Friday, May 29, 2020

Freeform Friday: The All Souls Trilogy (including A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, The Book of Life) - Deborah Harkness

We are scheduling our reviews so far out that I actually managed to read and review this entire trilogy
 before the first book review posted. 

So today's Freefrom Friday is a 3-for-1.
Just scroll to see all my reviews.  
Because why wait?  

A Discovery of Witches is the first book in the All Souls trilogy.   You can read Heather's review here.

Summary: Deep in the heart of Oxford's Bodleian Library, scholar Diana Bishop request a manuscript called Ashmole 782 in the course of her research.  Coming from an old and distinguished lineage of wishes, Diana senses that the ancient book might be bound up with magic -- but she herself wants nothing to do with sorcery; and after making a few notes on it's curious images, she banishes it quickly back to the stacks.  But what she doesn't know is that the old alchemical text has been lost for centuries, and its sudden appearance has set a fantastical underworld stirring.  Soon, a distracting horde of daemons, witches and vampires descends upon the Bodleian's reading rooms.  One of these creatures is Matthew Clairmont, an enigmatic and eminent geneticist, practitioner of yoga, and wine connoisseur -- and also a vampire with a keen interest in Ashmole 782.

Equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense, A Discovery of Witches is a novel of epic scope, traveling from the cobbled streets of Oxford to the chateaus and mountains of the Auvergne to a small town in upstate New York.  It also takes us into a rich fifteen hundred-year history that spans Clovis and the Crusades, the Knights Templar, and the American Revolution.  As Matthew and Diana's alliance deepens into intimacy, Diana must come to terms with age-old taboos and her own family's conflicted history -- and she must learn where the modern woman she is meets the source of ancient power that is her legacy.  With a scholar's depth and the touch of a great storyteller, Deborah Harkness has woven a tale of passion and obsession; the collision of magic, alchemy, and science; and the closely guarded secrets of an enchanted world. (Summary from book sleeve - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  A Discovery of Witches begins, as most good stories do, with a mysterious book.  Thought missing for 150 years, an ancient alchemical manuscript finds its way into the hands of Diana Bishop, an academic (and rather reluctant witch).  After a brief examination reveals the book's occult nature, Diana swiftly returns it to the library archive, having eschewed magic since her parents untimely death.  Now Diana's powers are starting to behave erratically and campus is crawling with otherworldly creatures, determined to obtain the book by any means necessary. One vampire in particular, Matthew Clairmont, becomes an unexpected ally and protector as Diana's magic begins to spiral out of control and enemies lurk around every corner..

[Insert dramatic music here]

When I read books for review, I often keep a bit of paper and a pen handy so that I can jot down any thoughts that might be relevant for the review.  There are several reasons why I might have a lot of notes on a book, but there is only one reason why I would have just a few.  A Discovery of Witches had my full attention from the very beginning, so while I might grasp clumsily for the right words as I write this review, it was totally worth it.  The story line was full of enchantment, intrigue, romance, delightful bits of history, and a few surprising twists.  The chemistry between Diana and Matthew was electric, and thankfully mostly PG (a little PG-13 in places).  I loved that while our 'hero' was rather protective (understatement of the century), Diana was anything but a helpless heroine.  Aside from the chemistry between the main characters, my favorite aspect of the book was some of the famous names in Matthew's past and Diana's delight at the his extensive collection of books and historical artifacts. I geeked out a bit.

In her review, Heather described this book as an "adult version of Twilight with a much more sophisticated writing style."  It does have a few of the same themes as Twilight (particularly that of the overly protective male vampire) and an infinitely better writing style, but A Discovery of Witches has so much more room for growth and development than anything set in Forks, WA.  It wasn't a quick read (579 pages) but I honestly didn't mind drawing it out a bit.  The book is definitely not a stand alone, but rather the first part of a much larger story.  I look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy, Shadow of Night.  It's already waiting for me at the library.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There is kissing and a few scenes of mild intimacy, not particularly detailed but one is rather long (8 pages).  A few instances of profanity.  Those sensitive to stories about witches, demons, and vampires probably should look elsewhere.  Several secondary characters have same-sex partners, though the relationships are mentioned, but not explored.  

**UPDATE** If you're a sensitive reader, be sure to check out the ratings and 'sensitive reader' sections in the reviews below before you decide to pick up this book.)
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Shadow of Night is the second book in the All Souls Trilogy. 

Summary:  Book two of the All Souls trilogy plunges Diana and Matthew into Elizabethan London, a world of spies and subterfuge, and a coterie of Matthew's old friends, the mysterious School of Night.  The mission is to locate a witch to tutor Diana and to find traces of Ashmole 782, but as the net of Matthew's past tightens around them they embark on a very different journey, one that takes them into the heart of the fifteen-hundred-year-old vampire's shadowed history and secrets.  For Matthew Clairmont, time travel is no simple matter; nor is Diana's search for the key to understanding her legacy.

In Shadow of Night, Harkness again weaves a rich and splendid tapestry of alchemy, magic, and history.  The love story deepens as she takes us through the loop of time in a tale of blood, passion, and the knotted strands of the past to deliver one of the most hotly anticipated novels of the year.  (Summary from book sleeve - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I picked up Shadow of Night not long after I finished its predecessor, A Discovery of Witches, eager for more of Matthew and Diana's story.  When we left off, Matthew and Diana had sought refuge in the Elizabethan Era so they might help Diana get a handle on her magic and find Ashmole 782 intact.  However, in a time when witch-burning is de rigueur, tracking down a willing witch turns out to be somewhat problematic and the mysterious book continues to elude them.

At the end of A Discovery of Witches, I wasn't entirely sold on the time traveling aspect of the story.  It was an unexpected dash of science fiction in what had been, up to that point, a thoroughly paranormal fantasy.  However, the further I dug into Shadow of Night, the more I enjoyed this little twist.  The last book hinted at Matthew's friendship with some of history's most famous figures, but this time I got to explore a bit, as Matthew and Diana traveled back to the 1590s and rubbed elbows with the likes of Kit Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, Sir Walter Raleigh, and more.  I also loved the addition of several new characters, even if they weren't historically relevant.  Real or imagined, it was eminently clear that the author put a crap-ton of time into researching not only historical figures, but also architecture, fashion, daily life, science, alchemy, philosophy, religion, and pretty much every other aspect of Elizabethan life, and the result was an exquisitely rendered setting I couldn't help love.

I don't read a lot of books with this type of magic as a major element, or at least it's been a while, so I can't speak with a great deal of authority on the matter, but I felt that the author's approach to it -- the way magic was shaped, controlled, described, felt, and wielded -- was done in a way that was that had definite depth and was far more compelling than the stereotypical ideas someone might have about witchcraft (ie cauldrons, hexes, and frog eyes).  It felt entirely new, rather than redone, and that isn't easy to accomplish.

I loved Matthew and Diana's chemistry, how neither character disappeared into the other, and their commitment to and concern for one another's well-being.  That having been said, as their relationship progressed, things got a bit more sexually graphic than I care to read and, eventually, I just started skimming over those parts.  There was enough unwanted detail (plus a lull in the plot partway through the book), that I have gone back and forth a bit on whether to continue reading in the series, but, ultimately, I would like to know the rest of Matthew and Diana's story even if I have to do a bit of skimming.

About halfway through the book, I feel like the story lost a little momentum but it picked up again and finished strong.  As with many 'bridge books'' (what I call the middle volume in a trilogy), quite a lot of threads are left loose at the end of this book and I am curious to see how things will get woven together.  I've put the final book in the trilogy The Book of Life on hold at the library and, if I finish it, I'll post my review below  -- so scroll down and at least have a look at the rating!

My Rating: 3.25 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  There are a handful of swearwords and an equal number of 'sex scenes' in this book.  Some are fairly brief and others more graphic, to the point that I just skipped them. One character is in love with another character of the same gender, but the feelings are unrequited.  A miscarriage (not graphic).  As with the previous books, those sensitive to witchcraft, demons, and creatures of similar ilk should probably look elsewhere.

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The Book of Life is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy.

Summary: The great adventure culminates here.  Eagerly awaited by fans around the world, The Book of Life brings the magic and suspense of the All Souls Trilogy to a deeply satisfying conclusion.  What did the witches once discover?  Why was this secret encoded in a mysterious book called Ashmole 782 and then chased through the centuries by daemons, vampires, and the witches themselves?  How can spellbound witch Diana Bishop and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont fulfill their love and their mission, on contested ground and with the weight of their very different histories pulling them apart?

In The Book of Life Diana and Matthew time travel back from Elizabethan London to make a dramatic return to the present -- facing new crises and old enemies.  At Matthew's ancestral home, Sept-Tours, they reunited with the beloved cast of characters from A Discovery of Witches -- with one significant exception.  But the real threat to their future has yet to be revealed, and when it is, the search for Ashmole 782 and its missing pages takes on even more urgency.

In the trilogy's final volume, Harkness deepens her themes of power and passion, family and caring ,past deeds and their present consequences.  In palatial homes and university laboratories, using ancient knowledge and modern science, from the hills of the Auvergne to Venice and beyond the couple at last learns what the witches discovered so many centuries ago.  (Summary from book sleeve - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  The Book of Life is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the All Souls trilogy.  It continues the story of Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont, a paranormal power-couple who have returned to the present day much changed from their time in Elizabethan England, and in ways that will have far reaching repercussions for not only their families, but the entire witch/vampire/daemon and even human community.  The entire novel is well-paced, appropriately thrilling, and answers all the right questions but still leaves room for some expansion.

One of my favorite aspects of the story were Harkness's fascinating secondary characters.  My specific favorites were Gallowglass, Chris, Fernando, Sarah, Marcus, and Phoebe, as well as the Madison and London covens, and I enjoyed getting to know Ysabeau and Baldwin a bit better as well.  I loved how the characters interacted, not only with the main characters, but with each other, as there were clearly other untold stories going on behind the scenes.  It raised all sorts of questions about their histories and I am desperately hoping some of the characters will get their own spin-off book (I hear a Gallowglass one is in the works! Eek!) and the author has already released Time's Convert, which follows Marcus & Phoebe's story.  It isn't part of the trilogy, but isn't really a stand alone either, so I'm interested to see where it goes.

Another aspect of the story that I absolutely adored was the Bishop family house in Madison which has been its own kind of character in all three books.  It is possessed (quite literally) with a definite personality, a mischievous mind, and all kinds of secrets just waiting to be revealed.  The Madison house has been a favorite of mine through all three books, and I can't believe it's taken me till now to mention it.  Of everything else in the book, it is what felt the most 'magical' to me.

The worst part of the book, isn't really bad in any kind of a writing sense.  It's just unpleasant.  The antagonist is disturbingly unhinged (read: rapes women and kills children) in a Dr. Joseph Mengele fashion. For 'science.'  Due to certain spoiler related plot details, there was a greater sense of urgency in this story line than any of the others.  The stakes were just higher and once I hit a certain point I just plowed through this book.

I do think that The Book of Life is a great finish to the All Souls trilogy, and at least tied for first as far as plot, pacing, and characters go. In it, Diana fully embraces her power, let go of her fear, and kick some proverbial butt. It was glorious to behold.  Ultimately, I would recommend this series to anyone who likes romantic urban fantasy (with a dash of sci-fi) and isn't bothered by the stuff in the sensitive reader section(s).  Now, I'm off to get my hands on Time's Convert.

My Rating: 4.25

For the sensitive reader:  A few sexual situations between a married couple, but far less than in book two.  A few swear words of the F and A variety.  There are several (I think two) homosexual couples, but that doesn't really factor into the story in any 'sensitive reader' ways.  The bad guy is big into torture killing, so there is some violence as well, though not terribly graphic.  There are allusions to rape, but no actual detail.   Lots of vampires, witches, daemons, alchemy, and paganism, but I figure you wouldn't have made it this far if any of that bothered you.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Brooklyn - Colm Tóibín

Summary: "One of the most unforgettable characters in contemporary literature" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two.  When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America, she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love.  Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with his patient charm.  But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future. (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  When Ian McEwan's Atonement came out, people went completely gaga over it.  It won several book awards and TIME magazine listed it as one of the top 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923.  They even turned it into a movie that won a few Academy Awards.  So, I figured with that many accolades, I should probably read it.  And you know what?  I hated it.

Brooklyn is a New York Times bestseller, winner of the Costa Book Award, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, made it onto a bunch of other "best" lists, and was made into a movie that was nominated for an Academy Award.  So, I figured with that many accolades, I should probably read it.  And you know what?  I hated it. Well, perhaps, hate is too strong a word.  I didn't care for it.

There were aspects of Brooklyn that were very well done and others that fell flat.   I enjoyed the book's setting -- 1950s Ireland and Brooklyn, NY -- which felt lush, authentic, and reminiscent of the times.  However, the plot moved too slowly for my taste.  Like, imperceptibly slow.  I waited half the book for anything remotely notable to happen and the pace never picked up afterwards. Initially, Eilis intrigued me as a character, but, eventually, she came across as rather unfeeling, especially in regards to either of the romantic interests that cropped, and her emotions felt forced and robotic.  Add to that one disturbing dressing room scene (where Eilis is felt up and stared at) that seemed to come out of left-field and serve no purpose in the story and it was all just...thoroughly unsatisfying.

The story was divided into four parts and I gave it my all for three of them. At the beginning of part four, I decided to skim the rest of the way and I was glad I did.  Aside from the aforementioned setting, it didn't get better.  Not for me, anyway.  Those who prefer an evocative setting, a tortoise-like pace, and a subtle plot might find something to enjoy.  Me?  I'm second-guessing whether I should even watch the movie.

My Rating: 1.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  I can't remember any profanity, but there was one non-graphic instance of unwanted groping in a dressing room, a graphic first-time sexual encounter, and some mention of erect body parts.

UPDATE:  In case you are wondering, I did watch the movie and I liked it more than the book.  It's so rare that happens, but there you have it.  The story is still a quiet one, but the pace was much better, the sexual stuff was toned down or omitted (still PG-13 though), and Saoirse Ronan was a fantastic Eilis.  The ending had a much more satisfying resolution than in the book, without changing the overall outcome.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Warrior of the Wild - Tricia Levenseller

Summary: As her father's chosen heir, eighteen-year-old Rasmira has trained her whole life to become a warrior and lead her village. But when her coming-of-age trial is sabotaged and she fails the test, her father banishes her to the monster-filled wilderness with an impossible quest: To win back her honor, she must kill the oppressive god who claims tribute from the villages each year—or die trying.  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: There’s something awesome about a book that features a female protagonist who is not just the normal human female. I mean, I am a normal human female, so I like those protagonists, but I also think it’s awesome to encounter a woman who is really different—someone who comes from somewhere completely different than I do. A woman who has different opportunities (sometimes positive, sometimes negative). A woman who plays a role that would normally be given to men. This is just such a book.

Levenseller has created quite the female character in Rasmira. She’s 18, so just like in our world, she is at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood. However, unlike in our world, she is part of an enmagicked kingdom that seems to have Scandinavian nuances, and she is set to become a warrior and the leader of her village. Both of these roles are usually for men, although she is a better fighter than all her male cohorts. I mean, already you can see that she’s probably a badass, considering she is a warrior. I really dig strong, brave female characters. I think it’s especially important to have female characters at this crossroads in their life be strong and smart and brave. Girls of all ages should read about women like this, right? I really liked Rasmira, too. She was smart and sassy, but also intelligent and teachable. She is faced with almost insurmountable odds, and a task that seems well nigh impossible, and yet she approaches it with care and determination that I really appreciated. I thought she was a good character to look up to, and the ending was very satisfying.

As with all good characters, Rasmira is not without her issues. She has relationship issues of various sorts with each of her parents, and as the only woman warrior in her cohort, she obviously faces some large obstacles. She is not unrealistically always positive without any doubts, and I appreciated being able to see her weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They made her seem more realistic.

The male characters in this book are good as well. Although some of them are straight up morons who like to mansplain to her, there are also strong men who were appreciative of who she was as a warrior and recognized her strengths and bravery. Although I do love me a good female character, I also like good male characters as well. It’s never a great read when it’s super weighted one way or the other—with the men being complete idiots or the women being complete idiots. I like idiocy and awesomeness to be spread out among all the genders, just as they are in the real world. J

I liked this story quite a lot. I found it to be really intriguing and different. The magic in this world was fun but not completely confusing, which as someone who doesn’t love high fantasy I appreciated. There were cool animals and some really cool land and environmental aspects. There were good monsters, too, which is always fun. I really liked this alternative view of Scandinavia, wherein it seemed familiar in the Viking-esque feeling of it, but also had some fun and surprising additions. The love story didn’t want to make me roll my eyes 500 times, either, which is always a good thing. I like love stories in a book, but I don’t like creepy old vampires hitting on children and things of that ilk. There were also some same-gender love stories, which I thought were incorporated well and naturally into the story and the world.

If you’re into YA or new adult fantasy fic, or even into historical fic stories with Vikings and warriors and cool monsters, you should check this out. I found it to be a fun, quick read, with good writing, a good story, and strong characters.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some very mild language and romance. It is much cleaner than many other books in this genre.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Freeform Friday: 3 Books for the Budding Builder (including Architek, Super Robot, and The Future Architect's Handbook)

Does your little one love to build things?  
Are you looking for some hands-on activities 
to keep that budding architect busy?  
Below are our reviews of three books that might interest you.

  • Architek by Dominique Erhrhard
  • Super Robot by Arnaud Roi
  • The Future Architect's Handbook by Barbara Beck, Architect

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Architek by Dominique Ehrhard 

An introduction to architectural creation, the 95 precut cardboard elements in this book can be combined in an infinite variety of ways to build all sorts of fantastical structures.  Follow the full-color idea diagrams to create more than 20 unique projects, then disassemble them and try something different.  Develop direction-following skills and 3-D creativity, this kit allows young architects to both learn traditional design rules and break them.  Alternate the color and black-and-white facade graphics to customize your creations -- no glue or fasteners needed, just slot into place!  The vibrant cutouts increase spatial visualization skills while giving future architects first-hand experience with color, form, and pattern.  

(Image is my own -  Description from Schifferbooks.com -  Book given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.)

My Review:  Measuring 5x5x2 inches, you'd think this book doesn't have much room for anything, but Architek offers big, creative fun in a very small package.  The book is comprised of 95  cardboard pieces of various shapes and sizes that can be popped out of the page and then fit together in countless ways.  The cards are double-sided, with colorful designs on one side and black and white designs on the other.  In addition to the building pieces, there are 31 pages of easy-to-follow diagrams to help you or your kids get the hang of things and create amazing structures with a little bit of guidance.

Image may contain: 1 person, sittingI was very impressed with how this book was put together, thought it makes sense that a book about structural design would itself be well-constructed.  The pages (and subsequent building pieces) were made of thick, high-quality cardboard that doesn't rip easily. I think we've all had the experience of unintentionally tearing something that wasn't properly perforated, so I was relieved that the pieces popped out so quickly and easily.  I also loved that the book continued to hold its box-like form even after all the pieces had been removed.  Even though I gutted it (see picture above), it still looks like a proper book!

Architek is meant for children ages 5-8, but I think it would be entertaining for anyone over the age of three who likes building things.  My littlest (who turns 8 in a few days) seemed to like it the most of all my children and built quite a few structures from the book and even a few from her own imagination.  She was so proud of herself and I was thrilled because she was entertained while I was making dinner.  After a few days, some of the shine wore off, so I threw it in a bag with all the pieces and stuck it in our 'art' closet, which is where my kids tend to stow, forget about, and then excitedly rediscover all sorts of creative activities.  A week later, she had it back out again.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars
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Super Robot by Arnaud Roi

Build a 14-inch-tall super robot while encouraging hand-eye coordination and following directions.  Color-coded flaps and easy-to-follow directions help kids create their own super robot by using the punch-out pages provided and a detailed diagram.  They will learn to follow step-by-step instructions, pay attention to small details, and develop visual-spatial skills while practicing their counting and colors as well.  

(Description and Image from Schifferbooks.com  - Book given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  Super Robot is a fairly straightforward kind of activity book.  As the description on the back of the book states: Pop out the pieces and follow the directions to build your very own 2-foot-tall robot.  There are about three pages of instructions and then ten pages of robot parts to pop-out and assemble.  If you've been reading closely you'll notice that some put the robot at 2 feet high while others place it closer to 14-inches.  The latter is correct.

No photo description available.
Although this book is leveled for early readers (ages 5-8), my almost eight-year-old didn't stand a chance of getting to build it because her fourteen-year-old sister claimed the book as her own the second it emerged from the box.  She has a thing for robots.  You can see a picture of the robot in progress to the right.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing
The robot parts were printed on card-stock like paper and were meant to pop out along perforations and then be bent into different shapes.  Some of the thinner pieces were a little trickier to rip out, but she managed, and did it all without assistance.  The instructions suggested using either liquid glue or double-sided tape to put things together. (Always choose double-sided tape, unless you like things that take forever to dry and are messy).  Overall, this activity kept my teen busy for a few hours and I was thrilled because she had fun that didn't come from a screen. *GASP*  It's a flipping miracle.

My teen didn't particularly want her picture taken on the day in question, so you'll have to settle for an image of the finished project, affectionately named Toby 2.0, with a far more willing subject -- one who has taken to stealing the robot at every opportunity.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

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The Future Architect's Handbook by Barbara Beck, Architect

For children with a passion for drawing or dreams of creating buildings, this book explores how architects really work, taking the young reader through the entire process for planning and designing a house.  Learn about an architect's four main drawings: the Site Plan, Floor Plan, Section, and Elevation -- including the concept of drawing each plan to scale.  Aspiring architects discover design techniques, along with different exciting architectural styles used today.


All of this is brought to life in freehand, pen-and-ink architectural drawings that will inspire children to apply these lessons to their own designs.  This book is the perfect introduction to architecture, revealing why buildings look and function as they do.  While this creative book is idea for middle grades, ages 9-12, even adults will find it inspiring. 

(Description from back of book - Images from Schifferbooks.com - Book given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  The Future Architect's Handbook is the perfect book for the kid who genuinely loves to plan, draw, invent, create, and build.  You won't see anything like A is for Architecture. B is for Building. C is for Code Enforcement.  It's meant for middle grade readers and up.  Instead, your aspiring architect will follow a young man named Aaron as he contemplates designing his own home.  They will learn about basic architectural terms, like orientation, function,and scale; how to draw different types of plans, namely, site, floor, section, and elevation; and other things to consider when designing a building, like landscaping, light, and style.

A book about architectural design could end up rather dry for younger readers, but Beck manages to keep things light, interesting, and relevant.  She concludes with a brief summary, shows how the plans will be used in construction, ties everything together, and even invites readers to trace Aaron's own drawings and use them as a base for their own creations.  Overall, I thought The Architect's Handbook was a brilliant way to explain architecture to kids who are  interested in the profession and give them the basic knowledge and skills to turn around and enhance their own designs.  My younger brother is an architect and, once my kiddos are done perusing, I am excited to ship this book off to his kids, so they can learn a little bit about what their dad does every day. They are sure to enjoy it.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

I Have (Had) Enough: Memoirs of Abundance in Fatherhood, Friendship, and Faith - Jeff Jacobson

Summary:  Here's a good place to start... I'm new to marriage and the first Bush is president. Pretty soon there's a child: my son.  Then there's infertility and I'm supposed to be learning about God's timing.  After five years of this, there are two more boys, at the same time.  People as us if twins run in our family, and we say they do now.  Then there's a fourth: a girl.  But right before she's born, my best childhood friend dies when planes fly into the Twin Towers.  I write a lot about all of this.  These are my stories.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com - Book given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:   I Have (Had) Enough is a heartwarming, faith-filled memoir and compilation of essays, short stories, and letters from one man to (and about) the family and friends that have meant so much to him.  It is separated into six sections and, within those sections, chapters, that are usually only a few pages in length, perfect for a busy parent who might not have a lot of time to sit down and read.  I don't know about you, but that's the definition of me right now.

Jacobson's tender vignettes of his beautiful, exhausting, joyful, and chaotic family life, will likely resonate with most parents in one way or another, but there were some sections that spoke to me more than others.  The first section was a collection of insightful essays and short stories; the second through fourth, deeply personal letters written to each of his children; the fifth, a series of letters to his late friend, Jimmy; and the sixth, which offered a spiritually compelling perspective on Jesus Christ.  When Jacobson effusively sang his wife's praises in the very first essay, I was hooked.  I mean, he had me at 'hello' with that one.  He follows it up with a touching tribute to a friend that sent me into fits of tears and nostalgia, and then went on to melt my heart with the simple story of a father's love for his baby girl and the safety she found in his embrace. There is more to the first section than those three essays, but  I'll let you uncover the rest for yourself.  While the sections dedicated to his children and close friend were were eloquently written, full of sound advice, and clearly heartfelt, I frequently felt like a snoopy intruder in private moments, and didn't connect with those sections quite as much as I did the first and last sections of the book.  In the last section of the book, Jacobson draws modern-day parallels with familiar Bible stories and invites the reader to imagine how Jesus would behave were He popping up in our communities today.  Who would He visit?  Where would He spend his time?  I felt this section was of particular worth because it inspired me to look inward and reflect on how I might try to be more Christlike in my own life.

I especially loved how, throughout the book, Jacobson's faith infused his experiences and gave him a wonderful perspective on fatherhood and family life.  He managed to not only see the extraordinary moments in ordinary life, but find spiritual meaning in them and share it in ways that really hit home. Who would have thought a story about a four-year-old frantically fishing for a urinal penny could have spiritual applications in my life (the mother of only daughters), but, I promise you, it does!  I also realized that the book's title, I Have (Had) Enough, means something a little deeper at the end of the book than it does at the beginning...and that's just kind of cool.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone in the midst of all that is family life, who is looking for a little hope, a little insight, and a little spiritual boost.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  You should be fine.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Conjure Women - Afia Atakora

Summary: A mother and daughter with a shared talent for healing--and for the conjuring of curses--are at the heart of this dazzling first novel

Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother's footsteps as a midwife; and their master's daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.

Magnificently written, brilliantly researched, richly imagined, Conjure Women moves back and forth in time to tell the haunting story of Rue, Varina, and May Belle, their passions and friendships, and the lengths they will go to save themselves and those they love.
  (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)


My Review: Here’s the deal—I’m a sucker for a good women’s story. I love reading about the lives of women, especially if they are completely different from myself. Every time I read something like Conjure Women I feel like my mind has been opened slightly more, like there’s a little part of the history of women’s tapestry of time that has been filled in a little more. I think it’s a safe bet to say that although there are a lot of women whose situation I relate to, African American slave women before, during, and after the Civil War are among not them. This is not, of course, my first foray into reading about this (not even close, in fact, I just reviewed The Water Dancer that you can check out here), but this book did a great job of immersing the reader into the world of these women.

I think the strongest thing about this book is the atmosphere that Atakora creates. The surroundings and situations are almost palpable. Let me explain. Lots of books can describe what the environment is like—you see houses, forests, people, etc. Whatever may be around. That’s one level of atmosphere. You can see in your mind’s eye. What it looks like. Atakora takes it to another level in Conjure Women. The book is more than just the houses, forests, streams, and people. The atmosphere becomes a character and is so strong that when you open the book and start reading, you can feel it around you. You can understand what it feels like to be there—who you see, your relation to them (as told through the eyes of the women whose story it is), the houses, the masters, the strangers coming through, the preacher, etc. The setting is so limited geography-wise for these women (most of the people have never even left the plantation) that the area itself has literally become full of memories. People, accidents, happiness, love, betrayal, and the onward march of life and death has created an atmosphere that in itself is a tangible character, and one that is ever present in the lives of these women. I loved it. That kind of depth is hard to achieve.

This book has a rotating point of view, and it was nice and organized, just like I like. It was broken into different sections of time (Slaverytime, Wartime, Surrender, and Freedomtime) and each of those times featured a different woman at the forefront. Miss May Belle and Rue are the mother and daughter whose stories this book revolves around. Their relationship was interesting and nuanced, as are all mother-daughter relationships. This is further enriched and complicated by the aforementioned setting as a character, which has become so deep and so rich that Miss May Belle and Rue have to deal with it in their own way. As they have lived in the same place for so long, they also have to deal with many of the characters in their own ways, each having had a different relationship with them. It is also interesting to meet the different characters in relation to the different women and their own personal relationship with them. There are lots of deep and interesting female characters in this book, and learning their different motivations and relationships added to the story as a whole.

This book is a great example of an author creating a story that naturally presents with many different moral quandaries for the reader to face. Were the decisions made the right ones? Under the same circumstances, would the reader make the same choices? This book does a good job of presenting situations that are eye-opening and yet relatable. As a historical novel, I really enjoyed it. I thought it was beautifully written and executed. As a story of women, I thought it was excellent. Women have been faced with so many different situations over time, many of them varying daily (as is the case in this book with a slave and her owner, whose own whims can change the tides).

If you are into women’s literature, especially historical women’s literature, I think you would enjoy this book.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a little bit of language and some light sexual content. There is also some violence as is, unfortunately, expected in a book about slavery.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Freeform Friday: Ask a Theater Professor with Janine Sobeck Knighton

Today we have a really great interview for Freeform Friday. If you've ever wondered about plays as literature, how to adopt books into plays, how to read plays, and where to even find a play to read, you'll love this interview! It's jam-packed full of good info and tips of how to explore the theatrical part of literature. It's basically like your favorite university course jam-packed into one short video. I've included some time stamps below for easy access to questions and information and when to find it in the video link. Enjoy!

(:58) Plays as Literature
(3:23) How do you adapt a book into a play?
(13:18) How do we read a play?
(14:27) Finding user-friendly plays to read
(16:05) The best way to read a play
(19:23) One of Janine's favorite playwrights
(21:18) What do we need to know as a lover of books who wants to read a play?



Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Britt-Marie was Here - Fredrik Backman

Summary:  Britt-Marie can't stand a mess, but that's exactly what her life has become.  Leaving behind an unfaithful husband and a lifetime of taking care of everyone else before herself, she moves to the backwater town of Borg for a job looking after a crumbling recreation center, the favorite hangout of the town's supremely untalented children's soccer team.

With her strict views about all things from the proper arrangement of a cutlery drawer to the appropriate time to wake up, Britt-Marie knows exactly how those around her should live their lives -- and she isn't shy about sharing her opinions.  But hidden inside this socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and warmer heart than anyone around her realizes.

As the fastidious Britt-Marie is drawn into the daily doings, hopes, and dreams of her unpredictable fellow citizens, she is faced with new challenges that require more than her formidable powers of organization and unrivaled knowledge of cleaning products can handle.  She must learn to let down her guard and connect.  In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs? (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Well, Fredrik Backman did it again.  Back in the fall of 2017, I fell head over heels for A Man Called Ove, the story of a grumpy old man who becomes involved in the lives of his neighbors (whether he likes it or not).  Now, in the great Quarantine of 2020, I have fallen in love with a little old lady named Britt-Marie.

Britt-Marie, like Ove, is quite the unlikeable character at first.  She is tactless, inflexible, and entirely too free with her opinion.  From the very first chapter, when Britt-Marie starts harassing the poor woman at the unemployment office over everything from her modern hairstyle to her lack of coasters, I kept having to remind myself that I didn't like Ove either (not right away), and that Britt-Marie was likely to improve upon further acquaintance.  So, I kept reading. As the story continues, and with the occasional glimpse into her illuminating backstory, Britt-Marie begins a glorious transformation from rigid rule-monger to a wonderfully kindhearted, devoted, resilient, and courageous woman.  Sitting here, at the end of the book, I find it rather likely that she was always those things deep down, only now it was easier for me to see.

Fredrik Backman is a master at writing fully developed, authentic, multi-faceted characters, and Britt-Marie is not the only character worth appreciating  Vega, the hard-headed and furious soccer player. Sven, the soft-spoken police officer. Sami, a devoted brother with dubious friends. Ben (aka Pirate). Dino. Toad. Omar. Bank. The nameless woman at the unemployment office. The alcoholic mechanic/pizzeria owner/postal worker/ grocery store manager only ever known as 'Somebody." Even Kent, the easiest person to hate (and, boy, did I), had more sides than just one. Each character set up shop in my mind, with their own quirks and side stories, and didn't seem minded to leave after I turned the final page. They linger like an after-party that has every intention of leading to a proper book hangover.

One of my favorite things about Fredrik Backman's writing is how easily it made me feel.  He excels at writing about the outliers -- the broken, lonely, and misunderstood.  From the very first page, I was moved to emotional extremes in one way or another, be it annoyance, exasperation, desperation, pity, sadness, sympathy, empathy, fondness, admiration, or love.  This global tour of all. the. feelings continued throughout the story and onto the very last page of the book.  Initially, I hoped for a slightly different ending, but, after I sat with it for a few minutes, I realized that to end any other way than it actually did would have cheapened it.  And so, I am content.

The evolution of Britt-Marie's character offered plenty of opportunities for introspection.  Is it ever too late to change?  Could you take a leap into the scary unknown?  Is it possible to pursue your own dreams after a lifetime of squelching those fires?  What makes someone happy?  What really matters in life? All food for thought.  And chewy, at that.

Looking back, I see bits and pieces of myself in Britt-Marie.  I'm not thrilled about certain similarities, but there you have it.  I like things just so.  I get exasperated when people do things differently than I think they should be done (ahem...there is only one right way to load the dishwasher). It's also hard to be a stay-at-home-mom, constantly overlooked by the world at large, cleaning up messes all day, and not identify in some way with Britt-Marie's desire to be seen, validated, and appreciated.  I think that's, perhaps, why I love the title most of all.  It says: Britt-Marie was here. She mattered.  And so do you.

Overall, Britt-Marie was Here is an undeniably satisfying journey of personal transformation, where the reader undergoes just as much of a transformation of opinion as the characters themselves.  It's a story that I highly recommend.  Along with Ove.  Because, c'mon.  Ove.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars  (4.75 if you aren't bothered by language)

For the sensitive reader:  One male character goes on a date with another boy, briefly mentioned.  There is enough profanity that I eventually stopped trying to keep track of numbers, but not so much that I felt it overrode the overall message of the story.  It was also more of an issue with some characters than others. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

House of Salt and Sorrows - Erin Craig

Summary: In a manor by the sea, twelve sisters are cursed.

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls' lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents. Her sisters have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn't sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who—or what—are they really dancing with?

When Annaleigh's involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it's a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family—before it claims her next. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Although my husband has always been the one who reads bedtime stories to the kids (don’t worry, I read a lot to them during the day), we’ve really stepped up our game with the quarantine going on. Instead of just the normal short storybook (sometimes really short depending on how late it is or how sick of the kids we are ha!), he’s been reading from both the Usborne Illustrated Stories from the Greek Myths and Usborne Illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales. These aren’t just short little storybooks; these stories can be quite lengthy and detailed. My kids have enjoyed them, and even my two oldest sons postpone their teenage coolness to sit and listen. There’s nothing lovelier than watching your kids sit cuddled around a person they love who is reading them a story, amIright? Anyway, one of my good friends had read House of Salt and Sorrows for a Twitter book club she’s part of and thought I would enjoy it so she lent me her copy. I hadn’t really looked at it much as it was on my “to read” pile. One night my husband was reading the story of “The 12 Dancing Princesses,” and then that very same night I started this book and realized that it was a re-telling of that very same tale! It was a great coincidence, as the original story was fresh in my mind and it made it a lot easier to compare the two. 

First of all, House of Salt and Sorrows is quite different from the original story. Although most fairytales are pretty dark, this one was even darker. It was awesome. To start off, the cover is amazing and does a really good job of capturing the feel of the book. This is not a fairytale with princesses that are happy and carefree—they have faced a lifetime of sorrows and those sorrows continue and the consequences are dire. It has a lot of things that make fairytales glamorous—sumptuous descriptions of clothes and jewelry and balls and handsome people. There is opulence and a kingly father (and his suspicious and young new wife). In many ways, this fairytale felt familiar to other fairytales. I loved the descriptions, and I loved the setting. Taking place in a manor by the sea, there was much that living on an island contributed to the story—the isolation, the ocean and the storms, sea life, and the rotating cast of characters that come from a port city. I really enjoyed the mixing of reality and mythology, as these people worshipped the God of the Sea and his various relatives. Also, although it is completely morbid, I loved the funeral scenes where they would release their dead into the Salt (which is what they called the ocean) to become part of it again. The atmosphere was great. The islands and the ocean played a huge part and I loved that. There was so much mystery and so many unknowns that come with the sea. This book played into the mystery and suspense that comes from living by something that they are largely at the mercy of.

The story itself was deliciously creepy and mysterious. There was the normal teenage love and drama, multiplied by the fact that there were so many sisters, but there was also the love and camaraderie that comes from a family who is close and isolated both by their station in life and also by the geographic location. It allowed for disagreements and also their love and devotion for each other to play out in a close and unrelenting relationship that comes from proximity. There were also ghosts and mysterious demons, and mythological Gods that wreak their havoc or blessing upon mere mortals. There was plenty of human drama, of course, and any book like this would be incomplete without love and love stories that add a layer of confusion and tension to any scene.

Although this book fits firmly in the genre of YA fic, especially paranormal romance and the re-telling of the fairytales, I found it to be refreshing. The characters were interesting and the re-telling of the original story was different and fresh yet a familiar homage to the OG. If you are into this genre, I highly recommend this one. It’s a quick, fun read, and promises to be a welcome diversion from COVID and quarantine and all that’s going on right now. It’s definitely a nice escape and I read it in just a few days (because I read several books at a time. I could have done it in a day).

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some teenage romance and kissing, but the book is clean.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Freeform Friday presents Escape Game Adventures - Mélanie Vives and Rémi Prieur

Escape games are all the rage right now.  
Well, not right now in the middle of the Great Quarantine of 2020, 
but right now in a slightly broader sense.  

I've have always loved escape games and the way you have to bend your mind around them, 
so when I was offered these  two books to keep my Littles busy 
I snapped them up in a red hot second. 
Yes, please, and thank you very much. 
My kids are driving me bat guano crazy.


These two books, Escape Game Adventures: The Mad Hacker and Escape Game Adventures: The Last Dragon, are escape game adventure books designed for middle grade readers, ages 8-12.

Just what, exactly, does an Escape Game Adventure book entail?  
Well, I'm glad you asked because I'm going to tell you.

In each book, you, the reader, are a member of a secret time travel agency that specializes in high-risk missions through time.  You and your trusty robot sidekick are given a specific task to perform.  Using your brains, a few useful tools, and some subtle hints, you must follow the clues to different pages within the book as you solve puzzles, decipher secret messages, find hidden objects, and generally use your noodle to complete your objective.  If you need help on your mission, never fear! Hints, solutions, and some special tools to help you are carefully sectioned and tucked away towards the back of the book.

In The Last Dragon we were charged with finding the last dragon egg before the bad king could turn it in to an omelet.  I helped my 10 and 8 year old work through it together and they seemed to have a lot of fun solving the different kinds of problems that required code-breaking, basic color mixing, logical reasoning, and pattern recognition.  Watching them solve puzzles and have little ah-HA moments was fun for me to watch.  We did run into a little hitch on the last clue that even I was a little confused by, but we used one of the hints and finished in high spirits with my youngest declaring, "That was SO fun!  Can I do the next one by myself?!"  Since her sister was dying to get back to reading Superfudge, I decided it might be a good to see what my youngest could do on her own.

The Littlest opened up The Mad Hacker and was tasked with traveling to the future to stop an evil hacker from infecting the world's computers with a terrible virus.  Over the course of the adventure, she learned a little about matching fingerprints, deciphered drone code, examined optical illusions, followed coded directions through a maze, and worked her way through some puzzles that required her to use a set of clues and process of elimination.  Again, we ran into a hitch on the last clue (these seem to be the hardest).  She finished...but not without a lot of my help and a more than a few nudges in the right direction.

Now, I know what you are thinking:   Will my child need adult supervision or can I just throw this book at them, 
lock myself in the pantry, 
and quietly devour 
a box of Oreos?! 

I'm afraid there is no easy answer.  Whether your child needs help or can work through the adventure on their own really depends on their age, how their mind works, and their familiarity with this type of game.  Just because I didn't get to eat any Oreos (this time) doesn't mean you won't get to enjoy a little "Me Time" in the pantry.  If your children are like mine and this is their first experience with escape games, then I would recommend that you either sit down and 'play' the game with them, or shoot for a slightly higher age range (perhaps, 10-14).  However, if you have a kid ages 8-12 who loves escape games, logic puzzles, secret codes, and excels at critical thinking, then these books could be perfect for them.

What I can tell you is that, as a parent, I thought that these books were a cute and creative way to deliver out-of-the-box, intelligence-building, imaginative fun.  I loved the concept, story, illustrations, and how each puzzle required the brain to bend a different way.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

If you've already had a chance to try Escape Game Adventures and are looking for some new material, I have good news.  The fun isn't over.  

Escape Game Adventures: Operation Pizza
and
Escape Game Adventures: Trapped in Space
will be available in September 2020


Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Lies Jane Austen Told Me - Julie Wright

Summary: Ever since Emma Pierce read Pride and Prejudice, she's been in love with Mr. Darcy and has regarded Jane Austen as the expert on all things romantic. So when it turns out that what her boyfriend Blake wants is more of a hook-up than a honeymoon, Emma is hurt, betrayed, and furious.  She throws herself deeper into her work as CMO of Kinetics, only to find her job threatened when her boss brings in a consultant to help her expand the business on the East Coast.  Her frustration turns to shock when that consultant turns out to be Blake's younger brother, Lucas.

Emma is determined not to fall for Lucas, but as she gets to know him, she realizes that Lucas is nothing like his brother.  He is kind and attentive and spends his time and money caring for the less fortunate.  But as perfect as Lucas seems, he clearly has his secrets.  After all, there's an angry woman demanding money from him and a little girl who Lucas feels responsible for.

Realizing that her love life is a complicated as anything Jane Austen could have dreamed up, Emma must figure out the truth -- and soon -- if she wants any hope of writing her own "happily ever after" ending.  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My ReviewLies Jane Austen Told Me is one of my teenage daughter's favorite books (alongside Harry Potter, Fablehaven, The Hunger Games, and The Secret Journal of Brett Colton).  She's been on me for a while to read it and now that I'm sitting smack in the middle of quarantine, I've run out of excuses.  I know that sounds dour, but there is a lot of pressure when your daughter is on you to LOVE something as much as she loves it.  I crossed my fingers and dove in.

Jane Austen is a horrific liar.  

Those are the opening words to Lies Jane Austen Told Me and I love them.  It was a great hook.  The main character, Emma, is a smart, successful marketing exec who misreads her boyfriend's weekend intentions and ends up single and stranded until some decidedly unwanted help arrives in the form of her now-ex's younger brother.  When that same younger brother ends up being Emma's newest coworker and competition, and her ex tries to win her back, Emma must come to terms with her feelings (whatever they may be) and get the job done.  I won't spoil things for you, but I imagine you can guess the story line from here on out.

Lies Jane Austen Told Me falls into the 'proper romance' genre which translates, in the book world, to a  romance novel that stays within PG parameters (basically, displays of affection are limited to  kissing and nothing else).  The chemistry between the characters was hit and miss, but it 'hit' when it really mattered, especially towards the end.  I enjoyed the little details in character backgrounds that made this story stand out from some of the more cardboard cutout romances.  Each chapter begins with a familiar Austen quote and there is also a moderately feminist thread that runs throughout that felt like a nod to women everywhere, but specifically to Austen herself.  It was a nice touch. 

From a critical perspective, I felt the plot lagged a little in the middle, but I did enjoy both the beginning and, most importantly, the end of the story.  There aren't a lot of plot twists in store, but I don't generally read books like this because I want a lot of surprises.  I wanted the happily-ever-after ending and that is exactly what I got.  I can definitely see why my daughter likes it so much and I do think Austen fans in search of a 'clean' romance will enjoy themselves.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Several of the characters dealt with childhood abandonment and rocky home lives.  It isn't too descriptive but could be triggering.  Other than that -- all clear.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Forest of Enchantments - Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Summary: The Ramayana, one of the world s greatest epics, is also a tragic love story. In this brilliant retelling, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni places Sita at the centre of the novel: this is Sita s version. The Forest of Enchantments is also a very human story of some of the other women in the epic, often misunderstood and relegated to the margins: Kaikeyi, Surpanakha, Mandodari. A powerful comment on duty, betrayal, infidelity and honour, it is also about women s struggle to retain autonomy in a world that privileges men, as Chitra transforms an ancient story into a gripping, contemporary battle of wills. While the Ramayana resonates even today, she makes it more relevant than ever, in the underlying questions in the novel: How should women be treated by their loved ones What are their rights in a relationship When does a woman need to stand up and say, Enough! (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

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



I have to start this review with a disclaimer—I am not Hindu, and I realize that the Ramayana is a Hindu religious text, as well as an important epic in the cultural consciousness of the South Asian nations of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the South-East Asian countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Also, there are many, many versions of the Ramayana, and I have read just this one. Some other disclaimers—I have done some research into the Ramayana, both about the original epic and some other versions, as well as looked at some of the basic ideas and themes that the Ramayana addresses and teaches. However, that being said, I realize that as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (you may know us as Mormon), and as an American, I am probably totally unqualified to take on the Ramayana. Therefore, I’m not going to do that in any way. I am only going to discuss The Forest of Enchantments as I see it presented to me in this form, which is as a historical novel. Any cultural misunderstanding or religious misinterpretation is due to the fact that I am a complete outsider who was handed a book to review that happened to be a very important religious and cultural text to many people. I did what research I could in order to not be completely in the dark, but I think I’m actually completely in the dark to this other than just reading it for pleasure and as a very interesting historical and cultural novel. #sendhelpplease

When I was an undergrad in college I took a World Religions course. Because there are so many world religions, we couldn’t spend much time on any one, but as Hinduism is a major world religion, we did spend time on it, and although I did not read the Ramayana then, it was discussed briefly. Reading The Forest of Enchantments was an interesting and eye-opening journey for me, and I have to think that although the Ramayana is familiar for those who are Hindu, they would also find this to be an interesting and different take on a very old and very familiar epic.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. First and foremost, I really enjoyed the story being told by Sita, who is the female protagonist. Because most religious texts from all religions are told from a man’s point of view, they’re obviously missing perspectives, experiences, and insights from women. We all know that no matter who is telling the story, there is a little bit of variation, even if the storyteller tries to stay as close to the facts as possible. There is just a different perspective that comes from each person. Having a woman’s perspective, especially with a story so old, was of great insight for the reader. We were able to see what it would have been like to not only be a part of the other side of the story, but also feel what Sita might have felt when she was faced with the troubles and strifes she was. The middle to end of the book actually involves Sita being separated from Rama, and so telling the story from her perspective was an interesting take and a nice alternating viewpoint from the norm. I think Divakaruni also did a good job of developing peripheral characters that have probably not gotten as much airtime as they have in the past, and this helped me understand their motivations and viewpoints.

I really enjoyed the storytelling and the writing in this book. I think it speaks to Divakaruni’s ability to write and tell stories that she could keep a person like me—who knows very little about the religion or the Ramayana—interested and engaged. I really liked the descriptions of the settings, the story, and the way of life. It takes place so long ago and in a place I’ve never been to, and yet I felt like I could see and understand the settings and surroundings and cultural context. I even spent some time looking up pictures of where this would have taken place in order to feel like I understood the foliage and actual surroundings of the forest where Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana were exiled to. It really was an interesting story told in a very accessible, tangible way. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Plus—and this is important to me—the cover itself is gorgeous. The colors are so pretty and vibrant; it has gold leafing on parts of it, and I loved the painting. Seriously, it was a very eye-catching book.

Ultimately, a religious text is supposed to teach us something, whether it be about how to become more God-like, or warn us against certain behaviors, or just to show us how to live. I can see how the Ramayana would do this, and although I didn’t relate to the characters religiously, I certainly understood the moral quandaries that the characters were faced with. I think it’s good to be challenged and faced with reading about situations that help us think and consider outside of our normal comfort zones.

There are books written about female Biblical characters that I have read (I’m thinking of the Orson Scott Card “Women of Genesis” series that includes Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel & Leah, and The Wives of Israel, although there are others that are based on the Bible and The Book of Mormon, which is another book of scripture used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Reading the “Women of Genesis” series, even though it is technically historical fiction (as is Forest of Enchantments) really gave me new insight and perspective into what those Biblical female characters possibly thought, and I think that Forest of Enchantments was similar. Even though the author can’t know exactly what the woman is thinking, it is nice to at least have some speculation and give her a voice. If you have read the Ramayana, or are part of a cultural or religious culture that reads the Ramayana, I think this would definitely be an interesting story for you. If you are not one of these people but enjoy historical fiction, religious texts, or even learning about other cultures and their culturally significant stories, I think you would enjoy this book.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some light sexual content, but I would consider this book to be clean.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Freeform Friday: A Mango Publishing Trio

Since all of these books came to us from the incredible Mango Publishing, 
We thought we'd give you a Mango Trio of books to chew on today!  
Below are Mindy & Ashley's reviews for:

The Story Behind: The Extraordinary History
 Behind Ordinary Objects by Emily Prokop

You're Going to Survive by Alexandra Franzen  

The Origins of Names, Words, and Everything in Between 
by Patrick Foote
________________________________________

Summary: Learn the fascinating history and trivia you never knew about things we use daily from the host of The Story Behind podcast.

Everyday objects and major events in history: Every single thing that surrounds us has a story behind it. Many of us learn the history of humans and the major inventions that shaped our world. But what you may not have learned is the history of objects we surround ourselves with every day. You might not even know how the major events in history (World Wars, ancient civilizations, revolutions, etc.) influenced the inventions of things we use today.

The history and science behind the ordinary: From the creator of The Story Behind podcast comes this revelatory new book. The Story Behind will give insight into everyday objects we don’t think much about when we use them. Topics covered in the podcast will be examined in more detail along with many new fascinating topics. Learn how lollipops got started in Ancient Egypt, how podcasts were invented, and why Comic Sans was created. Learn the torture device origins of certain exercise equipment and the espionage beginnings of certain musical instruments. Ordinary things from science to art, food to sports, customs to fashion, and more are explored.

Readers will:
  • Understand the wonders behind everyday objects
  • Learn truly obscure history and fun facts that will change the way they see the world
  • Learn how major historic events still affect us today through seemingly mundane things
  • Become formidable trivia masters
  • Discover the fascinating story behind everything!

My Review: I feel like I’m in a safe space here and can say that I carry a book wherever I go. I know that there are some people who settle for Kindle books or maybe even prefer them (I have thoughts about this), but I prefer real books to hold in my hand. I almost always have one in my purse, and so obviously if I have one of my larger purses, the size of the book doesn’t matter. However, I do have a few smaller purses and so space is at a premium. I mean, I have to have room for a bajillion random receipts and suckers from the bank for bribes and all kinds of random weird stuff, so that means that I need to have a smaller book. The good news is that The Story Behind is just such a book. It is small and fairly light, so it can fit in even my smallest purses, which is quite delightful. Not bringing a book is just not an option. I don’t want to be caught with only my phone for company.

There were lots of cool things about this book, the least of which is its size. It’s a small size, but it packs quite a punch. First of all, the book is divided into different parts, which are named for different categories such as “At the Office,” “Food,” or “Technology.” Within these different sections there are short chapters that are just a couple pages long that tackle the story behind something, such as bubble wrap (one of my fave chapters—bubble wrap wallpaper, anyone?), the paper bag, lullabies, etc. It’s cool because it takes on normal every day things and gives the history behind them (and even what is happening with them currently) in just a few pages. At the end of the chapter there’s a “Did you know?” that has a fun little bit of trivia, and then to cap it off it has a “TL;DR” (too long, didn’t read) section that summarizes the whole thing. As the chapters are only a few pages long, I didn’t find that I would read those instead of the chapter, but it was a really nice to recap what I had just read.

I think I’ve mentioned that I read several books at a time. I like to have options when I’m reading. I’m not always in the mood for one kind of book, but that doesn’t mean I won’t read. This just means that I’ll pick another book from the several I’m reading and start reading. One thing I really appreciated about The Story Behind is that when I didn’t have a ton of time, or just really needed a palate cleanser or even wanted to think about something else briefly, I could just pick up this little book, read a chapter, and feel enlightened, educated, and not have to commit to anything big. This would be the perfect bathroom ‑book. Everyone can enjoy it—its small, its low commitment, it’s interesting.

Also, it’s well-researched and well-written. The writing is concise and precise, allowing for each section to be jam-packed with info, but Prokop does a great job of making the reading easy and companionable. I can tell she’s a podcaster—I enjoyed the conversational tone and the funny little tidbits she adds in. It doesn’t take away from the actual topic, but gives it context and depth and I really appreciated that.

If you are a listener of Prokop’s podcast, The Story Behind, I think you would really enjoy this. Some of the chapters she’s covered in her podcast, but there are some that she hasn’t. If you are a collector of info and random facts, I think you would really enjoy this book. Finally, if you are looking for a fun gift for readers of any type, or even something for yourself that is easy to read in quick bites, this book is definitely for you.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean. 
_______________________________________________________

Summary: We've all been there...

Smack dab in the middle of a stressful, discouraging day at work.

Your inbox is bursting with urgent demands.  Your presentation flops.  Your proposal gets rejected.  You launch a new project, but nobody seems interested.  Your ego is bruised.  Everything feels overwhelming.

On tough days when you could use a friendly, encouraging voice...open this book.

Inside, you'll find inspiring stories from writers, chefs, lawyers, actors, business leaders, and more, each describing one of the worst moments in their career, how they got through it, and what they learned in the process.

With each story, you'll see that rock-bottom moments can lead to breakthroughs...that not getting your dream job might be a blessing in disguise...that everyone goes through difficult times, and no matter what you're dealing with, you  are never alone.

(Summary from back of book - Image from  - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  According to the cover, the full title of this book is You're Going to Survive: True stories from people who've endured soul-crushing moments in their careers -- failure, rejection, disappointment, public humiliation -- and how they got through it, and how you will too.  
I've also seen it titled You're Going to Survive: True stories about adversity, rejection, defeat, terrible bosses, online trolls, 1-star Yelp reviews, and other soul-crushing experiences—and how to get through it.  Either way is a bit of a mouthful but both titles really get to the heart of what the book is about -- how to pick yourself up and move on after the world has crapped in your sandwich.

You're Going to Survive is a 297-page pep-talk, composed of personal stories, helpful survival tips, what-to-do-when lists, suggestions, and author commentary.  It's main goal is to help the reader overcome criticism, rejection, failures, and setbacks.  The bulk of the text focuses on how to to push past disappointment, discouragement, and fear, effectively analyze and respond to criticism (hint: keep it calm and classy), how to make the best of a bad situation, and above all and how to just keep giving it your all.  I enjoyed reading the different personal accounts and how each individual learned from their negative experiences. Their stories (even the 'cringey' ones) infused me with a new sense of solidarity optimism, and confidence. 

You're Going to Survive also served as powerful proof that criticism, rejection, and even outright failure can still help you move forward, onward, and upward. It can be the push you need -- the catalyst for the change that will change your life!  While most of the stories shared are about career setbacks, I think the lessons learned are applicable to everyone.  My favorite part of the whole book was in the final chapter -- a survival checklist with a variety of suggestions to help you make it through the tough times and several seriously appealing ideas for if/when your plan Z falls through (because we all need to have a Plan Z).

The author does acknowledge that certain kinds of feedback can be useful and valid, so with that in mind, I'd like to address my one criticism of the book, which is format-related and hopefully constructive.  The layout felt a little scattered from an organizational standpoint -- like a bunch of different inspiring posts sort-of squished together -- and I wasn't always able to discern whether I was reading words from the author or one of her contributors.  If I could offer a possible solution, I think it might have been clearer if there were more of visual contrast between the contributors and the author's text.  Of course, the somewhat confusing format didn't make the author's pep talk less true!

I'd like to leave on high note, so instead, here are some of my favorite encouragements/quotes from the book:
  • Our lives do not always flow along like silken tofu.  Sometimes, challenges arise.  Sometimes, things just seriously suck.          (Great visual and some honest truth.)
  • You can do hard things.             (Yaaaaaaaaasssss! This is my mantra!)
  • Today is not over yet.                 (So keep going!)
  • What I've learned is that when you think the Universe is being so cruel and unfair to you, maybe that's not actually true. Maybe the Universe is taking good care of you,or even protecting you from disaster, or setting you up for another opportunity that's one million times better, and you just don't know it yet.  But soon?  You'll see.
  • The worst experience of your life can become the spark, the fuel, the inspiration for the greatest thing you ever make.
  • No one can steal...joy from you unless you grant them that power.
  • No matter what's happening in your career right now, and no matter what happens next, you're going to make it through this day.  You were built to handle all of the challenges you're currently facing, and more.  You're made of carbon, just like the stars in the galaxy, and oxygen, hydrogen, and sodium, just like the oceans, and you're just as powerful.  You're going to survive.
I just love that last one.  It makes me feel invincible.  

You're Going to Survive is a great way to give your post-rejection perspective a much needed kick in the pants and give you the courage to be yourself.  If you're feeling unmotivated or ready to throw in the towel, like you don't matter or like every thing is falling apart, you might want to give You're Going to Survive a chance to change your mind.

My Rating: 3.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Nothing that I can recall. You're all clear.

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Summary:  Have you every wondered if the word "word" named itself?  If you have, then this is the book for you! 

Everything has a name.  But why?  With The Origin of Names, Words, and Everything in Between you can learn the origins of some of the most obscure (and common) terms in the English dictionary.  From toys to animals to planets and more, you'll learn why we call things the way we do.

While author Patrick Foote, of the popular YouTube channel Name Explain, doesn't claim to know everything, he has garnered a wealth of knowledge about language and history over the years and is thrilled to now share it with you in his highly anticipated debut book.  With his uniquely British sense of humor, full of both rare and everyday words and packed with great information, Patrick presents a variety of topics that will intrigue and entertain anyone interested in the origins of the names, words, and everything in between!

The Origin of Names does exactly what it says it does -- it explains the source of names in a fun and easy-to-digest way.  After reading this book, you will:

  • Know exactly how Russia got its name
  • Be able to entertain yourself and your friends with interesting fun facts
  • Discover the origins of the names of planets, animals, countries and much more
(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:  Fork.  Fork. FOOOOORRRRRK.  It's a weird word.  Say it enough times and you start to wonder how this bizarre collection of sounds came to me that strange poky thing you use to pick up food.  I accepted The Origins of Names, Words, and Everything in Between for review because, like the author, I've always had a natural curiosity about the evolution of language and word origins.  If you won't be able to sleep tonight without knowing fork's origins, you are probably the kind of person who would enjoy this book.  I won't make you wait though. I'm not that mean. The answer can be found here.  I'll wait while you read it.  

The Origins of Names, Words, and Everything in Between is well-organized and attractive, with a casual, light-hearted voice, and an easy-to-read font. I can't tell you how many books I have received lately with blindingly small font, but it's enough that I heartily appreciate a normal-sized one.  The book is divided into several chapters covering topics that range from landmarks, animal names, historical titles, and abstract nouns, to food, brand names, countries, and more.  Each chapter contains multiple entries, usually only a few paragraphs long, dedicated to explaining the origins of certain words.  

Many of the author's etymological explanations were deeply fascinating and even, on occasion, quite humorous.  While some words simply evolve over time from a specific root word, others come about in delightfully unexpected ways and those entries were the ones I loved reading aloud to my family.  Here are just a few of the things I learned while reading:

  • That Big Ben is not, in fact, a clock tower in England
  • Mt. Everest's real name(s)
  • The surprisingly magical origins of the word bumblebee
  • How Google, Wikipedia, The Big Apple (NYC), the grandfather clock, the bald eagle, and the  sperm whale got their names (and. let's be honest, who hasn't been curious about that last one?)
  • How mayonnaise is connected to one of the greatest wars in Roman history
  • The difference between the Netherlands and Holland (I really needed that clarification)
  • That Nintendo was actually founded in 1889 (can you believe it?!)
  • That the word meme was born before high-speed internet
  • How the word clue links with greek mythology  (It makes perfect sense!)
  • The somewhat risque origins of the words avocado and guacamole (Bwahaha!)

Now lest you think I sing nothing but this book's praises, I do have a gripe (or two).  Sometimes it felt like the author was trying to meet a particular word-per-entry or entry-per-section count.  For example, if the word's origins were straightforward and could be explained in only a few sentences, he'd meander (re: stall) a bit before getting to the point, with the result that a good portion of the entry felt more like filler than essential information.  It didn't happen all the time, but it happened enough times that I noticed.   In addition, I felt a few of the word origins -- those that amounted to no-one-really-knows-but-here-is-my-best-guess conjecture and the-word-bird-derives-from-the-Old-English-word-bird -- were rather pointless and could have been left out of the book entirely to make space for words with more interesting and concrete origins. 

In the afterword, the author mentions that he wrote The Origin of Names, Words, and Everything in Between to help inform, encourage, and inspire curiosity.  I do feel that, with very few exceptions, he achieved that goal.  Personally, I would have preferred a higher amount of more concise entries but, overall, this book supplied me with a variety of interesting historical tidbits, unexpected word origins, and an entirely new (and somewhat life-changing) perspective on guacamole.

My Rating: 3.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Not much to offend. The obvious jokes about Uranus. A few of the word meanings had their origins in human physiology (ahem, the male nether regions), but an adult reader shouldn't have any problems with it.  

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