Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk - Kelli Estes

Summary: The smallest items can hold centuries of secrets...

Inara Erickson is exploring her deceased aunt's island estate when she finds an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. As she peels back layer upon layer of the secrets it holds, Inara's life becomes interwoven with that of Mei Lein, a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before. Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth that will shake her family to its core — and force her to make an impossible choice.

Inspired by true events, Kelli Estes's brilliant and atmospheric debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.
  (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: Have you ever been to the San Juan Islands? I must admit that I had never even heard of the San Juan Islands until one of my good friends planned a girl’s trip for the two of us to her hometown of Seattle. As part of her growing up years they would go camping in the San Juan Islands, and so we spent about three days on the islands of San Juan and Orcas. Friends, it was amazing! Seriously! Orcas was my favorite. As a girl from a very cold and very dry state, I was utterly blown away by how lush and green and beautiful it was. Seriously. I’ve got to get back. My good news to you today is that this book takes place on Orcas Island! Gah! I was so excited about this when I started reading it. I’m not sure I would have appreciated the beauty and magic of the island had I not actually been there myself.

This book takes place on Orcas Island and in Seattle, and it takes place during two different times. I’ve read many books like this before so it’s not like this was new to me, but I like the two different stories. I’m still not sure that the modern story was completely necessary, I mean, it did provide a good vehicle for the reconciliation of things in the end, and it was a good catalyst for beginning the story, but the historical fiction story was compelling enough that I think I could have stood alone. However, having the two stories worked. There were times when it seemed a little disjointed—almost random—but in the end it had a nice tie-in. As with all books that are able to pull this off, there was that inevitable tension that comes from switching time periods right when things are getting exciting in the other story. This made it a fast read—I was always trying to figure out what was going to happen and so I would keep reading. Then the other story would get compelling, but then I would be thrown back into the other story…lather, rinse, repeat. It really does make for an exciting book.

I felt the book was decently written. In other words, I didn’t notice the writing, per se, which is a good thing in that it wasn’t completely crappy or forced. On the other hand, it wasn’t completely beautiful and poetic. That’s okay, though. I don’t think all books have to be like that. Don’t get me wrong—I love and greatly appreciate beautiful writing—but sometimes I just like a book where the writing stays out of the way of the story. It’s accessible, it’s not clunky, and it allows for a smooth creation of the characters and events.

I did like this book. It was sad. I was completely unaware of this part of history, and I feel like it’s one of those stories that, although not as epic and sweeping as some, is significant enough that I’m glad this author was able to create a compelling story around it. And let us not forget the magic of Orcas Island! I feel like this really played a big part of it. Some authors do a good job of utilizing surroundings and making them part of the story, and I think the author did a great job with this. If you are into historical fiction or chick lit or even Orcas Island, I think you would enjoy this book.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book would be rated PG-13 for some disturbing historical scenes of violence, as well as some minor language and sexual content. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

Summary: The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. 

Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.

Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way--a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a "game" to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved--the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them--are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

But when Celia discovers that Marco is her adversary, they begin to think of the game not as a competition but as a wonderful collaboration. With no knowledge of how the game must end, they innocently tumble headfirst into love. A deep, passionate, and magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

Their masters still pull the strings, however, and this unforeseen occurrence forces them to intervene with dangerous consequences, leaving the lives of everyone from the performers to the patrons hanging in the balance.

Both playful and seductive, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's spell-casting debut, is a mesmerizing love story for the ages.

Image and summary from 

My review: This is a book like no other. Don't judge a book by it's cover--that's what they say. It was definitely the cover art that attracted me to this book. And so many good reviews! A comparison to Harry Potter! This has been on my TBR list for ages and I finally got to it with relish and...I was disappointed. (On a side note, I think any comparison to Harry Potter is a kiss of death.)

Morgenstern's prose is like a beautifully woven tapestry. The story is simply stunning - visually impeccable considering that a novel has nothing to do with sight. That makes this novel unique. But I always felt I was kept at arm's length from the characters. I was watching a story, a play...I was a member of an audience rather than being part of the story like most reading experiences create. It worked for this book in a way because the reader is in the audience of  Le Cirque des Rêves. I never developed an attachment to any of the characters or rooted for any particular outcome. The competition, the villains, the protagonists all fell flat for me. I kept turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen, but nearly anything could have happened and I would've been okay. Everything about the story was quite two-dimensional for me and I couldn't help but feel let down after all the hype around this book. 

My Rating: 3.5 stars

To sum it up: A beautiful fairy tale that is more intriguing than enthralling.  

For the sensitive reader: One "f" word early in the book had me concerned that there would be strong language throughout, but it was an isolated incident. The romance was sweet, violence was minimal, and language was minimal. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Nightmares!: The Sleepwalker Tonic - Jason Segel & Kirsten Miller

Summary:  Nightmares! The Sleepwalker Tonic is the sequel to the hilariously scary New York Timesbestselling novel Nightmares! by multitalented actor Jason Segel and bestselling author Kirsten Miller. You thought the nightmares were over? You better keep the lights on!

Charlie Laird has a dream life.

1) He has a weirdo stepmom who runs an herbarium. 
2) He lives in a purple mansion with a portal to the Netherworld.
3) Since they escaped from the Netherworld, he and his best friends have been sleeping like babies. 

But Charlie can’t shake the feeling that something strange is afoot. Charlotte’s herbarium used to be one of the busiest stores in Cypress Creek. Now her loyal following is heading to Orville Falls for their herbal potions.

Weirder, though, Orville Falls is suddenly filled with . . . zombies? At least, they sure look like the walking dead. Rumor has it that no one’s sleeping in Orville Falls. And Charlie knows what that means.

Things are getting freaky again. (Summary and image from

Review: Charlie was so happy that his nightmares were finally his friends.  After the whole mess a few weeks ago, he was relieved to finally sleep some, to have a better relationship with his stepmom and his brother, and to put the fear of trolls taking over the Real World behind him.

But then some dude wanders into his town from the neighboring town, buys a bunch of paint, and drives into a pole... all while asleep. Sort of.  And things in the Netherworld aren't as they seem.  

I don't know why I'm constantly surprised that Segel is such a good storyteller.  This series is so imaginative and so much fun to read! Everything I loved about Nightmares! applies here.  I love that Charlie is a real kid.  Sometimes he's a jerk.  Sometimes he's a genius. I love that his family is in a better place now, and that there's some agreement about taking care of the Portal.  

I was so impressed that this story kept me on my toes.  I thought I knew where it was going to go, but every time, I was pleasantly surprised.  It's such a nice change to read a Middle Grade/Middle Reader book and feel surprise and freshness in the pages.

Rating:  Four stars

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination - Bryan Young

Summary: Over the course of American history, there have been only four presidents who have been forced to sacrifice their lives for their country at the hands of an assassin. These great men have not been forgotten, and their stories are told here in fascinating detail for history lovers of all ages. 

But those four presidents are not the only ones who have been close to death in the line of duty to the American people. This book, A Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination, delves into all of the major assassination attempts throughout the history of the United States, in vivid detail, illustrated by Erin Kubinek. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Yes, you read that correctly.  I reviewed a children's book about presidential assassination.  And it. Is. AWESOME!  I felt a little odd laughing at Young's recounting of some of the attempted assassinations, but frankly, they were pretty funny.  Imagining President Jackson beating his would-be assassin into submission with a cane when the attempt failed? Tell me you wouldn't laugh.

This is truly an incredible book.  Stemming from his own daughter's interest in why someone would do something so unthinkable, Young sets out to explain in simple, understandable, intelligent terms why presidents have been triggered in the past, why their assailants were motivated, and how the nation reacted every time.  He includes a nod to the Secret Service and its history, but the most enchanting part of the book for me was the illustrations his daughter supplied him with, either presidential portraits or her rendition of the assassination scene.  

Granted, this is a dark topic.  But it's frustrating for intelligent kids who truly want to learn our nation's history to only be fed crumbs.  Young realizes this and assumes that the readers of his book are smart enough to handle the material.  I found myself learning things about the presidents who had been targeted -- for example, I didn't know that Jackson was the only president to PAY OFF the national debt.  Sure, he was a horrible man, but seriously.  That's impressive.  But as someone who loves history, and who considers myself fairly well-versed in American history, I loved learning more about the topic than I had intended.  

Included in the book are any known attempts at assassination, but covered in more detail than any APUSH class would give you.  I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts when Young was interviewed.  His recounting of Roosevelt's survival had me laughing so hard, I came home and immediately sought out the book.  Yes, assassination is terrible and unthinkable, but the ways these men survived them?  Everyone should know the bravery of these men.

Rating: Five enthusiastic stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  While the subject matter is handled with the utmost care, this is a book about assassination.  Young doesn't get overly graphic, but keep in mind the subject material.  Personally, I handed it right to my nearly-ten-year-old ... a fellow history buff.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Zeroes - Scott Westerfeld

Summary:  Don’t call them heroes.

But these six Californian teens have powers that set them apart. They can do stuff ordinary people can’t.

Take Ethan, a.k.a. Scam. He’s got a voice inside him that’ll say whatever you want to hear, whether it’s true or not. Which is handy, except when it isn’t—like when the voice starts gabbing in the middle of a bank robbery. The only people who can help are the other Zeroes, who aren’t exactly best friends these days.

Enter Nate, a.k.a. Bellwether, the group’s “glorious leader.” After Scam’s SOS, he pulls the scattered Zeroes back together. But when the rescue blows up in their faces, the Zeroes find themselves propelled into whirlwind encounters with ever more dangerous criminals. And at the heart of the chaos they find Kelsie, who can take a crowd in the palm of her hand and tame it or let it loose as she pleases.

Filled with high-stakes action and drama, Zeroes unites three powerhouse authors for the opening installment of a thrilling new series.
 (Summary and image from

Review:  Hmm.  Okay, I loved the Uglies series.  I haven't found a series from Westerfeld since that I've enjoyed nearly as much.  It was with trepidation that picked up this series, courtesy of Buzzfeed's ridiculous quiz (I mentioned it in an earlier post), but I was sort of intrigued by the idea.  Normal world, normal kids, normal lives, but supernormal abilities.

I couldn't tell if I didn't like this book because of my frame of mind (pained and bored), because of the language (holy swears!), or because the story wasn't quite good enough.  I didn't love it.  The characters were decently developed, the central conflict was frankly ridiculous, and the interpersonal relationships were eye-roll inducing.  I found myself so frustrated with the main characters, who blatantly ignored the slightest shred of reason because of a personal and misguided grudge that it was hard to care for any of them.

Don't get me wrong.  This isn't a book that's just been called in by Westerfeld.   He tries so hard, too hard, to get his readers to care for every single one of the Zeroes, even the smarmy ones.  But it just fell flat for me.  Frankly, it made me worry whether I was finally too old to get the whole YA genre.  I wanted to scream at the book, "USE YOUR WORDS, silly characters!!!  Listen with your ears, and use your words!! Ugh."  And yet, I kept reading.

I don't know if I'll pick up the next book in the series.  I just don't know if I can be brought around to care for these characters.

Rating:  Two and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Gang and mafia violence, drug use, drug pushing, ridiculous amounts of the F word ... I'd think long and hard before recommending this to someone who is sensitive.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Nest - Kenneth Oppel

Please welcome back guest reviewer, Courtney Cope!
Summary:  Steve just wants to save his baby brother—but what will he lose in the bargain? This is a haunting gothic tale for fans of Coraline, from acclaimed author Kenneth Oppel (Silverwing, The Boundless) with illustrations from Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen.

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klaassen. (Summary and image from

Review: I have not been able to get this book out of my head.
It's a deep-rooted, psychological horror written for kids, and I can say with satisfaction that it terrified me. 
I have long been a fan of Kenneth Oppel's work, and was introduced to his novels years ago when I was able to meet him.  'The Nest' is quite different from his other fare, but in a good way, taking a dark, spooky path into the life of a boy with some quirky, but real phobias, and his quest to try and fix his family's heart-wrenching problem through a seemingly angelic appeal.
The story rolls out in a methodical manner, but it is in no way slow, as danger lurks on every page, and grows alarmingly the further you read.  The antagonist is truly creepy, and worthy of her nightmarish visits.  As a fan of dark tales, this one is up there with the best, burrowing itself into your psyche and giving you even deeper questions to ponder as you take this strange and macabre journey.
Childhood, while a seemingly innocent time, can also be a scary place, fraught with bogeymen and monsters under the bed, intensely real to young minds.  'The Nest' illustrates that lingering fear of what lies out there, and whether or not it is a real threat or one of the mind.  Many children suffer from these fears and anxieties, and you don't often see them portrayed in such a believable and tangible manner.

Jon Klassen (whom I've also had the pleasure to meet) sporadically illustrates the story, and his art adds to the eerie and ominous feeling.  His loose images, and the wasps that tend to multiply with every chapter heading, bring a visual edge to an already terrifying tale.
I think what I loved so much about this book was the absolute unknown, the unique and original way Oppel wove the tale, such a strange, bizarre and twisted idea that worked so very well.  I've never really read anything quite like it.  

'The Nest' is a quick read and, trust me, you will want to block out appropriate amount of time to read it in one sitting.
Rating: Four stars

For the sensitive reader: It might be a little intense and spooky for the younger reader. Think of it on the level of 'Coraline' to the power of wasps.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

At the Water's Edge - Sara Gruen

Summary: After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Truth be told, this book is a hard one to review. It had some bad things about it, but it also had some really good things about it. I think the best thing to do is to just break this down.

The Good:

I’m sad this book is over. I felt like I was in the story, and even though it was somewhat monotonous at times, it was a good monotonous in that I felt like I was there experiencing the monotony of it with the characters. When it was over, I missed being there with those characters.

My granny is Scottish and she was raised there and so I have a strong connection to Scotland. I love reading about it, and I love the atmosphere of it—its cold, it’s rainy, I feel like it speaks to me. When I read books about it, it strengthens my resolve that I need to go there ASAP.

Nessie is fun, no matter what. Whether you believe there is actually a Loch Ness Monster or not, it’s fun to read about it and have it play a part in the story, even if it is or isn’t real. Nessie’s just fun.

The Okay:

The writing was okay. It wasn’t amazing, and I am a little disappointed after having read Water for Elephants and loved it so much, but whatever. Sometimes there is magic, sometimes not.  There were some awkward writing bits in here, and it just didn’t seem as smooth as I thought someone with Gruen’s experience would be able to pull off.

The Bad:

The characters in this book were decent—I felt a connection to them—but what I did not like is that their story seemed really contrived and convoluted. So many things happened that I felt were huge leaps of conjecture. It’s like Gruen had a plan and just kept adding in more and more stuff to make that plan happen and it didn’t matter whether it fit or not. It was just really convoluted and almost soap opera-esque.

This book took on so much. It’s almost like three different books all smooshed into one—there’s Nessie and Loch Ness, there’s WWII (which almost seemed an afterthought), and there’s the abusive relationship (I’m not giving more than that away). There’s also high society during WWII. And mythic creatures in foreign lands. It just seemed really unfocused. I think there was too much going on and the author should have chosen her focus and stuck with that. As it was, nothing got too much attention and this ended up making the book seem contrived and at times trite. This also lessened the impact of the ending.

The ending. I liked the ending, all things considered, but I just think it ended really inelegantly.  The epilogue was like a whole other sequel squished into a few paragraphs, and the ending itself had come from such a long and convoluted, unfocused story that her last paragraph—which is probably the first thing she wrote and so she just HAD to stick it in there no matter what—seemed like too little too late.

So. What to do? Well, I’m giving this book three stars because I missed it when it was over. It must have made some impact on me. Its writing style and unfocused nature maybe almost knocks it down to two stars, but some of the story brings it up to four, so I’m giving it an even three and walking away and feeling generous about it.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are some pretty descriptive love scenes as well as language sprinkled throughout. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Night Gardener - Jonathan Auxier

Summary: This much-anticipated follow-up to Jonathan Auxier’s exceptional debut, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, is a Victorian ghost story with shades of Washington Irving and Henry James. More than just a spooky tale, it’s also a moral fable about human greed and the power of storytelling.

The Night Gardener follows two abandoned Irish siblings who travel to work as servants at a creepy, crumbling English manor house. But the house and its family are not quite what they seem. Soon the children are confronted by a mysterious spectre and an ancient curse that threatens their very lives. With Auxier’s exquisite command of language, The Night Gardener is a mesmerizing read and a classic in the making. (Summary and image from

Review:  Friends don't let friends read crummy books.  It's true.  They really don't.  I'm super lucky, because one of my dear friends also happens to be a school librarian.  She and I have so much time to chat over books while I volunteer in the library (honestly, my favorite volunteer post).  She mentioned this one in passing with the warning that nightmares accompanied it.  I was intrigued, and since my son was in a spooky mood, I checked it out.

Auxier has built a richly colored, varied, deep world in fewer words than you'd expect.  Every character steps out of the page, fully formed and with a backstory you can feel even before it unfolds.  His attention to every detail of the book creates such an amazing atmosphere that just enveloped me. The house, the tree -- both integral and main characters -- come with the same attention.  

The story itself is fairly straightforward.  Two children--possibly orphaned, down on their luck, and starving--are offered work for a family in the forest.  They arrive in the village to be shunned for their race (Irish), warned to leave before ever entering the forest, and realize they have no allies, save the bag lady who lives off of her stories.  And what stories she has to tell.  Of course, the children ignore their gut instinct, enter into service, and start to unravel the mysteries of the house -- why is everyone sick and blanched of color?  Who is the man that cones into the house at night?  And what is exactly behind that green door?

It astounded me how quickly the spooky and menacing aura of his entire world bled through the pages.  It didn't take long before I couldn't put the book down, even if I was a little creeped out.  And my friend was right -- nightmares accompanied it.  Hers were of the Garden itself -- the silver flowers, the threats, the mounds, and the holes.  Mine were of the cupboard -- the threat of a wish fulfilled.

Any book that can make me have nightmares for days afterward deserves a tip of the hat.  This is definitely a book that I hope doesn't get optioned into a movie.  It couldn't go anywhere but down from here!

Rating: Four Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This book is seriously creepy.  While I'd deem it appropriate for 12+, any younger than that and you might get visitors of the scared and bed-hogging sort.  There are also a few murders that are pretty grisly for the intended audience.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Red Queen - Victoria Aveyard

Summary:  This is a world divided by blood – red or silver.

The Reds are commoners, ruled by a Silver elite in possession of god-like superpowers. And to Mare Barrow, a seventeen-year-old Red girl from the poverty-stricken Stilts, it seems like nothing will ever change.

That is, until she finds herself working in the Silver Palace. Here, surrounded by the people she hates the most, Mare discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy the balance of power.

Fearful of Mare’s potential, the Silvers hide her in plain view, declaring her a long-lost Silver princess, now engaged to a Silver prince. Despite knowing that one misstep would mean her death, Mare works silently to help the Red Guard, a militant resistance group, and bring down the Silver regime.

But this is a world of betrayal and lies, and Mare has entered a dangerous dance – Reds against Silvers, prince against prince, and Mare against her own heart.  (Summary and image from

Review:  Do you remember the Grinch's dance when he comes up with his ingenious idea to steal Christmas from the Whos in Whoville?  I am not even ashamed to admit that I may have done that selfsame dance when I discovered this book.  I am ashamed, however, to admit that it came to my attention through one of those Buzzfeed quizzes Which YA Book Should You Read for your Astrological Sign?.  I know.  I went through the entire quiz (I've been down a lot lately), added every book to my To-Read list, and then requested the lot.  Some were absolute stinkers.  Some were decent.  This one?  I've got a series to be giddy about!

Mare's life isn't fair.  She has no skills (unless you count being an excellent pickpocket a skill), no apprenticeship, and adulthood is fast approaching.  No one likes growing up, but in Mare's world, adulthood means being sent to the Wars -- and very few people return.  She fears for her future, for her family, and for her best friend, and one night unburdens her soul to a kind (and really cute) stranger in the town pub. To her astonishment, the next morning she is summoned to serve the ruling family and nothing is the same.  

I am dying for more books in this series to come out.  From what I understand, there are humans and what could have been benevolent aliens who now rule Earth ... and all humans. As Silverbloods, they have supernatural powers, like the ability to control metal, the earth, wind, fire, even the air, and more.  Humans can't compete with that, can they?  Enter Mare, who is thoroughly human.  She's as red-blooded as she can be, and she can control electricity.  Unfortunately, she discovers that at the same time as everyone else, and is thrust into a world of lies, deception, politics, and rebellion.  Betrothed to one prince, but is she falling for the other?  Or for the one she's been told to marry?

Ave yard's take on the dystopian trope is fresh.  She has such an easy voice, but her story telling is fast.  Lightning fast.  This is one of those fun, easy reads that just grabs you by the shirt and doesn't let go.  I love those books!

Rating: 4.5 stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Some kisses, some murders.  Betrayal of the worst kind.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Secrets of a Charmed Life - Susan Meissner

Summary: She stood at a crossroads, half-aware that her choice would send her down a path from which there could be no turning back. But instead of two choices, she saw only one—because it was all she really wanted to see… 

Current day, Oxford, England. Young American scholar Kendra Van Zant, eager to pursue her vision of a perfect life, interviews Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets about the war that she has kept for decades...beginning with who she really is. What Kendra receives from Isabel is both a gift and a burden--one that will test her convictions and her heart.

1940s, England. As Hitler wages an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population, one million children are evacuated to foster homes in the rural countryside. But even as fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. Acting at cross purposes just as the Luftwaffe rains down its terrible destruction, the sisters are cruelly separated, and their lives are transformed…

(Summary and pic from

My Review: I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. I actively tried to convince myself that it was a great book. I like the design of the cover, I really like historical fiction, and it had good ratings. Unfortunately for me it was just okay. The story itself was pretty good. It was tragic and horrible like all things World War II, but the ending was not what I had wanted. I understand that a story has to go where a story has to go—that a good author lets the story end how it needs to, no matter what they want, but I felt like Meissner had a plan and that plan was going to happen no matter what. Although I can see why it ended the way it did, it just didn’t flow as smoothly as I thought it might. It felt contrived, actually, like too many things didn’t work out when they should have and then in the end there were way too many coincidences that worked when they shouldn’t have. I know I’m being vague here—I’m doing it purposely so—but that’s what I thought when I got to the end.

Another thing that surprised me about this book and how well it did is that everyone talked about how fabulous the writing was. Again, I disagreed. It wasn’t bad writing, and it was certainly above average, but it was not beautiful and effortless and at times it was even a little silly and noticeable (which I think goes hand in hand with the story being forced). It was fine writing, but it wasn’t stellar or even noteworthy.

Also, I didn’t love the characters. I know that people are flawed, I know that some people are genuinely unlikeable, but I don’t necessarily love books where I end up only liking one or two of the people I’ve been reading about for 300 or so pages. Maybe I was supposed to like them? I don’t know. They were weak and selfish and should have had more redeeming qualities.

Now. After all this has been said, it was a decent book. I’ve certainly read worse but I’ve also read better. For me it was just run of the mill. It doesn’t offer a lot to the genre, and I think it’s got some pretty big competitors in WWII historical fiction right now. There are some brilliant books about basically this same thing—women and children left behind in the war—so it’s hard to keep up with those other books. For instance, see my review on The Nightingale. There are lots of people who will disagree with me, I’m sure, but I feel like compared to many of the other WWII historical fic books I’ve read, this one was not one of my faves.

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some discussion of war violence and some discussion of sexual relationships, but nothing overt and it is comparable to others in the genre.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 - A Year in Review

Oh, my goodness, the year goes fast when you spend so much time recovering!  We've read some amazing books this year, some interesting ones, and some real stinkers.  But since it's New Year's Eve and all, let's just focus on the good, in no particular order, of course!

Also, have you checked out your Year in Review?  So much fun!  I wish I could link it as an infograph!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt - Kara Cooney

Summary: An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.

Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt's throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt's second female pharaoh.

Hatshepsut had successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her images were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.

(Summary and Pic from

I received a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: I am a sucker for learning about awesome, strong women. I am not a rabid feminist who thinks we should rewrite history and forget all the men, but I certainly appreciate that we’re now entering a time where women are more celebrated and talked about. I love that there are so many resources now to learn about women who were great and educated and daring and bold and brave at a time when women were not expected to be so. In fact, they were looked down on if they were. I have a master’s degree, and although I wasn’t a trailblazer per se when I received my degree, there were only a few other women in my program and I could see that it wasn’t necessarily the norm for a woman to go into my graduate field. Now…that was a decade and some odd years ago, and things have changed even since then. We are quickly moving into a world where ideally we will all have the same opportunities. This has been a long time coming, really, and it has come to where we are now by many other women trailblazers. This sermon has a point, and that point is that Hatshepsut (pronounced Hat-shep-sut) was just one of those awesome trailblazing women.

I first heard about this book when the author, KaraCooney, was interviewed on the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You. And in fact, I listened to the podcast again after I finished the book just so that I could have some more information from Cooney. I’ve read quite a few historical fiction books about ancient Egypt, and have even read a few biographies including those of Cleopatra and Nefertiti. But I’d never heard of Hatshepsut, and I feel that it is high time that there is a book about her. She was arguably the most powerful woman of the ancient world, let alone Egypt.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was its discussion of the religious ceremonies and aspects of Egyptian life. Hatshepsut was the God’s Wife of Amen, and so starting at a young age she was performing all of the rituals for the God’s rebirth each day, and this dedication and knowledge of religion and religious ceremony was one of the great sources of power she drew upon to become king. The ceremonies were most interesting and shockingly sexual (this is certainly not a bedtime read for your little tots), and I loved the cultural image Cooney was able to paint through her descriptions and writing.

Hatshepsut did many things in her life—she was extremely powerful not just as a woman, but as a king. Of course, becoming a female king was an impressive political maneuver of an intelligent and resourceful woman. One of the amazing things about this, however, is that she did it with grace, skill, and poise. She was able to accomplish a lot and didn’t need to exploit her sexuality to get there, nor become the bad woman and kill a bunch of people (hello Cleopatra!) to get where she was. She really was remarkable. I loved this paragraph in the concluding chapter: “Through all of antiquity, however, history records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power—without assassinations or coups—during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut.”

So why don’t we hear more about Hatshepsut? Why is it Cleopatra who has everything from old school movies to Halloween costumes dedicated to her? Well, the answer is complicated, and includes the obvious answer of many of her histories and buildings being destroyed by kings that came after, but Cooney addresses it a lot and I’m just going to leave you hanging because Hatshepsut is important enough that you should read this book and learn more about her.

This book was well-written and well-researched. My only complaint is that I wished there had been more about the personal life of Hatshepsut. Because of the destruction of records and her buildings and the limited personal life record keeping of the Eypgtians we don’t know much, but Cooney has covered what we do. Hatshepsut was a remarkable woman and this book brought her alive.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Due to the sexual nature of many of the Egyptian religious practices, this book has quite a bit of discussion of sex. It is not gratuitous but it is at times graphic due to the explanations of the rituals.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Christmas time is a busy, busy time of year, filled with parties, get-togethers, recitals, performances, concerts, plays, and altogether too little reading time!

We value that reading time here at Reading for Sanity, but there's something that I value something even more. Christmas itself, the chance to celebrate the birth of the Savior.

Every year my family gathers to read the beautiful, and arguably the most important chapter in the Bible, Luke 2.  It is such a beautiful recount of such a beautiful moment, and it truly brings our minds to where I feel they need to be.

Don't get me wrong, the festivities are fun, but without my knowledge of the Savior, I don't think my enjoyment in them would be as great.  This incredible video has touched me every time I've watched it. Whether I'm feeling Christmassy or Grinch-y, it brings to life why I'm here, why I believe what I do, and gives me so much joy.


This Christmas season, I want to give you a gift.  As I mentioned, reading is important in our family.  But there's one book we strive to read every day.

This Christmas, I want to share this book with you.  If you're curious about what we believe, and if you want to read this incredible book of scripture for yourself, please leave a comment with your email address.  I'll send one to you.  It means that much to me.

We at Reading for Sanity want to wish you all a merry, merry Christmas.  This is such a special time of year, and we hope it's a joyful one for you!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Barbara Robinson

Summary: The Herdman kids lie, and steal, and smoke cigars (even the girls). They also talk dirty, cuss their teachers, and take the name of the Lord in vain. The last place anyone expects to see them is in a church. 

So no one is prepared when the Herdmans storm Sunday school and take over the annual Christmas pageant. Before anyone can stop them, they're plotting revenge on Herod, frightening the angels, and burping the baby Jesus. They've got the whole town up in arms. 

How the Herdmans turn a series of disasters into what everyone agrees is the best Christmas pageant ever, is a hilarious, touching, and unforgettable tale from a beloved storyteller. (Summary and image from

Review: The Herdmans are the worst.  Lazy, liars, cheaters, thieves, master pranksters ... whenever they walk in, so does Fear.  Imagine everyone's fear, then, when the lot of them show up for the annual Christmas Pageant tryouts.  Intimidation tactics work wonders, and the Herdmans end up with all the key roles.  As you'd expect, Mayhem ensues.

This is a modern-day classic children's tale.  While the whole book deals with everyone's fear of the Herdmans and their reluctance to allow them to take part in this annual tradition, their simple, albeit naughty, pure hearts shine through.  So what if the Wise Men forego the traditional gold, frankincense, and myrrh for a ham?  It's the thought that counts, right?  And wait, what is that on Imogene's face?!  She's the worst of them all!

I have loved this book for years, and it's still one of my favorites.  Simple, funny, well-writtten, and a fast read ... this is the perfect bedtime story to pull out this time of year.

Merry Christmas.  And HEY! FEAR NOT!!

Rating: 4.5 stars

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ally's Kitchen - Alice Phillips

Summary: Great flavor knows no boundaries. 

After years traveling the globe, popular food blogger Ally Phillips has tasted almost everything. Now she’s bringing you the best eats the world can offer in a one-of-a-kind cookbook that shares recipes, meal ideas, and entire cultures. 

Whether you’re in the mood for something tantalizingly unique, like Jerusalem Eggs with Forbidden Rice & Quinoa, or comfortingly familiar, like Picasso Belgian Waffles, this book lets you wander the world without ever leaving your kitchen 

Take your taste buds traveling through the exotic flavors and textures of 

Lemon & Almond Basbousa 
Avocado Radicchio Wasabi Salsa 
Jamaican Jerk Caramelized Onion Burgers 
Makai Paka 
With ingredients you can find anywhere and easy-to-follow instructions, these recipes will bring the world’s favorite foods to your dining table so you can impress all your friends and family. Fresh, vibrant, and full of life, this inspiring collection of global recipes is guaranteed to turn your ordinary meals into memorable masterpieces.

Summary and Pic from

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

My Review: You know what? I actually really loved this cookbook. First of all, it had a really fun premise. When I first opened it I was a little skeptical because I’m a very orderly (boring? NO!) person, and so having random recipes from random places could have potentially really bugged me. I’m all about focus. I was, however, happily surprised. I liked the idea that Ally had traveled around a lot and had brought back her favorite recipes and ideas. Like I said—I was surprised. I thought I would have wanted more focus but actually I liked having a smattering of faves. It’s like someone had gone out and done all the legwork for many of the major types of ethnic foods and just picked out some of the really good ones and brought them back and compiled them. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what she did. So that’s fun, right? Wanting to try things from different areas in the world but not wanting to try them ALL for fear of getting something really gross? And then you’ve spent all this money and time on something random that is really gross and weird and you’ll never use those ingredients again. Obviously I’ve had this experience.

Secondly, the presentation was great. The pictures were pretty. It’s a really pretty book, actually. I loved that its hardbound and l loved the little snippets about her life and travels. Although I’m not really about the word “boholicious,” which she uses a lot, I liked the theme that she had going with it and I loved the little stories that went with the recipes and how to change them up and present them. I’ve read a lot of cookbooks that have personal stories in them, but Ally was obviously a more experienced, comfortable person. She’s older than the typical bloggers and YouTubers, but I liked that, actually. I felt like she had something different to offer than the standard I’ve-just-found-myself-and-I-have-five-kids-and-now-I-blog-and-am-recreating-my-life kinda jive. (Did I just say jive? I’m old, too, I guess). She is comfortable in her own skin. She’s fine with who she is. She’s traveled a lot, she’s educated, she’s found a space of tranquility and she’s embracing it and sharing it. She’s like a boholicious mother earth.

But the best part about this is that the food was delicious. Like freaking delicious. I was skeptical and thought that it would be pretty good, but the stuff we’ve tried (and there are still recipes to go! This cookbook is huge) is amazing. Our favorite and one that we still talk about and fantasize about, is the lemon pepper grilled steak with warm butter herb sauce. It is on page 51 in the “charming European flavors” section. People, it was amazing. Some of the recipes do have ingredients that are not necessarily carried in small grocery stores, but so far I’ve been able to find everything at either my normal big box grocery store or at a more farmer’s markety store like Sprouts.  Other sections include boholicious sauces & spice mixtures, the stunning Mediterranean, Middle Eastern allure, an African excursion, exploring exotic Asia, Caribbean island eats, and side trip escapades.

If you are into cookbooks and would like something a little different than your standard kitchen bibles, this is it. Its fun, it’s pretty, and it is goooooood food.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This cookbook is clean.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah

Summary: In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France...but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can...completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real--and deadly--consequences.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah takes her talented pen to the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France--a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.

Summary and pic from

My Review: I don’t know if you saw it or not, but this year’s word of the year was not a word. It was an emoji. An emoji! Seriously, people. What are we coming to? In case you were wondering, this is the emoji that won:
  . It is used to replace LOL. So. For all you old skoolers out there still texting LOL when something particularly funny comes up, you need to stop. STOP! Instead, you can be like all the kool kids and start using emojis.

Speaking of which, since this is a review (and a review of an excellent book, by the way), if I were to describe this book I would use this emoji: 

I promise you that you will find yourself like this in this book—mouth open, tears streaming down, face round and Fitzpatrick Scale default yellow. Okay, maybe not that. But I’m telling you that this book is sad.

One of my favorite genres right now is historical fiction. I love me some historical fiction. I feel like I can learn and experience history while reading about people who experienced it (even if they are just fictional). Really good historical fiction puts you right in the moment—you understand the culture, you feel like you’re part of it, and all of a sudden these parts of the past come alive. This is a book that does this beautifully. The story itself is really touching. It’s heartbreaking, actually (see above emoji), and that alone is enough to trigger steady streams of digital tears. However, one of the things I loved most about this book is that it is World War II on the home front (and in this case, the home front is France), and that home front was basically fought by women. Although these women were not necessarily out traipsing around in uniform and carrying guns, they were fighting the real fight—how do you feed your children with no food? How do you deal with an occupying army? How do you make due with the little that is left? How do you pick up the pieces from your broken men and survivors of the front-line atrocities? This book addresses these situations in a way I haven’t felt since two of my favorite books Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire.

I loved this book because it exposed me to heroism in WWII I didn’t know much about. The story itself is incredible. Hannah is a good writer, too, which makes it all the better. But be warned—as with the war itself, although the Allies won, it was not without loss and sadness. This book explores that (cue emoji).

I rarely give five stars, but I think this book is deserving. It has to be more than just well-written or a good, exciting read. I don’t just hand out five stars because I laughed or cried to an emoji-like state. To get five stars, a book needs to mean something—to change my life in some way. I would say that this book is completely worth the read. I highly recommend it. It also recently won the best historical fiction of 2015 by If you’re working your way down that reading list, be sure to add this one to it.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is about WWII and is therefore violent and sad in a lot of ways. It is not gratuitously or offensively so, however, and is on par with others in its genre.


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