a (no-details-spared) narrative of going on a ten-day trek to the DMV.  Coupled with the numerous spelling and grammatical errors throughout the book, I struggled to finish it.

My Rating:  One star

For the Sensitive Reader:  Numerous and graphic descriptions of sex, including the seduction of a child, murder, sexual torture ... stay away.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ravensbruck: Everyday Life in a Women's Concentration Camp - Jack G. Morrison

Summary: Ravensbruck was a labour camp within German borders, not far from Berlin. In the beginning it was, by camp standards, a better camp, designed for indoctrination and industrial production, but by the end of the war it was just another overcrowded locus of horror complete with gas chamber. The result is a fascinating case study of how women of different nationalities and social backgrounds coped for years with lack of food and basic sanitation, illnesses, prejudices and death by carving out their own cultural life. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I feel a little guilty saying this, but I loved this book. There’s something that feels really wrong about saying that you enjoy a book about a concentration camp, but I found Ravensbruck absolutely fascinating.

After reading Rose Under Fire (see review here), I wanted to know more about Ravensbruck. Because Wein had so many great resources, I was able to totally geek out like I love to do when I read a really interesting book, and I did all kinds of research about Ravensbruck. This book was a gem. It changed my view on concentration camps.  Don’t get me wrong—they’re still horrible (and I’m still hoping that Hitler is burning in hell), but I had no idea the depth and breadth of what went on there, what it was like, and especially how an exclusively women’s concentration camp differed so greatly from a men’s concentration camp.

First off, this book is really well written. It’s non-fiction and Morrison obviously did a ton of research (a lot of it firsthand from writings and interviews of women who survived the camp), but the writing isn’t so heavy or the language so dense that you have to slog through it. It read very quickly. Admittedly, this may be because it was just so fascinating. But I guess if that’s the reason, it doesn’t matter, right? Really, it’s completely accessible.

Secondly, I loved the description of the culture of the camp. I had no idea the humanity and caring, and also the prejudices and hatred that existed within the camp—both between the inmates and the staff. It is just so much more complex than I ever knew. I had no idea there were so many nationalities and cultures represented.  And I loved the women’s camp perspective of a concentration camp. It makes sense that a woman’s camp would function differently than a men’s camp, and this book beautifully illustrates this very unique situation.

Another thing that I found so amazing about this book was the art work and pictures. There were a few pictures of the camp, and the author describes early on that these cannot be trusted as many of them were taken by the SS to display to the Red Cross and various organizations concerned with the well-beings of captors.  The art was drawn by some of the women inmates. Obviously much of this was destroyed as it became clear to the SS that Germany was losing and the war was imminent, but the surviving pictures are haunting and descriptive of what it was like. And oh, was it horrible. But there were good things, too, and I loved that the author not only gave you a sense of how horrible things were and how horrible some people were, but also that many retained their humanity and generosity even in the worst of times. It really is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the resilience of individuals.

This book was really a life-changing experience for me. I’ve always heard about concentration camps, I’ve read some WWII fic and limited non-fic, and I have been to the inspiring (and horrible) Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., but I was not prepared for having my eyes opened to what a camp was like—both the good and the bad. I felt like after all this time, I had just been viewing the people in the camps as inmates as a whole, and hadn’t really considered the day to day living or the culture that existed within the camp. I just can’t say enough about how amazing I thought this book was and what it did for me and my knowledge of concentration camps and the very tenor of the war. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is about concentration camps. There are horrible things, but they are all true and not sensationalized. The author treats the people with respect and dignity, despite them having experienced the worst atrocities one can imagine.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Shoemaker's Wife - Adriana Trigiani

Summary:  The majestic and haunting beauty of the Italian Alps is the setting of the first meeting of Enza, a practical beauty, and Ciro, a strapping mountain boy, who meet as teenagers, despite growing up in villages just a few miles apart. At the turn of the last century, when Ciro catches the local priest in a scandal, he is banished from his village and sent to hide in America as an apprentice to a shoemaker in Little Italy. Without explanation, he leaves a bereft Enza behind. Soon, Enza's family faces disaster and she, too, is forced to go to America with her father to secure their future.

Unbeknownst to one another, they both build fledgling lives in America, Ciro masters shoemaking and Enza takes a factory job in Hoboken until fate intervenes and reunites them. But it is too late: Ciro has volunteered to serve in World War I and Enza, determined to forge a life without him, begins her impressive career as a seamstress at the Metropolitan Opera House that will sweep her into the glamorous salons of Manhattan and into the life of the international singing sensation, Enrico Caruso. 

From the stately mansions of Carnegie Hill, to the cobblestone streets of Little Italy, over the perilous cliffs of northern Italy, to the white-capped lakes of northern Minnesota, these star-crossed lovers meet and separate, until, finally, the power of their love changes both of their lives forever. 

Lush and evocative, told in tantalizing detail and enriched with lovable, unforgettable characters, The Shoemaker's Wife is a portrait of the times, the places and the people who defined the immigrant experience, claiming their portion of the American dream with ambition and resolve, cutting it to fit their needs like the finest Italian silk.

This riveting historical epic of love and family, war and loss, risk and destiny is the novel Adriana Trigiani was born to write, one inspired by her own family history and the love of tradition that has propelled her body of bestselling novels to international acclaim. Like Lucia, Lucia, The Shoemaker's Wife defines an era with clarity and splendor, with operatic scope and a vivid cast of characters who will live on in the imaginations of readers for years to come.  (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I'm not a huge fan of Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap series.  I liked them, don't get me wrong, but they just weren't my cup of tea.  This is nothing at all like her previous books.  At all.

Trigiani has penned a novel that easily could be coined an epic.  Spanning two continents, two lifetimes, and giving insight into a time of history we tend to overlook (pre-WWI into the Great Depression), she has crafted a story that stuck with me more than I realized during my reading.  She has held nothing back, meticulously crafting her descriptions of the food, the scenery, smells, clothing, motions, and other characters.  While some readers may get bogged down, I thought it did nothing but enhance the story - breathing a deeper, fuller life into the characters than otherwise could have been achieved.  I loved how the mountain itself became a character.  I loved the span.  I loved the lifelong development of the characters - to me, it was such an organic development I found myself with wet cheeks as one character dies.  Frankly, I can't remember the last book that has made me cry hard enough to actually have tears leave my eyes.

I was a little daunted when I first picked up this book on recommendation from my neighbor.  It's long. (It's been a crazy busy time of year, but there's a lot of description to fit in.) However, I was completely surprised at how quickly it read.  Frankly, it may have been a little too quickly - I enjoyed it so much!

The only qualm I have about giving this five stars is the unrealistic depiction of the Depression era.  The characters seemed to be utterly untouched, like the Great Depression just didn't exist in the Midwest, and that just didn't ring quite true.  (I'm a little bit of a history geek and stickler, though.)

My Rating:  Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few scenes where sexual relations are mentioned, but they are not explicit.  It's more of the "this happened, so here we are" kind of a deal.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Horse Lover - Alan Day

Summary:He already owned and managed two ranches and needed a third about as much as he needed a permanent migraine: that’s what Alan Day said every time his friend pestered him about an old ranch in South Dakota. But in short order, he proudly owned 35,000 pristine grassy acres. The opportunity then dropped into his lap to establish a sanctuary for unadoptable wild horses previously warehoused by the Bureau of Land Management. After Day successfully lobbied Congress, those acres became Mustang Meadows Ranch, the first government-sponsored wild horse sanctuary established in the United States.
The Horse Lover is Day’s personal history of the sanctuary’s vast enterprise, with its surprises and pleasures and its plentiful dangers, frustrations, and heartbreak. Day’s deep connection with the animals in his care is clear from the outset, as is his maverick philosophy of horse-whispering, with which he trained fifteen hundred wild horses. The Horse Lover weaves together Day’s recollections of his cowboying adventures astride some of his best horses, all of which taught him indispensable lessons about loyalty, perseverance, and hope. This heartfelt memoir reveals the Herculean task of balancing the requirements of the government with the needs of wild horses. (summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I loved this book. And yes, I am biased because I love horses. But it wasn’t just about the horses. I mean, sure, there were plenty of horses and all (it is about a wild mustang ranch after all), but it was a really great look at ranch life and politics in the ranching business as well.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got this book. The author, Alan, is Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s brother, so I expected that he would be intelligent and well-spoken, but since he’s a cowboy, I wasn’t sure what the actual writing would be like. Well, it turns out it was great. Not only was the book very well-written, but I loved his insight and conversational style.  It made the book really accessible. He had a way of telling the story and bringing to life the events of the past that really made it interesting. The author is a kind person, very insightful to both humans and animals, and he conveyed that well in his writing. It really is great that way.

I read this book quickly. I’m never sure what to expect with memoirs, sometimes they are a long slog and in the end it’s been months and months, much like living the person’s life in real time. I read this in just a few days, picking it up whenever I got a chance. It really was captivating and interesting. 

Although I had quite a bit of exposure to horses when I was growing up, I didn’t live on a ranch. We had a couple of acres with our house and arena and we had show horses, so I was actually not familiar with this type of ranch life. I found it fascinating and I loved hearing about Mr. Day’s experiences and knowledge about the horses and the ranch. One thing I really liked about the book is that he didn’t skip over the difficult things. Ranch life isn’t easy for the cowboys or the animals, and when working with wild mustangs, it’s even different because no one has much experience with them to start out with. Mr. Day was a pioneer in working with the mustangs and I enjoyed hearing about his successes as well as the times he had to learn something the hard way. He is an honest, hard-working man, and one who I feel privileged to have learned from in this book.

The Horse Lover is not just for horse lovers. Anyone who loves memoirs or reading about nature or animals would especially enjoy it. It really has something for everyone.

My rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some mild cowboy language as well as ranch situations that include the death of some animals, although nothing is gruesome or irreverent about the deaths. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Time to Die - Nadine Brandes

Summary: How would you live if you knew the day you'd die?

Parvin Blackwater has wasted her life.  At only seventeen, she has one year left according to the Clock by her bedside.

In a last-ditch effort to make a difference, she tries to rescue Radicals from the crooked justice system.  But when the authorities find out about her illegal activity, they cast her through the Wall -- her people's death sentence.

What she finds on the other side about the world, about eternity, and about herself changes Parvin forever and might just save her people.  But her Clock is running out.  (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review: Parvin is utterly forgettable.  She's spent her whole life in Unity, doing nothing much more than surviving.  She sews.  She reads.  She doesn't understand it, but she also craves life.  With one year left on her Clock, she's granted special status by her government: a few wishes, some extra money.  But they can't grant her deepest wish - she wants to be remembered.  She wants to change the system - go back to a time when Clocks didn't dictate everything. What she truly wants is a trip (just a trip) over the Wall to see what is on the other side.

Oh, my goodness, I couldn't put this book down.  Brandes has crafted such a compelling story that just grabbed me from the first pages and wouldn't let go.  Parvin is stronger than she thinks, but completely relatable.  She felt real.  Her motivations weren't always altruistic, she has her own inherent flaws, she makes mistakes, but she does her best.  She has a growing relationship with God, which compels her after her exile to continue to strive, but never did I feel like the relationship was preachy or obligatory.  In fact, it added to the storyline in such a way that I found it integral.

There were points that this book reminded me of both Legend and the Divergent series -- the elements of fear simulations, neighboring (but not necessarily friendly) societies with radically different socioeconomic philosophies, but they were combined and presented with enough newness that it didn't bother me.

This is the first in a series of books, and I can't wait for the next installment!

My Rating:  Four and a half stars.

For the sensitive reader:  There are two scenes of involuntary amputation, a surprise delivery, and a shocking murder, but other than that, the raciest it gets is some hand holding.  

Monday, September 29, 2014

Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth Wein

Summary: While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that's in store for her? (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Oh my. I really loved this book. It’s the companion book to Code Name Verity, and as I’m sure you remember (haha!) Code Name Verity is one of my top fave books. (In case you don’t remember, here is that list again).

So it’s no surprise that I really loved Rose Under Fire as well. In fact, I dare say that I read this one more quickly and was more entranced by it. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a concentration camp book. They’re always an emotionally difficult read and at times I have to actually stop and just step away because it is horrific to read about the sufferings and tragedy, but I think it’s important that I do read them and that I do periodically step into that horror and remember that this really happened and that, as the old adage says, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” And I think this is the appropriate time to reconfirm once again that I hope Hitler is burning in hell even as I write this. Just putting that out there.

This story is inspiring, as it shows strength of character and devotion and resilience in situations where it would appear there is no hope. The characters are a fine mix of both ordinary and extraordinary people who are put in impossible situations and who face them with strength and bravery. I loved that the author did so much research and when I looked into some of her resources that she used (especially the internet resources), I was able to confirm that many of the characters were based at least in part on women who survived to tell the tale of what really happened in Ravensbruck.

This is a juvenile fiction book, but don’t think that because of that it’s going to be light sauce on the horror of the concentration camp. In fact, I think this book has some of the most realistic descriptions of day to day living in this particular camp, and probably others as well. However, because it was written for a YA Fic audience, those situations are very clearly written and understandable, possibly in ways I hadn’t understood before.

After reading Rose Under Fire, as with many historical fiction topics that I find fascinating, I got a little obsessed and searched out some of the references Wein includes in her “General Bibliography” and “Internet Sources.” And that includes getting some books on interlibrary loan from my own library. I’m serious, people. That’s a commitment for me.

Rose Under Fire is certainly the kind of book that not only brings you through the actual situation, but leaves you wanting to research and understand more. I found it very well-written and heartbreaking. If you love historical fiction, especially the World War II genre, or even if you haven’t read a book on concentration camps in awhile and you are feeling like it’s time to go there again, you should definitely give it a try.

My Rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is based on actual accounts of women who lived in Ravensbruck, so it is horrific, but is on par with others of its genre.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Park Avenue to Park Bench - Michael Domino

Summary: On long daily walks around Manhattan, Mike Domino meets some amazing characters and listens as they tell their stories.  He finds them everywhere — parked on benches, stoops, or bar stools.   (Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.)  We meet, and even learn to love these only-in-New York characters through the twenty, mostly factual stories of this highly readable romp along the streets of a city that Mike Domino obviously loves.  Manhattan has its own Studs Terkel. (Image and summary from parkavenuetoparkbench.com.  I was given a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  I've only spent a few days in New York as an intern way back in 2001.  It certainly wasn't long enough, and I would have been happy to park myself in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and watch the people of New York the entire time I was there.  Michael Domino seems to have done just that - with the benefit of being a resident and having years to collect stories and friends from all walks of life.

Domino has a very readable style.  His easygoing manner in writing made me feel like I knew him; like he was somehow a distant relative I kept in contact with and was shadowing.  His collection of short stories felt a little disjointed at times, as in one story he'd talk about living alone on a ground-level apartment, the next he's been in an 11th story apartment with a view for twenty years, but he's also married and doesn't live in the city.  I had to remind myself (with this and with another story that just stretched my belief a little too far) that these stories are "mostly factual" and chalk it up to literary license, but had I not read the book straight through and had just been reading a story here and there, it wouldn't have bothered me a bit.

Domino has done his best to capture the "It" factor that makes New York so captivating.  It's not in the glitz and the glamor, it's in the life teeming throughout the island.  His stories made me long for a trip back -- perhaps this time to people-watch a little more.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Language.  Lots of language.  Domino is primarily talking to regular old Joes on the street, and that includes some pretty rough characters with some pretty salty language.  It nearly made me quit as I felt he could have captured the essence without the foul language.  Also, there's a pretty gruesome murder.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Unbelievable Truth - Dr. Graeme Garden and Jon Naismith

Summary:  Enter Mr. David Mitchell’s amazing Cabinet of Curiosities and prepare to marvel at this hand-picked and lavishly illustrated compendium of incredible facts, each one painstakingly culled from the hugely acclaimed BBC Radio and Australian TV show The Unbelievable Truth. Plus—try your own truth-detection skills over a series of ingenious comic essays on a diverse range of subjects, from Armadillos to Sir Walter Raleigh, by the show’s co-inventor Dr. Graeme Garden. Each essay contains five incredible truths, tantalizingly concealed amongst a host of barely credible lies. The Unbelievable Truth is hosted by the award-winning actor, comedian, and writer David Mitchell, and was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 2006, since when it has become one of BBC Radio’s most popular and successful shows. (Summary and Image from amazon.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review:  I grew up playing Trivial Pursuit and watching Jeopardy!.  I love random facts!  I don't know what it is, if it's the further understanding of a topic, or because I think it's fun to have weird, random, fascinating tidbits to toss in a conversation when it comes up, but I've always been drawn to them.  The Unbelievable Truth is based on the BBC program QI, where contestants try to sort fact from fiction.

Ooh, this book was so much fun!  There are a plethora of topics to choose from, each receiving two pages of factoids.  Some facts are a little racy (I skipped over a few), but most are delightfully surprising.  I absolutely loved diving into this book and surprising my family with the crazy facts therein.  (My son is very much like me ... he loved me reading this book, too!)  

Even better, this was a quick, quick read.  I've been suffering from a reading rut, and this book was a perfect book to break through that.  However, it made me want to check out QI.

As this book was from an international publisher and based on a british program, many of the facts were tailored to a British audience.  Some facts reported in British pounds, but the majority of them are broad enough that it was only rarely I was reminded that I'm not British.  In no way did it really detract from the fun of this book.

My Rating:  Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few sections that were not quite appropriate for all audiences.  Those were easy to skip over. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Banned Books Week 2014

I found an amazing article today out of Arizona that did a great job of detailing why we celebrate Banned Books Week. It also included a list of the ten most challenged books last year, along with the incredible news that NO BOOK was banned, according to the ALA. PROGRESS!!

Check out the article here: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/mesa/2014/09/22/hunger-games-one-of-many-books-challenged-in-2013/16054491 and don't forget to come back and tell us what you think!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Mum is in Charge - John O'Neill

Summary: The story Mum is in Charge' is based on true events, covering the period 1939 to 1945, with some flashbacks to earlier years. It is related by youngest child of the family, with a host of interesting, exciting, challenging moments. 
There is a close encounter with death, the controversial friendship with an old lady ghost, sadness, hardships including school bullying, which developed into what all families need, a bonding as a single unit. The making of a few close friends, which grew into a happy camaraderie. The experiences of a young infatuation and romances. There are veiled secrets which are for the first time revealed after seven decades, and brings into play emotional heart searching. 
It is Mum who had the most common sense in the family and turned all types of situations into acceptable realities, resulting in Mum is in Charge'. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: At the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I lived in a neighborhood that everyone referred to as “newly wed and nearly dead.” We were, of course, on the newly wed side, although we were among the oldest of the newly weds. The next closest in age to us were people who were 70 years old, and it just went up from there. We lived there for about four years and we really enjoyed it, and we got to know a lot of the older couples. We still stay in touch with them, mostly in the form of Christmas cards. Ours are slick, complete with photo and print-on-demand, and sometimes we’ll include a witty poem about our goings on of the year. Theirs are always typed, but much less froofy and are obviously from an era where texting wasn’t the main form of communication. K thnx bye ttfn cu l8er

Mum Is in Charge reminded me of that. The writing is almost stream of conscious—like you’d picked up in the middle of an ongoing conversation, a reminder that people did actually write long letters back and forth and didn’t necessarily expect a response within the minute. R u there? In fact, Mr. O’Neill talks a lot about keeping a scrapbook, and spent a lot of time keeping it up, so this book ends up being a unique memoir. Obviously a lot of information in it is taken from his perspective of events as they were taken at the time, with the added bonus of his perspective of those same events as an older man.

This is a gentle little book, reliving one of the most important parts of history through the eyes of one who was actually there. The author describes in great detail what it was like to be a youth in England during World War II, living not only the important, flashy parts of the war, but day to day life as well. For this, I find this book invaluable. It is told in little stories and vignettes of remembrances and memories and although I found this a little bit difficult at the beginning, I really enjoyed it by the end. It was a genuine peak into someone’s life during this great historic time.

This book is not a dramatized version of all the important things happening to one person in one brief novel. Instead, it’s a lovely memoir of one man recalling his past and giving the gift of his memories. If you are a WWII or history buff or even just love reading memoirs, you should definitely look into this book.

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

My rating: 4 stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is some mild language and some teenage sexual exploits, but nothing too shocking. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Of Blood and Brothers: Book Two - E. Michael Helms

Summary:  Following the unexpected death of his father, reporter Calvin Hogue is eager to resume writing his weekly serial featuring Daniel and Elijah Malburn, brothers who fought for opposing armies during the Civil War some six decades ago.

After its resounding victory at Chickamauga and subsequent defeat at Lookout Mountain/Missionary Ridge, the Confederate Army of Tennessee has fallen back to winter quarters at Dalton, Georgia. Spring arrives, and with it come thousands of fresh Union troops to reinforce the armies under the command of General William T. Sherman. Soon the Federals launch a relentless offensive against the greatly outnumbered Confederate army, determined to take the vital railhead at Atlanta.

The Confederates make the first of many valiant stands at Resaca, but are flanked and forced to retreat toward Atlanta. During a fierce battle near the small town of Dallas, Daniel suffers a severe head wound. His “pards” report he’s been killed, but he comes to and is captured. Sent north to Rock Island Prison, Daniel faces a new war—surviving the harsh conditions and cruelties to which the Southern captives are subjected.

After unwillingly leading Union forces on a raid through the Econfina Valley, the Malburns’ lifelong home, Elijah learns the Federals’ next objective is to capture the Florida capital of Tallahassee. The Confederates confront the invaders south of the city at Natural Bridge, and after a vicious battle win a striking victory. Elijah survives the fight, but he’s had enough of a war he wanted no part of. With Union forces scattering in disarray, he and beloved family slave Jefferson desert and set out for home.

The South finally surrenders, but the peace is far from won. Freed from prison, an expectant Daniel faces an arduous, year-long trek home only to find his dreams shattered and his world forever changed.

Trouble stalks the Malburns in post-war Florida. Amid the violent days of Reconstruction, Daniel and Elijah face continuing conflict, family turmoil and heart-wrenching tragedy as they struggle toward a hard-earned and costly reconciliation.  (Summary and Image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review:  I found myself giddy to receive the concluding book of E. Michael Helms' series Of Blood and Brothers.  I was so excited to find out how the brothers would reunite (praying it wouldn't be on a battlefield), what would happen with Annie, and I wanted to know what caused the rift I sensed in the first novel.

Helms has done a great job continuing the brothers' stories and propelling the overall story of the Malburn family forward.  I appreciate seeing different sides of the war than I'm used to (Daniel's time in Rock Island and his journey home), and I was fascinated by his journey home.  Elijah's desertion felt so organic I didn't even question what he was doing, which surprised me.  The grief that the Malburn family feels upon receiving the erroneous news of Daniel's death shook me.

I also appreciated the story continuing on through the Reconstruction, detailing the stress, the worry, and the boiling animosity between the South and the encroaching carpetbaggers.  Unfortunately, the story switched points of view so quickly during this section I found myself confused more than once whether it was Danny or Eli wreaking havoc.  The conclusion to the arc was dramatic and sorrowing ... but the overall conclusion felt a little trite.  I guess it's because I was expecting more of an understanding as to the rift between brothers that I sensed in the first book.  Either I imagined that rift, or that storyline was unresolved.  

My Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Wartime battles, postwar and POW violence, and cold-blooded murders.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Flip - Michael Phillip Cash

Description: Julie and Brad Evans are house flippers. They buy low, clean out the old occupants junk, and try to make a profit. Enter Hemmings House on Bedlam Street in scenic Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. Too good a deal to pass up, but with an ominous secret. The old Victorian Mansion has dwellers that do not want to be dispossessed. As the house reveals it's past, will the couples marriage survive The Flip? (Summary and pic from goodreads.com.  I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review: Well. This was a fun little book.  Right from the start, you can tell it’s a ghost story with poltergeist-type ghosts, and it appears that these ghosts are not about to hand over their old Victorian mansion to just whoever.  [Cue appropriately dramatic music] This book doesn’t really pull any punches—it is what it is. It’s a ghost story with some love stories in it, peppered with some good old-fashioned ghostly encounters.  If you’re looking for a ghost story that won’t necessarily have you scared out of your wits but will certainly come back to you if you visit any run-down Victorian mansions, then this is your book.

I wouldn’t say the premise to this book’s plot is anything shocking or new, but it certainly does a good job of creating a spooky environment.  In fact, I think that’s its greatest strength. It’s not like you’re literally too scared to read, but more like fun scared. The characters are unabashedly handsome and beautiful, and although their relationship appears perfect on the outside, there are, of course, some demons (pun totally intended) in the closet. I wouldn’t say I necessarily related to the characters, but I was certainly right there with them when they were being all creeped out by former residents of the mansion.

I am not a huge reader of hard core horror, especially if it involves a lot of gore or creepy satanic things, so this was a fun read for me and definitely my kind of horror. My brother-in-laws watch really disgusting horror movies that only hard core horror lovers even know about. Compared to those, this book is “Watcher in the Woods” (which is totally a compliment, by the way. NAREK!) It’s relatively low commitment: it’s not a literary slog nor full of confusing and inane things.The writing is really accessible and it’s a total page turner. I read it in about a day.

So if you’re looking for something fun, fast, and with a good ghost story, you should check it out. It would be perfect for Halloween readers who want something sort of light sauce or for anyone going somewhere really old and cool like the Winchester Mansion or old Victorian homesteads. You know, just to get in the mood.

My rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and one or two mild sex scenes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Strands of Bronze and Gold - Jane Nickerson

Summary:  The Bluebeard fairy tale retold. . . .

When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

Glowing strands of romance, mystery, and suspense are woven into this breathtaking debut—a thrilling retelling of the “Bluebeard” fairy tale.  (Image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: Of all of the princes or villains that I was introduced to as a child, Bluebeard is the one I'd least like to meet.  Blackbeard (I always thought they must be cousins), although not a fairy tale, is someone I'd LOVE to sit down and chat with.  But Bluebeard?  Creepy!

Jane Nickerson is forthright that the fairy tale of Bluebeard disturbs even her, but her retelling is masterful. Set in antebellum Mississippi, Nickerson has crafted the perfect world for her Bluebeard's dealings.  His isolation of our heroine Sophie, his dual personality-one for the charmer, one for the controlling side, his flattery, generosity and simultaneous demands of repayment ... this book read like a manual "How to Spot a Bad Relationship". 

It was disturbing.  It was frightful.  It left me feeling dark and icky, that although Sophie was able to see what kind of man her godfather is, that although she is bright and independent, she still allows the traps to be set.  I think that was Nickerson's point - run while you first can.  Run, and don't look back.

I couldn't help but think of that Twilight study - that Edward and Bella's relationship fits every question used to define an abusive relationship.  This book would as well, but this time, Nickerson paints the relationship in a most unflattering light.  Sophie wants to escape.  She desires it to all end.

Did I regret reading the book?  I don't know.  Nickerson is a good author, and has done a fantastic job retelling a disturbing story.  Did I feel dark and icky? Yes.  Was I supposed to?  Yes.  Will I be checking out more of her books?  Yes ... I don't think she can get creepier than Bluebeard!

My Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  de Cressac's character is a horrible man.  There are multiple murders (only one plays out in the book), one near molestation, and the entire novel is about an abusive relationship.  Although the heroine does escape for the best in the end, it is disturbing.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Lights Out - Melissa Groeling

Summary: Even when the lights are out, he can still see you…
Paul Holten’s profession doesn’t leave much room for doubt or conscience but he’s reaching his breaking point. The nightmares are getting worse, the jobs are getting harder to finish and the volatile relationship with his boss, Aaron, is falling apart. Now faced with the possibility of an impending death sentence, Paul makes the fatal decision to run. Drawn into one hellish situation after another, he’s forced to confront his dark past---and wonder if perhaps dying isn’t the better option. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com.  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review: Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa. Just whoa.

Right from the start this book is compelling. First off, it has a character who is instantly unlikeable but also really interesting. He’s been trained to do a job—not necessarily of his own volition—and he is good at it. But he isn’t the one who calls the shots. He’s a man who is trained to kill and is not only good at what he does, but has no choice. He’s got nothing to lose as he feels he’s already reached the bottom, but he really has nothing to gain either, since his life is not his own. So you can see where this is going. Someone with no choice but to do what they’re told—to kill who they’re told—will be pretty good at their job.

This book is gripping right from the start, and once it gets going…well, you’d better plan on just reading. I was particularly exhausted one night, thinking I would just read a chapter to relax before going to sleep (cause, ya know, murder is so relaxing), and then two and a half hours later I was wide awake, reading, wondering how long it would take me to finish the second half of the book.

The story is compelling. You feel like you’re cheering for the characters against almost insurmountable odds. There’s a lot going on and a lot at stake and all you can do is just readreadreadreadread with the hopes that it will all be over soon and end how you want it to.

I am being purposely vague. I don’t want to give anything away because this book is a serious trip. If you like gritty, non-stop action, murder and mystery and mayhem and keep-you-gripped-to-the-end-unpredictable-adventure-in-a-crime-novel, this book is for you.

But let’s address the elephant in the room. This book is violent. Like seriously violent. Like Girl with a Dragon Tattoo violent. With children. Yeah. So if even the idea of that makes you want to ralph up your Froot Loops, you should pass on Lights Out. If you can overlook this, then you should certainly give it a try. If you have read any of the Scandinavian wave of crime novels and you’re fine with that level of violence and gore, you should be fine with this. I do not think I can overstate the level of violence. There were several points where I was trying to decide if I could even handle it (but it’s not like I’m some sort of hard core violence person or anything) but once I felt like I was pushed to the edge, it would stop and give me a reprieve. Because of this, however, I do not know if I would read it again.

My rating: 4 stars.

For the sensitive reader: This book is extremely violent both physically and sexually, and some violence involves minors. No sensitive reader should read it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bossy Pants - Tina Fey

Summary: Before Liz Lemon, before "Weekend Update," before "Sarah Palin," Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey's story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon -- from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy.  (Summary from Amazon.com and image from npr.org)

My Review:  I have always found Tina Fey to be hilarious.  What I didn't realize is how TV-edited she is!  This book is crass.  Very crass.  If you have any aversion to swearing or harsh language and crude jokes, this is NOT the book for you.  If you can turn a blind eye to those things, or even enjoy the humor that slides into the gutter at times, it's the hilarious Tina Fey you're used to but without a filter.

I listened to this on audio, so one of the aspects I found jarring was the jumping around of chapter to chapter with regards to topics.  It really didn't feel like one chapter had any connection to the previous or subsequent.  I'm sure this was easier to follow with the visual of the chapter headings, but listening made it confusing at times and disjointed at best.

One of Fey's charms is how unassuming she is.  I adore the fact that she honestly doesn't think she's attractive, that she doesn't view herself as anything special, and she knows that a lot of success is working hard, and having connections.  I enjoyed seeing how her career took off.  It's always interesting to see how people's trails are blazed.  Her openness to share how precarious her success and the show 30 Rock was in the beginning is authentic; it doesn't seem that much on TV is authentic any more, so this was a nice change.

A friendly warning to those who are conservative: Fey is a die-hard liberal and makes it very apparent in this book.  If you don't like jabs at all things not liberal, this won't be your book.

Rating:  3.5 Stars

Sum it up:  Tina's hilarious perspective on how her life has come to be.


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