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.

Friday, June 5, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Flavia de Luce #7) - Alan Bradley

Summary: Hard on the heels of the return of her mother’s body from the frozen reaches of the Himalayas, Flavia, for her indiscretions, is banished from her home at Buckshaw and shipped across the ocean to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, her mother’s alma mater, there to be inducted into a mysterious organization known as the Nide.

No sooner does she arrive, however, than a body comes crashing down out of the chimney and into her room, setting off a series of investigations into mysterious disappearances of girls from the school. (Summary and Pic from goodreads,com)

My Review: I feel like I’ve been telling you this for awhile now, and I wasn’t even so subtle when I added this series to my top 15 faves list, but if you haven’t read the Flavia de Luce Series, you really should. It’s hilarious. It’s hilarious all the time, but this book. Well. It took it to another level.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I can’t decide if I would actually like to know Flavia or just really enjoy reading her inner thoughts. On the outside, I know she’s hilarious. She doesn’t necessarily think she is—she thinks she’s got everybody hoodwinked, and for that she is a completely unreliable narrator. I guess that’s to be expected from a 12-year-old. Some characters in the books find her charming—and many more find her annoying. Suffice it to say that most people really see through her.  This makes for a most humorous read, in which Flavia is constantly doing things that are just…well. Haven’t I told you its hilarious? Seriously, so funny. So would I like to know her? I don’t know. Not if it would be at the expense of not actually reading her thoughts because peeps, she is hilarious. It’s the best kind of humor, too. Smart, sarcastic, intelligent, well-timed, sometimes subtle. We’re not talking SNL. We’re talking 12-year-old schoolgirl/amateur chemist/wannabe detective funny. Maybe that’s not selling it. But trust me.

You may find it strange that the author—an older man—would have such insight into a 12-year-old British girl from the 50’s. I’m here to tell you that he does. He has nailed Flavia. She is funny, she is smart, she is dramatic, and sometimes she is just 12, and I totally love her. She is one of my favorite characters in any series. If I’m not selling this series to you by now I just don’t know what to say.

This book was a fun addition to the series. All of the other books take place in the ramshackle ancestral home of the de Luces, but in this one Flavia has been sent to Ms. Bodycote’s Female Academy, a boarding school in Canada. She is completely out of her element. Whereas in today’s world, Canada is just one Siri chat away from knowing all things, Canada to a British girl in the fifties who has never traveled far away from home would be utterly disconcerting. Flavia handles it with the kind of, er, grace you would expect, and all kinds of shenanigans ensue.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is a great addition to this series. It introduces new characters and places and new situations that Buckshaw just couldn’t, but there is a fair amount of hearkening back to Flave’s family and home so that it still has that feel that I know and love. It is able to preserve the original charm of the books while adding to its normal line-up.

I think this is the funniest of the series so far. Bradley has really hit his stride and developed a character that is real and tangible. I am so glad the series is continuing. If you haven’t read the series, you can still read this book without the commitment of the other six. It doesn’t leave you wondering or lost. However, I promise that the series is a worthwhile read.

My Rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: This book does discuss murder, but it is not graphic or shocking. There is some mild language and teenagers smoking.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Whiskey & Charlie - Annabel Smith

 Summary:  It is less than twenty-four hours since Charlie received the phone call from his mother and in those hours his only thought has been that Whisky must not die. He must not die because he, Charlie, needs more time. He and Whisky have not been friends, have not talked or laughed together for months, years. But he has never thought it will end like this. He has always thought there will be time. Whisky and Charlie are identical twins. But everything about them is poles apart. It's got so bad that Charlie can't even bear to talk to his brother anymore - until a freak accident steals Whisky from his family, and Charlie has to face the fact he may never speak to his brother again.

(Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review:  This book was hard to read. The writing was good, the story was good, the characters were realistic—some more likeable than others, just as in real life—it’s just that the story was heartbreaking. I mean, it’s not like you can’t see it coming as the book starts right off with the one of the twins in a coma from a car wreck, and it just all seems so real. I think that’s what made it hard. And good. I mean, any time you feel like you’re actually emotionally invested in a book because you care about the characters and what happens (even if you don’t like them), it’s the sign of a good book.

I think one of the things that surprised me about this book is how much I actually really didn’t like the main characters, especially Charlie, the brother who was not in a coma. He is, for all intents and purposes, a rude jerk who blames his brother for everything. And Whiskey, the other brother, is not innocent, either. I didn’t like him, either. It was hard to decide who to side with in this. They weren’t necessarily horrible people, just unlikeable in their behavior and actions and because of that it was hard to know what to think. I don’t think I actually really liked either of them very much at all, even by the end. I liked the people around them—the wives and significant others in particular were strong and very likeable. The strength of the book really was that these seemed like real people. They had real emotions and real flaws, but also real strengths. No one was above any of the normal human fallibility, but there were some that were stronger or more capable than others. In the end it really was a realistic family, and I cared about them as a whole.

I felt like the story was, like all good stories, a vehicle in which to have you challenge your own beliefs and feelings about what you would do in certain situations. It is easy to be an armchair quarterback, per se, when you hear of families dealing with really hard situations (and there are some really hard situations in this book) but it’s another when you are actually faced with that situation. People have different beliefs and different ideas, even within a family, and this can make it really hard to come to a consensus and overcome the hurt and drama that comes, simply, with a lifetime of living.

This is the kind of fiction book that isn’t large and sweeping and seriously epic at the end, and I wouldn’t necessarily take it as a fluffy beach/vacation read, but it is a good book about a microcosm of life—the complexities of relationships, family love, and the inevitable loss and tragedy that comes from just living in this world.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and sexual discussion, but I would not consider it offensive and is on par with others in the genre.                                  

Monday, June 1, 2015

Find Momo: Coast to Coast - Andrew Knapp

Summary:  Momo loves to hide—and you’ll love looking for him! In this follow-up toFind Momo, the canine Instagram superstar (and his best buddy, Andrew Knapp) travel across the United States and Canada, visiting iconic landmarks and unique off-the-map marvels. Look for Momo hiding in Grand Central Station, in front of the White House, and in the French Quarter of New Orleans . . . as well as at diners, bookstores, museums, and other locales that only a seasoned road-tripper like Andrew could find. It’s part game, part photography book, and a whole lot of fun. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Sometimes taking a road trip is exhausting, especially with kids in tow.  And, taking it from one who knows, road tripping with a dog takes either nerves of steel, or a dog in a class of its own.   Andrew and Momo, the Instagram-famous duo of photographer and hide-and-seek mastery, return documenting their own road trip from Eastern Canada, down the Atlantic coastline, across the South, up the Pacific Coast, and home.  Not only did their sojourn take months, they stopped to play hide-and-seek along the way, make new friends, and enjoy the land.  Andrew shares snippets of memories and travel tidbits, but again, the main attraction of this book is the incredible photography.

I am blown away by the photographs Knapp has included.  Pair that with the obvious training he's accomplished with Momo, and this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, before it was hijacked by my daughter.  Not only does she love trying to find Momo in the photographs, she loses herself in the colors, textures, and stories of each one.  She's read the book more times than I can count, carrying it around the house, outside, in the car ... wherever she can, she's diving in.  I love watching her imagination take wing as she appreciates these photographs.  

There are a lot of articles floating around the interwebs about the benefits of wordless or word-few books.  They allow children to create a story of their own, flex those imaginative muscles, and expand their understanding.  They promote dialog between parent and child.  Books like Find Momo: Coast to Coast facilitate that so well, especially since the vignettes featured are recognizable, if not well-known.

Rating:  Four and a half stars.  As an adult, I wish there was just a little more detail about the locations and the route Knapp chose.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Candy Shop War - Brandon Mull

Summary:  What if there were a place where you could get magical candy? Moon rocks that made you feel weightless. Jawbreakers that made you unbreakable. Or candy that gave animals temporary human intelligence and communication skills. (Imagine what your pet would say!) Four young friends, Nate, Summer, Trevor, and Pigeon, are befriended by Belinda White, the owner of a new candy shop on Main Street. However, the gray- haired, grandmotherly Mrs. White is not an ordinary candy maker. Her confections have magical side effects. Purposefully, she invites the kids on a special mission to retrieve a hidden talisman under Mt. Diablo Elementary School. However, Mrs. White is not the only magician in town in search of the ancient artifact rumored to be a fountain of youth. She is aware that Mr. Stott, the not-so-ordinary ice cream truck driver, has a few tricks of his own.   (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review: My kids love candy.  All kids love candy.  I've never, in living across two continents, found a kid who would turn down a piece of candy.  And that's boring candy that doesn't even taste good!  So what happens when four friends find a new candy store with the best candy they've ever tasted?  And the owner likes them enough to let them earn special candy ... candy that can make them almost immune to gravity?  They're still kids ... they actually do chores and get the candy!  It's not until they're in a little too deep before they realize that what they're doing doesn't make them feel right.  Perhaps it's the fact that they've addicted their parents and teachers to a fudge that has made them essentially forget about their kids.  Perhaps it's the fact that they've committed a few more crimes than they'd care to admit.  Or perhaps it's because the trusted old ice cream seller has told them that their candy friend is a witch trying to take over the world.  He knows because he's a wizard who's come up against her before.

I'm a fan of Brandon Mull.  I like his imagination.  I like his characters - they're not perfect.  But they're good kids at heart.  They grow, they mess up, they learn.  Most importantly, they are characters that my kids can not only identify with, they can look up to and emulate.  (I love sneaking learning lessons into their leisure reading!  Mwahaha!)  This series is no different - Nate and his friends get hoodwinked by a cheerful, grandmotherly witch and under the justifications she offers them, they find themselves breaking laws, promises, and have to do some serious soul-searching.  Oh, and then there's the whole matter of helping the good guys win and saving the world. 

There is of course a little suspension of reality, but that's what books are for.  I love it when books help my children expand their imaginations, test (in a good way) their moral boundaries, and provide some entertainment in the meantime.  Are these books the next Chronicles of Narnia?  No.  They're not.  But they're a fun series to grab on a road trip or for a day in bed.

My Rating:  Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is some intense magical battling, some juvenile deception, bullying, and a little insolent behavior.  There are also some magical consequences that can possibly cause a nightmare or two.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

Summary:  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
 (Summary and Image from goodreads.com).

Review: Fad books are tricky little beasts to review.  On the one hand, if you loved the book like so many, you run the risk of your review sounding like every other piece out there.  If, on the other hand, you didn't like the review, you run the risk of not only sounding like either an uncultured swine, a sourpuss, a snob, or angered fans with torches and pitchforks knocking down the door of your blog!

Excuse me while I go release our moat alligators.

Let me start by saying this:  Anthony Doerr is a talented author with a very gripping style.  He is certainly capable.  I wonder, however, if this book was a little too ambitious for his experience of writing, or if it just wasn't as well executed or edited as it ought to be.  Stories with two different protagonists are tricky, especially when the perspective jumps between the two.  But then when the author throws in time jumps, leaping between characters and timelines, it takes a master to maintain a seamless story.  I don't feel like that occurred here.   The big reveal is partially revealed at an earlier point, as the later story line is progressing faster than the flashback storyline.  So when I got to the BIG REVEAl that should have had me clutching my pearls, I shrugged a shoulder.  It wasn't as gripping as I had wished.  Not to mention that it took me a few jumps to get the hang of how Doerr differentiates between his characters' perspectives and their timelines.  (Note: he doesn't really.  Keep sharp.)

The story is sweet.  It's tragic and nostalgic. Doerr presents it in such a passive, assuring voice that I can understand why so many readers are raving about this book.  But could it be more?  Yes.  I believe it could.  Am I sorry I read it?  No, he is an author to keep an eye on.  Is it my favorite book of the year? No, I personally believe it's a little overhyped.

Rating:  Two stars

For the Sensitive reader:  One of the protagonists spends an amount of time in a Hitler Youth school, with all the vicious brutality that goes along with it.  There are a few soldiers with filthy minds and mouths.  There is also a scene where one woman and four girls are raped by invading Soviets.  That scene in particular added nothing to the story at all and may have sullied my view of the book.  I found it so unnecessary, I could have happily put the book down and washed my hands of the whole darn thing right then - at the apex of action.


Monday, May 25, 2015

50 Things You Should Know about the First World War - Jim Eldridge

Summary:  The story of the War, brought to life through illustrations, photographs, diaries, and newspaper reports.

In this illustrated exploration of World War I, readers discover what caused the war and why it eventually affected every corner of the globe.

The key battles, events, and figures are all explored and recounted in succinct and easy-to understand text while illustrations and photographs bring the past vividly back to life. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  I can think of  no better time to review this book than today, Memorial Day.  I know that history is taught differently from state to state, but I remember very little about World War I in my U.S. and World History classes.  I was taught the basics, what ignited the war, who fought whom, why, and who won, but it felt like all we learned was just to set the stage for World War II.

I feel like with the successes of series like Maisie Dobbs and Downton Abbey, visibility and recognition of the First World War is increasing.  At least mine is.  This was the War to End All Wars, it was in memory of the men, women, and children who lost their lives (and those who have since sacrificed so much) that we celebrate Memorial Day and other nations celebrate Remembrance Day on different dates.  How can I allow my kids to just hear the basics, (an assassination, land grabs, Lusitania, the end) and move on?

Eldridge has done an incredible job collecting, designing, and presenting fifty facts (definitely more, but fifty key points) for children.  The layout is incredible -- the background to most of the pages are photographs of the events discussed, but then each page is organized like an infographic.  Timelines of each year of the war are interspersed.  The facts are laid out chronologically within this layout, which was so helpful.  With two children  obsessed with nonfiction books (thank you, National Geographic Kids!) Ive noticed that the infographic is a layout that draws kids in.  Eldridge's relaying of the facts is succinct, but detailed enough that I learned so much more than I had in school.  

A secondary benefit of the book is that Eldridge is British.  I found it fascinating learning about the War from that perspective, since America entered the war near the end.  Not only did it impart a different perspective, important dates and events that are often overlooked in America were given more prominence.

This is one of those books that has become a treasured book almost instantly.  I appreciate the humanity it imparted the history.  I honor the work that went into it, and it greatly increased my gratitude for those who sacrificed so much.

Rating:  Five Stars

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath


Summary:  Joan of Arc’s close companion on the battlefield, one of the wealthiest and most respected men in France, became a notorious serial killer, nicknamed Bluebeard, who performed bizarre sexual rituals, brutal mutilations and murders on hundreds of children.  How could this happen to Baron Gilles de Rais, a Marshal of France, a renowned intellectual, a paragon of the high medieval prince, almost Renaissance in his talents and accomplishments?

There is no clear explanation. There is only speculation. Yet historic evidence indicates strongly de Rais, a returning soldier, suffered from severe PTSD, which perhaps triggered his latent psychopathic personality. His extreme depravity, his shocking fall from grace and explosive end, add fuel to the precept that the barbarity of war turned this celebrated hero into a monster. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)


Review:  My entire knowledge of Bluebeard has typically been fairy-tale based. I knew the story of Bluebeard's wives, but I never thought more about it until I listened to a podcast about the real man. Not a week later, I received a review request, and, my interest piqued, I requested it. I've always had a weak spot for the "man behind the curtain", especially with fairy take characters. 

Ogden is a meticulous researcher and an academic writer. She has done an exceptional job researching fifteenth century France, its customs and quirks, superstitions, politics, beliefs, and battle strategies. As her area of focus was a Marshall of France, she disects the battle strategies and history of the wars with the English, specifically the rise and fall of Joan of Arc. To my surprise, Ogden makes a strong case for de Rais' downfall being strongly linked to the loss of Joan of Arc, who had fought alongside and commanded de Rais in battle. To hear her research so clearly presented was gripping. She posits that his downfall, partially due to his childhood andl lack of moral upbringing, is also closely linked to severe PTSD.  And she makes quite a case.

Her thorough research, however, has a drawback.  No detail is spared in the recounting of his crimes.  Although it takes up a mere chapter in the book, I was left quite literally ill and couldn't even fathom tackling this review for days.  It disturbed me. It disgusted me.  In my opinion, it was wholly unnecessary to recount the atrocities in such vivid, disturbing detail.  I was simply umprepared for how truly evil de Rais was. I don't tolerate violence toward children well, and children were de Rais' preferred victims.  History will never know how many acutal victims perished or suffered at his hands, but estimates are upwards of 140.  

I don't know how I was able to continue reading after that fateful chapter, but I suspect it was because I was determined to see what punishment de Rais would suffer.  The details of his trial, conviction, and sentencing were fascinating.  What sickened me further, however, was that de Rais still considered himself a faithful, heaven-bound Catholic.  Just, no.  However, the differences between Church and State trials were unbeknownst to me and I enjoyed reading the implications of both.

This was a hard book to shake.  There was so much good information in it, but I felt like a little more sensitivity and tact could have been judiciously applied in that one terrible chapter.  Ogden's writing skills are good enough that I feel she could have clearly indicated how evil and how disturbed de Rais was without the sickening and unnecessary detail she divulged.

Rating:  Three stars (I averaged writing style and content.)

For the Sensitive Reader:  Bloody battles, brutal sexual and physical violence toward children, various devient sexual acts ... stay away.  For those who are a little less sensitive, I would still recommend skipping that chapter.  You'll know it when you get to it.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Date Night In - Ashley Rodriguez

Summary: Sweethearts, spouses, and parents Ashley and Gabe Rodriguez found themselves deep into marriage and child-rearing when they realized they were spending most of their evenings staring at their computers. Determined not to let their relationship deteriorate, they instituted a weekly date night and reconnected over simple but thoughtful dishes. Just carving out time to talk, cook, and eat together became the marriage-booster they needed, and now Ashley invites you to woo your partner all over again with food, drink, and conversation. (summary from book, photo from perrysplate.com)

Review: Just to clarify, it IS a cookbook, but it's so much more than that. I have never in my life read a cookbook cover to cover like a novel. Nor has one ever brought me to tears.  When I finished the book I was alone in my bedroom, almost afraid that my kids would come in and see the tears streaming down my face. I hadn't even tried out a single recipe, but judging from the to-do list I jotted down as I was reading, I knew it was going to be one of my absolute favorites.

In Date Night In, Ashley shares sweet courtship stories and weaves you in and out of the past as she tells how she and her husband reconnected through weekly date nights at home. She recreates food memories they shared early in their marriage and even opens up and shares some rough patches they struggled through. Ashley put her whole heart into this book, and I admire the couple's determination to intentionally carve out time for each other. I loved her writing and felt like she included me in her experiences -- as if we were sitting down in a little cafe together as friends. I felt like I really connected with her because our life circumstances are very similar as well as our desire to climb out of the child-rearing trenches and reconnect with our spouses more often. Ashley is also the talented chef and blogger behind the blog Not Without Salt.

Ashley organized her book by season (which I LOVE). Within every season she groups recipes into entire meals, and every meal begins with a personal story. This is what I meant about reading it like a novel. Oh, the stories. They're sometimes super sweet and sometimes a little heart-wrenching, but always beautifully written and meaningful. 

The meal I chose from the book was her Caribbean-Style BBQ Chicken Legs, Mango Miso Slaw, and Thyme and Parmesan Roasted Sweet Potatoes. Also, the Caramelized Pineapple Sundaes with Candied Coconut which turned out to be one of my favorite ice cream sundaes ever.

If you'd like to hear more about the meal (and snag the recipe for those chicken legs), head over to Perry's Plate and read my review over there!

Rating: 5

Sum it up: A cookbook with heart. And a whole lot of delicious content to woo your loved one.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mossflower - Brian Jacques


Summary:  The thrilling prequel to "Redwall". The clever and greedy wildcat Tsarmina becomes ruler of all Mossflower Woods and is determined to govern the peaceful woodlanders with an iron paw. The brave mouse Martin and quick-talking mouse thief Gonff meet in the depths of Kotir Castle's dungeon. The two escape and resolve to end Tsarmina's tyrannical rule. Joined by Kinny the mole, Martin and Gonff set off on a dangerous quest for Salamandastron, where they are convinced that their only hope, Boar the Fighter, still lives. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Brian Jacques is back with another epic adventure in the world of Redwall - but this time, Jacques is introducing us to the legendary Martin and relaying the origins of the Redwall Abbey.

Martin is a warrior mouse that has been driven out of his home by marauding sea rats and is searching for a new home.  He stumbles into an idyllic forest called Mossflower -- well, it was idyllic before the murder of the king and the usurpation of the throne by his daughter, the brutal, insane, and devious Tsarmina.  She's enslaved the residents, is waging war on them as they try to resist, and worse, she's framed her brother for the murder of the king and has taken two little hedgehogs hostage.

Under the direction of Bella the badger, the rightful ruler of Mossflower, borrowing on the courage of Martin and the cunning of Gonff (the prince of mousethieves), they launch a longterm plan to retake the forest, protect their futures, and restore Bella's father Boar to his daughter while they're at it.  

This book is a little more intense than Redwall, and it didn't grab me as much.  I'm not sure if it was my state of mind, or if it was just that the novelty had worn off, but it wasn't as magical as the first.  Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it quite a bit.  I just found it easier to set it down than I did with Redwall.  The story was also a little bit more formulaic - and while it's a successful formula, I would have hope to see a little bit of a shake-up.  Then again, I'm not the target audience, and middle readers like formulas (Babysitters' Club, anyone?), so this may bother your readers less than it did me.

My Rating;  Three stars

For the sensitive reader:  Again, there are battles and deaths, patricide, and one particularly intense battle between an eel and an otter that was truly intense.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Secrets of Life and Death - Rebecca Alexander

Summary:  In modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret--She's Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won't rest until they've taken the magic that keeps her alive.... 

In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess' malady, is the magic that might be able to save her...


As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  History.  The Occult.  Vampires, revenants, and the Inquisition.  Oh, my.

Rebecca Alexander's foray into the world of Edward Kelley (a real historical figure) was a truly mind-spinning adventure.  Not only were we jumping between two different timelines, Alexander has done a masterful job explaining the mythology of the world she's created, injecting enough realism into the storyline to make the fantastical seem more tangible, but she has also managed to do so without losing the sense of urgency or reality that her endeavor demands.

The story, which was easy enough for me to follow post-surgery, still twisted, turned, demanded a suspension of belief, and held me on the edge of my seat.

However, this is a horror story.  It's dark.  It's intense.  It's worrisome, but I believe it was well done.  I'm not typically one to dive into the horror genre, so when I do, I demand that the book taking me there is worth the read.  I wasn't disappointed.

Rating:  Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This is a horror novel.  There is a lot of what you'd expect in this genre.  If you're a squeamish reader, there are certainly books in the genre that could fit your need (Frankenstein).  But this is more gory than a sensitive or squeamish reader would appreciate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Boys in the Boat - Daniel James Brown

SummaryThe Boys in the Boat celebrates the 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic eight-oar rowing team—nine working class boys who stormed the rowing world, transformed the sport, and galvanized the attention of millions of Americans.

The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West, the boys took on and defeated successive echelons of privilege and power. They vanquished the sons of bankers and senators rowing for elite eastern universities. They defeated the sons of British aristocrats rowing for Oxford and Cambridge. And finally, in an extraordinary race in Berlin they stunned the Aryan sons of the Nazi state as they rowed for gold in front of Adolf Hitler.

Against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, they reaffirmed the American notion that merit, in the end, outweighs birthright. They reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together. And they provided hope that in the titanic struggle that lay just ahead, the ruthless might of the Nazis would not prevail over American grit, determination, and optimism.

And even as it chronicles the boys’ collective achievement, The Boys in the Boat is also the heart warming story of one young man in particular. Cast aside by his family at an early age, abandoned and left to fend for himself, Joe Rantz rows not just for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard, to dare again to trust in others, and to find his way back to a place he can call home.
Image and summary from the author's website, http://www.danieljamesbrown.com/

My Review: The Boys in the Boat is the story of the University of Washington rowing team and their quest towards gold at the Olympic games in 1936. Yet it is so much more than this. The story begins in the early 1930's, a time when the United States was suffering through the Great Depression. Times were hard and this story recounts the perseverance these boys' possessed,not only in terms of rowing but in also earning enough money to make it through another year of college year after year. The story paints a vivid picture of life in these times. Earning a dollar often required backbreaking work,building roads in the heat or blasting massive tree stumps or scaling mountains. The story also takes into account the tough living conditions and what family life looked like. It demonstrated the importance of the sport of rowing for both the teams and the spectators alike.

More than anyone this story belongs to Joe Rantz, one of the nine on the winning rowing team. The book documents his childhood struggles. It shows his great work ethic and will. It journeys through his courting of Judy and his very personal family issues. The story does not shy away from Joe's bouts of insecurity, making his character all the more likable and easy to relate to. Viewing the story through Joe's eyes gives it such a personal touch and makes it all the more heartfelt.

Intermingles with the story of rowing are details of Germany at this time when Hitler is coming into power and the country began to change. Lives of both minor and major players in the upcoming war are touched upon. Details of the film star Leni Riefenstahl, who filmed the actual races and captured additional unforgettable footage of Nazi Germany during this time, are mixed in. Although this tidbits are not added in a seamless fashion they do add a greater depth to the tale.

 Time and time again while reading this I found myself amazed a Brown's incredible writing style. Who thought that a book where the ending is well known from the beginning could be so suspenseful. Yet I found myself at the edge of my seat and  holding my breath each time the boys raced, sure that it wouldn't go as planned. This is an amazing story, one that will leave any reader with the utmost admiration for these boys and the others who played a part in their success. You don't want to miss this one.

My Rating: 5 Stars

To Sum It Up: Narrative nonfiction at it's finest. Read it, You won't regret a minute of the time you spend within these pages.

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