Monday, May 30, 2016

Savage Drift - Emmy Lambourne

SummaryThe stunningly fierce conclusion to Emmy Laybourne's Monument 14 trilogy.

The survivors of the Monument 14 have finally made it to the safety of a Canadian refugee camp. Dean and Alex are cautiously starting to hope that a happy ending might be possible.

But for Josie, separated from the group and trapped in a brutal prison camp for exposed Type Os, things have gone from bad to worse. Traumatized by her experiences, she has given up all hope of rescue or safety.

Meanwhile, scared by the government's unusual interest in her pregnancy, Astrid (with her two protectors, Dean and Jake in tow) joins Niko on his desperate quest to be reunited with his lost love Josie.

Author Emmy Laybourne reaches new heights of tension and romance in this action-packed conclusion to the Monument 14 trilogy.

Review: Whew!  Is your heart still pounding from that ending?  I'm fairly outspoken about my views of POV switches, but I think Lambourne carried it off brilliantly at the end of Sky on Fire, and I was grateful I'd checked out the entire series to just launch into the final book.

My expectations were high.  Lambourne has done such a good job with the series so far that I expected a truly grand finale.  While the book itself started a little slow, it quickly escalated into what I hoped to find.  

Not all of the Monument 14 have made it to the refugee camp, one being lost and one having run away for the safety of the group.  Those who have made it miss Josie, the "mother" of the group, but they are starting to find some normalcy in their new way of life.  However, Astrid has started to notice that the girls who are pregnant are disappearing, and she's scared.  She wants to flee, but how? And why should she with no proof?  The appearance of an article with Josie's picture in a concentration-camp-like facility, and the hope they can reunite her with the rest of the group, gives Dean and Astrid the reason they need to flee, but are they truly better off on their own?

Lambourne has truly crafted some incredible characters, and watching them complete their journeys was not in one bit disappointing.  The overt sex that bothered me in the other books is missing in this book, and honestly, it made it better. We get to see the true motivations of the characters, seeing their growth and their failings.  It was amazing.  It was terrifying.  It was gripping.  I loved it.

It's funny to me how much I want to see all the characters, even the ones I don't like, grow and learn, and how upset I get when that doesn't always happen.  However, every character behaved exactly how they would have had they been real people.  Lambourne recognized who her characters truly were, spots and all, and held them true.

This was a satisfying end to an incredible series.  I'd suggest it for slightly more mature teen readers, though, given some of the more mature themes of the series.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is an attempted rape scene, some brutally violent outbursts in the concentration camp, horrid guards, and a few more incidents with those exposed to the crazy-making chemicals.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3) - George R. R. Martin

Summary: Here is the third volume in George R.R. Martin's magnificent cycle of novels that includes A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Together, this series comprises a genuine masterpiece of modern fantasy, destined to stand as one of the great achievements of imaginative fiction.

Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage as alliances are made and broken. Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, victim of the sorceress who holds him in her thrall. Young Robb still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun. Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenerys, mistress of the only three dragons still left in the world. And as opposing forces manoeuver for the final showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost limits of civilization, accompanied by a horde of mythical Others—a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable. As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords...
Image and summary from

My review: A complex tale grows even more complex as war rages all across the seven kingdoms. Five men claim the title of king and mean to subdue the continent. Robb Stark makes sweeping victories on the battlefield, but disastrous decisions regarding his love life. What can you expect from a 17-year-old with raging hormones?

King Joffrey’s reign seems secure in King’s Landing as his forces deal with the threat of the four other self-proclaimed kings with ease. Politics are muddy at best, and everyone is down in the dirt ready to play. This book brings about two infamous weddings, one that has infamously outraged readers and another that tastes of sweet, sweet justice. (Sidenote: don’t have a wedding in Westeros.)

Queen Dany and her dragons continue their trek across the other continent, Essos. She is learning who she is as a ruler and has some seriously awesome moments. She detests slavery and frees the slaves in every city she passes through, but after seeing the havoc that can happen after overthrowing a government—even a terrible one—she settles into the next city after overthrowing its government to try her hand at governing herself.

In the north, a new threat emerges. As Jon Snow spends time spying on the wildlings, he begins to understand and respect them, even taking a wildling woman as lover for sometime. The Night’s Watch on the ranging north of the Wall have a skirmish with the zombie-like Others, introducing readers to the true threat of the series.

We see the plot shift from avenging Ned Stark to wanting nothing more than King’s Landing to go down in flames. The rank rule of the Lannisters seems impervious even though readers hope for a weak spot that any—ANY—of the opposing characters can exploit. Queen Dany has settled down to rule another land for the foreseeable future. Jon becomes more burdened by the demands at the Wall, even as he rises to power. And King Stannis is focused on aiding the realm against outside invaders. Even so, the game of thrones still has plenty of players. Our best hope might not be in a conqueror swooping in to save the day, but in the politicians of King’s Landing destroying the reign from within. As the Lannister family itself fractures, age-old alliances fall away and enterprising schemers might just have the opportunity to put a new king—or queen—on the Iron Throne.

In this book, we experience an absolute breaking of trust between reader and author. The idea that no character is safe is firmly cemented. No character—hero or villain—is too central to do away with. “Central” plots will just develop somewhere else. Heroes are cut down and villains become heroes. Knowing what outcome to root for is ambiguous at best. The backstories and characters are so gorgeously elaborate that, by this book, readers are rabidly invested in numerous fan theories and rereading the lengthy series for more clues and foreshadowing. Oh what fun it is to be a fan!

Rating: 5 stars

For the sensitive reader: These books are not for you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Stranger - Harlan Coben

Summary: #1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense Harlan Coben's most shocking thriller yet, proving that a well-placed lie can help build a wonderful life-- and a secret has the same explosive power to destroy it.

The Stranger appears out of nowhere, perhaps in a bar, or a parking lot, or at the grocery store. His identity is unknown. His motives are unclear. His information is undeniable. Then he whispers a few words in your ear and disappears, leaving you picking up the pieces of your shattered world.

Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, two wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream: a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life.

Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corinne, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears as if it never existed at all. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corinne's deception, and realizes that if he doesn't make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy he's stumbled into will not only ruin lives--it will end them. (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: One of the things I love about Harlan Coben’s books is that they’re a super fast, super fun read. I’ve read several of his books and every one of them has a good mystery that’s equally disturbing and a lot of fun. It’s a careful balance, I know. I don’t know if some of his books deal with the supernatural, but the ones I have read do not. They’re just fun old-fashioned pot boilers with lots of twists and turns. The Stranger is certainly one of those super fun reads that keeps you page turning until the book is over.

Now. If you’re looking for some serious literature with a touch of nostalgia and a whole heaping helping of inspiration, this book is not for you. And Coben isn’t trying to be that way, either, so it’s not like he’s missing the mark. The Stranger is decently written in that the writing is very characteristic of Coben. It’s not about the writing, it’s not trying to be time-honored literature. It wants to be what it is. And boy, is it. I love how Coben uses somewhat clichéd examples of things—i.e. golf playing men are very stereotypically dressed, gym-going housewives are very stereotypically coiffed, etc. He operates within a familiar world and that allows the reader to not only know right what’s going on, but to relate not only on an “I’ve read this before” scale but also on a real life level. We know people like this. We understand the clichés. These clichés are real life. I feel like Coben purposefully writes like this to throw his books into a setting that’s familiar. And that’s what makes the mysteries and plots and turns work really well, actually. Because these situations feel real and the plots and turns are just cannily enough like a normal life that it’s easy to put yourself in the situation of the main character.

That’s the crux of the books, actually. The mysteries and plots and turns are not super tricky or deep, but they’re so much fun. And they seem like they could really happen, which adds a delicious layer of creepiness to the whole thing. There’s always that edge where you feel like this could actually happen, and that’s creepy. And fun. Coben is the master of excitement and twists and turns and mystery thrillers that are fun to read.

I loved reading this book after a stream of very serious and very heavy books. It was a nice break. I had just read a huge biography that, while interesting, was not exactly one I would take to the beach or in an airplane to page turn and just be immersed in. Like I said, it came at just the right time. I finished it in probably two days. It’s a fast, fun read that was totally characteristic of Coben, which, to me, was awesome.

My Rating: 4 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language here and there and some light violence (more discussed instead of described intimately). It is on the cleaner end of books of this genre.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Lara's Favorite Reads

Adult Fiction: 
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 

Young Adult Fiction:
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton 
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare

Friday, May 20, 2016

Reagan: The Life - H.W. Brands

Summary: From master storyteller and New York Times bestselling Historian H. W. Brands comes the definitive biography of a visionary and transformative president

In his magisterial new biography, H. W. Brands brilliantly establishes Ronald Reagan as one of the two great presidents of the twentieth century, a true peer to Franklin Roosevelt. Reaganconveys with sweep and vigor how the confident force of Reagan’s personality and the unwavering nature of his beliefs enabled him to engineer a conservative revolution in American politics and play a crucial role in ending communism in the Soviet Union. Reagan shut down the age of liberalism, Brands shows, and ushered in the age of Reagan, whose defining principles are still powerfully felt today.
     Reagan follows young Ronald Reagan as his ambition for ever larger stages compelled him to leave behind small-town Illinois to become first a radio announcer and then that quintessential public figure of modern America, a movie star. When his acting career stalled, his reinvention as the voice of The General Electric Theater on television made him an unlikely spokesman for corporate America. Then began Reagan’s improbable political ascension, starting in the 1960s, when he was first elected governor of California, and culminating in his election in 1980 as president of the United States.
     Employing archival sources not available to previous biographers and drawing on dozens of interviews with surviving members of Reagan’s administration, Brands has crafted a richly detailed and fascinating narrative of the presidential years. He offers new insights into Reagan’s remote management style and fractious West Wing staff, his deft handling of public sentiment to transform the tax code, and his deeply misunderstood relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, on which nothing less than the fate of the world turned.
     Reagan is a storytelling triumph, an irresistible portrait of an underestimated politician whose pragmatic leadership and steadfast vision transformed the nation.
(Summary and pic from

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

My Review: I have to admit that I was just a wee little lass when Reagan was president, and so I didn’t know much about him or his presidency. I knew a few token things, obvious things—like the fact that he was a Hollywood star before being president, and also that he had some serious popularity going for a lot of his presidency. There are maybe a few other things but that’s perhaps all that’s worth mentioning. Up until I read this book, Reagan was an enigma. I knew he had a great impact, but I wasn’t sure how specifically.
                After reading this book, I can say that, while I’m not necessarily an expert on all things in Reagan’s life, I’m certainly very well versed in his presidency. The book is certainly well-documented, with copious notes, letters, and memos, a lot of which are part of the actual book. Brands didn’t just summarize conversations or situations, he included the actual conversations, memos, or thoughts from memoirs and interviews from the players involved. I liked that a lot, actually. Biographies will sometimes be tainted by the author’s view of their subject, but I think that Brands did a great job of leaving his opinion out of it. He let the letters, comments, and conversations of the day dictate what the reader thought. He didn’t just report on the situations in the presidency, he documented them such that it was a very realistic re-living of the times and what was going on. In fact, until the final few pages of the book I wasn’t even sure what he thought. It seemed obvious that were you to research and write a book of this magnitude, you would probably like the person, but this wasn’t immediately evident until the end.
                After finishing this book, I‘m very aware of three things, which happen to be the most prominent themes in the book. 1) Reagan was an incredible speaker. It was, perhaps, one of his greatest strengths. He always tried his best to be honest in his speaking (and even amidst the Iran-Contra fiasco he maintained that he always told everything he knew) and he was funny and personable and warm so that he was well-liked and trusted. 2) Reagan was a very private person and was not necessarily as warm and loving and accessible in real life as he was in his public speeches. His children from two marriages have said as much, and people who worked very closely with him for years were never really let into his innermost thoughts and feelings. 3) Nancy Reagan played a huge role in the presidency and in Reagan’s life (this last point is obvious, since she was his wife). She swayed policy and people and the president himself in subtle ways.
                This book was a very detailed description of Reagan’s early professional life as an actor and Actors’ Guild player, and especially his presidency—the politics, the people involved, the fiascos, the wins, and basically all the goings-on in minute detail. The conversations and letters and speeches he gives are well-documented. The biography is not, however, a detailed description of his private life. There is some of that, of course, but there are not deep discussion (or much of any discussion, really) of his children or his relationships with his wives or their goings-on. If I were to re-name this book, I would call it Reagan: The Presidency. I have read other biographies of presidents and in my experience, this is one of the most thorough discussions of a president’s professional life. It is not a deep discussion of his life in general. There are other biographies written about Reagan as well as a few autobiographies written by him, and I’m assuming that those go more deeply into his personal life. Also, a biography of Nancy Reagan would be fascinating as a companion to this book as she did have so much influence.
                Overall, I would say that if you are looking for a detailed description of Reagan’s professional life and especially his presidency, this is an excellent book. It is well-documented and cited and I enjoyed the insights from his personal diary as well as the opinions of the other players involved.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Born to Treason - E.B. Wheeler

Summary: Joan Pryce is not only a Catholic during the English Reformation but also Welsh, and comes from a family of proud revolutionaries. But when a small act of defiance entangles her in a deadly conspiracy, a single misstep may lead her straight to the gallows. Now, Joan must navigate a twisting path that could cost her life, her freedom, and her chance of finding love. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Okay, I know you shouldn’t ever judge a book by its cover.  But look how pretty!  I want that dress.

Joan may be Welsh nobility, but she is also an orphan, cast out of the only home she knows to live with her godparents. She tried in vain to save her father, but as a result of Queen Elizabeth’s henchmen, he succumbed to the torture and passed away.  She knows little of her godparents, and is shocked to find they still expect her to marry a boy she had been betrothed to years earlier, one who shows very little interest in her.  Anyway, she’s not sure she even wants to marry - what she truly wants is to be Welsh.  She wants to practice her faith in public, but as a Catholic, the mere thought of that is nearly treasonous.  Without meaning to, she is recruited as a runner, charged with dropping off a few papers here and there that will be printed and distributed as a booklet extolling the virtues of Catholicism. 

Wheeler did an amazing job with this book.  It’s a quick and engaging read, and one I found very easy to get lost in.  Joan’s character is very likable, concerned with what she sees as her duty as a noblewoman and a Catholic.  While she chafes under the restrictions placed upon her by Queen Elizabeth and by her own limitations as a woman, she searches for ways to blossom.  It almost felt like a distant cousin of Beauty and the Beast, but without a lifetime of servitude. 

Although the story is set in Elizabethan Wales, I loved how relatable some of Joan’s problems were.  Inequality, prejudice, fear-mongering, and poverty are universal struggles, and Wheeler deals with them in a way that is optimistically uplifting.  I would easily pass this book to a teen (11+) as a summer read.

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is a scene where Joan is attacked and beaten for information.  Also, one of the priests she is trying to help is distinctly chauvinistic.  I didn’t like him.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Winter Sea - Susanna Kearsley (Slains #1)

The Winter Sea—Susanna Kearsley (Slains #1) Summary: In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown. Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write. But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her.…

Image and summary from 

Review: A friend recommended this book to me knowing that I have Scottish ancestry and love to read and write historical fiction. My friend did not know that I descend from the Hay Clan line that lived at Slains Castle. This book definitely held some personal interest for me! That being said, if not for that interest, I doubt I would have continued past the third chapter. However, I did. It probably took me about halfway through the book to become invested in the story itself for its own merits. 

Carrie McClelland is a best-selling historical novelist who has enough money to live wherever she wants and write whatever she wants and she’s best friends with her agent and everything and she lives the glamorous stereotypical life of an author, which as an author, I find annoying and inauthentic (though obviously this book came from an author, who had no issues with those stereotypes—maybe Susanna Kearsley is living that legendary life!). Carrie intends to write about the 1708 Jacobite Uprising through the eyes of an Irish man in the French Court but after a happenstance detour to Slains Castle in Cruden Bay, Scotland, decides to change the narrator and location of her story. She rents a small cottage in Cruden Bay and begins writing. She writes as she never has before, so swiftly and beautifully. She feels like a medium, a conduit. As she continues with her research, she begins to see that parts of the story she thought she imagined are actual historical fact. And the ancestor’s name she borrowed for as a name for her character was actually, unbeknownst to Carrie, at Slains Castle during this time in history. She begins to realize that the story she is writing is not a fictional account that she is inventing, but a retelling of her ancestor’s story and she is having “ancestral memories,” something the all-too-easily-convinced town doctor compares to inheriting an ancestor's DNA, the same way most people are scared of heights (we must have had an ancient common ancestor who fell off a mountain). Can you tell I felt this plot like was hokey? I think I'd rather go with some kind of supernatural haunting or reincarnation plot device. :) Two brothers begin courting Carrie and there is a sweet, simple, corny love triangle that is too saccharine to put much stock in.

The book alternates between Carrie’s experience writing the book and the actual book, which is the part of The Winter Sea that I enjoyed. This part of the story follows Sophia Paterson, a young from western Scotland sent to live with distant relatives for a short time at Slains Castle in Cruden Bay. Sophia learns of the Jacobite rebellion and develops Jacobite sympathies of her own, though not really based on prinicples or morals, but more from exposure, I think. Everyone around her is a Jacobite and has much to lose if the cause fails, therefore she roots for the cause, too. She falls in love with John Moray, a Scottish outlaw and fierce Jacobite supporter. They marry in secret before he returns to war and before long, Sophia discovers she is with child. The meat of the this aspect of the book revolves around the Sophia-John love story and how her discovery as his wife and mother of his child could be used against him and whether Charles Stewart will regain his throne so Sophia's beloved husband can come back to her.

There is a unique aspect of suspense as Carrie since descended from Sophia Paterson MacClelland, not Sophia Moray. This secret love story is not found within the genealogical records Carrie has access to, and this secret love and heartbreak is something shared between her and her ancestor Sophia. Knowing what she knows about Sophia’s life and her own family history, can Carrie face the ancestral memories she has and finish her story? Though overwritten and heavily dependent upon stereotypes, Sophia’s story engaged me (though Carrie’s did not) beyond my own personal interests. I’ve recommended it to people interested in that time period and the history of Slains. Being fairly educated in my family history, it was fun to see those facts brought to life and done so accurately, as far as my knowledge goes. A sweet love story told with a unique twist, it’s a fun tale. Though it’s the first in the series, it is complete as a stand-alone tale and the other books do not seem to build upon the same characters but rather the same concept of modern day heroines channeling the stories of long-ago heroines.

My rating: 3.5

For the sensitive reader: While there are incidents of intimacy, they are very subtle and veiled. I’d give it a green light for sensitive readers.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Ghetto Swinger: A Berlin Jazz-Legend Remembers - Coco Schumann

Summary: A fine translation of Coco Schumann's vivid memoir of a life in music. From his early enthusiasm for American jazz in Berlin cabarets to his membership of Terezin's celebrated Ghetto Swngers, to surviving Auschwitz through his music, to post-war appearances with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, jazz remains a constant in a remarkable life story.  (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  Coco Schumann came from a loving, tolerant, incredible German family.  His father, everything the Nazis wanted in their rising regime came from a good family, although not a well-to-do one.  His mother, an incredible woman who came from an equally amazing and supportive family, happened to be Jewish.  Coco witnessed from a very early age his father’s courage as he told the rising regime he would be unwilling to leave his family for a more “Aryan” one.

Coco inherited that grit.  He also inherited a love of the nightlife from an uncle, and sought it out from early on.  The guitar fell into his life almost by happenstance, and he embraced it with gusto.  His relationship with his guitar was the only thing that could never be taken away, and that passion propelled him through the most harrowing circumstances.

This was an interesting and enlightening read.  The passion and the clarity with which Schumann recalls his past experiences, playing with some of the greats, surviving World War II, his internment, are all very evident.  I felt like I was listening to the gregarious great-uncle with stories almost too good to be true, other than the fact that they really are. 

This book very much feels like a conversation carried on between Schumann and anyone passionate about music.  His arrest, internment, and release are all such a brief and fleeting memory compared to his musical achievements that I feel like I was probably not the best target audience.  I like music, but I’m condemned to appreciate it, not to live for it.  I don’t know much of Jazz History, or of the History of Jazz in Germany, and this book would be perfect for the audiophiles in your life.  

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Schumann was a Jazz player, with mentions of promiscuity, lots of drinking (seriously the drinking), and some mentions of the brutality and fear that he experienced during the War.

As a side note, please join me in wishing Herr Schumann ein herzlicher Geburtstag!!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nimona - Noelle Stevenson

Summary: The graphic novel debut from rising star Noelle Stevenson, based on her beloved and critically acclaimed web comic, which Slate awarded its Cartoonist Studio Prize, calling it "a deadpan epic."

Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit. (Summary and image from

My ReviewI often have trouble getting through my lists of books to read because I'm one of those people who constantly returns to re-read favorites.  This week, it was Nimona.

I like Nimona because it is so off-the-wall and unexpected, a fast-paced adventure of heroes and villains, but not in the typical sense.  It's set in a non-distinct time period that feels like the future and the past all at once, while still giving off the vibe of a medieval fantasy, which is a nice twist and lends to a lot of fun imagery and ideas.  It turns the tropes of good and evil on their heads, showing what it means to be a villain, a hero, a monster, or just overall different.

The humor in this book is great, and may be what you'd call dark or deadpan (which happen to be my favorite kind).  Nimona, the girl working for the city's villain Blackheart, is a goofball, and keeps the story lively with her wit, jokes and constant shape-shifting, despite the pain hiding deep within herself.

Which leads me to what I love most about this story: the heart.  Wacky as it is, it's a surprisingly touching story about friendship and trust, and I love how Blackheart comes to care for his crazy sidekick, as she changes from employee to friend.  I love funny stories, but if they are funny and have heart, then they win me over and stay with me.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Does have some killings--sword, gun, and monster related, as well as some mild swearing.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Bleeding Door - Todd Cook

Summary: In 1868, the body of a young man, one of southern Appalachia's most feared and despised feudists, is found inside a deserted millhouse. Though the death of this violent man is welcome news to those who live in that region of southern Appalachia, few could imagine that long-ago events at a frontier Methodist academy in central Kentucky – as well as a succession of circuit riding preachers, a troubled Shaker village, as well as a mountain community plagued for decades by witches, ghosts, “haynts,” and deadly clan warfare—all led up to the death of this reviled figure, Enoch Slone. (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: I don’t think I’m the only one who finds the people of the Appalachians really interesting. First off, they’re really isolated. Those steep mountains not only create a natural geographic barrier, but families and clans stick together there in order to survive and thrive. They live with generations of family, passing down their culture and cultural stories. It’s just fascinating. As with lots of books I read, especially if they’re really interesting, I do a little research during and after reading the book. The research I did for this book mentioned that the communities in Appalachia have been lost and found several times, one of the notable times they were found was before the Civil War, and then after the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, they were forgotten again. This book takes place right in that timeframe, so it was especially pertinent when I read this. Also, I looked up lots of pictures. Google Images is awesome for this kind of thing. As with many places of isolated cultures (and not just isolated cultures, actually) the land plays a huge role in the culture. I mean, how could it not? It affects what people eat, what sort of shelters they have, what industry the local community has, and in this case, how isolated they are geographically. It’s beautiful in the Appalachians, ya’ll. I would love to hike the Appalachian Trail someday. But I digress…

There’s no use beating around the bush, this book is a fictional and re-named account of the longstanding feud of the Hatfields and McCoys. Wasn’t there even a reality show about them recently? Apparently feuds are not easily forgotten. Cook has obviously done his research. You can see from his author’s biography and tell from his deft use of conversation that he is very familiar with the Appalachian people and the Hatfields and McCoys. I don’t think that this is based on actual stories or history within the Hatfield/McCoy feuds, but certainly some of the history of the land and cameos of historical figures was real.

As far as this story goes, it was interesting. And sad. There was a period of time in the book where people were just killing people from the opposing family for revenge, and then the other family would kill those people’s family for revenge for the revenge, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s rough. No one was safe—children, women, old people, etc. It was tragic. Although I was fairly aware of what was going on for most of the time, I was very confused at the beginning. The story skips from place to place and in some instances goes back in time, so it is confusing. This isn’t super well marked in the reading, so sometimes you’re just reading along and then in the next paragraph you’ve skipped a generation. Since the back story was covered mostly at the beginning of the book it got less confusing as the story went on. I think this is basically due to inexperience on the author’s part. Once the feud is resolved the book ends quickly, although it is a peaceful ending and wraps everything up nicely.

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is violence in this book. Some of this violence happens to children, women, and older people who are defenseless. There is some language as well. I would say this book would be rated PG-13.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor - Nathan Hale

Summary: Araminta Ross was born a slave in Delaware in the early 19th century. Slavery meant that her family could be ripped apart at any time, and that she could be put to work in dangerous places and for abusive people. But north of the Mason-Dixon line, slavery was illegal. If she could run away and make it north without being caught or killed, she’d be free. Facing enormous danger, Araminta made it, and once free, she changed her name to Harriet Tubman. Tubman spent the rest of her life helping slaves run away like she did, every time taking her life in her hands. Nathan Hale tells her incredible true-life story with the humor and sensitivity he’s shown in every one of the Hazardous Tales—perfect for reluctant readers and classroom discussions. (Image and summary from

Review: I struggle with enjoying books that are biographies, history, and non-fiction in general.  Unless, of course, they have lots of pictures and make non-fiction fun and accessible.  Nathan Hale is a genius in this department.

While this is the fifth book in the series, you do not have to have read the other books to understand it, other than there are three characters that carry over in every book: Nathan Hale (not the author, but a Revolutionary War spy), a British officer, and a hangman.  Taking a twist on history, Nathan Hale (the spy, not the author) is swallowed by a US history book before he is to be hanged.  When the book spits him back out, he takes Scheherazade-like action to delay his hanging by telling the hangman and the officer about what will happen in the future.

This particular tale introduces us to Araminta 'Minty' Ross (better known as Harriet Tubman).  I loved learning about her history, about her escape to freedom, and then her grit and determination to keep returning to the danger to save her family and other slaves.  I loved how she would put herself into harm's way to make sure others had what she had gained and what they deserved, freedom, and how she was clever and steadfast, and brought that gift to so many, becoming the Moses of her people.

What I love about these books is that while they teach you history with a humorous twist, they are also not afraid to tell the truth.  Slavery is a huge scar on American history, and Hale makes it known.  Terrible things happen in history, and ordinary people rise to meet them.

The humor comes mainly from the British officer and the hangman (my personal favorite), as they remark on what is happening in the story.  They bring a lighter side to what could be a very dreary story, showing us the humor even in darkest times.  That being said, there is also humor from the historical characters themselves.  We learn that Tubman was a narcoleptic, and there's a great running gag that follows this.

The art is fantastic.  What I love about these books is they each have a specific color, and only shades of that color are used in the book, Tubman's being purple.  The action, characterization and story flows beautifully with Nathan Hale (the author, not the spy)'s artwork. One of my favorite bits of art in this tale was the representation of those hunting the slaves.  They appear as very creepy horse-riders-of-the-apocalypse-type characters, which adds a visual for the ever present danger the the slaves are constantly in.  Another favorite are Tubman's visions, which are illustrated so beautifully.  Hale will also often tell little side stories that relate to the main story as well, in this case, the tale of Tiny Frederick Douglass. (Why tiny? Because that's the only way to fit it in!)

This was probably my favorite so far of the Hazardous Tales, though I would also highly recommend the other graphic novels in this series.  Hale makes history interesting and fun for even the most reluctant readers.  Graphic novels are a good way to get reluctant readers reading, and in the case of this series, get them into history.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a book that, while for children, deals with the harsh facts of slavery in America, and doesn't shy away from what really happened.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Boy on the Wooden Box - Leon Leyson

Summary: Even in the darkest of times—especially in the darkest of times—there is room for strength and bravery. A remarkable memoir from Leon Leyson, one of the youngest children to survive the Holocaust on Oskar Schindler’s list. Leon Leyson (born Leib Lezjon) was only ten years old when the Nazis invaded Poland and his family was forced to relocate to the Krakow ghetto. With incredible luck, perseverance, and grit, Leyson was able to survive the sadism of the Nazis, including that of the demonic Amon Goeth, commandant of Plaszow, the concentration camp outside Krakow. Ultimately, it was the generosity and cunning of one man, a man named Oskar Schindler, who saved Leon Leyson’s life, and the lives of his mother, his father, and two of his four siblings, by adding their names to his list of workers in his factory—a list that became world renowned: Schindler’s List.

This, the only memoir published by a former Schindler’s List child, perfectly captures the innocence of a small boy who goes through the unthinkable. Most notable is the lack of rancor, the lack of venom, and the abundance of dignity in Mr. Leyson’s telling. The Boy on the Wooden Box is a legacy of hope, a memoir unlike anything you’ve ever read. (Summary and image from

Review: Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I can’t think of a better book to discuss today than this.  I’m a firm believer that our children need to know the history of the world when they’re ready, but sometimes that history can be too heavy to easily address. The atrocities of the Holocaust are ones we can never forget, but all too often, the heroes that emerged during that time take a backseat to those horrors.  Oskar Schindler did so much, sacrificed so much, and now we read the story of a little boy whose life was spared because of Schindler’s kindness.

Leon Leyson recounts his time as a Polish Jew, the confusion of being expelled from school, the terror of witnessing his brother’s arrest, the difficulties and horrors of the ghetto and camp life in Plaszow and offers a firsthand experience into living under Schindler’s protective shadow.  Leyson was so small as a child that he was frequently sorted “to the left” with those too weak or too useless to survive, but through his tenacity and fearlessness, and through his father’s reputation as a good and honest worker, he found himself perched upon a wooden box working for Schindler.  He recalls fondly the small kindnesses Schindler would pay he and his brothers, father, and mother, from a “dropped” packet half-full of cigarettes, priceless on the black market, to a few extra slices of bread.  

I’ve read a lot of Holocaust-era books, and never has one left me with such a feeling of hope and peace.  Leyson was a child old enough to feel the terror of the Holocaust, but young enough to be blessed with that indomitable spirit that children have enabling them to survive anything.  His accounts of meeting Herr Schindler years after the war, and of Schindler’s recollection of him brought me to tears — and it’s in the beginning of the book!

I struggle with finding emotionally appropriate books for a young, advanced reader, and this is one I would hand to my son with no worries.  Leyson’s writing is forthright, appropriate, intelligent, and conversational - truly one of the memoirs in this genre that should be read time and again.

Rating: Five stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This is a Holocaust book - retellings of men being shot, tragic arrests, the terror and pervading sense of fear that Leon felt are all present.  However, I believe that they are handled appropriately for the intended audience.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Mexican Slow Cooker - Deborah Schneider

Summary: Now you can prepare delicious Mexican meals like sopa Azteca, chile verde, and enchiladas en salsa roja with The Mexican Slow Cooker, a book whose recipes are designed to make the most of your slow cooker so that you can spend less time in the kitchen. Just prepare the ingredients as directed and load them into your slow cooker. Four to six hours later, you'll have mouth-watering meals whose flavors have benefited from the long, slow cooking that tenderizes meats and infuses simple ingredients with the rich flavors of chiles and vegetables. In addition to classic soups and stews, The Mexican Slow Cooker features chapters on "Street Food Favorites" and "Basics, Rice, Beans, and Other Sides." A chapter on deserts instructs you how to use your slow cooker to make delectable puddings and cakes. (Summary and pic from

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

My Review: It is possible that you are like me and believe that when you see “slow cooker,” it means that you can just dump everything willy nilly into a Crockpot and in 6-8 hours WA-LA! You’re the hero. Your food has magically married into something scrumptious and fabulous. Maybe you’re also like me in that you have lots of slow cooker recipes, and some are good, some are great, and lots are just so so.

Have I mentioned the two main beliefs about slow cookers?

So let’s have a chat. When I got this cookbook I was super excited. I thought I would, without a doubt, be throwing in a whole bunch of ingredients from my pantry that would then turn into Mexican food magic and I would never look back. Now, some of this is true. We did have some really delicious food. However, there was very little throw it in and leave it going on.

Perhaps the thing that should tip you off is that this book is written by a chef. Like a legit Mexican-food making chef who has restaurants and who has won awards and such. This should tell you that she is not going to settle for dumping cream of anything in with a random meat and walking away and calling it good. Oh no. These recipes are time consuming. Many of them require several steps and quite a bit of prep before the slow cooking even begins, and then sometimes in the middle of the cooking or even at the end there is still quite a bit to do before you can sit down and eat. Also, the prep can take awhile as well. The recipes require ingredients that I was able to find in my big box store, but there were some that I couldn’t find right away. I probably could have found them at a Latin foods specialty market, of which we have several, but I was able to find what I needed for the recipes I used in the big box store in a well-stalked Mexican section.

With so much prep and sometimes in-depth cooking, I would say that what came out of my slow cooker was definitely delicious. One of our favorites was the carne con rajas (slow-cooker fajitas), which, on the surface, seems simple, but what came out was complexly flavored and I could tell that this was not just pinterest-grade Mexican food recipes. It was more like restaurant food. Another thing we loved in this book? The sides. The beans and rice were super delicious and the rice was actually really easy and throw-together. I made it several times. Also, many of these recipes are spicy. I eat spicy food. Like really spicy food. I didn’t think these recipes were too spicy, but they definitely had some kick. It’s for someone who really eats Mexican food and appreciates the different peppers and what they bring as opposed to someone who considers Taco Bell Mexican food. Which I don’t.

In a nutshell, this is a really yummy cookbook that is for the home cook who is looking to elevate their slow cooker skills. Instead of throwing everything in and walking away, you are using the slow cooker to bring out the depth of flavors in both tried and true and unique Mexican dishes. If you are a cookbook connoisseur and looking for something maybe a little outside of the Mexican cooking norm, this is a great cookbook for you.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is spicy! (haha! See what I did there?)


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