Friday, July 31, 2015

The Berlin Candy Bomber - Gail S. Halverson

Summary:  The Berlin Candy Bomber is a love story-how two sticks of gum and one man's kindness to the children of a vanquished enemy grew into an epic of goodwill spanning the globe-touching the hearts of millions in both Germany and America.
In June 1948, Russia laid siege to Berlin, cutting off the flow of food and supplies over highways into the city. More than two million people faced economic collapse and starvation. The Americans, English, and French began a massive airlift to bring sustenance to the city and to thwart the Russian siege.
Gail Halvorsen was one of hundreds of U.S. pilots involved in the airlift. While in Berlin, he met a group of children standing by the airport watching the incoming planes. Though they hadn't asked for candy, he was impressed to share with them the two sticks of gum he had in his possession. Seeing how thrilled they were by this gesture, he promised to drop more candy to them the next time he flew to the area.
True to his word, as he flew in the next day, he wiggled the wings of his plane to identify himself, then dropped several small bundles of candy using parachutes crafted from handkerchiefs to slow their fall. Local newspapers picked up the story. Suddenly, letters addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings" began to arrive as the children requested candy drops in other areas of the city.
Enthusiasm spread to America, and candy contributions came from all across the country. Within weeks candy manufacturers began donating candy by the boxcar.
In May 1949, the highway blockade ended, and the airlift ended in September. But the story of Uncle Wiggly Wings and the candy-filled parachutes lives on-a symbol of human charity. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)
Summary: I've known the story of the Berlin Candy Bomber, or Uncle Wiggly Wings for most of my life.  It's always been a favorite, but the pleasure of reading the story from the source was immeasurably wonderful.  Let me get this out of the way - there are a lot of typos and spelling errors.  As a grammar freak, that was pretty distracting to me.  There's also a lot of pilot-ese, and as I'm not a pilot, it bogged down the story for me a bit.  But, was it worth it?  Absolutely.
Halverson talks about his experiences flying the blockades to deliver fuel and food to West Berlin in detail.  He talks about how quickly the "Enemy" became human, and wonderful, incredible, amazing people at that.  His promptings to do just  a little more were so touching that I couldn't stop reading.  
Halverson also writes at length about the consequences of his decision to "bomb" Berlin with candy.  He talks about the few times they attempted to bomb East Berlin - which nearly ended in war, he talks about the opportunities and the blessings he and his family have experienced as a result of his decision to launch "Operation Little Vittles" -- which, as a side note, why don't we have awesome operation names like that anymore?  
Of the most touching inclusions are the photographs and photocopies of the letters, maps, drawings, and pleas from the Berliner children.  It was so heartwarming to see their gratitude, but to also see how it changed them for generations.  
I received this book as a rereleased book - I think it's been republished three times now.  My copy had what read as two or three epilogues, but it just strengthened the charm of the story.  Halverson set out to make thirty kids smile.  He ended up bringing hope to a beleaguered city and joy to generations of descendants.  His story hasn't grown old.  I doubt it ever will.
Rating: Four stars - I could have bumped it up had it received a little more thorough editing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Have Gavel, Will Travel - Robert Braithwaite

SummaryWith a jurisdiction covering southern Utah’s national parks and wide-open wilderness areas, you might think Judge Robert Braithwaite’s only cases were between crickets and tumbleweeds. 

Not even close.

Over a twenty-seven year judicial career, he’s seen everything: bighorn sheep poachers in ultralight planes, canoodling nudes, duck killers—and each case got weirder the more he learned. Join Judge Braithwaite as he recollects these stranger-than-fiction stories and takes you inside the real legal process.

Poignant, quirky, and full of life, this book includes cases that were decided in state-of-the-art courtrooms, a Quonset hut in Big Water, and—when occasion called for it—in the judge’s front yard. Entertaining and eye-opening, this is one book you’ll have to read to believe.
 (Summary and image from goodreads.com.   I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Robert Braithwaite is the successful, soft spoken, uncle at family reunions you're dying to sit next to because his stories are the best.  His recounting of some of his youthful adventures in the areas he now sits as a magistrate had me in stitches.  His trials are revisited with tact, clarity, honesty, and the right amount of discretion.  Some trials Braithwaite relates are hard to read, I admit, but he handles it with a grace that speaks to his education.  Others are just so funny, I couldn't help but recommend it to my attorney friends.

Braithwaite has a way with words, but he also has a serious respect for the land, the law, and our role in protecting and observing both.  I joke with my husband that there are very few issues in which I can tout myself as a liberal, but land conservation is one of them. I think it's an inherent Utah matter.  Living that close to the most beautiful part of nature just rewrites your heart somehow.  I was reminded of that as I read his book, not only of the role we all play in the preservation of our national parks, but of the Utah-ness of some of those feelings.  There just aren't adequate words to explain what I'm trying to convey, just go read the book.  You'll get it.

It came as no surprise to me when in the appendix (because every former attorney has to include an appendix), Justice Braithwaite revealed that his daughter is Ally Condie of Matched and other books.  Writing clearly runs in the family, and it made me appreciate his book even more. 

Rating: Four stars -- I wish it were longer

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some discussion of the growing problem of drug traffickers in the National Parks, a murder trial, and a date rape trial.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Counting by 7s - Holly Goldberg Sloan

Summary: 7 Things to know about Willow Chance:
1. She's different (as in strange).  And a genius.
2. Almost everything interests her.  But some things--like plants and medical conditions--interest her more than others.
3.  She has learned--the hard way--that life can be extremely unfair.
4.  She understands that family is what you make it, and that the people who understand you and choose to have you in their lives are the most important people.
5.  She doesn't have a lot of friends, but she would do anything for the ones she does have.
6.  She knows that the most wonderful thing in the world is feeling like you belong.
7.  Her story will make you laugh, cry, and appreciate your friends, family, and the things around you in a whole new way.  (Summary from back of the book and image from Amazon.com)

My Review:  If you are looking for your next feel-good read after Wonder, this is your book.  (Spoiler!!! Although, not a huge one since it occurs in the first part of the book.) Willow is an adopted only child who must grieve the loss of her parents and learn to move on.  But that's just a basic gist of the story.  There is so much more.  Willow is incredibly unique, her character truly multi-faceted, and quirky as a child can be.  She's pretty much the epitome of TAG (Talented and Gifted). She's also endearingly accepting of others and the most logical thinker I've come across in a children's book.  And this is only the main character.  The rest of the characters are as deep in complexity and flaws as Willow.  I think that aspect is the reason this book is so poignant.  Each character grows, evolves, and develops into people you do more than just tolerate; you start to care about them. 

My second favorite aspect of this book is the details.  Sloan is masterful at weaving in details--not too many, but not few.  While you think you can picture Willow, her parents, the Nguyens, even Dell, the descriptions are just enough to give you an image, but not the whole picture.  Sloan paints Willow's parents as such incredible people--mind you, all of this is from the perspective of a child--but you learn details like her mother being the kind of person that elicits smiles from almost everyone just by her presence.  The details are nuanced, subtle, powerful. 

The third (and final, for the purposes of this blog) aspect I love about book is one of the underlying messages it shares.  Jairo mentions to Willow that she is his angel there to guide him.  I believe Jairo truly believes this, but in reality each person is in some way an angel for someone else.  Pattie Nguyen is an angel for Dell as an impetus for change.  Mai is an angel for Willow by intuitively understanding and advocating for Willow.  Jairo is an angel for Willow driving her to places she cannot as a small child.  In so many small ways these interactions between each character shows how they are all angels for each other.  This is the message I love:  We are all here to help and learn and grow from each other.  When we reach out to help each other, when we look outside ourselves and give, that is when we, and the world, are at our best. 

While this is a children's book, and the ending is so very 'feel-good' there is still plenty of pain and suffering.  I feel comfortable handing this book to my 9 year old for content, but I also know she'd grow and learn more about tragic loss and human interaction than from many books aimed at her age group. 

For the sensitive reader:  This is pretty clean.  There is only a reference to the teenage boy enjoying TV shows that have women playing volleyball.

Rating: 5 Stars

Sum it up:  A beautiful story of heartbreak over death and healing.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton

Summary: Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam-a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion-a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed…"

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office-leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist-an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand-and fear-the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth. (Pic and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: This is a tough book to review. I mean, I want to review it—it was really a cool book—but I’m going to have to be very careful about what I say because there are so many surprises and twists and turns that I don’t want to ruin it for future readers.

And you should read this book. It’s really very cool.

First off—and this is always a must—I enjoyed the writing style. It was more than just readable, which is really important to me. I like to be able to understand what’s going on. I don’t want to feel like I have to slog through stuff (and if that makes me a low brow reader, so be it) and be confused, but the reading has to be more than just readable. Many (not all, don’t get confused) writers are readable in that it’s a quick read and the writing doesn’t get in the way, but a good author is able to be very readable and also have an art and a style that is tangible and sets a really cool mood for the book. I don’t like it when the style comes in and takes over and leaves me feeling like it was only about the writing, never the story. I like it when an author writes in a way that enhances the story and when I look back, I can feel a certain mood and a consistent feeling. I think Burton does this and does it well. After having read this book I am able to associate a certain feeling and a mood and an environment in the story, and I attribute that to her writing.

Secondly, I thought the character of the miniaturist was fascinating. It really was so very interesting and I found myself being just as captivated and drawn into the detail of it as the main character, Nella was. I can’t say much more than that because I don’t want to reveal why it became more and more interesting, but I loved the layering and depth of that character’s story.

I also enjoyed the story itself. In its most fundamental element it wasn’t that shocking or that unique of a story, but because of the well-developed characters and the other elements that Burton has created in her novel—like the miniaturist—it really ended up being a very good story. Some of the twists were very surprising, but not everything was completely unforeseen. That’s okay. Sometimes I like it when stories aren’t into twists just for the sake of it.

I recommend this book. I enjoyed it a lot. It wasn’t a perfect book in all respects, but it is certainly worth the read.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book does have a fair bit of discussion about sex and some discussion of homosexuality, including one fairly graphic scene involving two men. It is a brief graphic scene, but the discussion of sex and homosexuality is fairly prevalent throughout the book. I would not, for instance, read this book with my church book group. I would, however, read it with my other book group who reads a wide variety of genres. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Small Moments - Mary M. Barrow

Summary:  Jim Crow. Segregation. Separate but equal. At the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, these words mean little to Mary, an eleven-year-old Southern transplant in New Jersey. Forced to grow up in an place so unlike her old home, Mary clings onto one thing she knows and loves: Amelia, her family's African American housemaid.

At once a stern caretaker and a tender mother-figure, Amelia's constant presence in Mary's life gradually exposes Mary to the rippling tide of unrest and inequality spreading through the nation, as well as the violent and heartbreaking ramifications of the Tuskegee experiment.

Based on a true story, "Small Moments" is a gripping and heartfelt tale of how one uneducated and underprivileged woman taught a young girl to see the world not in terms of color, but in terms of kindness, equality, and love.  (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)


Review: Mary and her brother Chuck have been sent on a train with their nanny, a woman they call Mimi, to travel to a new home in New Jersey, away from the South, away from the poisoning influence of their father's family, and away from everything they know.  Everything is foreign, everything is changing, and the only continuity they feel is through their contact with Amelia. 

Small Moments is an memoir of sorts, as Mary navigates her childhood, looking back at a child's perspective of the Dawn of the Civil Rights movement, but being heavily influenced in her views by her love for Amelia, an African-American nanny who has left everything behind to work for Mary's family.  Her father, a man full of anger and so willing to lash out, is  vitriolic on his views of virtually everything, but Mary's own outlook is tempered by conversations and experiences she lives through with Amelia.

This is the first memoir I've ever read where the author isn't the main character.  Not only was it refreshing, but it blessed the narrative with a gravity to the experiences, the triumphs, the defeats, and the emotions that Barrow is trying to impart.  It brought to life the struggle that children raised in the 50s and 60s experience.  As a memoir of a child, the book leaps forward as a memory would, showing only scenes that stick out in Barrow's memory, and through the eyes and understanding of a child.  I was surprised that this style didn't frustrate  me.  Somehow, I found it purified Barrow's voice.

I write this review on the heels of numerous race riots in the past few months.  My heart is saddened to read of the longstanding police brutality and inaction in certain cities.  Picking up this book (I assure you, perfectly by accident) during this time deepened the meaning of Barrow's love of her Mimi, cast a deeper shadow on the inequality still present.  Small Moments is a book of hope.  It's a book of a child learning to view the world not as told, but as experienced.  It's a banner of hope that through our actions, we can rise, learn, improve.  Juxtapositioned with the news these past few days, it has served as a reminder to me  to be more vigilant with my own family.  To teach them to truly SEE a person, not just look.  To remind them that what we do is more important than what we say.

I felt this book deeply.  I can't imagine loving someone as deeply as Mary clearly loves Mimi and knowing, as Mary does, that her feelings are in some way unrequited.  This book serves as a tribute to Amelia, and it holds up beautifully.

Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The N word is used a few times, and used as an offense.  There are also a few diatribes of Barrow's father, who was as prejudiced as many men were at that time.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Adventures of Loriel the Wood Fairy - CJ Walery

Summary: Loriel is worried by the lack of communication from her Grandfairy Cyce and makes a journey to her cottage in the Forest of Echoes, to find it empty. Upon arrival she finds Grandfairy Cyce has been kidnapped by a goblin. This part of the story tells how Loriel, Padra (the house mouse) and Anya (the pet hummingbird) all help to save Grandfairy Cyce.

Loriel is frantic with worry because she knows that goblins must be dangerous (not to mention smelly) and she will need to make a plan that does not endanger Grandfairy Cyce.

(Summary from the back cover of the book, pic from goodreads.com).

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

My Review: I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by this book. After reading the summary on the back, I was excited. It seemed like something my kids would really like, and I thought the story sounded promising. My kids have to do a certain amount of reading every night for school, and my first grader had run out of library books but still had 20 minutes left to go. I decided to have him read this book, because he’s all about supernatural and fantastical things. Well, he started reading and he didn’t get it. Now, this is not unusual—depending on his hunger, what time it is, how many Lego ships he got to build, and the lunar cycle of the moon aligning with the voodoo calendar, and whether he’s happy or crabby as all get out. So I chocked it up to the latter and figured I’d read Loriel myself later.

Cue later.

Well, I read it. And I was confused. Like I had no idea what was going on a lot of the time. I think that part of this was due to me thinking that it would be written like a continuous story, and it turned out to be smaller adventures, sometimes divided into chapters, sometimes not. Then sometimes there would be a new section with a totally new adventure going on. This was confusing. I think the characters were also confusing and there were a lot of names of elves and other creatures. That was part of my son’s confusion—there were a lot of names and things going on, some relevant to the story and some not, but there were enough of them and he’s young enough that there were too many to keep track of while also trying to follow the confusing story.

Unfortunately, the book wasn’t that well-written either. It reminded me of something a younger writer would write as far as the storytelling style i.e. “this happened and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” There’s an art to writing simple, beautiful things, and I think this book was more complicated than it should have been for the audience it was written for, notwithstanding the immature writing style. The type is big enough and the stories short enough that it should be for a younger reader, whereas the complexity and confusing nature of the stories totally lost my younger son. My nine-year-old son wouldn’t read it because it looks like a small, simple chapter book.

While I appreciate the effort it takes to write a book and publish it, it is the nature of the literary world today that there are a lot of really great books for younger readers and unfortunately this book falls a bit short.

My rating: 2 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is a clean children’s book.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Textastrophe: A Collection of Hilariously Catastrophic Text Pranks - Matt Andrews

Summary:  Once upon a time, prank phone calls were the best way to procrastinate, but in 2015, they’re so passé. Instead, Matt Andrews has mastered the art of prank texting. What happens when you offer to barter two sub-sandwiches for a used motorcycle? Who do you call when you want to build a mysterious man cave in your basement? What do you do if you need a knight in shining armor to deliver you to your high school reunion? If you've ever left a "contact me" pull-tab at your local grocery or posted an ad on Craigslist and received insane and unbelievable text messages in response, Andrews is very likely to blame. We'd be mad at him if we could stop laughing long enough to hit "send" on the exceptionally witty come back we thought of...too bad he's already moved on to his next target and deleted us from his phone, now only to be remembered in these pages of his laugh-out-loud funny book. (Summary and image from goodreads.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review: Were you a prank caller?  Are you a pill?  Do you just love getting someone's goat?  How about having a good-humored laugh with people getting pranked?  This might be the book for you.

I'm sure that you've seen those prank emails that sometimes float across your tumblr page or your Facebook feed.  The one my husband remembered seeing is the kid texting the cleaning lady to come help him clean an utterly demolished and vandalized house.  Matt Andrews is the genius behind that gag.  What else was he to do as a bored cell-phone salesman with a display case of untraceable phones all day?

I have yet to learn my lesson that books like this are best enjoyed one snippet at a time.  However, I tip my hat to Andrews.  He's a pill, but he's a very creative one.  Most of his texts were hilariously executed, but one or two I found simply cruel, crude, or unimaginative.  You can't please everyone.  For those that were funny, I can't fathom how he thought up the gags and kept them going for so long.  

My Rating:  Three Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is some foul language (okay, quite a bit of it.  People get testy when they figure out they're being had.), some phallic images covertly used as "advertising" for various "businesses", and I felt a little embarrassed for the prankees at times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular - Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

Summary:  Bright siblings—and amateur inventors—Nick and Tesla Holt are back for another thrill-a-minute adventure. This time a Hollywood movie is being filmed in town, but the real drama happens when the cameras are turned off. Mystery awaits behind the scenes, and the whole production may shut down unless the DIY detectives can crack the case, with the help of their friends Silas and DeMarco and a fresh assortment of homemade gadgets. Featuring instructions for all-new movie magic projects that kids can build themselves, this whiz-bang adventure is sure to delight fans of the series. Science and electronics have never been so much fun! (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  In my son's words, awesome.  We're five books into an incredible STEM series that my kids and I (yep, my daughter has jumped on the Nick and Tesla train as well) are loving, and this latest installment is no disappointment.

I have to echo a fellow book blogger's sentiments.  It's so refreshing and so heartening to see a capable, inquisitive girl active in STEM activities.  My daughter (who is as girly as they come) wants to be a paleontologist when she grows up.  Guess how few girl-oriented science activities and toys there are out there?  Very few.  It's getting better, but it's a struggle.  But in this series, my daughter has a role model not far from her own age who is actively experimenting, problem-solving, working through all sorts of issues, and relishing in her own intelligence.  As a mom, there's nothing more I could ask for!

As for the book itself, this felt like another holding-pattern book.  I know there's this big mystery about there about what Nick and Tesla's parents are doing, where they really are, but I want there to be some progress in that front. This installment is a good character-revealing book as for how each of our protagonists are dealing with this big mystery, but as for forward movement, there was less than I wanted to see.  That being said, it's well done.  My kids are already excited to try out some of the experiments -- this may well be the Summer of Nick and Tesla!

My Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Pretty clean.  There's a little smack talk going on, but nothing too terrible.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

Summary: An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur's chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleventells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it. (summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I can’t help but love the premise of this book: “Survival is insufficient.” (And no, I don’t watch Star Trek: Voyager, where this quote came from. I’m entirely too not-geeky for such things, although my husband is geeky enough for the both of us).

So the premise. I love it. As a musician myself, I love the idea that in a post-apocalyptic world where things are really bad and everybody’s killing everybody else (or everybody that’s left, in this case), and  it’s hard to even get your next meal, and you may get killed by exposure to the elements, and you’re just trying to figure out if you’re the only one left in the world or to know where you’re supposed to go or do or if the world always going to be like this, where after all of The Things That Are Bad and Wrong, there are people who understand that art (and in this case, music and theatre) are important. That they make a difference. That they take the normal life and elevate it, not only when but especially if things are hard and horrible. Art touches a part of the soul that chicken soup just can’t. It awakens a part of us that’s buried.  And I loved that they caravanned around with horses and tents and just went from town to town performing. That this was their purpose in life, even when their life was so different from when they first decided this. I guess I really just loved that there were people dedicated enough to their cause—a cause I believe in myself—that things didn’t change much for them when in reality, All the Things had changed.

This book is scary. I am always at least a little paranoid after reading a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. You know, buy a mini-van full of canned goods at the next case lot sale kind of paranoia. This one was no exception.  I used to be more fearless before I had kids. I guess if I die its one thing. I can scramble around and do what I have to to survive. Or not. Whatever. But my kids? Yeah, so then I buy a mini-van full of canned goods. This was also frightening and it’s measured, spare writing made it that much more so. It was not as scary as some other dystopias, though, because for the most part the flu killed off everyone it was going to (and by everyone, I mean 99% of the population) in short order and then the rest of the people were at least left with the knowledge that they wouldn’t die of that flu. Maybe just a nail they stepped on or an ear infection. Yeesh. I’m getting paranoid again. But the writing was seriously beautiful and artistic and really made the novel what it is. There are plenty of dystopian novels out there, right? This one certainly has some of the same things as far as that goes. I mean, we all understand that our iphones wouldn’t work anymore and the internet would be gone (ah, but I remember the days before the internet) and mini-vans full of canned goods would be a thing of the past. However, I really felt that this one was different. It was beautiful, it was interesting, and the story itself was almost secondary to all of that, even though it was a really great story as well.

I would liken this book to others like The Night Circus or Like Water for Elephants or The Help wherein the author’s ability really make the novel what it is. I highly recommend it.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is almost no language or sexual content in this book, although it is an adult book and does have some themes that may not be appropriate for children. There is some violence although it’s rather tame all things considered.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Serena - Ron Rash

Summary:  The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash's masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.
  (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review:  There is a lot to be said for traveling back in time through a book.  In the hands of a good author, a book can take you directly to a different time, a different place, or a different memory.  However, if the author is not quite on his game, the illusion can fail.  (Think the whole penny scene in Somewhere in Time, but maybe not so extreme.)

Ron Rash is a master scene-setter. Wherever the scene he was crafting took place, I felt like I was stepping through the pages of the book into wherever he was taking me.  It was easy to get lost in the scenes, and I appreciated it.  It made me want to keep reading.

Unfortunately, the story itself did not grab me as much as I had hoped.  I admit that this is a personal preference, but I feel like characters in the story need to have at least one redeemable quality, however slight, to make them believable.  I have never met or studied any individual who doesn't have at least one good quality.  Rash's characters, both the titular Serena and her husband Pemberton, are wholly without any such quality.  Not even their love for one another can be counted, as they both plot against one another mercilessly.  It's hard to feel bonded to a character that just screams UNREAL.

This absolute lack of humanity completely halted the story for me.  I didn't understand the motivations, I didn't care about the setbacks.  Their triumphs and defeats were hollow and two-dimensional, and it ruined Rash's mastery of the setting.  Even the ending, which I could tell was meant to be heart-racing and shocking left me feeling like I could FINALLY put the book down and walk away.  After starting the year with such grabbing books, this left a poor taste in my mouth.

Rating:  One and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Murders, gore, violence, nudity ... while all fairly tastefully handled, these are wholly corrupt characters, and their actions define that.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The One and Only Ivan - Katherine Applegate

Summary: Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope. (pic and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: The thing I like—no love—most about children’s books is their ability to be brief. And simple. And sometimes subtle, but not always. Seriously, a good children’s book can really capture all of this and stay away from all the drama and long-windedness of adult books. Wherein adult books feel that they have to HAMMER.YOU.OVER.THE.HEAD with their point (I’m looking at you, Barbara Kingsolver), children’s books can also have controversial topics and pull at your bleeding heart heartstrings and it’s all good. And I do love Kingsolver, by the way. She’s brilliant and some of her books are my fave of all time. But seriously. I can think for myself.

Not all children’s books are all epic and fabulous and right on the mark, so don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of trite and lame children’s literature out there, and some of it actually talks down to the child which makes me wonder what child in the whole wide world would ever be interested in reading such a thing. But it exists.

But that’s neither here nor there because The One and Only Ivan is one of the good ones. It has short, simple chapters. There is quite a complex story going on, with a very detailed history both of the circumstances the animals are in right now (oh the sadness and tragedy of a shopping mall zoo!) as well as the circumstances they came from. I loved that the characters had a lot of depth, even though we spent a relatively little amount of time with them all things considered.  There is loss and sadness, triumph and joy, and geez…just writing about it makes me realize how much was accomplished in such a simple story.

I thought this book was beautiful. It has a very lovely story and a moral (beyond that shopping mall zoos suck) that I think kids can relate to. Since I have kids of my own and I know they love animals and I have personally spent a lot of time at zoos with them, I know that they have a connection to animals and an understanding that I don’t have. There is patience in understanding what an animal is all about that kids can really connect with, and I think because of that my kids would really love this book and understand what it was all about. They would get the not-so-subtle suckery of caged animals in a shopping mall zoo with no habitat, but they would also understand the real story—that sometimes we have to be brave and stretch ourselves to accomplish what we should become. I definitely recommend this book to adults who love JFic as well as children.

My Rating: 4 stars.

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean, but it is really sad. Very tender-hearted children, especially in regards to animals, may have a hard time.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Rebel Queen - Michelle Moran

Summary:  When the British Empire sets its sights on India in the 1850s, it expects a quick and easy conquest. After all, India is not even a country, but a collection of kingdoms on the subcontinent. But when the British arrive in the Kingdom of Jhansi, expecting its queen to forfeit her crown, they are met with a surprise. Instead of surrendering, Queen Lakshmi raises two armies—one male, one female—and rides into battle like Joan of Arc. Although her soldiers are little match against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi fights against an empire determined to take away the land she loves.

Told from the perspective of Sita, one of the guards in Lakshmi's all-female army and the queen’s most trusted warrior, The Last Queen of India traces the astonishing tale of a fearless ruler making her way in a world dominated by men. In the tradition of her bestselling novel Nefertiti, which Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, called “a heroic story with a very human heart,” Michelle Moran once again brings a time and place rarely explored in historical fiction to rich, vibrant life. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  I feel like I need my own strand of pearls like the rani's to clutch as I try to review this book.  It is simply written, artfully crafted, heartbreakingly delivered, and, in a word, is worthwhile.  This is one of the most heartbreaking periods of history, the seizure and humiliation of a nation - of kingdoms, principalities, and peoples - all in the name of Western Progress.

Sita has lost her mother and any hope for a normal future within a few days of each other.  She confides in her father despite threats from her grandmother and shortly thereafter begins training to audition for the Queen's private guard - not only a daunting task, but one that would truly take a miracle to bring to pass.  Through Sita's eyes, we witness Moran's retelling of the rani's bravery in the last years of her kingdom.  We see the despair at the loss of both her son and husband.  The fears of rebellions in neighboring kingdoms is brought to light.  Even a deliciously infuriating subplot of subterfuge and court life is richly included, all through the eyes of our guard.

It reminded me of M.M. Kaye's writing and novels, although not as encapsulating or as epic.  I don't mean that disparagingly, Moran has focused on Sita and her personal involvement with the fall of India,while Kaye uses her characters to cover decades and continents of history.  But the subject matter, the ability to pull a reader in and make them care, the ghosts of smells and colors just lingering - it made me want to go dig out my Kaye novels and enjoy an India-centric readathon.

I devoured this novel in a day.  It surprised me how much I enjoyed it - I was expecting less than was delivered, and am quite pleased with what I was given.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The British policy of conscripting comfort women is brought to light and impacts one of the more prominent characters in the book.  There is murder, there are accounts of the horrific murders and acts of torture both sides perpetrated upon one another.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

Shutter - Courtney Alameda

Summary: Micheline Helsing is a tetrachromat—a girl who sees the auras of the undead in a prismatic spectrum. As one of the last descendants of the Van Helsing lineage, she has trained since childhood to destroy monsters both corporeal and spiritual: the corporeal undead go down by the bullet, the spiritual undead by the lens. With an analog SLR camera as her best weapon, Micheline exorcises ghosts by capturing their spiritual energy on film. She's aided by her crew: Oliver, a techno-whiz and the boy who developed her camera's technology; Jude, who can predict death; and Ryder, the boy Micheline has known and loved forever.

When a routine ghost hunt goes awry, Micheline and the boys are infected with a curse known as a soulchain. As the ghostly chains spread through their bodies, Micheline learns that if she doesn't exorcise her entity in seven days or less, she and her friends will die. Now pursued as a renegade agent by her monster-hunting father, Leonard Helsing, she must track and destroy an entity more powerful than anything she's faced before . . . or die trying.

Lock, stock, and lens, she’s in for one hell of a week. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: The first thing that caught me about this book is that it’s scary. It’s not scary like many YA paranormal novels that tend toward the dystopian—ya know, that your whole life is gonna end in one big catastrophic event, i.e. sun spots, nuclear war, zombies, or everyone’s personal favorite, the totalitarian government. No, this book is more scary in the ghostly and creatures from other realms scary. And I liked that, actually. I liked that in this alternate world, these things were accepted and it was normal that ghosts and other entities were around. Other books from this same genre often start out with the assumption that paranormal happenings are rare and not accepted and that part of the struggle is convincing people they exist. I’m still questioning sparkling vampires. It’s not like that in this book. The population at large is well aware of ghosts and otherworldly entities and they understand that there is a special group of people who fight them, both by training and by lineage. And this really was a game changer, actually. The book operated within a realm of “this was already normal.” You have to accept it as the reader because that’s just the way it is. It added an extra layer of complexity that I liked. When civilians or government entities are working with the Special Forces team, they are operating within the law and within the normal society and that just makes everything different.

This book was written by a children’s librarian, and she’s competent in her writing. It isn’t the sometimes-typical drivel of other paranormal teen books (cause hey, let’s just whip those babies out like nuthin’ and start raking in some cold hard cash) and her writing has a proficiency that I really appreciated. The main character is snarky and a little rough, but it’s handled well, and I thought it made her believable. There is some language (because let’s face it, most teens have a little language), but there is no unnecessarily dropped f-bombs or crassness that is just used by lesser writers. And I loved the geeky name dropping throughout the book, even beyond the cool premise that these were the descendents of the original Dracula hunters. I found other paranormal names in there, not necessarily even used in a paranormal sense, and I felt like I was part of the cool kids when I did (Hello Mulder and Scully!).

My one complaint about this book is that there is a steep learning curve in the acronyms and language. Because you are immediately immersed in a society where this organization and ghosts are the norm, Alameda has invented a complete lexicon to go with that. As that is what it would be like to step into that slice of life, those of us living in this paltry existence take a little while to catch up. And I did catch up, although sometimes I still was a little confused about stuff. It didn’t take away from the book, though, I just had to pay attention and refer back a few times as necessary.

So if you’re in the market for a fun paranormal read, this is definitely a good one to check out. I’m hoping she writes another one because there was definitely room for more in this fun world she’s created.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is some language and mild sexual content, but it is on par with other books in the genre.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Winter People - Jennifer McMahon

Summary: The small village of West Hall, Vermont, has experienced a number of disappearances over the years. It has also seen its share of tragedies including that of Sara Harrison Shea who was found savagely murdered in her field in 1908.

In present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother and younger sister. She wakes up one morning to find her mother missing. While searching for clues, she finds Sara’s diary hidden under a floorboard in her mother’s room.

As she searches for her mother, Ruthie worries that history might repeat itself as she reads Sara’s diary. (Image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Who are the Winter People? They are the loved ones more commonly known as ghosts who walk in the shadows. This book attempts to answer the question: Would you bring a loved one back if you could?  It answers the question but also delves into the results of that answer in a horrifying manner.

Winter People combines elements of mystery, suspense, and horror. In the present day, Ruthie is searching for her missing mother while in 1908. Sara is dealing with the disappearance of her daughter. Ruthie lives in the farmhouse where Sara was found murdered and finds Sara’s diary. McMahon tells both their stories, alternating viewpoints and chapters. She brings elements of suspicion and suspense to both parts.

While I found the concept interesting, I did not find it as readable as McMahon’s other novels. She captures the characters voices well. Overall, McMahon does a great job capturing both voices. She also delivers some unexpected plot twists along the way. There was something unsettling in the story, however, it seemed as if there were many contrived elements that overlapped. For me, it was a matter of too many coincidences overlapping so as to make it unbelievable. This unbelievability pulled me out of the story.

The resolution at the end seemed rushed, and not in a good way. There were some unanswered questions and the final resolution made me uncomfortable.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Elements of violence, gore and savagery. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene Wecker

Summary:  Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899. 

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.

The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.
 (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review:  Warning; writing a book review months after reading the book is tricky.

So why then did I just not review the book?  Because I found it beautiful.  I loved Wecker's style of writing, and reading after the fact that she chose the heroes she did, a golem and a jinni, to bring to life and to entwine her and her husband's histories further endeared me to the book.

The story feels effortlessly crafted.  It was easy to lose myself in the story, knowing that the golem wasn't ever quite a woman, that the jinni wasn't ever a man.  The threat, which was more layered and complicated than I anticipated, never felt forced.  So many books introduce a threat because the author needs there to be one, but the whole book was so well-crafted, I felt like it had organically sprung from the ground and had been plucked, prepared, and served up by Wecker.  I love books like that.

This wasn't a heart-racing, drop-everything-and-read book, but I would confidently classify it as a perfect rainy day book.

Rating:   Four stars

For the Sensitive reader:  There is a brutal beating of a woman, and as Chava comes to her friend's defense, her attacker is left unconscious and clinging to life.  The jinni seduces a socialite.  The disgraced rabbi, a larger threat than initially perceived, is an overall icky guy.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Gone Reading Summer Sale!

If I had my way, summer would be nothing but this:


And with my kids out of school, and all three burgeoning bookworms, we're doing a LOT of reading around here!

A few weeks ago, gonereading.com contacted me to see if I wanted to review any of their products to recommend to our readers.  I browsed their site, and refrained from asking for ALL THE THINGS!  But to my delight, they had the cutest shirt with that picture available!  (Image is a screenshot of the site.)  I contacted GoneReading, and they sent me two different shirts to try out.  

Seriously, guys, there's not a better shirt for lounging in.  They fit well, mine has only gotten softer and more comfy every time I've washed it, and who wouldn't want a constant reminder to just read and sleep?! Especially in the summer!

I've loved this shirt, and guess what?!  It's on sale right now, with a ton of other incredible finds!  Go check it out at gonereading.com, and then come back and tell me what you've found!

I received the tshirts in exchange for an honest review.  And trust me, if I didn't like them, I'd have told you.  My biggest issue is hiding it from my kids!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory - Caitlin Doughty

Summary: A young mortician goes behind the scenes, unafraid of the gruesome (and fascinating) details of her curious profession.

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Doughty learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Doughty soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Doughty's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Doughty argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead). (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I fully expected this book to be similar to something Mary Roach had written. In fact, I thought it would be the crematory version of Stiff. I was…wait for it…wrong. It did have some background and history of cremations and death practices, but it was nothing like the usually very in-depth look at whatever topic Mary Roach was explaining. This was more of a memoir of Doughty’s work in a crematorium, with a large and healthy dose of her beliefs in death practices and the treatment of death in American society. Since she is now a licensed mortician, she definitely knows a lot about it and isn’t just pontificating.

I think this is a good addition to other books about death. I really like how she addresses death in our society, as well as exploring other societies and their death practices. It is obvious she has an agenda, but it isn’t like it’s one that has some serious opposing views, more like most people are unaware of their choices in regards to death. I felt like she did a good job of exposing the almost charlatan-like practices of mortuaries today in a manner that was not overbearing. While I probably won’t bury my loved ones in my backyard when they’ve passed, I did find it interesting to read about the natural death practices movement that I had no idea about.

And the thing that made this book even better? It’s funny. Like really funny. Doughty has a great sense of humor. It’s sometimes shocking—this book is about crematories and death, ya know—but it does make for a good read. Her writing is easy and it makes a topic that is sometimes hard to read about palatable.

One of my favorite things, though, was reading through the websites she referenced. I waited until the book was over (because I like to build up to this kind of thing) and then explored her Order of the Good Death site, as well as other sites that were linked to it or referenced in it. I love doing that kind of thing. Just when you think you have pretty much seen or heard everything, the internet reveals a small microcosm of culture to which I am just not exposed.  If you read this book, and I think you should, I highly recommend reading her recommended websites that go with it as well. Plus, it isn’t very often that you get to look at pictures of skeletons and mummies and death scenes and be all legit about it.

My Review: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has a lot of discussion of death and burial of adults, children, and babies, and for that reason is could be startling or offensive to some readers.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dead Wake - Erik Larson

Summary:  From the bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania

On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.  (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review: Nonfiction books have a reputation.  They're wonderful, as a whole, but don't you find them rather dry?  I've found myself plodding through some books, not because the subject is dull, but because the book itself is written like a college report.  There's so very little life to the words on the page that they seem as dusty and antiquated as items from the actual event being related.

Erik Larson doesn't have that problem.  If an author can so vividly describe a scene with so much vitality and life that I not once, but repeatedly, call my husband to see if we could go to the event (which ended years ago), I call that talent.  (I may or may not have asked my husband on multiple occasions to take me to the Chicago World's Fair.)  I also excitedly await new books.  This one certainly lived up to my expectation.

I am a reader, my husband is not.  He tolerates my reading, and sometimes, even lets me pull him along in a story.  The poor man is also claustrophobic, and this book is full of submarine life.   I was fascinated.  I was so caught up I kept reading him passages, only to glance up and see him turning a little green with the thought of  experiencing German Submarine Life.  I feel kind of bad, but at the same time, what amazing talent!

The sinking of the Lusitania is tragic and terrible and fascinating and influenced so much more than I had realized.  Larson's research is impeccable, his delivery so engaging that it's impossible to put the book down.  His ability to breathe life into history is so incredible, even nonreaders or non-fiction antireaders (Is that a thing?  People who just won't read nonfic? It seems like it would be a thing.) will find themselves swept away in the story - the lives, the tragedies. and the humor is all so wonderfully encapsulated.

If you find yourself wanting to venture into nonfiction and are intimidated, or if you're already a fan of the genre, this is definitely a must read.

My Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Claustrophobia-inducing passages, absolute tragic deaths of children, women, and men who were either unable or thrown from lifeboats (not deliberately, but many of the lifeboats were unable to be launched properly, upending and dumping the passengers into the sea), talk of decomposing bodies, and massive loss of life.

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