Monday, September 30, 2019

The Invited - Jennifer McMahon

Summary: In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and their teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago. As Helen starts carefully sourcing decorative building materials for her home--wooden beams, mantles, historic bricks--she starts to unearth, and literally conjure, the tragic lives of Hattie's descendants, three generations of "Breckenridge women," each of whom died amidst suspicion, and who seem to still be seeking something precious and elusive in the present day. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I always love a good ghost story. Paranormal is fun, is it not? And while I have not personally gone ghost hunting or anything of that sort (I’m too scared) I am one of those people who enjoy lots of paranormal outlets—books, podcasts, TV shows, etc. I know I’m not alone here. I’m part of a Facebook group that is linked to a podcast I enjoy and there are all kinds of paranormal-loving weirdos on there. Millions. So chances are, maybe you like ghosts, too?

This was a fun ghost story. At first I wasn’t sure what to expect, as it seems that so many times I pick up a book I think might be about a ghost (okay, not like ALL the time) but it ends up having a perfectly normal explanation. What fun is that? If I’m reading a ghost story, I expect it to be about ghosts! When I was in fourth grade I remember reading Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. It was one of my faves and I know I checked it out a lot, but this particular time I was reading when I was supposed to be doing long division (which I can no longer do, even in a pinch) and my teacher came up and touched me on the shoulder and I jumped so high and was so scared. I still remember my heart racing. That is one legit scary book. It’s still scary. It has withstood the test of time. Anyway, that is the kind of scared I want to be when I read ghost stories. If I’m not getting a cold creeping dread like I did when Helen was luring that girl down to the pond to drown, then it’s just not the real deal.

So did this book do that? Not really. There were definitely some scary bits in it, and maybe it was just because of the excessively sunny atmosphere I’m surrounded in right now what with it being summer and all, but it wasn’t super scary. The story itself should have been scary—it had some great history and some great back story, but save for a few places here and there, overall it wasn’t that scary. (Or maybe I’m just an adult now and so those moments in fourth grade aren’t as easy to come by? Say it isn’t so!)

I really enjoyed the premise of this book and I think the story was interesting and easy to connect to on lots of levels. The people were realistic-feeling, and the writing, while not overly fanatically notable, was decent and didn’t detract from the telling of the story, which is always really important. There was a good story arc and a good resolution, too, even if it isn’t always the resolution you were looking for, nor was it super shocking.

I purposely put this book in the end of September reviews because although I read it in the summer, I think it would be a great seasonal read for Halloween. There are some really creepy ghost happenings and some really creepy atmospheric elements that I think would lend itself really well to October and fall and all things Halloween. If you’re looking for a great book to help enhance your mood, this is a good one. It isn’t too serious or too complicated, and it’s not hard to read or get into. It’s a solid ghost story with some good back story and legit creepiness.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Free Form Friday - Interview with a Librarian: Recommendations for Reluctant Readers #1

Welcome to Free Form Friday! Today we have an interview with a children's elementary school librarian. Join me for a great discussion with my good friend Olivia on how to get reluctant readers reading, including LOTS of really great recommendations. I promise you'll find some books you hadn't heard of before and some excellent suggestions to get those reluctant readers in your life reading (and loving it!). You'll definitely find something you'll enjoy as well. We've broken this interview up into bite-sized chunks for you, beloved readers, so enjoy Part 1 today and watch for the next part in two weeks.



Links to Liv's recommendations Part 1:

Press Here, Herve Tullet   (Read our review here)
Mix It Up!, Herve Tullet   (Read our review here)
I am a Tiger, Kari Newson, Ross Collins (Illustrator)
The Book with No Pictures, B.J. Novak

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Bobcat - Katherine Forbes Riley

Summary: The Bobcat is Katherine Forbes Riley's magical debut novel in which Laurelie, a young art student who suffers in the aftermath of a fraternity rape, has grown progressively more isolated and fearful.  She transfers to a small college in Vermont and retreats into her imagination, experiencing the world through her art, comfortable only in the company of the child she babysits, and most at ease in the woods. One day she encounters an injured bobcat -- and the hiker who has been following it for hundreds of miles.  In them Laurelie recognizes something as reclusive and wary as herself.  As she moves with them toward recovery and reconnection she also finds her voice as an artist, and a sense of purpose, maybe even a future, comes into sight.  Then the child goes missing in the woods, threatening the fragile peace she has constructed.

With the hypnotic intensity of Emily Fridlund's The History of Wolves and Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest, Riley has created a mesmerizing love story in lush gorgeous prose that examines art, science, and the magic of human chemistry.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

**This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.**

My Review:  For the most part, I read whatever I feel like reading and don't generally accept books from publishers for review.  I've been burned too many times by books that publicize well but end up being real stinkers when they come in the mail.  These glorified doorstops usually end up sitting in my to-be-reviewed stack making me feel guilty for not wanting to finish them.  I am telling you all this so that when I say that The Bobcat is the first book I have accepted for review in years, you'll understand the significance of that statement.

The main character of The Bobcat is a young woman named Laurelie, who is struggling to cope with the aftermath of sexual trauma.  In an effort to escape the fear that lurks around every corner of her college town, Laurelie moves to another town and into a small house on the edge of the forest where she spends most of her time in the wood, accompanied by a young boy in her care.  One day the two explorers stumble upon an injured bobcat being followed by a mysterious hiker.  And from there, the story goes to interesting places that I will let you discover on your own...

In the opening chapters, Laurelie is nearly overcome with anxiety as she navigates daily life -- skittish, terrified, and reclusive.  The writing was so evocative that I often succumbed to a case of emotional transference as my anxiety rose and fell congruent with hers.  I thought the author did a fantastic job of capturing the physical, emotional, and psychological reactions of someone who has endured significant trauma (i.e. the increased dread of social situations, avoidance of certain activities, or the visceral reaction someone might have faced with a crowded room, an unexpected noise, or a close talker).   Even fictionalized, it was interesting to see the effects of trauma so authentically rendered on paper. 

As the story evolves and different characters weave in and out of her life, Laurelie settles ever so slowly into a new way of being.  I loved following her transformation, not only emotionally, but through her artwork, and in her interactions with other characters.  The hiker, specifically, seemed to sense her apprehension and she in turn sensed his own, as if they had a mutual, unspoken understanding that they would approach each other with care.  In her depiction of their physical relationship, the author often focused on things like movement, breathing, and facial expressions.  I didn't understand why until much later in the story when a key revelation sharpened things up a bit and it all made more sense.  Somehow Lorelie's nervousness around the hiker gradually dissipated and all that heightened awareness, transformed into a gentle romance that felt natural and inescapable -- like gravity or the pull of the tides.  It may not have been your stereotypical romantic fluff, but that was just fine by me.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was a writing technique that I have never seen before (well, never noticed before).  The author conveyed Laurelie's reclusivity and the protective distance she was trying to maintain from the world by not giving the other character's proper names.  Rather, Laurelie chose not to think about them in terms of their names, mentally referring to them as simply 'the hiker', 'the boy', 'the landlady,' 'the linguistics major', etc.   I love that something as simple as a name, or the lack thereof, could evoke a feeling of self-imposed isolation around the main character.  And okay, so it took me a chapter (or three) before I realized what she was doing, but I was floored by the effect.  This effectively kept everyone at an emotional arms length, pinned on the fringes of the story, until Laurelie was ready to let them in. Towards the end of the story, a name or two would subtly tip-toe its way onto the page and WHAM take me completely by surprise.  Those 'namings' felt particularly significant and (I think) symbolized another step on Laurelie's gradual progression the path toward healing.

Most books I read are one-and-done's.  I open the book, read it with varying degrees of enjoyment, finish, write my review, and move on to the next book.  Not so with The Bobcat.  Okay, yes, I will do all those things, but this one will linger a bit.  As I sit here trying to coax my thoughts out through my fingers, there is this twisted knot in the center of my chest - a feeling I get when I am teetering on an emotional precipice.  I am equal parts glad I read the book and sad that it is over.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  No swearing that I can recall.  Although the story begins after Laurelie is raped, the event is revisited in her memories.  The author's description of the rape is fairly PG (if you could ever call something like that PG).  There is one sex scene that is fairly mild/vague (and strangely cathartic given the character's past)

Monday, September 23, 2019

How High the Moon - Karyn Parsons

Summary: In the small town of Alcolu, South Carolina, in 1944, 12-year-old Ella spends her days fishing and running around with her best friend Henry and cousin Myrna. But life is not always so sunny for Ella, who gets bullied for her light skin tone, and whose mother is away pursuing a jazz singer dream in Boston. 

So Ella is ecstatic when her mother invites her to visit for Christmas. Little does she expect the truths she will discover about her mother, the father she never knew and her family's most unlikely history. 

And after a life-changing month, she returns South and is shocked by the news that her schoolmate George has been arrested for the murder of two local white girls. 

Bittersweet and eye-opening, How High the Moon is a timeless novel about a girl finding herself in a world all but determined to hold her down. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I have a couple friends who are school librarians (because I’m cool like that, ya know?) and one of them was kind enough to share a list of books with me that she’d received due to being a librarian. We totally geeked out over it, and went over some other lists as well. One of my favorite lists was of the top books being checked out in school libraries today. It’s fascinating stuff, people. Some books just never get old, and some have resurgences. We had a good time looking through and finding books that we had loved as children that were still beloved today. This book was on a list of new and upcoming books, and when I checked it out and logged it on goodreads I can see that it hasn’t gotten a lot of traction yet, and so this is your chance to hop on the bandwagon before it leaves you behind.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. First off, I always enjoy looking into someone else’s world that I don’t normally experience. Ella, the main character, lives in a small town in South Carolina in 1944. This timeframe allows for many things to be going on in Ella’s life. It’s still the Jim Crow south, and so Ella gets bullied by other African-Americans for her light skin. Also, some of the children in the book have fathers who are off at war. Ella’s mother has gone to pursue a career in jazz singing in Boston, so she is left to live with her grandmother. One of her classmates is accused of killing two white girls. Ella goes to visit her mom in Boston and learns some new things about her mother. See what I mean? There is a lot to be covered in one girl’s life. As with many well-written middle grade books, I appreciated the way in which these situations are handled—children often don’t feel the need to beat around the bush, and so these issues were taken on directly. They were, of course, confusing for Ella (as they are for all of us, even as adults), but I appreciated the candor in which they were handled. And not all the questions were answered, which I also appreciated. Although there is some satisfaction in a book that neatly ties up all the loose ends, this is not one of those books and I liked that. These were complex issues that expanded generations and also many lives of the characters, and so to have them be unresolved or resolved in ways that weren’t necessarily how one would hope made the book feel realistic and the characters authentic.

The writing of this book was good, although I didn’t find it as effortless and flawless as some. That was okay, though. It certainly didn’t detract. It was just awkward at times. The story flowed well, though, and took the reader on quite the journey through the lives of the characters. I did feel, at times, that the author almost took on too much—like she had all these ideas of things that should be addressed in today’s society and perhaps could be done by addressing it in a historical fiction fashion, but with all of them together in a fairly short book it just felt like there were a lot of things brought up. I am deliberately being vague here because there is one particular nuance in the book that just added another layer to an already sticky situation. It didn’t detract from the book and I feel like it was a great thing to address, but there were so many things addressed that sometimes I worry about the efficacy of addressing All The Things in one short story.

I think this is a really good book, and one that will introduce a lot of issues and possible discussions in a natural way. I think that were a middle grade reader to read it they might have to go through it a few times to catch everything, and I think it is one that parents would like to be involved in when their children read it just because there are so many things going on that should be addressed if they haven’t been already.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Although there is no language or overt discussion of sex, there are difficult issues discussed including racism, murder, same-sex attraction, and war. It may not be appropriate for all readers.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Freeform Friday: Raise Awareness for Banned Books (and do it in STYLE)



This Freeform Friday, I've decided to highlight the plight of the Banned Book.  
Psst, Banned Books Week is coming up Sept 22-28!  

As an American citizen and anti-censorship advocate, I fully support the 1st Amendment which allows freedom of expression through words spoken or written.  I may not like what someone has to say.  I may, in fact, loathe it.  However, in the words of Noam Chomsky "If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." 

In honor of Banned Books Week and in celebration of the freedom that I have to read and write whatever the shmell I want, I'd like highlight some fairly cool banned book goodies I have found after some careful combing of the interwebs (and don't worry...there's some book recs at the end).

NOTE: This post does NOT contain affiliate links.  
None.  Zip.  Zilch.  Zero.  
I don't make a single penny off posting the stuff I find. 
I just like to share cool book stuff with the world.

Click here to take a closer look.................................................................or here.
























I want this quote from Ray Bradbury on EVERYTHING... 
Ray Bradbury Medium Dystopian Sci Fi Literary Quote Poster image 0

Or how about this poster of the entire banned book, The Giver, for your dorm room wall?
The Giver

And I loved these glow-in-the-dark buttons that discourage censorship!
Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark Buttons 12

This button referencing George Orwell's banned book 1984 needs to be mine. 
It also comes in red hat form, but I'm trying to keep things focused on books...
....and I don't wear hats.

And lastly, the Noam Chomsky quote I love in book bag form. *Swoon*


Now, just in case you are a little short on funds this week, I don't want to leave you high and dry.  Here are ten of my favorite banned or challenged books or series, in no particular order (except F451...cuz dang), that I'm sure you could find at the library.  Oh, and I've linked to our reviews if we have them.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
1984 by George Orwell
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriquez
The Giver by Lois Lowry

Need more?  Click here to read all of our past posts about banned books!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Red Queen - Victoria Aveyard

Summary: Mare Barrow's world is divided by blood -- those with red and those with silver. Mare and her family are lowly Reds, destined to serve the Silver elite whose supernatural abilities make them nearly gods. Mare steals what she can to help her family survive, but a twist of fate leaders her to the royal palace itself where, in front of the king and all his nobles,she discovers and ability she didn't know she had.  Except...her blood is Red.

To hide this impossibility, the king forces her into the role of the lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, her actions put into a motion a deadly and violent dance, pitting prince against prince and Mare against her own heart.

From debut author Victoria Aveyard comes a lush, vivid fantasy series where loyalty and desire can tear you apart and the only certainty is betrayal.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  This is not the first time Red Queen has graced this blog with its presence.  Elizabeth reviewed it several years ago (and luuurved it).  In fact, she has already reviewed the first three books in the series (you can read them here, here, and here if you don't want to wait for me and my two cents).  I completely missed the review when it came out, but thankfully we seem to have ended up on the same page.  Read on if you'd like to hear my thoughts...

Mare Darrow has Red blood, which means she'll spend her life in servitude, fighting and dying for the Silver elite.  When Mare picks the wrong pocket one evening, it sets in motion a series of events that will change everything.  Thrust into close proximity with the ruling class, Mare finds kindness in unexpected places and must decide who she can trust in a society where one wrong turn can lead to her death.   Aaaand, that's pretty much the book in the tiniest of nutshells.  The good news?  It's a pretty good nut.  But I'll get to that in a minute....

In some super-obvious ways, Red Queen bears a passing likeness to another book series I have been reading recently - Red Rising by Pierce Brown, which was published a year earlier.  The similarities are pretty hard to miss. First, there's the title (Red Rising vs Red Queen); then, the rhyming main characters (Darrow vs Mare Barrow); and finally, the color/class system (Red/Gold vs Red/Silver).  I'll admit this made me wary and worried I might just be getting carbon copy of another book but that didn't end up being the case.  Red Queen offers plenty of original material, but I'll let you discover the details for yourself.  Sufficed to say, they may look the same on the surface but there the similarities end.

Mare Darrow is a lot of things -- thief, sister, daughter, friend, princess, rebel -- but perfect isn't one of them.  Sometimes she makes the right call and other times she fails in epic fashion.  It wasn't all 'win' with her and that felt more authentic.  It was incredibly hard to tell friend from foe in this book, and that made it delightfully unpredictable.  Mare is torn between her feelings for two characters for much of the book...and so was I.  They were hard to pin down, but I found that I liked not knowing who to 'root' for and where Mare's affections might land.  Frankly, it was all rather delicious.

Red Queen moved on at a pretty good clip throughout and I was thoroughly enjoying myself thinking it was a toying with a 4-star rating, but the last 50 or so pages...well...Holy. Crap. Talk about white-knuckled reading!  I shushed my kids till I could shush them no more and finally just up and locked myself in the bedroom so I could read without interruption.  Of course my husband got home, wanting to change his clothes, when I was on the last two pages (why is it always the last two pages?) and he had to wait.  I wasn't unlocking that door till I read those final, heart-pounding final pages! 

Though it was never explicitly stated, there seemed to be little hints that the story itself was set in a ruined, future Earth, covered with crumbling, irradiated cities, built over long-forgotten transit systems. Even a few of the 'old' names were reminiscent of current metropolises. I can't be certain I'm correct, but I am interested to see how that plays out in future books. And speaking of future books...I am thrilled that I already have the next book Glass Sword sitting on my shelf.  I do believe I'll go start it right...now.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: A few brief kisses and some violence.  No language that I can recall.

Monday, September 16, 2019

The Great Alone - Kristin Hannah

Summary: Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if it means following him into the unknown

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)


My Review: I don’t know what it is about Kristin Hannah, but her books are like all the cry emojis in the land. Seriously. This woman could rip real tears out of a crocodile. But let’s back up.

I first picked this book up for two reasons: 1) Kristin Hannah wrote one of my fave books of all time, The Nightingale. If you haven’t read it, you should go do that right. Now. I’m serious. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I’m not the only one who thinks that. Anyway, since I loved that book so much, I knew I wanted to read her newest book, The Great Alone. 2) I am fascinated with Alaska. I have been to Alaska once, but that was when I was 14. That’s a completely other story, as you might imagine, but I remember Alaska as being this wild place that was nothing like I had ever seen before or have ever seen since. I went to Vancouver Island a few years ago, and although there were some similarities as far as landscape and wildlife and weather, I’m telling you, Alaska was uniquely its own. My dad has told me many stories about Alaska. Some of them are downright wild, some are scary, and some are just…I don’t know. It’s a place unlike any other. I definitely plan on going back there someday. So I was fascinated by this book because I am fascinated by Alaska.

This book delivered in so many ways. First off—Kristin Hannah is a fantastic writer. She is intelligent and deep and creates characters that are realistic. They are flawed but also gifted, and although not all characters are treated with the same flaws as others, they all have something that makes them feel very real. The story also feels very real. It is so, so sad. I have only read one other Hannah book, but it was also very, very sad, so I’m thinking that’s a thing. Hannah has a way of taking reality and just making it so, so real. Also, so, so tragic. Really. It’s almost too much to take at some points. That’s how real life is, though, right? Sometimes life is so hard and so sad and so tragic that it’s just more than we can take. I think Hannah does a remarkable job of creating a reality that is real and heartbreaking and also heartwarming. It’s quite the talent.

Hannah really drilled down on the Alaska part of this book. Alaska was a living, breathing character. Possibly the main character, actually. I love books that include places as a character. So much of who we are—our jobs, the weather, the people, the homes, the lifestyle are created because of the place we live. Alaska is such a place. The descriptions of the people who lived there and the environment itself was so tangible that I can’t think of this book without just imagining the cold Alaska winter nights and the preparations for winter. It’s one thing to plan for winter by putting away shorts and getting your sweaters out of their Tupperware under the bed. It’s an entirely different thing to have to prepare for a winter that is all-encompassing—there are no supplies if you don’t make them or hunt them or fish them, and there is no one coming if you don’t prepare yourself. Man. Alaska. Seriously.

The Great Alone has a complexity that was handled beautifully by Hannah. There is a lot going on in this book. Just when you think it’s about one thing, it becomes about another thing. There were so many “things” at the end that you can’t help but be impressed by the way that Hannah is able to handle and create such a nuanced and complex story with so many layers. She’s an artist, really.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and instances of abuse in this book, many of which might be triggering, especially for women who have experienced domestic abuse.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Free Form Friday - Guest Review with RFS's Fave English Teacher, Sandra Bybee!

In case you're just tuning in, it's Free Form Friday! Monday and Wednesday will have our normal reviews but Fridays are a bit more free form-- guest reviews, author interviews, info graphics, giveaways...you never know what fun we'll be posting on Free Form Friday!

Today we have a guest review from RFS's favorite English Teacher! (Yes, Mindy and I went to high school together, as did a few other past RFS reviewers.) I have to admit--Mindy and I are a little bit giddy and feeling starstruck that we actually got this to happen. #feelinglegit We LOVED Mrs. Bybee in high school. She taught English and Honor's English and not only is she an exceptional teacher, but she is hilarious and fun and EVERYBODY loved her.  Seriously. She taught us so many things, but three things we'll never forget:

1. College-level English? Easy compared to Bybee.
2. Thesis-making. She was serious about it. You better have a thesis or you redo.
3. "Cutting out the dead wood." Don't just say crap to say it. You better write things that matter, and it better be tight (and there better be a thesis).

There is narry a soul who graduated from ye 'olde HHS that didn't love Mrs. Bybee. She has since moved on from our alma mater to teach at a private university, and although we are now adults (she probably still thinks we're hooligans), the fact that she agreed to do this guest review for us is just...awesome. Seriously. Maybe she'll do it again, maybe she won't, but either way, today is an exceptional day for RFS. We hope you make you proud, Mrs. Bybee! Thank you for your review.

Review: Stolen from their parents by a black market baby trafficker, twelve-year-old Rill Foss tries hard to keep her four siblings together. This gripping historical story is told from the viewpoint of Rill as she and her siblings are stolen and adopted out by the real-life “Baby thief,” Georgia Tann. The story begins with Rill and her three sisters and one brother happily sailing the backwoods of Tennessee and Georgia with their parents on their houseboat.   The time period is the early 1939. The family is poor, but happy.  Rill’s mother goes into labor with twins and is taken to a local hospital.  Rill is left in charge of the boat and the younger children.  The children and Rill are taken by the police and placed in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society under the direction of Georgia Tann. She adopts the children to older, wealthy childless couples. Meantime, Rill’s mother has given birth to twin, a boy and a girl.  She is told that they died during childbirth and the twins are also given out for adoption.  The parents return to their boat and learn that their children have been taken and there is nothing they can do.  The mother dies of a broken heart.  All the children, except one little girl, are adopted by different families. Their names are changed and there are no record kept.

 Over sixty years later, Avery Stafford, the daughter of a New York politician, is visiting a rest home. She sees a bracelet on one of the residents, and it looks exactly like one her grandmother has had for years.  Avery questions the old woman, and it leads her to discover an adoption in her family that was kept secret for over five decades.  From there, the novel tells the story step-by-step of the evil Georgia Tann and the destruction of Avery’s family.  Once she realizes she does not carry a direct linage to the famous political family, she goes on a quest to discover who her family really was.  At the end of the novel, the family ties are connected and their story is told.  The novel covers three generations of the Foss children who were so harrowingly broken apart and sold to the highest bidder by the notorious Georgia Tann.   Each page of the book leads the reader deeper into the lives of these stolen children. 

Lisa Wingate based much of her novel on the historical Tennessee Children’s Home Society that was operated by Georgia Tann, nicknamed “The Baby Thief.”  Tann stole over 5,000 children between 1924 and 1950, selling them to the highest bidding couples.  The children were taken from parents who were poor or who had little means to care for them. The parents were informed that their children just went missing or died.   Tann placed the children in orphanages that she controlled, giving them little to eat and little to wear.  The orphanage keepers were cruel and many of the children never made it to the adoption stage.  The guess is that about 540 or more died of mysterious causes. The stolen children were sold to wealthy Hollywood couples or politicians.  Joan Crawford and Dick and June Powell were several of the people that adopted Tann’s stolen children. They paid a high fee to Tann, and it was not unusual for Tann to return to the adopted families and ask for more money. Tann was eventually convicted of child trafficking and brought to trial, but she died of cancer in the 1950s before she could be sentenced.   Since she destroyed all records and renamed all of the children, it has been difficult for many of the family members to trace their lost children and siblings. Lisa Wingate has pulled a piece of “forgotten history” from the historical records and woven it into a captivating novel.  Her novel is well researched.  After writing this novel, she spoke at the survivors’ reunion of the Tennessee Children’s Home society.  Many of the people who attended the reunion are still trying to trace their family ties.

However, to me, there seemed to be an unstated motif that is sewn throughout the book.  As the story of each member of the family is revealed, the reader can’t help but wonder, “Did the Foss children have a better life with their adoptive families than they would have had with their real birth parents?”. Maybe that is how Georgia Tann justified stealing the children. She placed them in a much wealthier and more educated environment than the homes of the real birth parents.  Only the reader can answer that question.    The novel is well-written and an easy read.   If the reader wants historical fiction, this is the book.  Before We Were Yours is Lisa Wingate at her best.  It will be hard to craft a better novel than this one.

My Rating: 5 Stars

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

We Remember...

On this day, we remember the lives lost, the heroes that emerged, 
and the nation that came together in the wake of a horrific tragedy.  
May we always strive to be that nation, unified, as we move forward.


If you are looking for a something to read, in honor of the men and women
 who survived that day and heroically stayed to help, you can read our review of
by Benjamin J. Luft M.D.


Monday, September 9, 2019

The Island of Sea Women - Lisa See

Summary: Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Womenintroduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I have a distinct memory of reading a story about Japanese pearl divers when I was in grade school. I was so fascinated by it—the idea that people would go under the ocean for extended periods of time and swim to the seabed just stunned me. (This may be because I was from a firmly land-locked state, and had very little experience with the ocean). I have thought about that story off and on for a long time, but it wasn’t until I saw this book that I was aware of how it might be real. The women in this story aren’t pearl divers, and they’re Korean, not Japanese, but it was absolutely fascinating. This was one of those books that led me down a rabbit hole of research—reading extra material online, saving books about it on my to-read list, and watching lots of YouTube videos on these women, whose lifestyle is on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity 2016 for UNESCO.

There were many things I liked about this book. The first one is that revealed a new and interesting culture that I’d been unfamiliar with. This happened to me in my last review as well! What a delight! I love finding new things. I feel like I have a connection to Korea because I had two Korean roommates in college and got to be quite close to them over the two years we lived together. The women in the book were from Jeju Island, which was different than my roommates, but I was somewhat familiar with the foods discussed in this book, as well as some of the lifestyle and culture. Jeju Island is different than anywhere else, and I learned that it is one of the biggest tourist spots in all of Korea. I looked up tons of pics, of course, and it was beautiful. The landscape was fascinating. But what I found really interesting is that this is a culture of women—the women are the main providers, and it has allowed them to create a better life for them and their families. The men stay at home and take care of the children, and the women go out into the sea and make the money. Even when both the man and woman are working, the woman is able to provide things for her children that they would have not had before i.e. a college education, additional schooling, etc. I also appreciated the book didn’t sugar-coat or romanticize the culture. These women did hard, backbreaking work that would lead to some of them losing their hearing over a lifetime due to the water pressure. And many women lost their lives due to the dangers of the sea. There were a myriad of health problems that can come with diving without proper equipment—and even with it—and these women paid the price. However, I was constantly impressed by their tenacity and determination to do what they needed to do. I found their grit to be inspiring. Seriously. These women are tough.

Another thing I appreciated about this book is that it brought to light a part of history that I was not aware of, and this book touched on a lot of different parts of Korea’s history, and much of it was really painful and hard to read about. However, I think it’s important to read about hard things to learn to be more empathetic and to understand different cultures and people and times. Also, we need to be aware of atrocities throughout history “lest we forget,” right?

One of the things that makes Lisa See the kind of author she is is that she is able create layers in a story. This story was a fascinating one about Jeju women divers, but it is also a story of the relationships between men and women, the relationships between women and their children and their daughters, and the relationships between friends and those who are closest to us. Ultimately it is a really sad story, and I wouldn’t recommend it for light-hearted and fun reading. However, I think it’s a book that’s important and fascinating and I am certainly glad that I read it. It was so interesting and thought-provoking. I think it would make an excellent book club book, although it would not be for the faint of heart.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has difficult content. There are atrocities of war and some language and some really sad situations.  

Friday, September 6, 2019

Freeform Friday: How to Get a Book Published

In case you're just tuning in, we've tweaked our format a bit.  Mondays and Wednesdays are dedicated to regular reviews, but on Fridays?  Well, anything goes.

I found this infographic by Zachary Petit over on WritersMarket and, while I've never actually tried to publish a book (those who can't do...review, amiright?), I imagine the process goes a little something like this....

  How to Get a Book Published at Writer's Market
WritersMarket.com shows you How to Get a Book Published

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef - Gabrielle Hamilton

Summary:  Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York Restaurant Prune, she spent twenty fierce, hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life.  Above all she sought family, particularly the thrill and the magnificence of the one from her childhood that, in her adult years, eluded her.  Hamilton's ease and comfort in a kitchen were instilled in her at an early age when her parents hosted grand parties, often for more than one hundred friends and neighbors.  The smells of spit-roasted lamb, apple wood smoke, and rosemary garlic marinade became as necessary to her as her own skin.

Blood, Bones & Butter follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; the soulless catering factories that helped pay the rent; Hamilton's own kitchen at Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law,who serves as a link between Hamilton's idyllic past and her own future family -- the result of a difficult and prickly marriage that nonetheless yields rich and lasting dividends.

Blood, Bones & Butter is an unflinching and lyrical work.  Gabrielle Hamiltonn's story is told with uncommon honesty, grit, humor, and passion.  By turns epic and intimate, it marks the debut of a tremendous literary talent.  (Summary from book, image from Amazon.com)

My Review:  Book flap 'blurbs', like the one above, can be hit or miss.  This one completely hooked me and it's pretty spot on. That might be all you need to hear to throw this book on your TBR list and, if so, have fun!  For those who need to know a little more, I'll continue...

Blood, Bones & Butter is one of those rare books that, curiously, left me both satiated and starving by the time I reached the final page.  I was nearly done in by the first paragraph and reveled in the entire first chapter as she describes growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the children in her family running amok in the forests and fields like a pack of wild dogs while her French mother whipped up tantalizing home-cooked meals for her large brood.  That vision of a carefree childhood, scratch-made food, and aromatic, sizzling, lamb roasts, was so whimsical and romantic, I could hardly stand it.  I was a goner-- thoroughly enchanted and eager for more.

Unfortunately, Gabrielle's happy childhood crumbles to dust with her parents unexpected divorce. Where previously she had reaped the benefits of her mother's culinary abilities, Gabrielle must now forage for her own food in the increasingly empty cabinets and wild, untended gardens of the house her mother fled and to which her father rarely deigns to return.  With surprising skill, she concocts new recipes using her own imagination and the knowledge gleaned from her absentee parents, until necessity forces her to find other ways to get by.  Gabrielle tries her hand at a variety of odd restaurant jobs, educational opportunities, and even travels abroad, sampling the delights of Europe in the off-season.  As she tries to find her footing in the world, things get pretty dark for a while (and by 'dark' I mean illicit and kinda messed up) but each place she visits and job she takes adds to her culinary expertise and brings her a step closer to finding her niche in life.   Each of the Gabrielle's experiences, cobbled together, inform and influence her beliefs about food -- how it should be cooked, served, and consumed -- so that when the opportunity to turn a small, rundown, cockroach infested rental space into a gleaming NYC restaurant falls into her lap unexpectedly, Gabrielle can envision it all clearly, down to the smallest detail. She knows what she wants and, when her mind is made up, sets about doing what she needs to get it.  I loved watching it all come together.

When Gabrielle's dream of opening a restaurant comes to fruition, her journey is far from over.  Blood, Bones & Butter also winds through the early stages of the restaurant, with the hurdles and craziness that comes from managing her own kitchen, and the complexities of maintaining a relationship while running the show.  Eventually, Gabrielle marries an Italian, has a few adorable bambinos, and ends up spending her hard earned vacation days in southern Italy.  I loved the relationships she developed there, learning how to make pasta and other foods from her mother-in-law, observing her new Italian family, and a completely different way of life. I fell head over heels for her descriptions of the countryside, the villas, food, and little old men with their vegetable carts and was fully content to soak up her summers in Italy, even if she didn't always enjoy them herself.

I really like Gabrielle's style and her taste in both food and atmosphere.  Though I have never been to Prune, her ideas for it seem elegant, without pretense, and utterly inhale-able (a word I might have just made up, but basically means I want to stuff my face with everything on the menu). While I don't agree with every decisions she made to get from Point A to Point B, and so on, in her life, (and I don't have to, as it is not my life) it was nonetheless a frequently riveting, thoroughly mouth-watering, journey.

My absolute favorite thing about Blood, Bones & Butter is Gabrielle's stunning ability to evoke any and all emotions, even physical hunger, with her writing.  She isn't just a supremely talented self-taught chef, people!  She has actual degrees in writing, which she nails with startling efficiency.  For most of the book, I felt like a silent spectator, fully immersed in whatever situation she was in, and thoroughly enjoying just 'being' there.  I'm only sad I didn't actually get to eat the food.  I recommend this book to anyone who loves eating food, reading about food, reading about travel, or reading about other people eating food while they travel.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Swearing sprinkled throughout. There was more than I felt like counting (considerably more than a handful) but it was spaced enough that it didn't feel excessive.  Or maybe I just didn't notice as much because I was too busy drooling. The author engages in some illegal activities as a youth, but eventually outgrows them. She is also a lesbian, though she is married to a man for a good chunk of the book.  Any discussion of her sexual preferences or any sexual activities is only mentioned in passing and without detail.



Monday, September 2, 2019

Someday We Will Fly - Rachel DeWoskin

Summary: Warsaw, Poland. The year is 1940 and Lillia is 15 when her mother, Alenka, disappears and her father flees with Lillia and her younger sister, Naomi, to Shanghai, one of the few places that will accept Jews without visas. There they struggle to make a life; they have no money, there is little work, no decent place to live, a culture that doesn't understand them. And always the worry about Alenka. How will she find them? Is she still alive? 

Meanwhile Lillia is growing up, trying to care for Naomi, whose development is frighteningly slow, in part from malnourishment. Lillia finds an outlet for her artistic talent by making puppets, remembering the happy days in Warsaw when they were circus performers. She attends school sporadically, makes friends with Wei, a Chinese boy, and finds work as a performer at a "gentlemen's club" without her father's knowledge.

But meanwhile the conflict grows more intense as the Americans declare war and the Japanese force the Americans in Shanghai into camps. More bombing, more death. Can they survive, caught in the crossfire? (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review:  This book surprised me a lot. I consider myself as somewhat well-versed in WWII and the history of it. I don’t know everything (and I certainly can’t label all the different planes used in both the Pacific theater and in Europe, like my grandpa), but I feel like I’m not clueless. There has been some absolutely stellar historical fiction that has come out in the past several years about WWII and if you haven’t read any of it, then you are sorely missing out. However, as an educated and intelligent reader of this blog, I’m sure that you have. That all being said, I was not aware of the events depicted in this book—namely, that many Jews fled to Shanghai because they could go without a visa. I mean, how did I not know this? There were Americans there, too, but in the end they were actually put in camps. However, the Jews survived there, although it was really difficult. I just…I’m really glad I read this book because I feel like it is something I didn’t know anything about.

When I first picked up this book, I thought I would be reading about a family of Jewish circus performers. I thought that would be the thing. This does play a huge part, especially for the daughter and main character, Lillia. But really, the story is about this family trying to survive in a country where the culture is so different from theirs and they are forced to take any kind of work just to live. It’s also about the camaraderie and love that come from good people living in difficult situations—they take care of one another, they watch out for one another, and they become a family.

As with all WWII stories, this book is difficult and really sad. There are innumerable losses, and even when sometimes those losses turn out not to be an actual loss, per se, things can never be the same. People die unexpectedly and tragically, they disappear unexpectedly and tragically, and the whole world struggles. Since I haven’t read about Jews in Shanghai I wasn’t aware of the difficulties that the Chinese government imposed on them, as well as the cultural struggles between the Jews and the Chinese, as well as the Americans and other foreigners living in Shanghai.

I enjoyed the story in this book, but I especially liked that everything wasn’t neatly tied in a bow at the end, just like in real life. Although there were many characters I would have liked to know more about, I felt that the author did a good job of creating a story that included many facets of this very difficult and delicate situation.

Sometimes I get tired of reading WWII fiction; the only reason I can give is that sometimes it’s just too hard to read about the struggles and difficulties. I know some people that pretty much only read historical fiction, however. No matter what camp you are in, I think this is a good book to read, if only to give you a perspective on a part of WWII history that I feel is under-covered. In order to round out your knowledge about what was going on, and to get a better picture of how the war affected people who weren’t even in the war, books like this give a much-needed change from the normal literature in the genre.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: As with many WWII books, this has some very difficult descriptions of violence as well as trauma inflicted upon Jews and other sad casualties of war.

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