Friday, October 20, 2017

The Burning World - Isaac Marion

Summary: R is recovering from death.

He’s learning how to breathe, how to speak, how to be human, one clumsy step at a time. He doesn’t remember his old life and he doesn’t want to. He’s building a new one with Julie.

But his old life remembers him. The plague has another host far more dangerous than the Dead. It’s coming to return the world to the good old days of stability and control and the strong eating the weak, and stopping it will require a frightening journey into the surreal wastelands of America—and the shadowy basement of R’s mind. Summary and image from goodreads.com

Review: Okay, was anyone a fan of Warm Bodies? Remember that movie with Nicholas Hoult and that girl from America’s Next Top Model? I made my husband watch it with me, we both enjoyed it way more than we thought we would, and I place all of the blame on any zombie-lit book I read on that movie. Because, of course, once I found out it was adapted from a book, I had to read the novel. Clearly.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel as well, and have anxiously awaited the promised sequel. To my delight, it didn’t take long for my local library to stock it after publication (sometimes it takes a while, our library system is, um, not good.), and I eagerly jumped in. 

It’s certainly different. Written with a much grittier feeling than the first, Marion explores what life is like after death is “cured” for this little group of zombies and humans. The world certainly isn’t perfect, former zombies aren’t magically trusted pillars of the community, the apocalypse certainly isn’t over just like *that*, and there are still a plethora of challenges to overcome. Matters are made worse when the stadium is bombed and taken over by an unknown corporation, and our heroes (plus a few) set out to discover what’s really going on.

Although the reader is privy to more flashbacks before the plague, which give us insight not only into the humans but into the zombies we’ve come to know and love, the overall feeling of this book is one of despair. I found the humanity surprisingly less evident in this book than in the first, and coupled with the uptick in raunchiness, vulgarity, and gore, it just missed the mark for me. I left the book unsatisfied, and wondering if I will even read the conclusion—whenever that’s published.  Perhaps this is a book best left to the movie?

Rating: Two stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Violent. Gory. Foul language. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

Summary:  At first sight, Ove is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet, a curmudgeon with staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse.  He thinks himself surrounded by idiots -- and no wonder, with all those happy joggers and shop assistants who talk in code, not to mention the perpetrators of the vicious coup d'etat that ousted him as chairman of his neighborhood residents' association.  People think him bitter.  But must a man be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered on his face all the time, doesn't always tell people what they want to hear, and remains silent when he has nothing in particular to say?

Ove's well-ordered, solitary world gets a shake-up one November morning with the appearance of new neighbors -- a chatty young couple and their two boisterous daughters -- who announce their arrival by flattening Ove's mailbox with their U-Haul.  What follows is a funny and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unlikely friendships, and a community's unexpected reassessment of the one person they thought they had all figured out.

A word-of-mouth bestseller that has caused a sensation across Europe, Fredrik Backman's irresistible novel about the angry old man next door is an uplifting exploration of the unreliability of first impressions and a gentle reminder that life is sweeter when it is shared with other people.  (Summary from book cover)

My Review:  It's been a while since I've really felt called to a book.  You know?  The kind of book that you think about when you're not reading it. The kind of book you talk about with others even though you haven't finished it yet.  The kind of book that physically pulls you back to your reading spot and says: Listen up Missy!  Yes, I know you've got stuff to do.  Screw it.  READ ME.  RIGHT NOW.   I picked up A Man Called Ove on the recommendation of my favorite librarian and former RFS Reviewer, Heather and  I am so glad I did.  I needed to wash the what-did-I-just-read taste out of my brain left by the last book* I failed to force myself to finish.  Thankfully, A Man Called Ove was just the thing.

If you want a one sentence summary of the book:  Think Gran Torino, but with much less violence and slightly less racisim.  For those of you who haven't seen Gran Torino or who'd like a little more...read on.

In A Man Called Ove, I pretty much took my measure of the main character, Ove, within the first few pages.  Yowza, he's a grump -- old, angry, unpleasant, unreasonable, and just plain rude to pretty much everyone.  It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to read an entire book about a cross old fogey, but I kept on reading because there was just something about him that was the tiniest bit ridiculous and I had a sneaking suspicion that there was more to his story. I was right (go me!).  With each chapter, I learned a little about Ove's history, personality, and motivations.  Each glimpse into his past, made me love him a bit more.  The time spent in Ove's present was a somewhat sadistic delight as various members of the community he scorns worm their way into his life and heart and seriously mess with his plans for the future.

Sometimes authors spend all their time on a main character and forget to flesh out their secondaries, but A Man Called Ove, does not disappoint in that department.  I loved Ove, first and foremost, but Parvaneh, Patrick, and their kids, Sonja, Anita, Rune, Lena, the Blonde Weed, Anders, Adrian, Jimmy, the White Shirts, and even (and especially) the Cat, were all clearly established in my mind.  I could see each of them and even their mannerisms as they interacted - like a movie was playing itself out in my head.  It was awesome.

One of my favorite aspects of any well written book is the moment where things come together and a book gets flipped on its head -- reorienting my perspective and bring things together in a jaw-dropping way.  This book held a few of those moments for me, but I am being deliberately vague about the details because I don't want to yank those moments away from anyone who might be reading this review and thinking, "Hmmm...this Ove guy sounds interesting."  A Man Called Ove is beyond interesting.  And unbelievably sweet.  And a lesson to all about love, the importance of principles, and the absolute necessity of looking a little deeper before pronouncing judgment.

*The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest.  For me, it was mind numbing.  And not in a good way.  That's all the review you will be getting as I don't wish to waste any more time thinking about it.

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  The occasional swear word.  Some brief discussion of a homosexuality.  One very angry (and kind of adorable) man.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Scrappy Little Nobody - Anna Kendrick


Summary: A collection of humorous autobiographical essays by the Academy Award-nominated actress and star of Pitch Perfect, Twilight, Up in the Air, Into the Woods and Trolls. Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, defiant, and '10 per cent weird'. When she was thirteen, a classmate dropped by her house unexpectedly and discovered written evidence of Anna's social ineptitude. From then on she decided to 'keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here's the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.'

 In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites her readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candour and winningly wry observations. With her razor-sharp wit, Anna recounts the absurdities she's experienced on her way to and from the heart of pop culture as only she can - from her unusual path to the performing arts (her older brother's affinity for Vanilla Ice may have inadvertently launched her career) to her double life as a middle-school student who also starred on Broadway to her initial 'dating experiments' (including only liking boys who didn't like her back) to the perils of reading The Shining while filming Twilight in the isolated Canadian wilderness to reviewing a binder full of butt doubles to her struggle to live like an adult woman instead of a perpetual 'man-child'. Enter Anna's world and follow her rise from 'scrappy little nobody' to someone who dazzles on the stage, the screen, and now the page - with an electric, singular voice, at once familiar and surprising, sharp and sweet, funny and serious (well, not that serious).  (Summary from amazon.com)
*SIDENOTE* After the birth of my fourth child, something peculiar happened to my reading habits.  They hit a brick wall.  Full stop.  As of right now, if I try to read during the day, my kids invariably need something every five seconds until I give up and decide to try again after everyone is in bed.  When that blessed hour arrives, I usually grab my book eagerly, park my butt on the couch, crack it open...and am asleep within seconds. In recent days, I've turned to audio books to squeeze in something that at least approximates reading.  It's going okay.

My Review:  Scrappy Little Nobody is the perfect audio book for the Anna Kendrick fan, in large part because it is read by one of the funniest people in Hollywood -- Anna Kendrick.   I haven't watched Anna's entire body of work, but I am a fan of her talent and I've loved her in everything I've seen her in (Twilight, Into the Woods, The Last 5 Years, Pitch Perfect, and Trolls (voice)).I loved listening to her read.  No one else could project her particular brand of snark, self-deprecation, and dead-pan delivery with any amount of success. She nailed it.  Anna gives a delightfully honest, witty, and down-to-earth perspective on how she made it in Hollywood -- from her childhood on the stage, horrifying auditions, loneliness, paparazzi, and awkward kissing scenes, to relationships, award shows, intimacy, and an inside look at her experiences on the set of shows like Twilight, CampInto the WoodsPitch Perfect, Up in the Air, and stage productions like High Society.  

Even though the author and I don't necessarily see eye to eye on certain moral issues and it was a bit rather inordinately salty in the language department, taken as a whole, I thought Scrappy Little Nobody was a laugh riot and insanely insightful.  Sometimes Hollywood starlettes tend to come across as superhuman Glamazons, but this book wasn't that at all.  I loved when Anna got real and talked about her obsession with baking, how exhausting it was pretend to be someone you're not, or how broken she was after getting dumped.  I never would have imagined that when she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Up in the Air that she was sleeping on IKEA furniture, struggling to make ends meet and cover up the tar-stains on the middle of her living room carpet (her roommate did it). Anna also doled out bits of wisdom on the deeper issues women (and men) can face. She's pretty much always funny, but it was when she was encouraging those in abusive relationships to turn to their friends for help, ranting about society's double standards, or talking about the importance of not being a "nice" girl if being 'nice' means always doing whatever you're told, that I really felt her passion come through.

To be perfectly honest, I can't recommend this book to most people I know because most people I know would be completely turned off by all the swearing, but I would definitely recommend this to anyone who loves Anna Kendrick in all her glory.

My Rating:  3.5 Stars.

For the sensitive reader: Anna is adorable and I love her, but she doesn't shy away from swearing or talking about sex.   If you're sensitive to those sorts of things, this is probably not the book (or audiobook) for you.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

The House of Blood and Tears - Lenore Eidse

Summary: "She gazed at the majestic stone building from a distance; with the sun reflecting in the tall gabled windows, it was lovely enough to be a little palace. But appearance is deceiving; inside it was a chamber of evil."

In 1939, Hitler's invasion of Holland crashed like a thunderbolt upon the unsuspecting Dutch people. The dreaded word "Occupation" ruled their existence, but this family of three chose to defend the Motherland. Hillie worked as a double agent; shy, twelve year old Anje was a courier, and Jan became a collaborator. Secrets and lies, the concealment of Jews, Allied pilots in hiding, all were considered acts of treason which could condemn them in this notorious "House of Blood and Tears." The consequence of their involvement was costly in Hitler's Holocaust. A vivid history of World War II in the Netherlands, this is an amazing account of great courage and daring, with a surprise conclusion. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was given a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Anje lived a near-idyllic life. Her parents spoiled her, her father’s best friend doted on her, life was good until the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. In the blink of an eye, her life changed permanently. Her father, a lover of the finest and the best, was caught embezzling funds to support his spending habits and found himself without a job. More and more he wasn’t home, leaving Anje and her mother Hillie alone to figure out food, safety, and financial security.  It wasn’t long before the pair decided to do whatever they could to drive the Nazis from their homeland, even if that meant participating in the Underground. 

The strength and tenacity of both Anje and Hillie are amazing. While this book is historical fiction, it is directly based on the life of Anje Minnes and her mother Hillie. Anje started acting as courier shortly after the Occupation and continued through the end of the war. Her mother, who not only found herself needing to support the family financially, also worked directly with the Underground, as well as posing as a double agent. Together they would deliver ration cards, rescue and aid downed pilots, help forge papers for fleeing citizens, hide Jews and place Jewish children in foster homes, and live with the constant fear that any moment, or any person, could bring disaster. 

Along with working for the Underground, these incredible ladies live in an occupied territory and have to struggle with all that entails. Danger doesn’t just come from discovery - it lurks in the darkened streets, wears the face of the neighbor across the way, or comes bringing famine.

While the story itself is incredible and deserves to be told, I had a difficult time with the writing. The writing was fairly immature, reading like an early-reader chapter book (lots of Hooray! or Boo! sentences, many short, minimally descriptive sentences that could have easily been fleshed out, and many instances of elementary paragraphs [A went here. B did that. C happened.]), and I felt like it detracted from the peril and suspense of the story. I feel like it would have been an easy thing to fix had an editor pointed it out, so that’s where I choose to lay the blame.  Despite the writing failings, I am glad this story fell into my hands. The strength, courage, and perseverance of Anje in the face of unspeakable tragedy and betrayal is one everyone ought to know. 

Going beyond the events of the Occupation, the reader is also privy to Anje’s life after the war, as well as how her actions during the Occupation blessed lives generations later. I won’t lie, I may have reared up reading the final chapters of the book.

Rating: Four stars (could have been five, but the writing needed some tightening up)

For the Sensitive Reader: Betrayal that no one should ever face, talk about soldiers raping Dutch women, talk of the torture that goes on in the House of Blood and Tears.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Pandora - Victoria Turnbull

Summary: Pandora lives alone, in a world of broken things. She makes herself a handsome home, but no one ever comes to visit. Then one day something falls from the sky . . . a bird with a broken wing. (image and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: I attend a book conference every year that focuses on books for young readers, and each year, aside from hearing from children's book authors and illustrators, we are given a spotlight of new books that have come out.  Pandora was one of them.

It's a gentle story about being broken and alone, and then finding a sprig of hope, in Pandora's case, a little bird with a damaged wing.  She works hard to care for and mend this little creature and, in turn, the bird itself leaves her a greater gift.

Being a picture book, this review is a short one, and all I can say is you need to check this one out.  Aside from the beautiful little story, the art itself is so gorgeous.  Pandora's world is well crafted, her character design soft and welcoming, and the ending pages lovely.

My Review: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Nothing offensive

Monday, October 9, 2017

Girl in Disguise - Greer Macallister

Summary: For the first female Pinkerton detective, respect is hard to come by. Danger, however, is not.

In the tumultuous years of the Civil War, the streets of Chicago offer a woman mostly danger and ruin-unless that woman is Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective and a desperate widow with a knack for manipulation.

Descending into undercover operations, Kate is able to infiltrate the seedy side of the city in ways her fellow detectives can't. She's a seductress, an exotic foreign medium, or a rich train passenger, all depending on the day and the robber, thief, or murderer she's been assigned to nab.

Inspired by the real story of Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective's rise during one of the nation's greatest times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I was super excited to get this book. I am really digging historical fiction these days, and historical fiction about women—especially real women in history—is especially awesome. So I had high hopes for this book.

What this book was: This book was a fun compilation of anecdotes about Kate Warne, the first female detective. She worked for the Pinkerton Agency, which is super cool and provides fine fodder for all sorts of fun reading by itself, but to have a female agent in their employ was also awesome. It was really cool to read about the various situations Kate was able to be in since she was a woman, and it made for some good stories about a female and male detective working together, as well. It wasn’t a simple time for this to be happening, as you might imagine, and so seeing the different ways the supporting actors reacted served as a platform for the time period’s sentiment about women working this kind of job. I enjoyed the cameos of the day, i.e. Abraham Lincoln, although not a lot is actually known about Kate Warne so many of the anecdotes were made up or fleshed out in order to make a story. Because of the anecdotal nature of the book, it felt somewhat disjointed, especially at the beginning. Each chapter was basically a new situation, not necessarily a case, and sometimes months or years had passed. It made for somewhat awkward reading, although the writing was simple enough that it was easy to keep track of what was going on. As the book went on, Macallister seemed to be more in her element, and she hit her stride, which made for smoother reading and transitions and a richer story. I enjoyed the last third of this book a lot more than I enjoyed the first two.

What this book was not: This was not a detailed life of Kate Warne, which I found to be disappointing. As mentioned previously, not a lot was actually known about her, whether because of her own lack of record keeping or the destruction of records of the Pinkerton agents in order to protect them, so there was not very much biographical information told about her. Much of the conversation and situations were also conjecture, and so I can’t help but think that the Kate Warne is this book may not actually match the real Kate Warne. We may never know. This book also wasn’t a discussion of the deep inner workings of the Pinkerton Agency, although there was some information about Alan Pinkerton and his home life, some of which is probably also conjecture. Macallister did create some fun and interesting anecdotes, but due to the nature of the information available and the lack of actual deep discussion of Kate Warne, I would say that this is loosely based on Kate Warne, and just more of a historical fiction in general. The writing itself isn’t fantastic, and it read almost like a YA novel. It is promoted as a book club book and I can see how it would provide some good discussion on broad topics such as women in a traditionally man’s job, especially during the time this book took place. Because the writing isn’t really complex or literary, it would be easy to read for a wide variety of audiences, and I can see how many women in my own book club would enjoy it.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book was clean. I would feel comfortable reading it with my church book club.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

Summary: As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special—and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Summary and image from goodreads.com

Review: Some books you pick up because of the cover (don’t lie), some because the summary grabs you, some because your favorite author wrote it, so it must be good, and some, some you pick up because you see the title on so many book lists you just cave and decide it’s time to increase your cultural literacy. I don’t think that it matters why you pick up a book, what matters is whether you get anything from the consumption of it. Some of the books that have come to mean the most to me are books I read out of an overdeveloped sense of duty.

Never Let Me Go is one of those books I saw too many times on too many lists, and I finally decided it was time. I knew there was some sort of twist, something not right, but I didn’t know what, and it kept me guessing for a serious portion of the book. In a way, I liked not knowing, because I felt as clueless as the students at Hailsham for what was to come, but on the flip side, once the big reveal happened, I felt slightly let down. Which, surprisingly, pretty much mirrors how I felt about the novel in general. There were parts of the novel I absolutely loved. There were parts I truly disliked. But either way, there wasn’t one part of the novel that left me ambivalent. 

Let’s start with what I loved. Oh, my word, the writing is exquisite. I can’t even pinpoint why it’s so beautiful, but Ishiguro is a master wordsmith. I felt transported to Hailsham, to the convalescent home, to the meadow — the words and the sentences were so beautiful I couldn’t bear to stop reading. Somehow, it created this timeless quality to the novel that made me understand why it’s on so many “Top Books” lists. Simply beautiful.

The simplicity of the story, the reconciliation of Kathy’s past and future, were seamlessly worked throughout the narrative, flashing back or moving forward at the appropriate time. Again, this leant itself to the timeless feeling — I wasn’t sure if what I was supposed to be reading was a present day retelling, or took place in the far future. Either way, I didn’t care. It worked regardless of when it happened.

There were, however, parts of the book that I found truly polarizing, and that overall detracted from the beauty so much that it became a distraction. Not only did I find Ruth, the Queen Bee and oddly, the main character of the story even though Kath is our narrator,  to be wholly despicable, I found Ishiguro’s constant and unrelenting harping on sex and pornography grating. Not only was it vastly unnecessary, it was so prevalent it was like beating a dead horse.  Worse, after our characters had reached adulthood and gained some maturity, heading into their Reasons for Living, the incessant obsession and yammering about their escapades didn’t cease. I saw no purpose to it, and it ruined what otherwise could have been a truly incredible novel. 

I would have preferred to see more exploration into the philosophy of Hailsham and the students’ lives, where instead the reader is only given a paragraph or two of rushed, dismissive explanation. It is what it is seems to have been enough of an explanation for the author, and the reader is expected to be satisfied. I wasn’t.

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader: So much sex. So much. Ugh.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Strange the Dreamer - Laini Taylor

Summary: The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: This book was…wait for it…strange. Like legit, though. Super strange.

I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t admit right here and now that serious fantasy/sci-fi is really not my thing. I’m somewhat of a lightweight. I’ll read around the periphery, and sometimes I even like what I read. I’ve read lots of “gateway drugs” to the world of fantasy/sci-fi, but sometimes it’s just too much for me.

I have several initial problems with this genre: 1) The names confuse me. I hate made up names that make no sense. It’s like an author has rolled a die and whatever comes up matching the quadrilateral triangle of the third alphabet they’ve made up they choose that letter, roll again, lather, rinse, repeat. I end up not being able to read the names and I’m just like…no. 2) I have a hard time imagining what’s going on. Okay, so this may show I’m not very creative. I’m a concrete thinker—I get it. But I can pinterest with the best of them and so I muddle through. However, if something crazy is going on and it requires me to have an extensive knowledge of all things weird and sci-fi and fantastic, I’m confused. And then I’m not even able to read the name of what is going on. You can see my problem. 3) Sometimes I just don’t see the point. I’m confused, I can’t read half the dice-determined names, and then weird stuff is going on…so I’m just confused. When I do get it (and maybe I’m not getting it, ya know?) I’m like…why? So what? Sooooo…..????

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, I have to admit that this book fully embraced all of the things above. Oh there were some characters that were okay, and there was some good tension here and there, especially with a villain who I assume is going to play more of a role in the upcoming books, but overall, I was confused about some of the goings on and some of the names were…ridiculous.

That being said, there were some really good things about the book. I did really like the idea of a mythical city whose name was forgotten. That was cool. I don’t want to give too much away because there were some good surprises. The story itself was somewhat confusing at times, especially in relation to the Gods and the history and you’ll just have to trust me on this lest I give too much away. There were some characters who were interesting, even if they could have used more fleshing out. The writing was decent although not remarkable.

I have been searching my soul and I think that I am able to overlook my own reader issues with the genre and give a fair 3 stars. There were some really strong elements, but there were also some weak things as well. If I were a JFic/New Adult reader really into this genre I would probably be interested in the upcoming books in the series.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There was some language, although I think this was actually a pretty mild book. Sometimes JFic/New Adult pushes the boundaries because it is a little bit of an older audience, but the love scenes were tasteful the content was overall surprisingly clean.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Perfect Horse - Elizabeth Letts

Summary: From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion, the remarkable true story of the valiant rescue of priceless pedigree horses in the last days of World War II. 

As the Russians closed in on Hitler from the east and the Allies attacked from the west, American soldiers discovered a secret Nazi effort to engineer a master race of the finest purebred horses. With the support of U.S. general George S. Patton, a passionate equestrian, the Americans planned an audacious mission to kidnap these beautiful animals and smuggle them into safe territory—assisted by a daring Austrian colonel who was both a former Olympian and a trainer of the famous Lipizzaner stallions. Summary and image from goodreads.com

Review: Art and architecture had the Monuments Men looking out for their safety during World War II, and beyond. But what of the living works of art? Who was watching out for them?

Hitler had plans for nearly every aspect of life in his grand scheme. Not only did he plan on creating a world-wide empire, he and his cohorts dreamed of resurrecting extinct beasts that were “purely Germanic” through reverse breeding. Unfortunately, this spelled near disaster for distinctly European horse breeds all over the continent as Nazis seized the stock from their homes. Unlike their human counterparts, however, no expense was spared in these animals’ wellbeing. Pampered, sheltered, and buried deep inside Nazi territory, those charged with caring for these animals could do nothing but hope for their safety as the tides turned and their previously sheltered stables were found to be in the direct path of the Red Army.

Elizabeth Letts has done a masterful job exploring the mystique of and the urgency in rescuing Vienna’s equine pride, the Lippizaners of the Spanish Riding School. Detailing the stress of caring for the horses in time of famine, fighting for their mental wellness against a commander who didn’t understand the need, and laying bare the daring plots of Americans and Germans working together to rescue the breed, this book enraptured me. I’ve heard of the breed, heard of their beauty and unsurpassed ability, but their history was never something I’d studied. 

I absolutely loved the history of not only the breed but of the U.S. Calvary. It took me by surprise to switch from the perspective of Alois Podhajsky (director of the Spanish School of Riding) to the history of the Calvary, but it didn’t take long to see how the two were connected. 

There were so many acts of heroism and daring escapades during the Second World War that went unnoticed or have been forgotten by history. So many men risked their lives for causes larger than themselves. Reading about the risks that American soldiers took (with the knowledge but without official backing from the military) to rescue these horses from certain capture and death was thrilling. For a history buff, books like this just make reading even more fun. Especially when they’re as well written and as well researched as this one.

Rating: Four and a half stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Mostly clean — one death is difficult to read about.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Bone - Jeff Smith

Summary: An American graphic novel first! The complete 1300 page epic from start to finish in one deluxe trade paperback.

Three modern cartoon cousins get lost in a pre-technological valley, spending a year there making new friends and out-running dangerous enemies. After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone are separated and lost in a vast uncharted desert. One by one they find their way into a deep forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures. It will be the longest -- but funniest -- year of their lives. (image and summary from goodreads.com)


My Review: I just recently finished reading the nine volume graphic novel series Bone, and it was a seriously fun ride.  This series has everything, humor, fantasy, monsters, heroics, cows and quiche.

The premise itself us utterly strange, but at once so fun and sucks you right in.  It follows the journey of three brothers, weird cartoon characters that resemble bones, as they have been kicked out of their town and are traveling to find somewhere else to live.  You've got Fone Bone, the main protagonist, the relatable everyman who tries to keep things under control; Smiley Bone, the cigar-smoking simpleton who's always up for any adventure; and Phoney Bone, the money obsessed opportunist who doesn't care who he throws under the bus.

The series is a complete saga with a full story arc and finite ending.  It has a fine balance between the darker themes of war and destiny, and light, goofy humor.  The land the Bones stumble upon is filled with intrigue and hidden secrets, along with strange rat creatures, cow races, a particularly awesome old grandma, and a very spooky villain.

The art is just plain amazing.  The sweeping vistas contrasted with simple art of just the characters depending on the panels is well placed, and helps to further the story along.  The characters themselves are well rounded and adequately troubled (or untroubled, in the case of Phoney Bone) by their situations.  Fone Bone is a perfect protagonist, striving so hard to do his best and help his cousins and new crush Thorn, a girl with a strange destiny that unfolds at the perfect pace.

It's a pretty epic story with well written humor and beautiful art, as well as deep questions about the general nature of good and evil, filling this vast, rich world with adventure and fun.  Being a series of graphic novels, they are also pretty quick reads, but well worth it.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a good series for all ages, though there are some depictions of war and blood, and deaths of characters.  Also some mild swearing.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Perfect Stranger - Megan Miranda

Summary: In the masterful follow-up to the runaway hit All the Missing Girls, a journalist sets out to find a missing friend, a friend who may never have existed at all.

Confronted by a restraining order and the threat of a lawsuit, failed journalist Leah Stevens needs to get out of Boston when she runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who has just left a troubled relationship. Emmy proposes they move to rural Pennsylvania, where Leah can get a teaching position and both women can start again. But their new start is threatened when a woman with an eerie resemblance to Leah is assaulted by the lake, and Emmy disappears days later.

Determined to find Emmy, Leah cooperates with Kyle Donovan, a handsome young police officer on the case. As they investigate her friend’s life for clues, Leah begins to wonder: did she ever really know Emmy at all? With no friends, family, or a digital footprint, the police begin to suspect that there is no Emmy Grey. Soon Leah’s credibility is at stake, and she is forced to revisit her past: the article that ruined her career. To save herself, Leah must uncover the truth about Emmy Grey—and along the way, confront her old demons, find out who she can really trust, and clear her own name.

Everyone in this rural Pennsylvanian town has something to hide—including Leah herself. How do you uncover the truth when you are busy hiding your own? (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: There’s just something really fun about a good mystery. There are different types of mysteries, of course. You’ve got the fun and light mysteries, the low commitment mysteries, the gory mysteries, the hard core mysteries, the thriller mysteries…I could go on but you get my drift. I do enjoy mysteries, actually, and I’ve read quite a few of them from many various persuasions over the years. I have a sister-in-law who is a mystery junkie, but she really enjoys the Scandinavian thriller types, as well a lot of classics from heavyweights in the field. She also enjoys trying to solve the mystery beforehand. She’s one of those who watches lots of mystery shows as well (favoring the British variety) and knows whodunit despite even the best red herrings coming into play.

I am not like this.

Oh, I’m sure I could solve the mystery if I really put my mind to it. However, I try consciously not to. I like to be taken for a ride by the author, and I feel like that’s half the fun. They guide you, they show you, they manipulate you, and all the while you know it’s happening and I just like to let it happen. In fact, I don’t like it when it’s super obvious what happens. There should always be a little bit of a surprise or a little bit of a twist. That makes it fun. There’s a certain skill to this, though. The author can’t be clunky lest I figure out their game.

The Perfect Stranger is not a super serious mystery. It is mysterious all right, and it’s got a really interesting human factor in it with interesting characters, but I wouldn’t say that it would take Sherlock Holmes an entire Netflix episode to puzzle it out. And probably not even one of those blips when he’s going through a hundred cases in an hour. I tried hard to stay neutral in the whole novel, even though I could see what the author wanted me to think. I don’t consider this a good thing, really, if it’s completely obvious how the author is trying to manipulate you. Contrary to my previous paragraph, I like to be led along by the author, but I don’t like to see it coming a mile away where I’m following Captain Obvious in a conga line. I mean, come on. Give me some credit. So I felt like this was manipulative in that way—like Miranda wasn’t quite able to pull off the nuances needed to make you think one thing when it’s actually another. However, I find this to be a fault in many super popular books, i.e. Girl on a Train. I didn’t love it like everyone else did for this very same reason. (Read my review here).

There are some fun little twists and turns and the writing makes for quick reading. There are some compelling characters, although some didn’t live up to their full potential, I think. They fizzled out for one reason or another. It’s not the best of the genre nor the worst, but if you’re into super popular mysteries that barely skirt the genre, this would be a great airplane book or one for something to just cleanse your palate. I used it for that and it fit my needs quite satisfactorily.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, and some minor sex and violence. I would say it rates on the lighter scale for the popular mystery genre.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Paper Wishes - Lois Sepahban

Summary: Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family's life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It's 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn't until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family. (image and synopsis from goodreads.com)

My Review: I stumbled upon this book while looking through an old list of recommended books I'd received last year.  The premise intrigued me, and so I hurried to check it out.

This story was a quick read, well written and touching.  I knew about the Japanese relocations camps during WWII (even know someone who was in the camp at Topaz), but didn't really know much more than that.

History is stained with sad and tragic events that more often that not affect innocent people.  What I loved about this book was it took a difficult subject--how anyone of Japanese descent was placed in desert camps to wait out the war for fear they would spy for the enemy--and placed it in the eyes of the most innocent, a child.  And a vulnerable child at that.

Manami is not allowed to bring her dog when her family is relocated, and her poor Yujjin is ripped away from her, sending her into a state where she refuses to speak.  Not so much refuses as she feels her throat is caked and coated with the dust of the desert land her family is sent to, and she simply can't anymore.

Each chapter relates a month spent in the camp, going over the logistics of living there, how different the harsh desert land is from the lush wet coast where Manami used to live, school with her insightful and kind teacher, her confusion that anyone with a face like hers must be locked away, her older brother's attempts to make life better, and the dogs Manami sees cropping up that only remind her of her lost Yujiin.

Manami's connection with Yujiin was strong (and a particular strong point with me--I love children-dog relationship stories), and also the namesake of the book.  In hopes that she can reach her dog again, she draws pictures of Yujiin, sending them to the wind and hoping he will see them and come find her.  These paper wishes, along with other drawings she makes for her kind teacher Miss Rosalie, help her through her dark and scary time, the art helping her remember her old life, helping her to cope, and helping her to heal.

This was the author's first novel, and I felt a very noble story.  These sorts of tales are bits of history that could easily get overlooked or lost.  In my opinion, stories are a way we connect with the world, and for someone who struggles and dislikes reading history books and biographies, finding stories--however fictional the characters--that relate history help me to learn more about it.  The characters themselves may not be real, but they were based on real people and circumstances, and these stories help us to remember.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Again, this is a difficult piece of history, but it's written with care and compassion through Manami's eyes.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Fisher of Slaves - Dick Parsons

Summary: Always having wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father killed in 1759 in the Battle of Quiberon Bay, 13 year old Nathaniel persuades his reluctant mother to allow him to pursue a career at sea, but owing to a foolish misunderstanding, he serves his apprenticeship on a slave-trading ship. Her new-found horror of the slave trade and fears that her innocent son will be corrupted by it fires an unrelenting desire for its abolition. Her son’s life in a slaver, the horrors of the trade and her struggles to do “something for those poor creatures” are all beautifully bound up in this story which is difficult to put down. (Summary from AuthorHouse.com, image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: I like to listen to a popular history podcast. As a history buff, I could never get enough in school, and I love looking at specific instances in history in a deeper manner than a lecture designed to cover a decade or a century would entail. I subscribe to the belief that the more we know about history, the more prepared we are to choose more wisely and to avoid the same pitfalls our predecessors have. However, I struggle when the hosts of my favorite podcasts try to apply their current standards of living to situations centuries earlier. (Honestly, I could go on a whole tirade about the sanctimony and holier-than-thou attitude that accompanies that certain pitfall. But I won’t.) 

Unfortunately, I found that this attitude permeated this novel to the fullest extent. While there is no one who can deny that enslaving another human being is wholly wrong, I was bothered through the book by the broad-strokes that the author painted his characters. Were anyone to only read this book and no other historical text, one would think that the entire 17th century was ruled and practically populated solely by their equivalent of drug lords, pimps, and dog fighters, with only a small few people to be found with any goodness at all.

However, I can imagine why the author would choose to separate his characters so drastically. It certainly makes the writing easier if there are only black and white characters, unfortunately, it also makes the writing lazy, and I found that the laziness permeated the entire story. While the author certainly is knowledgeable about sailing, the passages that dealt with the ships were truly the only passages I found interesting. His passion for ships and the sea were evident, bringing life to those words that I found lacking throughout the rest of the story. 

The characters were, as mentioned earlier, either perfect or evil. That’s just not realistic. Never in my life have I met someone who is perfectly evil or perfectly good. Even the most despicable people I’ve either met or studied have had a measure of good in them, and the lack of that measure in these characters made them wholly foreign. I couldn’t relate to any of them at all, despite how desperately I tried. 
As for the story itself, I found it simplistic in the extreme. The only conflicts that arose were resolved within a paragraph, again, contributing to the dragging of the story. (In my personal notes about this book, instead of writing why I disliked it or why it didn’t resonate me, I only wrote “No.”. So, there’s that.)

There are so many reasons a book doesn’t find purchase with a reader. Truthfully, I expected more overall, and since it didn’t deliver, I was left disappointed. I can’t in good conscience recommend this to anyone, however. It’s simply too haphazard. 

Rating: One star

For the Sensitive Reader: Rape of a slave happens more than once, mistreatment of the slaves, misogyny, various anachronistic phrases, places, and things. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

Summary: From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country. 

A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes.

As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.

Kostova's new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.
  (summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I think that the best way to describe this book is to say that it is complex. It’s not complex in a way like your BioChem 200 textbook is, but it is complex in that it is many layered and the story is very involved. There are many characters, but enough that you need some sort of list at the beginning to refer back to. They are all contained in their own respective stories and Kostova is a competent author who can manage all of them.

The book starts with a flashback to a tragic situation in the main female character’s life. This situation is touched upon sometimes, but is actually kind of irrelevant and I think added a layer to the story that was unnecessary. Nothing ever comes to fruition about it and because of that I wouldn’t have missed it. I think people can be vulnerable and understand sadness and tragedy, especially in the situation that is upcoming.

Then the book moves to another part in the female protagonist’s life, the present day. As mentioned in the description, through a strange turn of events, she ends up with an urn and from there the story just takes off and has many complex and somewhat improbable twists and turns, although they weren’t completely impossible so that makes the story interesting.

So then it turns out that the book is actually a time hop book where we learn about the life of the man in the urn…and his family and friends and related people. Because of that, there is some time hopping inside the time hopping. And the history of Bulgaria is also in there, which I was unfamiliar with. It is tragic and horrible and reminiscent of other tragedies from that same area. I found this part to be the most surprising, actually. Good historical fiction has a way of bringing the past to life that I wholeheartedly appreciate and this book does just that. Kostova definitely brings to light a part of history that is just as tragic as the work camps during Nazi Germany, but is not as well known, and I appreciated that.

This book has some good twists and turns, some I saw coming and some I did not. Kostova is obviously a writer who is competent enough to juggle all of the complexities of the book and deal with the many layers even with the complexities, which I appreciated. When I finished the book my mind was kind of blown about how she was able to handle so much that was going on in such a graceful way.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, I believe there was one layer of the protagonist’s story that could have been left out for simplicity’s sake. It didn’t really add to the story and with a book this complex and this deep, simplicity is a good thing.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a book with some sad and tragic events, including war violence. There is some minor language and sexual content but I think it is fairly clean considering the genre and the events. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Surprise Yourself: Get Out of Your Head & Into the World - Lisa Currie

Summary: Turn every day into a new beginning!  Brimming with unique and game-changing ways to try something new, Surprise Yourself presents simple activities to make every day count.

  • Start a club
  • Compliment a stranger
  • Ask a child for advice
  • Draw someone's portrait
  • Celebrate a friendiversary
Offering plenty of room to record your progress and insights, this is a DIY happiness guide to share with a friend or use as a personal playbook for jump-starting each day.  Flip to any page and begin!  (Disclaimer: This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  Surprise Yourself is the first book that I have accepted for review in a very long time.  Seriously.  It’s been years. However, I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert with a tendency to spend a little too much time stuck in my own head, so the idea that a book could pull me out of that was intriguing.  At first glance, it certainly appears sunshine-y and uplifting, if I were to judge based solely on the cover (which I would never admit to doing).  Now, to dig into the book.

Oh, look!  The dedication is a reminder (to the author’s future self, but it works for the reader as well) to “spend less time trying to predict what could happen in every scenario and more time just showing up to see what does happen.”  *Gasp*  It’s like she knows me.  Moving on.

Surprise Yourself is not a book you read.  Not really.  While there is some reading involved, it is mostly a book meant to spur you to action -- to get you off the couch, out of the house, and out into the world.  It's designed to be something you can use to connect with others (say, a friend or family member) or to rediscover yourself and engage in a little activity that will stretch your comfort zone.  Essentially, she says:  It’s okay to be nervous.  It’s okay to do the easy things first.  Skip around the book.  Have fun.  Reach a little.  Explore yourself and the world around you.  Don’t take things to seriously. And, of course, surprise yourself.

Here are a few examples of activities in the book:
  • Have a stranger plan your day – Ask someone you don’t know very well (or at all) to suggest three ways you could spend your day in your current city or town.  
  • Partake in a bit of people watching – This page comes with some fun prompts for imagining the lives of strangers.
  • Go on a silent date – Don’t worry, the author provides several (clean) ideas for silent activities.  
  • Learn a few words in a new language
  • Put up an encouraging poster in your neighborhood  
  • Ask a child for advice (there are prompts or you can go your own way)
  • Let a dog take you for a walk
  • Sign up for a class you’ve always wanted to try
There are over a hundred more ideas (some silly, some serious) but I kind of feel like sharing them all wouldn’t be sporting.  Most of the pages have writing prompts, places to doodle, record your thoughts, or jot down the responses of others.  There are even several pages at the back that give the summarized version of each activity and allow you to color them in as you go  -- sort of an introvert's bucket-list, if you will, that rounds out the book quite nicely.  While the activity suggestions are appropriate for most ages, there are a few that might be more appropriate with adult supervision, simply for safety’s sake, so if your plan is to hand this book over to your kid, you might want to take a look at what they plan to do for the day just to give it the okay, lest your child attend a peaceful protest without you or decide to give a stranger a temporary tattoo.  Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a little extra push to get outside themselves and more fully embrace life.

For the sensitive reader: No worries.  

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

If you're interested in purchasing this book, you'll find it (and a few more examples of what's in the book) here.  (ps.  This is a courtesy link.  I don't make any money off it.)

If you'd like to read more about Lisa Currie's other books (The Positivity Kit, Me, You, Us, and The Scribble Diary, you can see them on the author's website here.  (Again...courtesy link.  No $$ made)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge - Helen Rappaport

Summary: Between the first revolution in February 1917 and Lenin’s Bolshevik coup in October, Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) was in turmoil – felt nowhere more keenly than on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt where the foreign visitors and diplomats who filled hotels, clubs, bars and embassies were acutely aware of the chaos breaking out on their doorsteps and beneath their windows.

Among this disparate group were journalists, businessmen, bankers, governesses, volunteer nurses and expatriate socialites. Many kept diaries and wrote letters home: from an English nurse who had already survived the sinking of the Titanic; to the black valet of the US Ambassador, far from his native Deep South; to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who had come to Petrograd to inspect the indomitable Women’s Death Battalion led by Maria Bochkareva.

Helen Rappaport draws upon this rich trove of material, much of it previously unpublished, to carry us right up to the action – to see, feel and hear the Revolution as it happened to a diverse group of individuals who suddenly felt themselves trapped in a ‘red madhouse.’ (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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

My Review: I don’t know if you read Helen Rappaport’s The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, but as soon as I started reading Caught in the Revolution, I remembered exactly what I thought about that book because this one is very consistently like that one. It’s about a similar time, a similar place, a similar topic, and a similar organizational and writing style. It’s like Rappaport took the telescope she was viewing the Romanov sisters with and just zoomed outward enough that she was looking at the city and the surrounding culture that was going on at the same time. I think they’re great companion books that way, actually, and I can totally understand how after an author would do so much research about this era that she would be able to write this book as well, using the same ton of research and original documents that were helpful for writing The Romanov Sisters.

So what did I think, you say? I’m so glad you asked.

First off, I am very impressed with the amount of knowledge and research that has been stuffed into this book. It’s astonishing, really. When I look at this book—which is quite hefty all on its own, actually—I can imagine that it’s like a meteor—it’s small, but hugely packed with information way denser than its outside would suggest. It’s just a virtual tome of wealth of this era. Secondly, as to be expected in a novel this in-depth and well-researched, it’s quite dense. It was not a book that I would sit down and read for a casual half hour of reading. No. I had to be focused and on my game in order to keep up what was going on. It moves quickly and from character to character. There were a few consistent characters throughout, but as it is not historical fiction but rather a historical narrative, the journalists who served as the main characters and eye witnesses to the revolution were quoted and discussed in a very scholarly way. That is to say, the descriptions were there, the dialogue was there, but I wasn’t getting all warm and fuzzy with the goings on. It was all very academic. That being said, Rappaport is obviously an accomplished writer, but her style in this book does not make for the kind of light beach or airplane reading. That’s okay, though. We can’t only survive on cake, can we? Sometimes we must read something of substance. This book is of substance. I thought the topic was fascinating and very pertinent to what is going on in our world right now.

This book took me a very long time to read. Usually I’m a really fast reader and if I am really into a book, I can finish that thing in a day or so no prob. If it’s JFic? Forgettaboutit. I can polish that off in a few hours. This book took me weeks. Months. It’s partly my fault because I wasn’t reading it consistently. It really is very heavy and dense and although it is a very interesting era, it just made for the kind of reading that frankly I’m not always up to.  However, like I said, that is my issue.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a book about a revolution. There is some discussion of violence, but it is not gratuitous. There is some language, but it is quotes from people who lived through the revolution and the time surrounding it. I found this book to be very appropriate and one that could be shared in any setting basically. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Choices - J.E. Laufer

Summary: We are all familiar with the horrifying atrocities of the Holocaust, but lesser known is the second harrowing ordeal many Jewish families faced after the Hungarian Revolution. The inconceivable reality of returning to life after concentration camps to build a family and find yourselves fleeing as refugees 10 years later is the true story of author J.E. Laufer’s parents. Herself only 2 years old at the time, Laufer has used family memories and the account of the remarkable 16-year-old Christian girl who aided her family’s escape to write this fictionalized account of the events following this period of turbulence. 

The pages of history books come to life for young adult readers with characters that leap off the page and events that can sometimes parallel all-too-closely the modern resurgence of a refugee crisis, anti-semitism and political unrest. Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review:  Life after the camps wasn’t easy. While many Jews left Europe altogether, many tried to go home, to reclaim their happiness in a place that was familiar, to rebuild their lives. For many, that worked. But for the many Jews who found themselves behind the Iron Curtain, they found the same rabid anti-semitism and distrust too much to bear. Some of these brave individuals chose to emigrate to the West in the hope of finding a more tolerant life, but for many of those who chose to leave, the borders were closed. 

J.E. Laufer has captured the essence of her parents’ flight from Hungary to Austria in this delightful little novel. The writing and tact that are used in the retelling are perfectly suited for middle-grade readers or reluctant YA readers — I was able to finish it in an hour. Please don’t let the small size drive you away, the story is one that deserves to be read. The decision to leave, the nearly-insurmountable task of saying goodbye to loved ones without letting them know too much, the risk of trusting a stranger with such a life-or-death task, as a mother, I want my children to know and understand the sacrifice so many made for the chance to be free, and I love how gracefully this novel illustrates it.

It was nearly impossible to see the miracles this family experienced to allow them to get to the West, and then once in the West, allowed them to survive.This was one of those books that while I flew through it, it left an indelible impression on me. It’s sweet.

Rating: Four stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Squeaky clean, other than the mention of a boy who had been shot trying to escape.

Monday, September 11, 2017

We Remember

Another year has come and gone.  And we still remember. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Big Fat Spotlight on the Big Fat Notebook Series

Have you seen the Big Fat Notebook series?  
If your kids are headed into middle school...you might want to keep reading.
These books are touted as the complete middle school studies guide for their respective subjects -- a useful compilation of notes borrowed from the SMARTEST KID in CLASS (Double-checked by an AWARD-WINNING teacher).  

Now, whether that last statement is truth or gimmick, I do not know.  I'm not sure how they decide who qualifies as the "smartest kid in class."  What I do know is that The Big Fat Notebook series is a study aid...(drum roll) that my kids ACTUALLY WANT TO USE!

I'm going to let you absorb that for a minute.

I purchased the set for my two older girls (one in middle school and one fast approaching) and they have really loved them.  My 11 year old likes to look through them for fun and my 13 year old actually reads them along with some of her lessons at school.  

If you open one of these books, it doesn't take long to see why it is so appealing to the middle school mind.  Each book is set up as if you are reading the class notes of a pretty fantastic (and artistic) note taker.  The pictures and text are engaging, approachable, and easy to understand.  Here's an example of one of the pages from the the Big Fat Science Notebook.


Pretty fun, huh?!  Like you might actually want to look at this for longer than 10 seconds, right?!

All the books are like that.  
Here are a few more sample pages I got off the publisher's website.









Just looking at those makes my brain actually perk up a bit and my fingers itch to flip through them.  I've included the table of contents from each book below so that you can see which topics are covered in each book, though I have omitted the sub-topics in the interest of space. 

In World History... 
Unit 1: The First Humans: Prehistory-3500 BC
Unit 2: First Civilizations 3500 BC - 300 CE 
Unit 3: The Middle Ages: 400 CE-1500 CE 
Unit 4: The Renaissance & Reformation 1350-1650
Unit 5: The Age of Exploration 1400-1800 
Unit 6: Revolution and Enlightenment 1500-1865 BC 
Unit 7: The Era of Imperialism 1800-1914
Unit 8: World Conflicts in the Early 20th Century 
Unit 9: Post-World War II:  The World from 1945 to Today

In English/Language Arts... 
Unit 1: Grammar 
Unit 2: Language
Unit 3: Reading Fiction
Unit 4: Reading Non-Fiction
Unit 5: Writing

In Science...
Unit 1: Scientific Investigation
Unit 2: Matter, Chemical Reactions & Solutions
Unit 3: Motion, Forces, and Work
Unit 4: Energy
Unit 5: Outer Space: The Universe & the Solar System
Unit 6: The Earth, Weather, Atmosphere, & Climate
Unit 7: Life: Classification and Cells
Unit 8: Plants & Animals
Unit 9: The Human Body and Body Systems
Unit 10: History of Life: Heredity, Evolution, and Fossils, 
Unit 11: Ecology: Habitats, Interdependence, and Resources

In Math...
Unit 1: The Number System
Unit 2: Rations, Proportions, and Percents
Unit 3: Expressions and Equations
Unit 4: Geometry
Unit 5: Statistics and Probability
Unit 6: The Coordinate Plane and Functions

In American History...
Unit 1: Prehistory- Early 1600s
Unit 2: Colonial America, 1607-1780s
Unit 3: American Revolution and the Early Republic, 1776-1791
Unit 4: American Expansion, 1801-1861
Unit 5: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850s-1870s
Unit 6: Reshaping the Nation, 1850-1917
Unit 7: World Wars and Modern America, 1900s-1930s
Unit 8: World War II, 1930s-1945
Unit 9: Post-World War II Era, 1945-1980
Unit 10: American History...and Current-ish Events!

In the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I am not a proficient when it comes to any of these subjects, so I can't speak conclusively to the comprehensive coverage or complete accuracy of specific topics. I haven't read them all the way through and so I don't feel fully qualified to "review" them for this blog.  However, I found that from my own personal observations the Big Fat Notebook series did a great job of covering the basics while keeping things simple.  Ultimately, though, it all boils down to this...I was looking for something to help supplement my girls' education...something that would spur them along, liven things up, and give them something they could refer to if they needed a little refresher.  These have done the trick so far. 

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