Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Six of Crows - Leigh Bardugo

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone...

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Kaz's crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.
 (Summary and pic from

My Review: If you’ve read my previous reviews, you know I’m totally one of those [shallow?/normal?/smart?] people who judge a book by its cover. It matters, people. And let me tell you—this book looks really cool. The cover pic is cool. The inside drawings in the chapters are cool and—get this—the edges of the pages are black. It’s super cool. It looks gritty and sooty and really sets the mood. So many times I would pick it up and I would think how great the vibe was just from the look of this book. It really helps create the atmosphere for the story and the world.

One of the strengths of this book was the characters. They made the story. They were the story, actually. There was a fun heist that I will talk about later, but it was really about the characters. They were flawed, some were more likeable than others, of course (as is in real life, right?) but they were awesome, too. I have read the first book in the Grisha series, and although this takes place in the same world, it involves different people with different powers. Still, because it focused so much on the characters, it felt more real than other fantasies I’ve read. Sure, most of the powers these people had weren’t realistic, but because of the way they were handled, they teetered on that delicious edge where maybe someone really talented could do the things some of these characters could do. The characters had a lot of style. They were unique and individual and I liked that. Too often I find that characters in books are very similar and flat. I can vividly imagine these characters and what they are like and what they can do.

Now for the story—I thought this was really cool. It was fun, it was exciting, and it moved really quickly. It reminded me of the movie “The Italian Job.” In fact, I would say that if you like that movie, you should totally check out this book. Just like in “The Italian Job” there are some deeper things going on, but I wouldn’t necessarily read this book if you’re looking for depth and life-affirmations. You should read this book because it’s a fun heist story with super-talented [read: super powered] people in a fantastical world. It’s awesome.

The one downside is that there is a steep learning curve. It took me a few chapters before I knew who the characters were and what the different place names for things meant. It was super confusing. However, the author does a good job of painting a vivid picture that within a short period of time makes a rich tapestry of a very cool world. It is also possible that if I had read the first Grisha book more recently, I would have been more up to speed. I am definitely looking forward to the next in the series.

My Review: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and some violence in this book. I would say it is pretty standard for others in this genre. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Monument 14 - Emmy Lambourne

Summary: Your mother hollers that you're going to miss the bus. She can see it coming down the street. You don't stop and hug her and tell her you love her. You don't thank her for being a good, kind, patient mother. Of course not-you launch yourself down the stairs and make a run for the corner.

Only, if it's the last time you'll ever see your mother, you sort of start to wish you'd stopped and did those things. Maybe even missed the bus.

But the bus was barreling down our street, so I ran.

Fourteen kids. One superstore. A million things that go wrong.

In Emmy Laybourne's action-packed debut novel, six high school kids (some popular, some not), two eighth graders (one a tech genius), and six little kids trapped together in a chain superstore build a refuge for themselves inside. While outside, a series of escalating disasters, beginning with a monster hailstorm and ending with a chemical weapons spill, seems to be tearing the world-as they know it-apart. (Summary and image from

Review: Dean is in love with Astrid.  It's a pity, really, that although they ride the bus together every day, she doesn't know he exists.  What he needs is some amazing, cataclysmic event that would make her see what a hero he really is.  Yeah, that'd totally do it!

And then the hail starts.  

Before Dean knows what's going on, their bus is being pounded mercilessly by hail, the driver is killed, the bus flips and comes to a stop by his brother's elementary school bus.  All thoughts of impressing Astrid flee his mind as he struggles just to survive the onslaught.  The elementary school bus driver, an amazing woman, hustles everyone out of the wreckage, into the smaller bus, and rams the bus into a superstore to get the children out of danger, and then leaves for help. The world has forever been altered by solar flares and destructive weather patterns that have hit Earth.  Communication is down because the satellites were knocked out with the flares. The only information that the kids are getting is coming through an old, antiquated tube TV they find in the store.  Thus begins the series.

Is your heart pounding yet?  Mine was.  I had to reread it to make sure I hadn't missed anything, but nope.  Laybourne's style of writing is fast-paced, breathless, and immersive.  We follow the fourteen children, some teenagers, some as young as five, as they try to survive until the bus driver comes back with help.  I found myself fearing their safety, cheering their victories, goading on their attempt to ration their supplies, normalize their lives, and make the decisions that would provide their safety.  Her voice is clear, and she doesn't apologize for making her characters act as though teenagers would act in that scenario.

That being said, the amount of sex, wanton drug and alcohol use, and lust that goes on did make me uncomfortable.  I didn't feel like it was necessary to the story in every case, although it didn't feel too gratuitous.  

Although this is definitely a science fiction based book, it felt very realistic.  I loved the way Laybourne's characters all coped with the disaster.  One, in particular, awoke from a semi-catatonic state and then threw herself into caring for the kids.  She set up a school time, converted the dressing rooms into dormitories, and bustled everyone into a sense of efficiency.  The characters grew.  They became real in a way that I didn't expect when I picked it up, and I love being surprised by debut novels.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Sex, more sex, some peeping tom-foolery, lots of drugs and alcohol, murder (although not too graphic) and an underage attempted rape.  Definitely not for your more sensitive audiences.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Bad Times: An Drochshaol - Christine Kinealy and John Walsh

Summary: The Bad Times: An Drochshaol is a story of pain and suffering, but also one of love and loyalty. Brigit, Daniel, and Liam are three teenagers from County Clare in the west of Ireland who live through the horrors of the Great Hunger in Ireland, also remembered by survivors as The Bad Times. The bonds of love and friendship between the teens are put to the test during Ireland's Great Hunger as they each make the tough decisions needed to survive. Their story is movingly told in this new graphic novel by historian Christine Kinealy and graphic novelist John Walsh.

The Bad Times is set during the Great Hunger, a disaster precipitated by the failure of the potato crop, but exacerbated by the inadequate policies of the British government and the cruelty and opportunism of some landowners and merchants. It takes place between 1846 and 1849. The Bad Times is based on the experiences of three young adults, Dan, Brigit and Liam, who are close friends, and their loyal dog, Cú. When the story commences, in late summer 1846, the potato crop is about to fail for a second time.  (Summary and image from  I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a review.)

My Review:  I liked the idea of approaching the Great Hunger in Ireland through a graphic novel.  This story was straightforward (though a little disjointed at times, most particularly during the festival of Lugh), and I loved how this tale focused on the youth (and their loyal dog).  Tragedies like this are difficult for everyone, but most particularly children, who often have no say in how things play out.

I enjoyed the three main characters and their tight-knit friendship, showing how they looked out for each other despite everything.  Their friendship made this story real, showing their sacrifices when they were losing everything.

(One of my favorite sequences in the book was where they all went to the beach, and Cu, their dog, raced about in the waves and made them laugh, because it had been so long since they'd had anything to be happy about.)

The ending is bittersweet, but if you know me, those are actually my favorite kinds, and I think it worked well for this tale.

Graphic novels can be all over the place art-wise, so I was fine with the simplistic drawings which allowed us to focus on the story of these people.  In my opinion, I would have preferred the art inside to follow the simpleness of the black and white cover with the green title, and felt it would have made for even stronger prose if the line work alone could have been used. The colored panels didn't really do much for me, and almost felt a little too garish and busy.

I love the Irish language--I think it is beautiful--and I loved the use of Irish words throughout the book.  I was glad there was a glossary in the back for the Irish words and phrases that were used, but I had to keep my finger there and keep flipping back whenever a new word popped up and I wanted context, which tugged me out of the story a little. It would have been nice whenever a new Irish word came into the story to have a footnote instead of just referring to the glossary.

Also on that note, I would have loved a pronunciation guide.  The Irish language is difficult to read, and often doesn't sound how it looks.  One or two of the words in the glossary had a pronunciation attached to them, but others didn't, and I would have loved to know how to say them all.

My rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: This story deals with death, starvation and sickness

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

101 Things to Do Before You Grow Up - Creative Team of Weldon Owen

Summary: There's a lot to do before you get old and boring! Live it up with 101 activities that celebrate childhood, discovery, and just plain having fun. Have you ever made a time capsule? Do you have a signature dance move? And do you know the secret for folding the perfect paper airplane? This ready-made bucket list for kids is a journey through art, science, writing, and all the memory making and exploring that is the best part of childhood. Take this travel-friendly guidebook with you, and check off each adventure along the way. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: I keep doing this!! I get these amazing and fun books to review, I get so excited about reviewing them that I talk to everyone I know about them, we get so involved using the book ... and then I realize that actually publishing my review got lost in the enjoyment of the book.

So, the cat's out of the bag ... this is a must-have book. Everything about it is designed to entice children to play.  The vibrant colors, the fun fonts, not to mention the awesome activities and factoids, it's like walking into a candy store.  It doesn't hurt that every page has a Date Completed area, so you can check things off as you finish them.  

Time for another confession: It took me longer to review this than I wished because my kids kept stealing it.  They had so much fun reading and doing the activities within the book that it kept disappearing off my shelf!  In order to review a book,  I like being able to have it on hand to flip through and refresh my memory ... and with it constantly walking off in the hands of one of my three, that was difficult!

If you're looking for something to spice up a school break, or something to just break your kids out of a slump in their routine, this is one you need to check out.  From juggling to science experiments, fun facts to Zodiacs, this is a book that won't ever go out of date!

Rating: Five stars

Monday, March 21, 2016

Shadow in the Sea - Sheila A. Nielson

SummaryWhen sixteen-year-old Sadelyn Hanson washes up on the shores of Windwaithe Island, her beauty and the strange marks on her wrist make superstitious locals suspect she is a mermaid. Feigning amnesia, Sade hides a far worse secret: she was sailing to her own murder trial when she was thrown overboard by the real killer, the cunning and cruel Captain Westwood.

Sade's quiet effort to rebuild her life on the island is threatened when she meets an actual young merman. Unable to speak his language, Sade still longs for the warm companionship he offers, despite the locals' dire legends about merfolk and their dark magic. But her confused feelings for the impossible boy become the least of her problems when Captain Westwood's ship docks at Windwaithe. With nowhere to escape, Sade must trust in the one person who doesn't fear the merfolk. A woman who had dealings with them herself—years ago. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Well. I really wanted to like this book. A lot. I had such high hopes, you see, because I really enjoyed the first one, Forbidden Sea. I, like you, I’m sure, have read and heard about a ton of paranormal romance novels featuring all kinds of mythical creatures—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, elves, fairies, etc., and a whole plethora of made up creatures as well. No stone has been left unturned when it comes to mythical creatures and their goings-on in YA fic. Some of these books have been decent, others have been lamelamelamelamelame. You know what I’m talking about.

When I read Forbidden Sea, I hadn’t read a mermaid book yet. There are since some other ones I’ve seen (but not read), but this was the maiden voyage (see what I did there?). It was interesting, I really liked the folkloric aspect of it, and I appreciated the nods to the many diverse cultures that have mermaids or mer-creatures and their fun stories that come with it. That was cool.

Now we come to Shadow in the Sea. First of all, I hate the cover. It’s stupid. I can’t decide if that Kristen Stewart lookalike is supposed to be in the ocean or just drowning in her own sorrows in a bathtub. I’m thinking the latter. But we don’t judge a book by its cover now, do we? [I do.] But I was willing to give it a chance. The story itself was okay, and it had some compelling bits in it, but really, it was just a lot of hyped-up teenage drama and angst with the main character being all “It’s all my fault and no one should love me and they’re all blaming me and I can never live up to that mythical creature’s beauty and he’s my destiiiinnnnnyyyy and there’s so much greatness in His world I reaaaallllllyyyyy want to be a part of but I would rather just give up and drown in a bathtub so now I’m just going to go sacrifice myself and endanger everybody else at the same time cause I’m young and probably just stupid.”

I think I could stop there. That would probably sum it up.

But I’ll go on.

It is entirely possible that I am just super curmudgeonly and not really into paranormal romance as someone, say, half my age. But that’s just it—I’ve read a lot of paranormal romance and some of it I might even admit to enjoying.(Look, I admitted to liking the first book.) But this seemed really, really cheesy. And the drama was just way over the top, and not in a fun way. It was in a whiny way in which you start thinking the main character really does deserve all the badness that she’s claiming for herself. It surprised me that Nielson’s writing went downhill as compared to the first one. I thought I could rely on her to not get all over-the-top and teenage angsty on me, but I guess not. Also, the names in the book were so stupid it was killing me every time I read a new one. The mer-people names were especially lame.

This book’s destiiiiinnnnnnyyyyy is two and a half stars.

My Rating: 2.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean, although there is some mild violence. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry - Rachel Joyce

Summary: Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning a letter arrives, addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl, from a woman he hasn’t heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. But before Harold mails off a quick reply, a chance encounter convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. In his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold Fry embarks on an urgent quest. Determined to walk six hundred miles to the hospice, Harold believes that as long as he walks, Queenie will live. A novel of charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller. (Summary and pic from

My Review: It is hard to describe why this book would be as good as it was. First off, it’s a quite simple story, really. A man receives a mysterious letter from an old friend who’s dying of cancer. He writes to send his condolences, walks out to his mailbox to mail the letter, and keeps on walking. Almost the entire book—300+ pages—is of him walking. But lest you get confused and think this sounds really boring, let me assure you that it is anything but.

Harold Fry is an ordinary man who’s made a lot of mistakes, mostly sins of omission. He has a sad past and it’s no wonder he’s turned out the way that he has, but this story is about his transformation. His wife has become embittered over the years, so the story is about her transformation as well. But I think the thing that makes this book extraordinary is that it’s a life changing journey for the reader as well.

Good books should not just make us enjoy the story and what the author has created, but should really allow us to change ourselves as well. I feel like this book did this for me. It was a story of life—the people we meet, the journeys we take, the struggles we endure, and how we react to those struggles. It is one of those books that is written about one thing but is also completely about something else entirely as well. I felt myself sympathizing with Harold Fry, and at times even felt myself experiencing those same feelings of loss or misstep in my own life. It’s a book that is painful and beautiful not just because the character is experiencing painful and beautiful things, but because as a reader I was allowed to evaluate how I felt about similar kinds of things that I had experienced.

The writing in this book is quite beautiful. Joyce is able to take a simple story—but also a very complex one—and make it accessible and beautiful and completely full. When I look back at reading this book I have a clear and vivid image of what things looked like, who Harold was and who he encountered, and the story. It was like I was there experiencing it with him, and that was beautiful.

We read this book in my book club and everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. There was a lot to discuss and each person had gotten different things out of it. Sharing those things and discussing our experience as a whole made for one of the best discussions our book club has had in a long time. It made for a great book club read.

I highly recommend this book. It is poignant and beautiful. It is deep and also sad. But very happy, too.  It is, actually, a lot like life and for that it was just remarkable.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Harold does encounter some bad language-spouting people in his journey, but for the most part this book is clean and certainly on the milder side for the Adult Fic genre.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Court's Favorite Books

Adult Fiction:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Young Adult Fiction:
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
The Flavia deLuce series by Alan Bradley

Children's Fiction:
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Matilda by Roald Dahl
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Redwall by Brian Jacques

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Cost of Courage - Charles Kaiser

 Summary: This heroic true story of the three youngest children of a bourgeois Catholic family who worked together in the French Resistance is told by an American writer who has known and admired the family for five decades 

In the autumn of 1943, André Boulloche became de Gaulle’s military delegate in Paris, coordinating all the Resistance movements in the nine northern regions of France only to be betrayed by one of his associates, arrested, wounded by the Gestapo, and taken prisoner. His sisters carried on the fight without him until the end of the war. André survived three concentration camps and later became a prominent French politician who devoted the rest of his life to reconciliation of France and Germany. His parents and oldest brother were arrested and shipped off on the last train from Paris to Germany before the liberation, and died in the camps. Since then, silence has been the Boulloches’s answer to dealing with the unbearable. This is the first time the family has cooperated with an author to recount their extraordinary ordeal.   (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: There are a plethora of jokes about the French fighting during World War II.  The vast majority of them seem to center around their quick surrender to the Nazis, with hardly any resistance. Except for, of course, the French Resistance.  I'm not going to lie, as someone who is avidly interested in WWII history, I have always felt woefully under informed about the French Resistance.  I feel like the majority I've learned has either been footnoted in or (shamefully) gleaned from that BBC show 'Allo, 'Allo.  Remember that show?  It was ridiculous.  But it was funny.

Back to the point.  The French Resistance is something that we Westerners gloss over, which is a crying shame.  Charles Kaiser has delved into a small doorway of the Resistance here, telling the story of three of the members whom he had grown up idolizing.  Along the way, he not only details what life was really like in France, he uncovers a compelling, heartbreaking, amazing story that I feel we're less for not knowing. Did you know, that per our own Wartime Records offices, 99% of downed Allied pilots in France were given shelter and safe passage back to the Allied Forces?  99%.  Wow. Men and women all over France felt that if they weren't actively part of the resistance, they were in spirit.  In the smallest ways, they resisted the Nazis together.  Because of that, the Nazi surrender was almost as seamless as its takeover.

This book was the 100th book I read last year.  (As of writing this, in the middle of January, I've read one. GO, me! [hangs head in shame])  I planned on breezing through it on New Year's Eve, but I couldn't put it down.  It impacted me.  Kaiser's writing style is intelligent, searching, and exceptionally well-structured.  The information and the story of the Boulloche family were so masterfully stitched together, it impacted me greatly (part of the reason I haven't read so much yet.).  The losses and triumphs became my own.  The fight, either overt or covert, became one I felt directly invested in.  My heart pounded.  It sunk.  It rejoiced with the family, and I felt at the end I wept with them, not as a reader halfway across the world and years after, but as though I was standing just outside their knot.

Books like this are why I read.  

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are descriptions of gunshot wounds, torture employed by the Nazis, and an attempted rape is mentioned.  I'd give this a PG-10 rating.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Two Sons - Stewart Gill Owen

Summary: It's 1932 and Hitler and the Nazi Party are threatening to take control of Germany. There is a growing fear of another war. 

Two families from vastly different backgrounds make their way to visit their sons' war graves in the Flanders region of Belgium. John and Annie Williams are on their annual trip from England in memory of their son, Herbert, who had been killed while fighting at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Erich and Martina Lehmann have travelled from Germany to pay their respects to the memory of their son, Kurt who died in the same campaign. During their visit, the couples meet and in the wake of such devastation, confrontational events take place. 

'Two Sons' moves from the war on the western front to the domestic lives of both families over a period of two decades. Having lost their sons in one conflict, both families fear that they may have to make further sacrifices in light of the growing threat. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Two young men, both kind, both with promising futures, both fated to perish at Passchendaele, on opposing sides of the war.  Two families, fated to meet at their sons' resting place fifteen years later.  So many lives touched, so many lost.  Can reconciliation ever truly be achieved?

The premise of this book was so beautiful to me.  As far removed from World War I as we are, it's easy to break it down into Good Guys and Bad Guys.  The Good Guys won.  But, that doesn't mean the Bad Guys didn't have hearts, didn't feel their loss. And as one of the characters mentions, how would life have been different for the Good Guys if their ancestors hadn't left Germany?

Loss is something that transcends politics, race, religion, and family feuds.  Loss is one of those universal emotions able to bring together individuals in a way that nothing else quite can.  Unfortunately, this book falls short of its goal of showing that reconciliation, and sadly, it didn't have to.

On paper, this book should have worked.  The pieces were all there - two families trying to heal.  The "Bad Guy" family was kind, humble, willing to ask forgiveness and move forward, and the leader of the "Good Guys" family was good, but hurt, belligerent, and unready to forgive.  The characters moved forward as they were supposed to, it should have worked. 

But it didn't.

I'm a picky reader, and I'm a staunch believer that present tense is very, very tricky to pull off.  It's best reserved for books like The Hunger Games.  When in the right hands, it conveys the sense of urgency of the main characters, the uncertainty of what future, or if any future will be realized.  It takes a good writer and a better editor to execute it flawlessly.  If you can't execute it flawlessly, don't try.  Not only is this book written in present tense, it follows two different timelines, one after the titular sons have died.  There's no reason for the present tense ... they're dead.  The world knows how that war ended.  Personally, I believe the book would have been much stronger had the past chapters been written in past tense. 

 Second, the timeline jumps were tricky.  With very little to differentiate them from the present chapters, I got so confused I had to restart the chapters more than once.  Finally, the drinking.  Half the book is about drinking.  Not even a discussion that would lend itself to a story but mind-numbingly inane blather about who wants what to drink where and when, and then let's do it again!  I lost my temper with the book at that point, and had to force myself to finish.

Unfortunately, by this point in the book I was nitpicking for reasons to justify my frustration.  Spelling errors, continuity errors, basic historical mistakes that should have been caught simply spoiled this book for me.  I wish I could send it back and ask for a rewrite because the story truly could be beautiful. It just didn't live up to my expectation.

Rating: One star

For the Sensitive Reader: Numerous unnecessary and gratuitous uses of the F word.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Looking Back: A Book of Memories - Lois Lowry

Summary:  People are constantly asking two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry where she gets her ideas. In this fascinating memoir, Lowry answers this question, through recollections of childhood friends and pictures and memories that explore her rich family history. She recounts the pivotal moments that inspired her writing, describing how they magically turned into fiction along the complicated passageway called life. Lowry fans, as well as anyone interested in understanding the process of writing fiction, will benefit from this poignant trip through the past and the present of a remarkable writer.  (Summary from and image from

My Review:  If you weren't aware of how artful, intentional, and well-spoken Lois Lowry is, I can't imagine you'll be that way for long after opening this book.  It has been one of those books that upon reflecting I see more and more intentional craft in how she picked her pictures, ordered them, wrote about them, and displayed them throughout her book.

It's not a typical memoir or auto-biography.  You can tell she has chosen very specifically what to share and no more, no less.  It's a perfect representation of how she writes her books as well--carefully crafted, revised, reinvisioned, and edited to as close to perfection in writing as possible.  There is a clear structure, self imposed, that sets up the reader to see how she laced each section with quotes from the books she wrote with pictures and commentaries to match.  She hints in the beginning that the pictures she shares are in response to the questions she's had from people asking her where she gets her ideas for her stories.  Nothing is explicit.  And while Lowry shares personal pieces of her life, she also weaves in her delicate touch of the disappointments in life.  One will have no question as to how Lowry can have real life experience with tragedy and loss, but also how she has lived in a way that is intentional and loving.

Lowry has a way of dealing with difficult subject matter in a way that is meaningful for children and yet appropriate.  This book is no different, as it touches on war, death, change, the unknown, sibling relationships, etc.  It inspired me, uplifted me, and made me want to write my own version for my life.  Lowry is a gift to literature.

Rating: 5 Stars

Sum it up:  A patch-work quilted piece of memories and pictures of an amazing life.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Tightrope - Simon Mawer

Summary: An historical thriller that brings back Marian Sutro, ex-Special Operations agent, and traces her romantic and political exploits in post-World War II London, where the Cold War is about to reshape old loyalties
As Allied forces close in on Berlin in spring 1945, a solitary figure emerges from the wreckage that is Germany. It is Marian Sutro, whose existence was last known to her British controllers in autumn 1943 in Paris. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, she has withstood arrest, interrogation, incarceration, and the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, but at what cost? Returned to an England she barely knows and a postwar world she doesn’t understand, Marian searches for something on which to ground the rest of her life. Family and friends surround her, but she is haunted by her experiences and by the guilt of knowing that her contribution to the war effort helped lead to the monstrosities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the mysterious Major Fawley, the man who hijacked her wartime mission to Paris, emerges from the shadows to draw her into the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Cold War, she sees a way to make amends for the past and at the same time to find the identity that has never been hers. 

A novel of divided loyalties and mixed motives, Tightrope is the complex and enigmatic story of a woman whose search for personal identity and fulfillment leads her to shocking choices. (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: I’ve been pondering for awhile now what it is about this book. By all accounts, I should love it. I’m totally loving historical fiction right now, I’ve read some great WWII historical fiction books that I’ve loved (see my reviews for The Nightingale and Rose Under Fire if you’re looking for some excellent WWII historical fic). And yet…I dunno. The summary of this book should, for all intents and purposes, be totally my kind of thing. The main character is a strong female—and a spy, nonetheless—and I totally love cool female characters, especially at a historical period when they weren’t expected to be so. So I thought and thought and thought, and I think what the deal is is this—I did not like the way Mawer wrote this female character. Why? Because he wrote her like a man.

Now, let’s be fair here. I have read many male authors who I think have captured beautifully what women are like—how they think, how they act, their motivations, etc. Some series that I love where I think the authors did this remarkably are the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley and The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. Flavia de Luce is one of those series where I am always surprised how well a man is able to capture a woman—a girl, really, because Flav is only 11 when it starts. He gets her, he gets what she’s about, and I just love Flav. She’s real, she’s funny, she’s flawed, and she is just so precocious! Mma Ramotswe from The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency is also a well-written female character, but in a completely different way. She’s elegant and wise, and so alive that I feel like I know her. There are many, many others, as I’m sure you’ve read, but these are just a few that came to mind.

I could see where Mawer was trying to create a woman who was strong and cool and also dangerous and risqué, but I feel like he did it in ways that a man would be strong and cool and dangerous and risqué. To put it plainly, I just don’t think that women think about drinking and sex the way Marian Sutro, the main character does. I also do not think that most women engage in what I consider to be pedophilia in this book. I know that not all women think the same, and obviously there are outliers, but even with those women I feel that there is a difference between them and Marian Sutro. It’s subtle and possibly unidentifiable to a male author, but Marian Sutro, in my opinion, is written like a man.

After coming to this conclusion, I considered that maybe he had created a male-like character as a female to make it that much more shocking, but I don’t think that’s so. One character who is completely awesome is Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. She’s edgy, she’s raw, and although she doesn’t act with drinking and sex like Marian Sutro does, she is an atypical female character created by a man who is completely awesome. I related to Lisbeth Salander and even though I’m not like her, I can fully admit that she’s pretty much one of the coolest female characters written. (Side note—do not go read these books without knowing what you’re getting into. They’re rated R, at least, for language and sexual violence.)

The story of Tightrope itself was decent and interesting. That’s pretty much what kept me going. I liked it more as it went on. However, my main complaint really is that the female character—the main character—was not relatable as a woman, and therefore I found this book really difficult to enjoy as fully as I could have.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, sex, and WWII torture violence in this book. It is more than some I’ve read from the genre. I would rate it PG-13.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Elena Vanishing: A Memoir - Elena and Clare B. Dunkle

Summary:  Everyone thinks you're a big fat fake.

Seventeen-year-old Elena has a voice in her head that tells her what she needs to do in order to be perfect: Put on her make up.  Be charming and poised.  Make top grades.  Work two or even three jobs.  And never, ever eat.

You're an out-of-control, binge-eating whore.

This is the voice she calls her conscience.  And listening to it just might kill her.

As Elena's body starts to break down and she goes from one hospital to another, she comes to understand that her inner voice is her greatest demon.  And in order to defeat it, she will have to face a secret she's hidden for years.

This is the story of a girl whose armor against anxiety is artillery against herself, a girl battling on both sides of a lose-lose war, a girl struggling with anorexia nervosa.  Co-written with her mother, award-winning author Clare B. Dunkle, Elena's memoir is a fascinating and intimate look at a deadly disease, and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this dangerous disorder.  (Summary from book jacket and image from

My Review:  First off, I need to own that I've never had anorexia nervosa, so as much as I will attest to this being the most accurate depiction of the disease I have ever read, I am not the expert on the subject by any means.  But for me this is the most accurate depiction of anorexia nervosa.  I have had many close people to me, some family members, that have fought this disease, so I do have a fairly good barometer on the depth of the torment.  Additionally, I've read many books, some fictional portrayals that were amazing (e.g., Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson), some more clinical write-ups (e.g., Reviving Ophelia by Dr. Mary Pipher), but none has really gotten into the head, the true tormented mind of an anorexic like this book has.  And I believe that's because this is a memoir, a real voice of someone who's lived the life and managed to survive.

Each person has a story, an individualized reason and battle that brings him or her to the point of anorexia.  And for this reason, each depiction of the struggle with this disease will be different.  But there are commonalities between the stories.  One of those commonalities is the wickedly vicious inner voice, the inner dialogue of the mind that beats down every good thing a person does or says or hears.  And that is a piece of this book that cut to the quick.  Elena's inner voice is painfully wicked, painfully critical, demeaning, and derogatory.  And this is the voice that Elena listens to most.  I've had a chance to talk with a few people close to me who've had anorexia and they confirmed that this voice is real, and can haunt them even after healing has taken place.

Another aspect to the book that I appreciated was hearing the words that were going on inside the mind of Elena during her conversations with everyone around her.  The lies her mind told her that resisted help and guided her further into disappearing; this is something I've witnessed first-hand.  There's a point in every conversation when you're talking with someone who struggles with anorexia where you know they're not listening to you any more and have started lying to you to get you to leave them alone.  I witnessed the facial shut-down and hardening of the mind that blocks out all input from others.  And now I've been able to hear what's happening behind the eyes.  Elena also allowed me to see the point in time where the realization of the lies her mind was telling her come full force into reality, managing to break down that barrier that she built.

If there was one quote from the book that hit me with the most force, it was this one:  "We anorexics, we cause ourselves pain every day.  We toughen ourselves to withstand any hardship.  We can deal with the physical torture, the anguish, and the emptiness, but the thing that kills every one of us is having to see what the others suffer."  If there is anything that can pull a victim of anorexia from the brink of death, it is this: they do not want to be the reason that others hurt.  If this cannot pull them back from death, I'm not sure what will.  The intense determination, persistence, and intellectual grit anorexics have can overpower any strong-minded, loving person trying to help.  They will win.  They will overcome.  And if you can shift this determination from negative to positive, he or she can overcome anorexia.

Another important message from the book is that if someone is suffering from an eating disorder, it is vital that they seek out and receive professional help.  There are many facilities and all are trying to help, but the first one you find may not be the one that will work.  Finding the right fit for your family member may take significant time.  Please don't give up.  For some it takes years to recover.  For almost all, the battle will be life-long.  It is a disease of the mind that will haunt the person until the day they die, but that doesn't mean they can't have a happy life.  Have hope.  Take heart from this story and continue to seek the help available.

For the sensitive reader:  I do not recommend this for young girls or boys.  Swearing, alcohol, risky behavior related to eating disorders, and briefly describes a rape. Anyone seeking understanding and wanting a realistic portrayal, this is your book.  But I do mean realistic; rose-colored glasses do not exist for Elena and therefore they won't be there for you either.

Rating: 5 stars

Sum it up: The best book I've read showing the authentic, raw, honest anorexia nervosa in reality.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Met Our New Reviewer, Court Cope!

We are so thrilled to welcome a new reviewer to the Reading for Sanity team!  Court has been a guest reviewer in the past and we've liked her reviews so much we had to ask her to join us!

Court loves a good story well told in any format, though books generally take a preference.  Drawn to children's literature (particularly if animals are involved), the love doesn't stop there: at age twelve she once attempted to read every classic that was featured in the show about the book-loving dog 'Wishbone' (and didn't quite make it).

A fan of the dark, quirky and often macabre, she likes monsters of all sorts and collects animal skulls.  Court works in an office by day, writes novels by night, and does her best to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Harry Potter and the Art of Spying - Lynn Boughey and Peter Earnest

Summary: The Harry Potter series is more than just a story about a young wizard who saves the world from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The seven-book saga is an excellent primer on spying, intelligence, and politics. Join spy novelist Lynn Boughey and thirty-six-year CIA veteran and executive director of the International Spy Museum Peter Earnest as they review the spy craft employed and celebrated in J.K. Rowling's bestselling books. From the invisibility cloak to house passwords to Fred and George Weasley's Extendable Ears, "Harry Potter & the Art of Spying" is full of spy lessons for the secret-agent-in-training in the Muggle realm. Learn how to break secret codes, gather intelligence, read character's motives, and why Severus Snape is the best double agent ever. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Exclamation points!! Bold fonts! CAPS Lock!!  Italics!! More exclamation points!!  The same joke repeated 400 times!!

That about sums it up.

Harry Potter and the Art of Spying takes a long look at the spy-world characteristics of the Harry Potter world.  It provides an in-depth analysis (blow-by-blow) of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, specifically outlining what spy tactics are either coincidentally or deliberately put in place.  The second part of the book takes a longer look at the characters and their roles as spies, drawing information and conclusions from the entire series.

On the surface, this sounds awesome, doesn't it?  There is certainly a lot of spying that goes on in the books, as well as quite a bit of intelligence seeking. My imagination ran rampant with possibility.


I'm not quite sure if the authors knew who their target audience was.  Clearly, they were writing to Potterheads, those so infatuated with the books they would read anything pertaining to it.  I count myself among that group.  But what about this group of Potterheads that are the target audience?  Are they smart?  How many times have they read the books?  Do they know the text well? Is this the first extracurricular Harry Potter universe book they've ever read?  Frankly, it would have done them a world of good to think those questions through before publishing this book.

The writing style is very camaraderie-based, but somehow manages to be quite condescending as well.  Describing the most basic points in the Potterverse in depth (who doesn't know by now what the Mirror of Erised says?  And how that "code" was written and deciphered?), most of the time belaboring the point beyond reason, becomes arduous and burdensome.  The whimsical, jokey style of writing soon slogs, creating such a drudgery to read that frankly, it took me over a year to finish.

Yes, I said over a year.  I read the unabridged version of Les Miserables, all 1400+ pages including Hugo's philosophies on government, love, and revolution, in under a week.  And I was only reading during commute times and at lunch. This book wasn't nearly as well written and not quite half as long.

It broke my heart to see such a potentially fun book weighted down so heavily with unnecessary additions and explanations.  Potterheads are a smart bunch, and I truly felt that that went unrecognized.  I've said it before, but I don't do well being talked down at by an author.  I imagine many people don't.

That being said, I really enjoyed Boughey's inserted stories about his life as a spy.  Now, there's a book I think I'd enjoy!

Rating: One and a half stars


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