Friday, June 11, 2021

The 29 Books in Reading for Sanity's Summer Reading Stack

It's that time of year -- summer break -- when the kids are home 24/7 and the yardwork never ends...also known as most of the last year and half.   This summer we are crossing our fingers for in-person school in the fall and taking a much needed break to spend (even more) time with our families and read our hearts out. 

We'll see you back here on September 1st OR you can follow along with our more informal reading adventures on our Facebook page.   We won't leave you empty handed though.  Without further ado, here are at least some of the titles we hope to read this summer: 

(in no particular order and linked to Goodreads)  


The Shadow and Bone Trilogy - Leigh Bardugo



The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

The Kitchen Front - Jennifer Ryan

Matrimony, Inc: From Personal Ads to Swiping Right, A Story of America Looking for Love - Francesca Beauman

Sky Beyond the Storm - Sabaa Tahir

Ibid: A Novel - Mark Dunn



The Stationery Shop - Marjan Kamali

Circe - Madeline Miller

Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation - edited by Thomas Buckley & Alma Gottlieb

Lockwood & Co.: The Hollow Boy - Jonathan Stroud

A Sitting in St. James - Rita Williams-Garcia


The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke - Andrew Lawler

Ninth House - Leigh Bardugo


The Last Dive: A Father and Son's Fatal Descent into the Ocean's Depths - Bernie Chowdhury


The Nickel Boys - Coulson Whitehead


The Shapeshifter - Tony Hillerman


Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee


The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse - Louise Erdrich 


The Bone Garden - Heather Kassner


We hope we've given you enough to jump start 

your summer reading!  See you in September!  

Happy Reading!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dad: The Man, the Myth, the Legend - Mifflin Lowe (Illustrated by Dani Torrent)

Hey!  Father's Day is coming up (June 20, if you're reading this in 2021) and I just wanted to pop in  for a brief review that you might find relevant. 

Summary:  He's the most interesting man in the world.  He changes diapers just because he likes it.  He's counted to infinity -- twice!  He's stronger than Sasquatch, smarter than Einstein, and he cooks a mean spaghetti with M&M's for all your bad days.

He's a myth.  He's a legend.  He's...Dad!

Dad: The Man, the Myth, the Legend is an epic -- and totally unexaggerated -- tale for dads everywhere!  heroic, hilarious, and heartwarming, it's the sweet saga of Dad: protector, provider, and child's best friend.  

And it's all true.  Right, Dad?

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:   Do your littles idolize their father?  If so, they have a lot in common with the young narrator of Dad: The Myth, the Man, the Legend who can't help but sing his father's praises, even if some of his claims are a little far-fetched.  Can Dad really fly?  Is he really more powerful than Thor?!  In his son's eyes, Dad is every bit the hero as he conquers the challenges of fatherhood.  

I don't have little boys, so I can only imagine the day-to-day father-son dynamic, but I thought this book was pretty stinkin' cute as it conveyed both the hero-worship of a son and the many valuable roles a father fills.  The story and illustrations are entertaining for young and old, though more astute readers will pick up on nuances of humor that are certainly placed for parental appreciation.  The book ends on a high note with tender final message and a place for your child to make a list of all the things that make their own Dad so amazing.  Overall, I believe that Dad: The Man, the Myth, the Legend would make a fun Father's Day gift that both Dad and little one can enjoy.  

My Rating:  3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Should be fine as long as there's a Dad in your life that you adore.



Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived - Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

Summary: In 1977, Bill McRaven graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and joined the Navy SEALs.  Over the course of the next 37 years he traveled the world.  During that time, he saw the worst of humanity: war and destruction, disease and poverty.  The world was full of problems, seemingly intractable, unsolvable, impossible problems.  But also, in those 37 years he saw the very best of mankind.  Men and women who sought peace, who rebuilt nations, who cured disease and lifted the poor from property.  Men and women whose compassion was so deep that it made the cruelty and indifference of others pale in comparison; men and women who were from all walks of life; from every socioeconomic background, from every race, every creed, every gender and orientation.

The Hero Code is Admiral McRaven's ringing tribute to the real, everyday heroes he's met over the years, from battlefields to hospitals to college campuses, who are doing their part to save the world. ...[It] is not a cypher, a puzzle, or a secret message.  It is a code of conduct: lessons in virtues that can become the foundation of our character as we build a life worthy of honor and respect. 

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Courage.  Humility.  Sacrifice.  Integrity.  Compassion.  Perseverance.  Duty.  Hope.  Humor. Forgiveness.  These are the qualities that inspire The Hero Code, a collection of ten life lessons learned by retired U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven.  In each chapter, McRaven discusses the importance of each specific quality, sharing an inspiring quote from a well-known historical figure,  stories gleaned during his distinguished career, and accounts of others who exemplify that particular quality of heroism in their day to day lives.  At the end of each section, McRaven introduces a portion of what he calls 'The Hero Code' -- a code of conduct that helps cultivate the qualities of a hero.

I fell in (platonic) love with Admiral McRaven while reading his first book, Make Your Bed, which details ten life-changing principles he learned as a Navy SEALSoon after, I picked up his second book, Sea Stories, because McRaven has had his hand in a lot of important special operations (and who doesn't like a bang-up war story, am I right?).  I loved both books and was thrilled to read The Hero Code when it released.  I read it in spurts, intentionally spaced out over a few days just so I could make the experience last a little longer.  

While The Hero Code doesn't carry the same 'war-story' intensity as some of McRaven's other books, it is filled with inspiration and moral insight.  McRaven is obviously very spiritual and brings some of his Christian faith to the table, but in a way that acknowledges other belief systems and doesn't feel heavy handed.  There are still plenty of good stories, and McRaven excels at telling them, but more often than not, he chooses to center those stories around other people rather than himself, focusing on heroes, past and present, sung and unsung, both in and out of the military, and honoring the heroic qualities they possess.  Two of my favorite stories involved a young female airman who stood her ground in the face of intimidation and a young black Marine who sacrificed his life for his fellow soldiers in a time when his own life was less valued by others than it should have been.  These stories and countless others were incredibly moving and went a long way to restoring my faith in humanity.   

If we listen to the news, it can feel as if our world is lacking the ten qualities that make up The Hero Code.  However, if there is one thing I have learned from each of McRaven's books, it's that he always manages to see the bright side of things, and most especially people.  The Hero Code is an uplifting, encouraging reminder that heroes are everywhere, in every walk of life, willing to step up in courage, to sacrifice for others, persevere through challenges, do their duty, embrace hope, show humility, and act with integrity, compassion, humor, and forgiveness.  I read my favorite chapter of this book to my family after dinner and we all agreed (even the young ones) that it is pretty amazing.  I had teared up when I first read it to myself and had zero ability to keep it together while reading it aloud.  I'm such a cry baby!  Long story short, I highly recommend this book.  McRaven has reached 'elite' status in my eyes, and, at this point, if he writes a menu I am going to read it. 

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  I think there was one or two minor swear words (a la da**). 

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (And Other Small Acts of Liberation) - Elizabeth Berg

Summary:  Every now and then, right in the middle of an ordinary day, a woman kicks up her heels and commits a small act of liberation.  What would you do if you could shed the "shoulds" and do, say --and eat--whatever you really desired?  Go AWOL from Weight Watchers and spend an entire day eating every single thing you want?  Start a dating service for people over fifty to reclaim the razzle-dazzle in your life -- or your marriage?  Seek comfort in the face of aging, look for love in the midst of loss, find friendship in the most surprising of places?  In these beautiful, funny stories, Elizabeth Berg takes us into the heart of the lives of women who do all these things and more -- confronting their true feelings, desires, and joys along the way.  (Summary from book - Image from pinterest.com)

My Review: The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (And Other Small Acts of Liberation) is a collection of fourteen short stories by best-selling author Elizabeth Berg.  I have read countless Berg novels, but for some crazy reason, our archives only hold one review.  If you are interested in reading more of her work, you can head over to my review of Home Safe, where I list the titles I've read and all the reasons I love her novels.  

It probably says a lot about me that I found the above summary insanely appealing.  Lately, I have realized that I have spent much of my life adhering to a rather extensive list of behavioral expectations I have set for myself -- shoulds, if you will.  The summary resonated so strongly with me that I fully expected the stories to as well.  Long story short -- some of them did (3).  Most of them didn't (11).  They are incredibly well written, but only a few made me feel the way that I am used to feeling when I read Berg's writing.  I could sit here and dissect every story, but I'd rather just talk about the ones that hit home.  So, here we go...

Double Diet follows Marsha and Tom, married empty-nesters who are finally starting to acknowledge the pitfalls of aging.  Initially, Marsha is trying to diet on her own with very little success.  She asks for Tom's help to keep her on track and he does a fairly abysmal job.  When they decide to diet together , Tom excels at his own diet and Marsha still struggles. I won't go into a lot of personal detail, but there was a lot about this story that rang true in my own life.  It isn't necessarily the parts that you would think, but, boy oh boy, did I feel it.

Truth or Dare is about a group of three relatively new friends, Joyce, Trudy, and Laura, who are all 50-something, divorced, and live alone, but meet together for weekly dinners where they have found both solace and camaraderie.  When the subject of old boyfriends comes up in conversation, they challenge each other to reconnect with a past flame, just to see how they are doing, and then report back at the next weekly dinner.  Each woman has their own story to tell when they return, and I felt like I was sitting at the table with them, laughing riotously and enjoying their adventures.  I am neither 50-something nor divorced, but I have good friends like these, and though we are currently hundreds and even thousands of miles apart in some cases, I long to sit around the table with them and have those similar moments.    

Sin City was my favorite story in the entire book (though it was neck-and-neck with Truth or Dare).  It's about a woman named Rita, a 61-year old widow from Minnesota who decides to spend some of the money she's been saving her whole life and fly to Las Vegas for a few days.  At the airport she meets a man with whom she shares a surprising connection, even if everything she tells him about herself is a complete fabrication.  There is more to the story than a slightly duplicitous meet-cute and it holds surprising insight about love, parenting, and breaking the pattern of self-denial that women all too often embrace.  Oh, and there's a cute ending, to boot.

At 41-years-old, I am just beginning to relate to the perils of aging (be they aging bodies, aging children, or aging relationships).  I don't like cramming books or people into pigeon holes, but I am not sure if these stories will appeal to the average 20-40-year-old quite as much as they will with the 40+ age group.  Of course, I don't know that they were really meant to either.  According to the summary, each story in the book allegedly shares a common thread -- a moment when an ordinary woman in an ordinary day "kicks up her heels and commits a small act of liberation.  Although I love the concept, I couldn't always identify those moments in each story.  However, they did generate a plethora of emotions.  Even though I didn't connect with all the stories in the book, it would be fascinating to sit around a table (Truth or Dare style) and discuss what other women of different ages and situations gleaned from each story.  In that way, I do think that it would make for an interesting book club selection.    

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: A few handfuls of profanity (of all varieties) and some sexual subject matter (more vague recollections rather than in-progress events).

Friday, June 4, 2021

Freeform Friday: Dear Evan Hansen (The Novel) - Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Summary: Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why...

When a letter that was never meant to be seen draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family's grief over the loss of their son, Evan is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong.  He just has to pretend that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.  

Suddenly, Evan isn't invisible anymore -- even to the girl of his dreams.  And Connor Murphy's parents have taken him in like he's their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his "closest friend."  As Evan gets pulled deeper into the family's swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he's doing can't be right, but if he's helping people, how wrong can it be?

No longer incapacitated by anxiety or hiding form the disappointment in his mother's eyes, this new Evan has a purpose.  And confidence.  Every day is amazing.  Until everything is in danger of unraveling and he comes face-to-face with his greatest obstacle: himself.

A simple lie leads to complicated truths in this bighearted story of grief, authenticity, and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.  (Summary from book flap - Image from popsugar.com)

My Review:  The Dear Evan Hansen musical has been on my 'Current Faves' playlist for several years.*  I have never seen the show live, but I love the music and its inclusive message, so when I saw that a book-version was out I was darn near giddy.  Whatever version you choose to experience -- show, soundtrack, book, or the upcoming film adaptation -- Dear Evan Hansen touches on a variety of issues that might be triggering for certain people (see see sensitive reader section below this review).  The story will likely elicit a lot of deep feelings and not all of those feelings will be pleasant. If you are not in a safe place to explore those feelings, I suggest waiting until you are emotionally ready.  If you feel up to it, carry on...

Evan Hansen is a bit of a loveable mess -- socially awkward, lonely, nervous, and occasionally kind of hilarious, though he doesn't realize it.  Evan's feels alone, abandoned by his father who left when he was young, only to start a new family in another state. His mother worries about him incessantly, but doesn't have much time to spare between work shifts and class.  Evan longs to make friends at school, to connect with others and belong, but is paralyzed by anxiety, and terrified of rejection and ridicule.  Tasked by his therapist to write encouraging letters to himself, Evan tries to find a positive outlook on life and puts pen to paper.  Then one of his letters falls into the wrong hands.  

Connor Murphy is generally angry and unapproachable. He feels like no one understands him and no one every will.  Like Evan, there is more to Connor than what other people see and significantly more to his story than the soundtrack reveals. When Connor shoves Evan in the school cafeteria and later steals a letter meant for his therapists eyes only, Evan is certain his life is ruined.  Days later, Connor is found dead. In his pocket, a personal letter addressed to Evan. What begins as a sad misunderstanding, morphs into a well-intentioned lie that eventually spirals out of Evan's control.  It's hard to say whether the book's biggest twist (there are two, really) will surprise the reader.  While the soundtrack doesn't state what happens specifically, I could infer what was coming in the book based on my knowledge of the music.  Those unfamiliar with the soundtrack, might not.   

Evan's character is kind, insightful, and self-deprecating while Connor's is quite a bit darker and a lot more full of rage. While Evan is the primary narrator, Connor shows up every once in a while to observe and give his post-humous perspective on things.  Both boys have a lot more in common than either of them realize.   There are a variety of supporting characters that bring depth and emotion to the story: Heidi (Evan's mother), Larry & Cynthia Murphy (Connor's parents), and Zoey (Connor's little sister) as well as Jared, the pervy family friend, and Alana, the school "Hermione."  Those that take center stage feel incredibly human -- vulnerable, flawed, and deeply relatable -- and the author(s) did a wonderful job of conveying each characters' emotions through Evan and Connor's eyes.  As a mother, I especially identified with Heidi and Cynthia -- two moms who only want the best for their children, but are unsure how to help them.  

The predominant message of Dear Evan Hansen is both simple and profound with the potential to provide solace, save lives, and increase empathy and understanding.  It isn't just the icing on the cake; it's the whole dang thing.   

Everyone matters.  Everyone.

No one deserves to live a life alone in the shadows.  We are all dealing with something that makes us feel isolated from the world at large (especially right now, amidst a global pandemic). It could be depression, anxiety, guilt, loss, stress, loneliness, betrayal, abandonment, anger, or any one of a thousand other emotions.  We have all been lost and longed to be found; invisible and hoping (or afraid) to be seen.  We are not alone. 

It's hard to say how I would have felt about Dear Evan Hansen had I never listened to the soundtrack. It was hard for me to separate the two in my head. I appreciate that it tackles certain issues in a way that will help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.  I absolutely adore the message and appreciate the insight the book offered, but the written content is often explicit and certainly not appropriate for all ages. Those who take issue with the more controversial content, might be better served by sticking to the soundtrack, where the message remains the same and is a bit more focused.  

BONUS CONTENT: Here are some of my favorite DEH lyrics.  Just because.  Credit to theodysseyonline.com

*aside from track #4, which is a little crude

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: This book contains themes about divorce, suicide, depression, anxiety,  abandonment, and (briefly) references school shootings. It also has a fair amount of profanity and some crude dialogue.  Two male characters are briefly romantically involved with inferred intimacy, non-graphic.   

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Illuminae (The Illuminae Files_01) - Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Summary:  This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she'd have to do today.  This afternoon, her planet was invaded.

The year is 2575, and two rival meg-corporations - XXXXXXX and XXXXXX - are at war over a planet that's little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe.  Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it.  With enemy fire raining down on them, exes Kady and Ezra - who are barely even talking to each other -- are forced to fight their way onto the evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But the warship is the least of their problems.   A deadly XXXXX has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results.  The fleet's AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what the XXXX is going on.  As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it's clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she'd never speak to again.

BRIEFING NOTE: Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents -- including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more -- Illuminae is the first book in a heart stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.  

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Kady Grant and her ex Ezra Mason are survivors, fleeing after the bombing of an illegal mining operation on their home planet.  Three ships managed to escape in the chaos, badly damaged and with far more civilian cargo than their life support systems are designed to carry.  Now, they are being hunted by a rival corporation, something is terribly wrong with the AI system designed to protect them, and a mysterious sickness has begun to plague one of the ships.  If they hope to survive, Kady and Ezra must set aside their differences and work together to uncover what others are so desperate to keep hidden.  If only they weren't on separate ships.

I can't honestly say that until now I have never read a book quite like Illuminae.  Instead of the standard narrative, the stories of Kady, Ezra, and others, are told after the fact through a variety of documents -- emails, IMs, classified files, transfer requests, after action reports, therapy transcripts, memos, surveillance footage summaries, journal entries, computer generated artwork, AI command code, and more -- all compiled by the mysterious Illuminae Group.  Initially, the format was a little confusing but, once my brain adapted to the new style, I looked forward too seeing what medium would be used to tell the story. The author also included tpyos, censored commentaryredacted (redacted) and handwritten text to keep things real, as well as the occasional blood spatter or disturbed scribbling to heighten the suspense.  I was thrilled by the entire concept, which felt unique and ridiculously creative, and impressed by the massive amount of work that must have gone into telling the story outside the standard form.  

Illuminae was primarily plot driven, but it was still possible to glean information about the primary characters from the different documents, with many of those documents contain the POVs of other, more secondary characters as well.  Kady and Ezra read like many angsty, teen characters -- she is driven and defiant, while he is laid back and heartbroken -- but there are several other characters in this book that go beyond the standard -- specifically a rogue artificial intelligence (AIDAN) and the mysterious Illuminae Group (IG).  When AIDAN is damaged in battle, it veers off the rails and takes some unusual steps to save the fleet.  As time goes by, AIDAN takes on a larger role in the story, morphing into a character of sorts with slightly poetic and wildly psychopathic tendencies.   The Illuminae Group is the story's first narrator, occasionally leaving comments or notes clipped to files that remind you of their presence, but for the most part you forget they exist except at key points in the book.  However, the IG also factors into the story in ways you might not expect.  

A surprising (but delightful) element of the story was the occasional word clouds and lines of text that formed images and conveyed action as it was happening in the story.  For example, the ship-to-ship communication between pilots during a particularly intense battle in space was represented with text that followed the path of their ships, before an explosion sent the words straight out from a central location, like a star-burst.   The artistic element was utterly unexpected and felt like a kind of concrete poetry, that swirled around the page, occasionally requiring the reader to rotate the book to read all the text.  Another example is when an AI breakdown is illustrated with text that recreates Edvard Munch's The Scream.   I don't know if the end result was art in story form or story in art form, but I loved it.  

Fans of the movie Serenity and the TV Shows FireflyDark Matter, and The Walking Dead will notice that Illuminae has a similar vibe. I would love to see it made into a movie, though they might have to cut a few things to get it to a PG-13 rating.  Towards the end, the story is fairly intense, occasionally creepy and althought I wasn't terribly attached to the characters beyond the obvious desire to see them make it out of their predicament, the action and suspense made it hard to put down.  There are more books in the series (Gemina and Obsidio), but the story ends with enough closure that I feel like I could walk away now or continue down the rabbit hole.  If I take the leap, I'll let you know.

My Rating:  4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Violence, sexual innuendo (some is of the 'locker room' variety while other is more violent), and profanity.  Most of the swearing is redacted in the form of a big black block over most of the letters.  However, it's not like you don't know exactly which word they are using when they say ----ing, so you totally hear it all in your head.  If you count all of the redacted words, there is a ton of swearing in this book.  If you don't then what is left is still a fair amount of profanity in the form of religious exclamations (OMG-d and the like).

Monday, May 31, 2021

Jane in Love - Rachel Givney

Summary:  Bath, England, 1803.  At twenty-eight, Jane Austen prefers walking and reading to balls; she also dreams of someday publishing her carefully crafted stories.  Above all, she wants love.  In grave danger of becoming a spinster, Jane goes searching for a radical solution -- and by accident, time-travels.  She lands in...

Bath, England, Present day.  The film set of Northanger Abbey.  As Jane acquaints herself with the horseless carriages and shocking fashions of the twenty-first century, she also discovers she's now a published author.  A famous one.  She befriends Sofia Wentworth, a fading Hollywood actress starring in the new period film, who offers to help Jane return to her own time.  Then Jane meets Fred, Sofia's brother, who has the audacity to be handsome, clever, and kindhearted....

But when Jane starts falling in love with Fred, disaster strikes.  All her books begin disappearing from the shelves.  Jane realizes that the longer she remains in the twenty-first century, the more she will erase herself from history.  Jane must decide:  Is a chance at love worth staying lost in time?

(Summary from back of book - Image from lacountylibrary.overdrive.com)

My Review:  Jane Austen is utterly unweddable.  At least, that's what the entire ton seems to think about the twenty-eight year old almost-spinster, an avid reader, inclined to long walks and feverish bouts of writing.  When her last chance at marriage falls through, Jane makes a rash decision that catapults her into the future in search of love.  There, amidst the hustle and bustle of contemporary London, she meets Sofia Wentworth, a famous actress, and her brother Fred.  The former is skeptical, but for her own reasons promises to help Jane return to her own time.  The latter is incredibly rude...and handsome.  Hijinks ensue as Jane learns to navigate the marvelous world of electricity, trousers, public transit, and modern courtship -- a world where, apparently, she is a highly-esteemed author. 

I truly enjoyed this part of the book.   Jane is a fun character who is both witty and bewildered, shocked and awed, by modern day living.  Her exploration of the future was adorable, amusing, and all the fun things. I also loved being able to follow along as she realized her writing had finally been appreciated.  Haven't we always wanted that for dear Jane?!  Her chemistry with Fred wasn't all-hands-on-deck amazing, but it was enough to set me to 'shipping' the two of them right away.  Sofia also had her own story that could have been a book all on it's own. Overall, the tone of the book was fairly light-hearted and entertaining.

Until.....

...Jane's books start disappearing.  As six becomes five, and five becomes four, Jane is torn between staying for love or returning home to spinsterhood and the quill.  I won't say what happened, but I will say that the book took on an increasingly somber and depressing tone that wasn't really in keeping with the rest of the book.  Long story short (and spoiler free), I was unsatisfied by the ending.  I can see why it ended the way it did.  I just didn't like it.   

On a positive note, however, I will say that I loved the various nods to Austen and her history woven throughout the book.  Austen-lovers will appreciate them.

That's it.  

End of review.

Move right along...

...Unless you'd like specifics... 

SPOILERS AHEAD 

...you have been warned.

The shtick that undoubtedly drove this book's sales is Jane finally finding the true love she missed out on in real life.  At least, that's why I picked up this book, hoping she would find her happily ever after.. I mean she deserves it, am I right?!   She deserves a husband who adores her wit and is proud of her talents!  I did not pick up this book so that she could leave her newfound love behind and return to the past, to live pretty much the same life as before.   I know there are a million reasons why the story probably should have ended exactly the way it did, but that didn't stop me from being sad when Jane made her choice. I mean, what fun is fiction if you can't send Jane back to her own time to revolutionize writing (and have her man come too?!).  I understood the value of a woman choosing to use her talents, rather than give them up for a man and yes, her books are saved (hurrah!), but I wanted her to have both, dang it! 

END OF SPOILERS

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:   The occasional innuendo and one use of the word 'arse.'  Jane sees Fred shirtless (a few times) and Fred sees Jane getting out of the shower (no descriptions, just awkwardness.).  One sexual situation (very un Austen-like, if you ask me) implied and with very little detail.  Jane has a conversation with a gay man about gay marriage.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Freeform Friday: The Hill We Climb (An Inaugural Poem for the Country) - Amanda Gorman

Summary:  On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman became the sixth and youngest poet to deliver a poetry reading at a presidential inauguration.  Taking the stage after the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, Gorman captivated a nation and brought hope to viewers around the globe.  Her poem "The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country" can now be cherished in this special edition.  Including an enduring foreword by Oprah Winfrey, this keepsake celebrates the promise of America and affirms the power of poetry.

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  The Hill We Climb was first presented in its entirety at the 46th Presidential Inauguration on January 20, 2021.  The author's original reading left me tearful and breathless. I loved it so much that I knew I needed to own it, so I snapped up a copy as soon as it came out. 

The book itself is slim but gorgeous, graced with an eloquent foreword by Oprah Winfrey and wrapped in a yellow jacket with red details, undoubtedly symbolic of the author's attire on inauguration day.  However, the message inside is even more stunning. Unlike some forms of poetic verse which can be hard to interpret, the meaning of Ms. Gorman's words are clear and uplifting.  The Hill We Climb is powerfully evocative poetry that acknowledges historic injustice and recent conflict but offers hope and healing to a struggling nation.  We can overcome our challenges, embrace our differences and stand stronger, together.  In her words, 'our nation isn't broken, but simply unfinished.'  

And speaking of 'her words', here are a few of my favorite lines from this book (though I really just loved the whole thing):

  • We've learned that quiet isn't always peace, and the norms and notions of what 'just is' isn't always justice.
  • And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.  We close the divide, because we know to put our future first, we must put first our differences aside
  • If we're to live up to our own time, then victory won't lie in the blade, but in all the promises we've made. That is the promised glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it: because being American is more than a pride we inherit -- it's the past we step into, and how we repair it.
  • We will not be turned around, or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
  • In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country, our people, diverse and dutiful. We'll emerge battered but beautiful.
and of course... 

Shakespear once wrote, "though she be but little, she is fierce."  The Hill We Climb evokes a similar feeling -- though small, she packs a mighty punch! I highly recommend owning a copy.

PSST... If you'd like to hear the entire poem before you buy the book, you can watch the original recitation here.  Gahh...it still makes me cry!

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: All clear.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations - Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

I picked up Sea Stories after reading and *loving* McRaven's first book -- Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...and Maybe the World.  You can read that review here, if you would like.

Summary:
Admiral William H. McRaven is a part of American military history, having been involved in some of the most famous missions in recent memory, including the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden.

Sea Stories begins in 1960 at the American Officers' Club in France, where Allied officers and their wives gathered to have drinks and tell stories about their adventures during World War II -- the place where a young Bill McRaven learned the value of a god story.  Sea Stories is an unforgettable look back on one man's incredible life, from childhood days sneaking into high-security military sites to a day job of hunting terrorist and rescuing hostages.

Action-packed, inspiring, and full of thrilling stories from life in the special operation world, Sea Stories is a remarkable memoir from one of America's most accomplished leaders.

My Review:  Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations is a riveting account of Admiral William H. McRaven's experiences as the longest serving NAVY SEAL on active duty before his retirement.  Each chapter tells a specific story, beginning with a McRaven's youthful attempts at espionage, through his exhausting and brutal Navy SEAL training and his deployment on a wide array of battlefronts, to his service in various high-profile military positions in Washington D.C.  

Sea Stories is nothing short of wildly impressive.  It delves into some of the most highly-classified missions in recent U.S. History in a way that completely brought the stories to life and details the insane amount of planning, training, secrecy, and skill that are involved in these types of missions.  I felt like I was right in the thick of things as deposed tyrant Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a hole or Captain Richard Phillips was rescued from Somali pirates or a special forces operation led to the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Some of the chapters were incredibly intense while others were more moving than I expected, but all were threaded with encouragement and wisdom. For example, in the chapter entitled The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, McRaven talks about the rigors of SEAL training, stating, "Like many things in life success in BUD/S didn't always go to the strongest, fastest, or the smartest.  It went to the man who faltered, who failed, who stumbled, but who persevered, who got up and kept moving.  Always moving forward, one evolution at a time."  Obviously, that lesson can be applied to more than just SEAL training.

Throughout the book Admiral McRaven has many names: Mac, Bill, William, Raven.  Whatever you want to call him, the man tells a good story and delivered an fascinating page turner full of suspense, wisdom, humor, heartbreak, comradery, and unbelievable courage.  What's more, he also just seems like a good person with a rock-solid commitment to his family, country, beliefs, and the mission, whatever and wherever it may be.  Throughout his career, he sets an example of compassion, perseverance, humility, and devotion that we would all do well to follow.  

I want to recommend this book it to pretty much everyone I know, but I would have to do so with one caveat -- there is, on occasion, some rather colorful language.  Though McRaven rarely swears himself, he often directly quotes his cohorts and compatriots, which means some chapters feature more profanity than others. Personally, I chalked the language up as the common vernacular and mostly tried to ignore it.  If you can, I recommend you try to do the same.

Overall, Sea Stories offers a front row seat to some of the nations most highly classified special operations, but more than that, it allows the opportunity to see inside the heart of a good man, a Navy SEAL committed to serving his country and his fellow soldiers to the very best of his ability.  I was never bored even though I already knew the final outcome of several of the missions.  As I read, late into the night, I was uplifted in a way I didn't expect.  As with his previous book, my 'just one chapter' would turn into two, and two would turn into three, and before I knew it I'd read six chapters with minimal blinking, before forcing myself to retire.  Long story short, I highly recommend giving this one a go.

NOTE: Clearly the universe loves me, because I went online hoping to find more about Admiral McRaven and lo, and behold, another book released in April.  I will be picking up The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived at the earliest opportunity!  Look for my review, coming soon!

My Rating:  4.5 Stars  

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some profanity sprinkled throughout (more in certain chapters than others), some violence (not graphic).

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Lost Apothecary - Sarah Penner

Summary: A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.

Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I really liked the premise of this book—a female apothecary in the late 1700’s who has turned her business of helping people with everyday ailments to punishing by poisoning (deserving?) men for their trespasses. The 1700’s were not a time when women had a lot of rights, as you may know, nor a lot of choices, so the idea that our apothecary was taking back the power by poisoning them seems delightful (in theory, of course). This is a time hop book, and our other protagonist is a modern-day woman who is also dealing with a husband of shady dealings and bad behavior, and so it is with this parallel we are led through this story.

This book ended up being a lot more women’s lit than I expected it would. That’s not to say that this doesn’t seem completely obvious given the topic, but I guess I was expecting something a little less in the woman-discovering-herself-through-history-and-coming-to-terms-with-it-all-with-the-help-from-a-new-friend type of sitch. That’s what it was, though. I start to get a little leery once things take a hard right and delve deeply into chic lit, although I do love a good story about women.

Although I enjoyed the story that this book told, I felt like there were quite a few improbabilities that led to it not being as authentic feeling as it should have. The modern day story was especially weird in that regard, and it was like there were so many strange things happening that felt forced and “written” instead of naturally moving the way the story arc might have gone if it had been allowed to be fluid and actually follow its true destiny (whatever that may be). Because of that, I felt the ending, especially, to be unsatisfying, and the modern protagonist to do things (and say things) that I’m not sure felt like should have actually happened. That’s not to say that I couldn’t see where those parts of the story came from, I just didn’t find it to be the most organic route the story would have actually taken. Also, pretty much the apex of the whole “discovery” (I’m being vague here, but you’ll know what I’m talking about if you read it) is super limited and I would have liked for that to happen more or be expanded upon. Instead of that, we were left wallowing in the sad and not-love story of the modern protagonist and her moron of a husband.

The historical protagonist was a much more interesting story, and I think the author should have spent her time here. I would have especially liked some back story to Nella and her mother, as she was pretty much the most interesting person in the whole book. In fact, I am going so far as to say that we didn’t need the modern story at all. I would have just liked a nice and fleshed out version of Nella’s story. It would have worked just fine and in fact would have probably tipped the book from chic lit to just interesting historical fiction about women.

Overall, this was a decent read. The topic was fun, the writing was fine, and it’s not like it was super confusing or anything, which is always a bonus. It was straightforward and a quick read. The topic alone is intriguing, and if that is enough to suck you in, I think you’ll enjoy it just fine.

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is talk of poisonings (and some descriptions of how they die), extramarital affairs, but it was actually pretty clean, especially for chic lit.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Freeform Friday: The Poet X - Elizabeth Acevedo

This Freeform Friday, we are spotlighting The Poet X, a novel told in free verse poetry.  As you can see by the cover, it has won numerous awards!

Summary:
  Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood.  Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours her frustration on to the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers -- especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class.  With Mami's determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.  

When she is invited to join her school's slam poetry club, she knows that she could never get around Mami's rules to attend, much less speak her words out loud.  But still, she can't stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in spite of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent. (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

NOTE:  I made it about twenty pages into this book before I had to stop and look up Elizabeth Acevedo slam poetry on Youtube.  Spear spoke directly to all the fears that I have for my growing daughters and the world they live in.  Unforgettable, was just that.  Both were incredibly intelligent, emotionally raw, and so disturbingly relevant.  After listening to her spoken poems, I wanted to listen to her read The Poet X, so I checked the audiobook out from my local library.  I definitely recommend listening to it as you read to really get the full effect of her words. 

My Review:  The Poet X is a coming of age novel, written in free verse form that tells the story of a young girl named Xiomara, who lives with her parents and twin brother in Spanish Harlem. On city streets and in school hallways, Xiomara is seen in ways that make her want to hide, objectified and harassed for her curvy appearance.  At home, she is rarely seen for who she is, as both she and her brother are compelled to hide parts of themselves or risk angering their devout Catholic mother.  Xiomara's bites her tongue as best she can and tamps down her pain, her feelings about faith, and her fury in the face of daily injustices.  Instead, she turns to writing, specifically poetry, pouring her feelings into a special notebook, managing her pain with the written word and secretly committing small acts of rebellion until the invitation of a favorite teacher sets her on a path of healing and self discovery. Eventually, Xiomara -- sister, friend, daughter, and fledgling poet -- finds her tribe and the courage and strength to define and speak her truth.

The Poet X touches on several relevant issues, but especially the different forms of sexism, like gender inequality and the sexual harassment, that Xiomara encounters daily and its affect on her.  In her words, I wish / my body could fold into the tiniest corner / for me to hide in. There was a time and place in my life where I felt something similar.  Acevedo's writing brought all that forward, as well as a sense of bitter outrage for all the girls who have ever wanted to hide or be 'less' to keep from gathering unwanted attention and especially those who have ever felt like all that attention was their fault.  The story also addresses Xiomara's dwindling faith, her unanswered questions about religion, and the age-old conflict between living authentically and trying to please a parent.   While I don't personally identify with some of her religious beliefs (or the lack thereof), many of Xiomara's doubts and questions felt genuine and reasonable for someone of her age and experience. 

The Poet X also gives an interesting glimpse into the narrator's Afro-Latinx culture, beliefs, and traditions.  Though the book is primarily written in English, Spanish words are sprinkled throughout.  I speak enough Spanish to know what they were saying, but even if I hadn't the meaning was usually clear from either the context or the narrators own casual translation. The mixed language felt natural and realistic, like what you would expect to hear in a home where the parents spoke primarily Spanish and the children spent their days at school speaking English.  

The Poet X has won several awards, and for good reason.  The parts of the book that really drew my attention were when Xiomara would talk about how boys in the neighborhood and school treated her, how she felt like she wanted to hide in order to escape their attention, comments, and gestures.  I loved the novel-in-verse format and how all the different elements combined, each poem building on to a bigger story.  Xiomara's poems about her mother, brother, and father felt passionate, complicated, and authentic.  What I liked most about The Poet X is that it tells a very relevant story -- that of a girl in pain (for a variety of reasons) and how she is emotionally redeemed by speaking her truth and having that truth acknowledged by others. 

Much of the book centers around X's relationship with her mother and how religion is a catalyst for conflict between them.  X has so many questions about what she is learning in confirmation class -- good, valid, thoughtful questions that deserve to be acknowledged rather than dismissed.  Xiomara and her mother are at odds several times in the book, but one moment in particular stands out.  I won't spoil that moment for you, but as the chaos unfolded, Xiomara's words just poured out of her and I felt her desperation so intensely I could barely breath.  

At times The Poet X was uncomfortable to read. Some of the character's life choices are not ones I would want my daughter to make.  Some of the language and subject matter was relevant to the story, but not my cup of tea.  Example: A poem that explores the pleasure, shame and confusion Xiomara feels when she masturbates.  It wasn't graphic per se, except for the obvious subject matter.  While the poem relates to her natural curiosity and her feelings of guilt....well, I'd just rather not read about it.  I also can't say that I agree with every opinion X holds about religion (nor do I agree with all of her mother's) but I appreciated the opportunity to see the different perspectives.

Personal discomfort aside, there was only one part of the book that felt truly frustrating.  I never got to 'see' Xiomara perform her poems.  Yes, the whole book is a poem and in a way they are all X's words, but I really wanted to feel like a part of the audience when X spoke those words aloud.  I wanted to be able to read them and imagine X giving her all to the performance.  Unfortunately, those particular poems don't make it on the page.  The omission of her performances felt deliberate and I am sure the author has her reasons, but I felt their absence keenly; I wanted to see X fly.  

I don't want to end on a negative, so as I wind this review down, I would like to share my favorite poem from earlier on in the book.  After expresses the character's deep emotional response to relentless objectification and sexual harassment.  I think that many women/girls will identify strongly with this poem, which is why I feel compelled to share it here. In book format it spans a few pages, so I created this image (below) so you could see the visual element and read the full text.  

BONUS: here are a few of my favorite X quotes, as well:  

  • "When your body takes up more room than your voice you are always the target of well-aimed rumors."
  • "...I think about all the things we could be if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.
  • "When I'm told to have faith in the father      the son    in men     and men are the first ones          to make me feel so small."
  • "...the pages of my notebook swell from all the words I've pressed onto them.  It almost feels like the more I bruise the page the quicker something inside me heals."
  • "...words give people permission to be their fullest self. "

Ultimately, The Poet X is a powerful story about a young girl coming to terms with her own feelings about faith, her family, and her own worth.  To a certain extent, I think all women have felt unheard at some point, uncomfortable in our own skin, and undervalued by the people in our lives.  In that way, I think that many readers will relate with Xiomara's story, even if their everyday experiences are dissimilar.  Fans of Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, will likely love The Poet X.  While I don't feel comfortable recommending this book to every reader (sensitive reader issues), I do feel that it offered valuable insight and inspiration, and am glad I took the time to read it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some profanity and adult themes, including sexual harrassment and assault, questions about sexuality, abuse, etc,   A description of first-period trauma.  One poem about masturbation. A consensual sexual situation (not quite sex).  The main character also has a crisis of faith and some of her feelings, questions, and actions might bother devout believers, specifically Catholics.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

My Plain Jane (The Lady Janies #2) - Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton & Jodi Meadows

My Plain Jane is the second book in the My Lady Janies series.  It technically follows My Lady Jane (#1) but the stories aren't related and can be read as a stand alone.

Summary: Jane has endured years of hardship and misery, and is ready to embark on a new life as a governess at Thornfield Hall.  She's rather poor.  She's rather plain.  Also, she has terrible taste in men.

Charlotte is an aspiring novelist.  (Yes, she's that Charlotte.)  And she's determined to capture her friend Jane's story even if it means worming her way into the most epic ghost hunt this side of Wuthering Heights.  

Alexander is an agent of the Society for the Relocation of Wayward Spirits.  He's about to discover something very disturbing going on at a little place called Thornfield...

Reader, there will be murder.  Mayhem.  Conspiracy.  And, of course, romance.  Prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportions, in which all is not as it seems, and a certain gentleman, Mr. Rochester, is hiding more than skeletons in his closet.

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  My Plain Jane is a loosely-based retelling of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, artfully woven by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi MeadowsThe trio of authors begin by apologizing to England for what they are about to do with English Literature and then instructing the reader to throw out pretty much everything they know about the story.  However, I don't think it's necessary to go quite that far.  As in the classic novel,  My Plain Jane's heroine (one of them, anyway) is orphaned and living with her despicable Aunt Reed before being cast out and hauled off to Lowood school, where she manages to survive, rather miserably, for several years. Later, she becomes a teacher at Lowood and then a governess at Thornfield, where she meets the old stalwarts -- Rochester, Mrs. Fairfax, Grace Poole and The Big Secret (*wink wink*), etc.  So, you see, much of the plot remains intact.  

It's just...well...there are also several major additions.

As with other books in this series, the authors tweaked the story anytime they felt like it.  Where the classic version of Jane Eyre has only one narrator, My Plain Jane has three, dramatically altering the original plot with the additional storylines. The very first chapter is seen, not from Jane's perspective, but that of her good friend Charlotte -- yes, the very same -- a parson's daughter who also resides at Lowood and spends most of her time scribbling away in her notebook.  This brings me to the book's biggest departure from the original storyline.  In My Plain Jane, Lowood School and, indeed, all of England is absolutely teeming with paranormal activity?   Enter the third perspective -- Alexander Blackwood from the Royal Society for the Relocations of Wayward Spirits ('The Society,' for short) tasked with capturing any of England's dearly departed who aim to misbehave.  Jane has a special ability which make her highly valuable to the Society.  When Alexander makes Jane an offer that will give her a better life, she refuses.  Repeatedly.  Charlotte steps in to try to persuade her and the three narrators become entangled in a surprising adventure. 

One of my favorite aspects of My Plain Jane had nothing whatsoever to do with Jane and everything to do with Charlotte.  When Alexander Blackwood arrives at Lowood, and Jane rejects his offer, Charlotte can't understand what has gotten into her friend.  Only the more time she spends with Alexander, the more Charlotte realizes that she wants the life he offers.  If I'm being truly honest, I cared far more about the outcome of Charlotte's story than I did about Jane's.  Those who know a little bit about the original Jane Eyre author, Charlotte Bronte, will appreciate how skillfully the authors' blended the real Charlotte's history into the character's backstory.

The authors' writing is quippy and clever with deliciously deadpan humor and uses some of Jane Eyre's own prose in unexpected ways.  As with their previous novel, they seemed to delight in paying homage to well-known movies, expressions, and literature with subtle references or blatantly swiped lines.  Personally, I noticed nods to Ghost Busters (How could they not?), Oliver TwistThe Princess BrideLord of the RingsThe Sixth Sense, possibly even The Last of the Mohicans (I will find you!), and I am sure I missed others.

Believe it or not, until I read this book, it didn't occur to me that Jane Eyre's leading man was kind of a tool.  And yet, in the opening pages of My Plain Jane, the authors call out Rochester's moodiness, controlling behavior, abuse of power, and his tendency to gaslight poor Jane.  Examined through a modern lens, the original Mr. Rochester is pretty darn awful and an absurd candidate for "shipping" of any kind.  Readers who continue to cling to 'Ye Olde Ship Rochester' might have to adjust their sails a bit. Don't worry, I think you'll (eventually) be content with the destination.

I wish I could say that I loved My Plain Jane as much as I loved My Lady Jane, but I didn't.  It was entertaining, to be sure, and worth a read, but it didn't make me laugh out loud as much their previous novel.  I loved the addition of Charlotte's character and how through all the craziness, the authors still managed to create an origin story for the original novel.  For those who may be concerned, HEAs (Happily Ever Afters) abound, though not always in the way you might expect.

My Rating:  4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Perhaps 2-3 instances of profanity.  The slightest innuendo in a song.  One briefly shirtless guy, non-descript.  Some violence.

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