Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Sanditon (Jane Austen's Last Novel Completed) - Jane Austen & "Another Lady"

Summary:  Sanditon -- an eleven-chapter fragment left at Jane Austen's death completed with seamless artistry by an Austen aficionado and novelist -- is a delightful addition to Austen's beloved books about England's upper-crust world and the deception, snobbery, and unexpected romances that animate it.  When Charlotte Heywood accepts an invitation to visit the newly fashionable seaside resort of Sanditon, she is introduced to a full range of polite society, from the reigning local dowager Lady Denham to her impoverished ward Clara, and from the handsome, feckless Sidney Parker to his amusing, if hypochondriachal, sisters.  A heroine whose clear-sighted common sense is often at war with romance, Charlotte cannot help observing around her both folly and passion in many guises.  But can the levelheaded Charlotte herself resist the attractions of the heart?  (Summary from book - Image from thriftbooks.com)

My Review:  In 1817, Jane Austen fell ill and eventually passed away after writing only eleven chapters of her latest novel. The partial manuscript was later published in 1925 but, as you might expect, the short, unfinished text did little to satisfy her fans.  Since then, several attempts have been made to finish Austen's work.  In this edition of Sanditon, Austen's original narrative is left unaltered, but halfway through the eleventh chapter her story is mingled with and then commandeered by an anonymous author known only as 'another lady' (now known as Marie Dobbs) who finishes Austen's famous last work.  In 2019, the BBC released a show by the same name loosely based on Austen's original manuscript.  It was cancelled after one season and ended on a cliffhanger that devastated fans, who longed to for resolution.  I suspect that is why some of you are here, so I'm going to give my thoughts on the book first, but afterwards I'll discuss how this edition compares with the BBC series and if reading it will bring Charlotte and Sidney their happily ever after.

THE BOOK...

After the Heywood family renders assistance to well-to-do Tom Parker and his wife Mary, young Charlotte Heywood is invited to visit their family home in the fledgling beachside resort town of Sanditon.  There she makes the acquaintance of all manner of new people -- most notably, the town's patroness, Lady Denham, and several of her relatives; Adela Lambe, an heiress from the West Indies; and the Parker siblings, Sidney, Arthur, Diana, and Susan.  As with most Austen novels, Sanditon is rife with of matchmaking schemes, a bit of scandal, and a fair amount whispering and misreading of signals.  Charlotte herself is beautiful, intelligent, forthright, and quite taken with observing the comings-and-goings of the town  and drawing conclusions about its inhabitants, especially in regards to one Sidney Parker.  Although she isn't quite sure what to make of the gentleman's behavior, overtime three things becomes quite clear:  Sidney is eligible, incredibly gifted in the art of persuasion, and most definitely up to something.  

I'm not an expert on all things Austen nor am I particularly familiar with her writing style, so it took a few chapters for my brain to adjust to the more classic language.  I wasn't exactly sure when Austen's chapters would end, but at a certain point the writing shifted.  One google search later and, sure enough, I had reached the end of Austin's original text.  The transition wasn't horrifically jarring -- just noticeable.  Instead of feeling like an exact match, it felt like Austen-lite.  I'll probably get skewered for saying this, but while I liked Austen's original storyline, I actually preferred the version that was a bit easier to read.

I wanted to root for Charlotte and Sidney, but halfway through the book I wasn't even sure I liked him very much.  My mixed feelings can likely be attributed to the fact that his personality directly conflicted with other versions of himself already stuck in my head *ahemTheoJamesahem*.  However, this book's Charlotte Heywood didn't really seem that sure of her feelings either and spends a great deal of time going back and forth about it.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised as the uncertainty, quick reversals, and slow acknowledgment of feelings is something Austen is known for (Elizabeth towards Darcy in P&P, Marianne Dashwood towards Colonel Brandon in S&S, Emma Woodhouse towards Mr. Knightley in Emma, etc.)  Charlotte and Sidney get there, eventually, but I would have liked for their attraction to be a bit more obvious for longer, just so I could revel in it a bit.  

Ultimately, this book provides what many are seeking -- closure.  Several characters get their happy endings (though perhaps not the ones you expect) and the real 'tool' of the book is exposed.  I was pleased by all of it. There are several twists toward the end of the book that I didn't see coming, which made the final pages fly and I found that I quite liked how Charlotte and Sidney's ending played out.  

Is it the be-all-end-all?  No.  But it might be as good as you'll find.

THE BOOK V THE TV SERIES 

Are you one of those people who got your heart stomped on at the end of BBCtv's first season of Sanditon only to discover that that the show was unlikely to be renewed?  Are you reading this review hoping to find a book that will give you some closure?  Perhaps, you were a little disappointed the the show was rather spicy and un-Austenish, in some respects, and hoping to find a more palatable version?  I get it.  I am all of those things --  I hated the show's unceremonious end and read this book for the sole purpose of finding a better one.  I also wanted a version where the drawing room floor didn't need to be replaced...if you know what I mean.  Here is my experience...

Comparing these two versions of Sanditon is a bit like comparing apples to oranges; both are fruit, of course, but that is about all they have in common.  The book uses Austen's original words for as long as possible before blending the two and allowing the other author to take over.  The BBC TV series used Austen's material for basic set up, but because of the sped-up nature of television those eleven chapters run out partway through the first (of eight) episodes.  Obviously the setting, initial plot, and most character names are the same for both, but once the original material ran out, the book and the show each took their own creative path.   Some of the characters in the show are similar to those in the book, others are quite changed, and a final few are missing or entirely renamed.  I did enjoy seeing the actors in my head while reading, even if they didn't always have the same names or personalities.  I won't go into all of the characters, but Charlotte is relatively unchanged while Sidney Parker seems entirely different -- more lively and amiable and not at all inclined to brooding or swimming sans clothing.  

I don't want to spoil either version of Sanditon for anyone, so here are some vaguely-worded ways that the book differs from the show.  In the book:  SP doesn't have a ward.  Mr. S doesn't factor in.  There are no accidental meetings on the beach (at least not the one you are thinking about).  No one is rescued in London.  No stonemasons are injured.  No one is burned in a freak bathing incident.  Money is no object.  No step-siblings are 'involved.'  The drawing room floor doesn't need to be replaced (thank heavens).  A certain redheaded snippet remains single.  No one plays cricket or hosts a regatta.  CH's well-known friend doesn't feature.  Nothing significant catches fire.  There.  I hope that helps.  Some of those things I was absolutely thrilled to miss out on.  Others, not so much.

Aside from the last two chapters, much of the book was preoccupied with ordinary conversation and day-to-day activities, like walking on the beach or taking tea, whereas the events of the show were far more suspenseful (e.g. arguments, money problems, forbidden affairs, and scheming).  Taken on it's own, I felt the television version was more exciting, but do feel that it wasn't particularly true to Austen's style of writing, especially when it comes to more adult themes which are virtually non-existent in the book.  

______________________________________________________

Do I think that Austen would have written anything like the BBC version?  No, I do not.  Between the two, it is far more likely she would have written something closer to this version.  Readers looking for a conclusion to the story told on BBC will find it very hard to reconcile the characters and events of the book, but it is possible to enjoy it anyway.  Those who simply long to read a version where Charlotte get her happily ever after, will find one here.

My Rating (of the book): 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The book has a few situations that are scandalous for the times, but not overtly sexual (being alone with a man, etc.).  There might be a few instances of 'biblical' profanity.  For those looking to compare -- this book is significantly 'cleaner' than the BBC TV series or the tie-in book, which is different from this one and based off the BBC show (which contains both nudity -- beach bum, if you will -- and sexual situations)  

Monday, March 29, 2021

Brave in the Woods - Tracy Holczer

Summary: Critically acclaimed Tracy Holczer returns with a heartrending tale about a girl descended from the Grimm brothers who sets out to break what she thinks is a family curse.Twelve-year-old Juni is convinced her family is cursed. Long ago, her ancestors, the Grimm Brothers, offended a witch who cursed them and their descendants to suffer through their beloved fairy tales over and over again—to be at the mercy of extreme luck, both good and bad. Juni fears any good luck allotted to her family she used up just by being born, so when she wakes up in the middle of the night with the horrible feeling like antlers are growing from her head, she knows something is wrong. The next day she learns her older brother Connor has gone missing during his tour in Afghanistan.

Her family begins grieving his loss in their own ways but Juni can’t help but believe that his disappearance means the family curse has struck again. Juni is convinced the only way to bring her brother home is to break the family curse and so she sets out on a quest to do just that.

From Charlotte Huck honoree Tracy Holczer comes a stunning new novel about the power of stories, the enormity of grief, and the brilliancy of hope. (summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: It’s only natural, when you have an ancestral connection to someone like the Grimm brothers, that you would make something of that in your life, right? You might think there is some kind of connection or special relation to something related to the legacy of the Grimm brothers. If you’re 12, it might even be more tempting to make something of the connection to the Grimm brothers, especially if your family has alluded to it over the years. That brings us to the premise of Brave in the Woods. Personally, I thought this was a really cool way to explain some of the magical happenings in the book. I do have a complaint right off the bat, though. There wasn’t nearly enough development regarding this connection. I swear that the Grimm brothers were only mentioned like three times in the whole book. If you’re going to go with it, go with it. Make it something. There are plenty of places to get ancestral magic in writing, and indeed a couple of the women in this book were witches or had magical or folk magical remedies and inklings. There really wasn’t any connection developed by Holczer to the Grimm brothers, other than just saying it. I think it was a missed opportunity. It could have really been something, and at the least it could have been a way to explain to middle grade readers about some very famous authors who basically transformed an entire genre. Like I said—a missed opportunity. The whole book I was waiting for a cool development or connection to the Grimm brothers and there just wasn’t. And if there was, it was subtle enough that I missed it and I don’t mean to toot my own horn but if I missed it, and I was looking for it and know the Grimm brothers, I can’t imagine that a middle grade reader would catch it and understand it. Just sayin’.

However, I don’t think the book really needed the Grimm brothers. It was a very cool opportunity, but since it wasn’t taken, I think that it just sort of set expectations that weren’t there. These expectations could have been fulfilled without the Grimm brothers. There are many stories, like this one, that rely on ancestral magic passed down by witches or women with powers in the family and it’s all good. That would have made it a lot more natural than throwing in the Grimm brothers who really didn’t have anything to do with anything. Okay. You get it.

So there was some cool magic and mysticism going on, and it’s just the kind I like—it’s there, it means something, but it’s not so blatant that it couldn’t be believable. I always like the idea that there’s a little something that exists just outside of our knowledge. I think it captures the beliefs of the middle grade audience quite well. They’re on the cusp of knowing Things, and yet they’re just enough far removed from it that there is still a strong possibility of magic and unexplained situations that work.

I thought this book did a great job of addressing a very real hurt—that of losing a sibling to war. I have read a few books that deal with losing a sibling that took place in past wars—WWII especially—but this is a recent setting with modern technology and takes place in a world where it seems the unknown has shrunken. I liked the hope that Juni had, and her personal quest to fulfill that hope. I felt like it was an authentic portrayal of what a sibling would feel with such a loss.

I enjoyed the writing in this book, and I enjoyed the relationship between some of the characters. I wish the characters would have been more developed, and strangely, I kind of got confused about who was who, especially with the time hopping with Anya’s journal entries. I think my main problem was figuring out the relationship between all the different characters and who they were. This wasn’t explored much, and if the reader missed the maybe one sentence that explained it, too bad for you. It seemed like the characters had been very developed in the author’s mind and maybe we weren’t all let in on the secret as much as I would have liked.

Overall, I think this book has a really good message. The writing style and explanation of characters as well as the lack of the explanation of the Grimm brothers and their relationship to All the Things are things that I noticed as a person who reads and reviews a lot. I feel like the middle grade audience may have struggles with some of these things to a lesser degree but be able to understand the book for what it is—a heartbreaking yet sweet acceptance of losing a sibling and what that means.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean. There is some light kissing between two middle grade characters.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Freeform Friday: The "Women are Some Kind of Magic" Series by Amanda Lovelace

once upon a time, while i was wandering through the library, i happened upon a selection of books with irresistible titles (the princess saves the day in this one, the witch doesn't burn in this one, and the mermaid's voice returns in this one -- all part of the women are some kind of magic poetry series).  i gathered them up, one by one, and let their words wash over me.  here are my thoughts on the experience.

the story of 
a princess 
turned 
damsel 
turned 
queen 

(Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com) 

My Review: once upon a time there was a poet named amanda who didn't use capital letters in her books. her choice was likely stylistic, but it's equally possible her keyboard was just glitchy.  either way, the lack of capital letters felt easier on the eyes, so i decided to try writing in the same format. de-capitalized, that is. i will not be free-versing my review. trust me, it's better this way.

the princess saves herself in this one is a collection of autobiographical poems that, when read chronologically, tell the story of the author's life from a young age and into adulthood, in simple, unaffected free verse.  lovelace gives three 'warnings' at the beginning of the book -- a trigger warning (see our sensitive reader section) and two others.  the first, this was no fairytale.  just "a girl faced with the difficult task of learning to believe in herself.  and second, there was a "happy ending ahead."  I clung to that last one when things got dark. 

the first few poems feature a princess girl, locked in a tower, and absorbed in her books, and the lives held within them.  I saw myself straightaway.  it was wistful and dreamy.  until it wasn't.
suddenly jarring -- a poem that is not graphic but alludes to abuse in a way that make a knowing reader's stomach turn.

it becomes apparent rather quickly that the author endured a very traumatic childhood and adolescence, including an abusive, alcoholic mother, sexual assault, bullying, self-harm, the death of a loved one, and feelings of self-loathing and abandonment.  the reader follows her journey out of the darkness as she struggles to find love and happiness.  watching her transformation from wistful princess to shattered damsel to fiery queen was emotional, to say the least.  

one of the reasons i fear poetry is that i am worried i won't understand it.  lovelace's poems were packed with a range of emotions and fraught with meaning, but they were concise and easy to understand.  at the end of every poem there was a parting line, written in italics, that always seemed to drive the point home.  while some poetry books contain stand-alone poems, the princess saves herself in this one is best read from cover to cover in the order it is written, to experience the full effect of the narrative arc. 

when a book comes with a trigger warning for sexual assault, I am always worried it will be graphic.  When discussion her sexual assault, her words weren't technically graphic, aside from some profanity, they did inference sexual assault in a way that felt graphic (because sexual assault is graphic by nature, especially with a tender age victim).  her words aren't always pretty or comfortable; they are often packed with rage or weighed down by sorrow.  not unexpected, given all that she had to go through.  

i lack the literary vocabulary to analyze poetry, so i will simply say that i loved the author's style, especially her occasional use of concrete poetry (see right), which flitted around the page, forming images through both movement and word.  i was impressed at her ability to convey a surprising amount of emotion in very few words.  

if you're looking for a book of happy-go-lucky poetry, you might want to look elsewhere as the bulk of this book deals in  complicated emotions and physical and emotional trauma.  i didn't relate with every experience lovelace shared, but i get the sense that a reader who has experienced struggles similar to hers might find significantly more resonance and recognize a bit of themselves on the page. 

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The author includes a trigger warning at the very beginning of this book. It reads: this book contains sensitive material relating to: child abuse, intimate partner abuse, bullying, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders, queerphobia, menstruation, alcoholism, racism, trauma, death, suicide, grief, cancer, fire, & possibly more.  So, there's that.  There's also approximately 10 F-words (as well as a few other instances of profanity), and approximately two poems that have anti-religious or anti-God sentiment.
___________________________________________________

damn
whoever
tries
to
burn
you

(summary from the back of book - image from amazon.com)

my review:  the witch doesn't burn in this one is about the fire that exists at the heart of women, flames that could burn their oppressors to ash, if given the opportunity.  to clarify, this book is not really about witchcraft. in her poems, the author uses the term 'witch,' to symbolizes any woman who refuses to be dominated, categorized, or controlled by morally-depraved 'match-boys.'  

brace yourself for some raw, honest emotions because lovelace is passionate and she is pissed. in clever and insightful prose, lovelace addresses physical and sexual abuse, sexism, eating disorders, rape culture, self-harm, and more, as she defiantly unleashes all the feelings women are told we must repress -- frustration, fury, indignation, etc. -- in the name of being niceattractive, and polite.  while some of the poems feel like liquid rage unbottled, others land like a healing balm or gentle encouragement.  all stand as a reminder that women are magnificent, important, and powerful.  

here is an example of one of my favorite poems.  apologies if the second column doesn't line up as nicely as it should.  my computer hates me.
 
telling me                                a story
not all men                              meant to warn
have                                        other people's 
bad intentions                         daughters.

doesn't do                               & i will still
anything to                             cry when i turn on
reassure                                  the television 
me.                                         to find

after i                                     yet
walk away from you,             another man
nothing will have                   getting away
changed                                 with

i will still                               well -- 
be scared to                          what they 
leave my house                     always seem to
after sundown,                      get away with

i will still                              i am not
find comfort                         the one who
in keys resting                      has to change
between fingers,                   the way i think
                                            or the way i act
i will still                              they are.
question                                
the intentions of                    - expectation vs. reality. 
every man i know,               
                                            
there is just. so. much. to digest in that one poem.  

the witch doesn't burn in this one raises some incredibly relevant issues and would be a fantastic pick for your next book club read (as long as your book club is okay with the stuff in our sensitive reader section).  i didn't relate to every poem, nor did i particularly like it when, on occasion, it seemed like lovelace was lumping all men together, but there were many poems that hit my soul dead-center and uncovered emotions that i didn't even realize I had.  i expect that every person who reads these poems will experience them a little bit differently.  i believe that many who have experiences similar traumatic experiences will feel seen, heard, validated, and empowered. even someone, like myself, who has managed to survive to adulthood relatively unscathed, will likely find a poem (or twelve) that sets their heart ablaze.

my rating:  3.75 stars.

for the sensitive reader:  this book comes with a trigger warning similar to the one in the previous book -- this book contains sensitive material relating to: child abuse, intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, eating disorders, trauma, death, murder, violence, fire, menstruation, transphobia & more.  remember to practice self-care before, during, & after reading.  It also has 10-15 instances of profanity.  

sidenote: the first book in this series was dedicated to 'the boy who lived' (awww!); the second, to 'the girl on fire' (yay!); and the third, to the author's younger 'bookmad' self.  i adored the nods to the significant characters in her life, and especially loved her note to self -- the girl who didn't give up. 
________________________________________________

&
she
tore
the
stars
apart

(image from amazon.com)

my review:  the mermaid's voice returns in this one is the third book in the women are some kind of magic series.   i read all three of the books one after the other, but this book is the only one i read in one sitting.  i sat down for 'just a few minutes' and didn't get up again until i turned the last page.  it happens sometimes, but rarely.

lovelace's poems progress through several stages, beginning with new love that careens out of control, followed by the emotional and psychological aftermath, and eventually leans toward recovery and empowerment. in a shift from her other books, one of the last sections alternates between lovelace's poems and those of other contributors.  i thought her decision to bring in other voices was perfect, as their are sadly far more voices who know the words by heart.  along the way the author touches on a lot of sensitive topics that are likely to resonate with those who have shared the experience, but i also believe her poems might offer helpful insight for those whose loved one's have endured similar trauma.  

of the three books, this one was my hands-down favorite.  all of her books feel incredibly personal, but for some reason mermaid felt the most authentic.  it wasn't until i read the author's note to the reader towards the end that i realized why, but i'll leave that for you to discover. if there is one point that these books drive home with absolute clarity, it is the devastating, long-term consequences of sexual trauma.  it is equally clear that the author has experienced that same trauma firsthand.  her poems are sincere, expressive, and have the enormous potential to impact those who have never been able to put their emotion into words -- to give a voice to the voiceless -- and help heal old wounds.  i was consistently amazed at lovelace's ability to convey a boatload of complicated emotions and meaning in just a few words.  here are a few of my favorite examples: 

        she didn't kiss frogs
        she kissed great white sharks

boy howdy, have i been there!  

or 

        &
        so
        she did
        what any
        rational woman
        would do -- 
        ever so calmly,
        she reached out
        & she tore
        the stars
        apart.

have you ever felt that rage?  i have. there's quite a few more, including the one pictured, but you get my drift...

ultimately, the mermaid's voice returns in this one is about taking control of your own story and writing your own ending.  i can't promise each poem will speak to everyone, but i strongly believe that those who have suffered some type of sexual trauma will find something in this book that reaches them on a heart-level.  it's for those who thought they were safe; for those who thought it was love until it wasn't; for those who were told they 'should have said no'; for those who were told they must have wanted it; for those who wanted out, but were too scared; for those who haven't been able to find their voice; for those who have been screaming all along; and for all those who will forever bear the scars.

my rating: 4.25 stars

for the sensitive reader: this book had dramatically less profanity than the the other books in the series (four instances total...or thereabouts).  personally, i didn't agree with every viewpoint offered (but what else is new?). as with the two previous books, this book comes with a trigger warning -- this book contains sensitive material relating to: child abuse, gun violence, intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, alcohol, trauma, death, violence, fire, & possibly more.  remember to practice self-care before, during, & after reading.

Amanda has also written break your glass slippers (#1) and shine your icy crown (#2) in the you are your own fairytale series.


I haven't read them yet.  I'll let you know how it goes...

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill - Abbi Waxman

Summary:  Meet Nina Hill: A young woman supremely confident in her own...shell.  The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, and a cat named Phil.  If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book.

When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind his innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified.  They all live close by!  They are all -- or mostly all -- excited to meet her!  She will have to...Speak. To. Strangers.  And as if that was not enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her.  Does he not realize what a terrible idea that is?

Nina considers her options:

1.  Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)

2.  Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee.)

3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth.  (Already doing it.)

It is time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she is not convinced real life could ever live up to fiction.  It is going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.  (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  The Bookish Life of Nina Hill was clearly written about me.  Okay, so not me exactly, but Nina Hill comes pretty darn close.    

Ways that Nina Hill is just like me:

  • She loves books and all things book-related. (Uh, hello.  Me!)
  • She thrives on having a plan and making lists.  (Check!)
  • She struggles with social anxiety. (Ditto)
  • She values her alone time (with comfy pjs and a good book). (Duh.  Me!)
  • She's got auburn hair. (Gingers unite!)
  • She regularly converses with her cat. (I talk to my animals all the time.)

Ways that Nina Hill is unlike me:

  • She is single.  I am married.
  • She is childless.  I have kiddos.
  • She works at a bookstore. I no longer work at a bookstore *cue muffled sobs*
  • Oh, and she inherited an entire family in all its convoluted glory when the father she didn't even know she had died and named her in his will.  

See what I mean? We're basically twins.  Aside from the whole dead dad, new family thing, it was almost like I was reading about myself in some type of parallel universe.  Nina's is utterly bookish, quirky and introverted, with a tendency to say the wrong thing in social situations.  If anything, her anxiety is the major antagonist of the book.  Here's a little bit of what I mean:

People were...exhausting.  They made her anxious.  Leaving her apartment every morning was the turning over of a giant hourglass, the mental energy she'd stored up overnight eroding grain by grain.  She refueled during the day by grabbing moments of solitude and sometimes felt her life was a long-distance swim between islands of silence.  She enjoyed people -- she really did -- she just needed to take them in homeopathic doses; a little of the poison was the cure.  

Those who face a similar hurdle in their own lives will find a kindred spirit in Nina, and hear some of their own thoughts and feelings echoed on the page.  There were several moments that resonated with me personally, and not just the anxiety-riddled ones.  

One of my favorite aspects of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill was that I got to slide back into that book world and hang out for a while.  Knight's bookstore felt like home.  As a book lover, I thoroughly appreciated all the literary references and as a former bookstore employee, I felt a shared sense of solidarity with Nina  as she dealt with certain customers and handled the kind of odd situations that can only crop up in a bookstore.

Nina and her romantic interest were awkwardly adorable and the writing was humorous and sprinkled with fun nods to pop culture.  I laughed out loud a lot while reading -- so much that my teenage daughter actually commented on it. Sometimes I forced myself to stop and reread a sentence or paragraph because it was especially clever or insightful and I wanted to take the time fully appreciate it. The ending was satisfying in a totally Hallmark way (and I really like Hallmark movies).  I learned a delicious new word (ineluctable: adjective, unable to be resisted or avoided; synonyms: inevitable or inescapable). Overall, The Bookish Life of Nina Hill made for an entertaining, romantic escapist read.  While I don't plan to read it again, I definitely enjoyed my time with it.

My Rating: 4 Stars.

For the Sensitive Reader: There is some profanity (under 10, I'd wager).  Some sexual commentary and implied sex, but never explicit.  Some crude humor.  One character is homosexual, though that doesn't really come into play.  

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Ravens - Kass Morgan and Danielle Paige

Summary: Kappa Rho Nu isn’t your average sorority. Their parties are notorious. Their fundraisers are known for being Westerly College’s most elaborate affairs. But beneath the veil of Greek life and prestige, the sisters of Kappu Rho Nu share a secret: they’re a coven of witches. For Vivi Deveraux, being one of Kappa Rho Nu’s Ravens means getting a chance to redefine herself. For Scarlett Winters, a bonafide Raven and daughter of a legacy Raven, pledge this year means living up to her mother’s impossible expectations of becoming Kappa Rho Nu’s next president. Scarlett knows she’d be the perfect candidate — that is, if she didn’t have one human-sized skeleton in her closet…. When Vivi and Scarlett are paired as big and little for initiation, they find themselves sinking into the sinister world of blood oaths and betrayals. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: At first glance, this book looked really promising. First off, I like witches and literature about witches. They’re like the OG feminists, except they have real power to make you ShutUp if you’re harassing them. This is, of course, possibly talking about the more fantastical witches as opposed to the witches of reality, who operate on a different sort of scale. They’re still awesome, and still the OG women of power, but they’re different than the sort of witches in The Ravens. At least I assume? I guess I can’t really know for sure…

Anyway, it sounded cool…powerful witches hiding in a sorority that is as old and powerful as sororities themselves. The cover was cool, too. However, I’m sorry to report, it just didn’t deliver.

First off, there was way too much pettiness in the book. I get that sorority girls are probably petty and they be hating on each other and stealing each other’s boyfriends and such, but I felt like it just detracted from the story. Also, there wasn’t very much discussion of magic. I mean, there was, and they sure liked being the Cool, Pretty Girls With All The Magic and yet we don’t hear much about it. There is some vague discussion of the older girls teaching the younger girls the magic and such, but that is pretty much glossed over because OMG we need to talk about how Pretty the Party Was and how Fantastic The Hairstyles were. Idk. I just felt like I was reading all about sorority girls who not only lived up to the hype of what sorority girls are hated for, but now they are girls with all the hype who also have magic. It was hard not to hate them and eye roll them. The camaraderie that we were supposed to feel and their dedication to each other just wasn’t there. They were petty jerks who pretty much dabbled in magic that got them what they deserved.

I think my main problem can be summed up with the fact that the authors just tried to cover too much in a somewhat short book. Sorority girls. Witches. Magical powers. A curse. Betrayals. Boyfriends. Drama around campus. The ugly duckling new girl who is, of course, actually The Shiz. A mysterious mom. Tarot cards. So. Many. Things. It just was too much. It didn’t have enough focus to give any breadth or depth to any topic. It just flitted around and in the end, made a story that was cut short in the parts that should have been longer, scrimped on the actual details of what would have made us sympathetic to the stories or the characters, and ended up with a whole tomes-worth of story capability all wrapped up in a short YA Fic. It lacked focus and development.

The good news is that it is rather juicy in that it is about sororities and witches. Those are always juicy topics. I think an actual YA reader might appreciate it just on the merit of that. I, however, and old and jaded and expect more from my books. It had promise, but didn’t deliver.

My Rating: 2 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and some violence/gore due to spells.

Friday, March 19, 2021

The Barren Grounds - David Alexander Robertson

Summary: Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home -- until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom. A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything -- including them. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I’m always game for a good middle grade reader recommendation, and this was no exception. When The Barren Grounds was described as a Narnia-esque story, I knew I had to check it out. I mean, who doesn’t want to re-live that fun time of the wonder of finding a portal to another world in the back of their closet? As a kid (and maybe now?) wouldn’t it be awesome if we could just hop to some other awesome place through a portal right in our house? Maybe this is just the quarantine talking…

This book starts right off with some good conflict and some heartache—the main characters are in foster care, in a new home, have just met each other. While this could go many ways (because there are so many sad situations involving foster care), luckily the foster parents are kind and thoughtful individuals who are trying to give the children a good home and a loving environment that they haven’t had before. These children are unique in the typical foster child story in that they are First Nations (the native people of Canada), and so the foster parents are trying to connect with them by bringing in cultural things (Native food, moccasins) that they assume the children will immediately recognize and open up about their experience. As with many well-meaning actions of white parents toward children of different backgrounds, this doesn’t exactly go as planned and it introduces the tension and the confusion the children have regarding their First Nations background. Eli, the younger of the foster children, remembers his upbringing and his cultural practices. Morgan, the older girl, does not and is not connected to her culture. Through these lenses we experience the traditional indigenous stories of the sky and constellations.

I really enjoyed the cultural stories in this book, and especially the cultural reconnecting that the children do. I appreciated the indigenous words interwoven into the story as well, and the traditional ways that were explored when the children stepped through to the other world. I thought the story itself was interesting, and I enjoyed the conflict and the multi-dimensional characters. I particularly enjoyed the treatment of one of the main villains who had a redemptive storyline in the end. The use of animals was fun, and I appreciated how majestic they were. There weren’t dumbed-down little Snow White animals that just twitter inane things; they were the heroes of the story. Although the tone is very Narnia-esque in its delivery, the story itself is not Narnia-esque at all. I always worry that a story that has any similarities to a very classic story will end up being just a cheap rip-off, but this is not the case with The Barren Grounds. It stands as its own story. Plus, I enjoyed the few tongue-in-cheek references to Narnia that Morgan, one of the main protagonists, brings up in the story, giving a nod to her familiarity with Narnia but also the acknowledgement that this is different.

My only complaint about this book is that the writing is not stellar. It’s not bad, and it’s certainly functional and non-intrusive, but there are so many children’s books in this genre that are just fantastic writing—magical, almost. This writing is not that. However, the story was good and the cultural representation, especially the story of children reconnecting to their culture in an authentic and immersive way, is so important that it outweighs any awkwardness or clunkiness that the writing may bring.

If you are a person who is into (or encouraging the middle grade readers around you) reading a wide variety of literature, with an emphasis on voices that are not necessarily always in the forefront, this is your book. The story is action-packed and accessible, talking animals are always cool and fun, and it opens the readers eyes to a cultural narrative that is important and unique. It is also #1 in the series so I’m looking forward to more adventures in this world!

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a little bit of light language in this book, and some general discussion of abuse in a foster home.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

My Lady Jane - Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, & Jodi Meadows

Summary:
Edward is the King of England.  He's also dying, which is inconvenient, as he's only sixteen and he'd much rather be planning for his first kiss than considering who will inherit his crown....

Jane is Edward's cousin, and far more interested in books than in romance.  Unfortunately for Jane, Edward has arranged to marry her off to secure the line of succession.  And there's something a little odd about her intended....

Gifford is a horse.  That is, he's an Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated).  Everyday at dawn he becomes a noble chestnut steed -- but then he wakes at dusk with a mouthful of hay.  It's all very undignified.

The plot thickens as Edward, Jane, and G are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy.  With the fate of the kingdom at stake, our heroes will have to engage in some conspiring of their own.  But can they pull off their plan before it's off with their heads.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I'm not going to bury the lead; I loved this book.  It's a YA novel full of everything that makes reading a delight -- adventure, intrigue, romance, and suspense -- but above all it is riotously funny.  I laughed so hard my teen came in to check on me.  I read a page to her and we were both hysterical.  I actually cried my mascara off!  And not the crappy mascara, mind you; the good stuff that only comes off if I ugly cry or use soap.  

My Lady Jane tells the story of Jane Grey, cousin to King Edward IV and heir to the throne of England for nine days before she was, unfortunately, decapitated.  Sounds hilarious, right?!  Thankfully, the narrators have a fairly casual approach to preserving the historical narrative and aren't particularly committed to accuracy.  Translation: They make stuff up.  The narrators of My Lady Jane tell her story how it should have gone and in a way that is infinitely preferable to what actually happened.  The setting and many of the characters can be found in the annals of English history, but there are a deviations that are quite unexpected, like when certain people just randomly *poof* into animals.  Halfway through the book, the plot diverges sharply from any known historical record, but those unfamiliar with history won't notice (much) and those familiar with history aren't likely to care.  It's all the fun things and I am mentally changing all of English history to accommodate this new version of events. *intense shuffling sound* There. Done.  Jane Grey gets her happily ever after.

You don't have to know anything about history to enjoy this book, but those familiar with the time period will likely find some 'Easter eggs' to appreciate.  (Example: The conflict between the Verities and Eðidans in the book bears a passing resemblance to the historical conflict between Catholics and Protestants).  The narrators also have a tendency to, shall we say, borrow lines from certain well-known historical figures, plays, musicals, and movies.  The pilfered phrases, altered expressions, and poached prose will evoke a strong (but delightful) sense of déjà vu.  Some readers might take issue with the playful plagiarization, but to me it felt like the authors were getting their kicks paying homage.

I was hooked by My Lady Jane's unique writing style before I even finished the prologue.  The narrators are incredibly witty, full of playful puns and wry humor, and it felt like I was hanging out with a whole group of girlfriends, spilling tea and cracking jokes.  The story has several appealing characters, but Jane is my favorite.   She's bookish and headstrong, loyal to a fault and willing to fight her own battles.  Her banter with G is fantastic, clever, and oh-so-snort-inducing.  It was a pleasure to spend an afternoon with them!

My Lady Jane is the most entertaining book I have read in a long time, but to truly enjoy it you have to be in the right headspace.  If you're looking for something serious and broody...well, you're flat out of luck.  If you're a stickler for historical facts or physical probability, you will likely be disappointed.  However, if you're in the mood for something adventurous and romantic with the potential to have you laughing so hard you either pee your pants or ruin your mascara , then you've found it.  Congratulations and you're welcome.  

*UPDATE*   Lo and behold --  IT'S A SERIES!!!!!!  The next book is My Plain Jane (Jane Eyre!!!), followed by My Calamity Jane (well, that one's a bit more obvious).  I am SO excited!  

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  A side-effect of of animal/human transformation is that occasionally characters end up naked.  Although their utter lack of clothing is mentioned (so-and-so was naked!), other characters would hastily avert their eyes or become intensely fascinated with the ceiling tiles.  That sort of thing.  Honestly, it was as PG as anyone being naked can be and it was generally quite amusing.  There was a little bit of honeymoon-ish activity towards the end and, again, it was about as PG as that sort of thing can get (a few buttons undone and some innuendo).  There was a smallish amount of profanity, but since the A word meant donkey and the B word meant illegitimate it didn't really feel like profanity.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Watch Over Me - Nina LaCour

Summary: Mila is used to being alone. Maybe that’s why she said yes to the opportunity: living in this remote place, among the flowers and the fog and the crash of waves far below.

But she hadn’t known about the ghosts.

Newly graduated from high school, Mila has aged out of the foster care system. So when she’s offered a job and a place to stay at a farm on an isolated part of the Northern California Coast, she immediately accepts. Maybe she will finally find a new home, a real home. The farm is a refuge, but also haunted by the past traumas its young residents have come to escape. And Mila’s own terrible memories are starting to rise to the surface.

Watch Over Me is another stunner from Printz Award-Winning author Nina LaCour, whose empathetic, lyrical prose is at the heart of this modern ghost story of resilience and rebirth. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I think we first have to start with the obvious—this book has the coolest cover art! When you open it up, it has a corresponding image. It’s awesome. Since I am completely naïve to art and its meanings, I can’t say that this has very much of a connection to the story, except maybe peripherally, but it’s still an awesome cover. I do love good cover art.

Straight up, this book made me super nervous the entire time I read it. There was an ominous and foreboding feeling that was completely pervasive. Did this stop me? No. It meant that I read it in basically one afternoon. It’s not a long book, and it is a really fast and easy read. It is also super compelling and interesting. You can’t help but be worried for what is going to happen.

I’ve thought a lot about why this book felt so ominous. First and foremost, I think it was meant to be this way. We were intentionally supposed to feel nervous and distrusting. As the main character comes from the foster system and has understandably had a rough go of it, she is also distrusting of others and suspicious. Since the story is about her and her journey, we are also swept up in the confusing world of the farm where she lives. And to be fair, it is a weird farm. There are ghosts, there are super nice people who do super confusing things, and it isn’t a normal situation. I actually loved the ghosts in this book. They were involved and creepy but it all makes sense in the end, which is awesome. It’s okay if ghosts don’t make sense, because they’re ghosts and all, but I do also like my stories to make sense at times as well.

The writing in this book is super easy to get into and we can definitely understand the well-developed characters and their motivations.  LaCour does an excellent job of bringing us into their world and playing with our emotions in a most masterful way.

This book has some heavy issues it tackles, since many of the children at the farm came from abusive situations. The back stories are hard to read about, but they weren’t overly shocking nor something an older teen reader couldn’t handle, in my opinion. LaCour does a great job of giving these issues a voice while also giving the victims power over them. The book does a great job of walking the line of addressing serious issues but also making it entertaining and engaging.

Although this book is firmly in the moody older teenage girl/new adult girl genre, I still enjoyed it a lot and read through it really quickly. For such a short book it carried a big impact. As I mentioned earlier, I read it really quickly both had to know and didn’t want to know what happens in the end. It legit made me nervous, yo. I found it a very delightful and spooky distraction from my normal life and regularly scheduled reading.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and implication of sex. There is some discussion of child abuse.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Freeform Friday - I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness - Austin Channing Brown

Summary: Austin Channing Brown's first encounter with a racialized America came at age seven, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man.  Growing up in majority white schools, organizations, and churches, Austin writes, "I had to learn what it means to love Blackness," a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America's racial divide as a writer, a speaker, and an expert helping organizations practice genuine inclusion.

In a time when nearly all institutions (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claim to value diversity in their mission statements, I'm Still Here is a powerful account of how and why our actions so often fall short of our words.  Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice, in stories that bear witness to the complexity of America's social fabric -- from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.

For readers who have engaged with America's legacy on race through the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, I'm Still Here is an illuminating look at how white middle-class Evangelicalism has participated in an era of rising racial hostility, inviting the reader to confront apathy, recognize God's ongoing work in the world, and discover how Blackness -- if we let it -- can save us all. (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

DISCLAIMER: I am fairly new to intentionally reading books centered on racial issues, so I will do my best to review this book honestly and with sensitivity.  If I make a statement that is ignorant or insensitive, please call me on it in the comments.  In addition, I acknowledge that, as a white woman, I cannot speak to what a Black reader might learn from this book so I will leave that assessment for a more qualified reviewer.  

My Review:  Austin Channing Brown's I'm Still Here offers a remarkable perspective on what it means to be Black in a world that, by all credible accounts, is made for whiteness.  In this book, Brown recounts the challenges that she faced growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and school system.  She also talks about later visits to her father's predominantly Black neighborhood, her struggles to fit in there after having spent so long surrounded by white people, and how, with the help of a new friend and a loving church, she came to accept and cherish her own Blackness.  

Throughout her life, Brown has experienced racist interactions with white people, even in her own Christian workplace and shares some of those interactions in the hopes that readers can understand her perspective and learn from her experiences.  I expect that this book will reveal different things to different people, but I certainly learned a great deal about some of the common misconceptions about racism and what I can do to cultivate anti-racism. One crucial message was the importance of learning about our nation's racial history and the current racial landscape.  One of the things impacted me while reading is the sheer volume of concerns Black people have that I have never once had to think about simply because of the color of my skin.  

  • Will my skin color or the name my parents gave me make it hard for me to get a job?  
  • Will I have to serve as a spokesperson for my race today?  
  • Will I be accused of shoplifting if I open my purse or touch my pockets in a store?  
  • Will I look 'out of place' or 'suspicious' in X neighborhood?  
  • Will my loved one be perceived as a threat today?  
  • Will I be confused for yet another person just because we have the same skin color? 
  • Will I lose my life on a traffic stop because my actions were misconstrued as menacing? 
  • And so many more...

The fact that Black families even have to have a conversation about how to exist safely among white people is sickening.  It's no wonder they are tired, frustrated, and angry.  Using these and other personal examples, the author demonstrates that despite what some people think, racism didn't end with the abolishment of slavery or Jim Crow laws, the passing of the Civil Rights act, nor has it ended with the elections of Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and other Black leaders.  She even asserts that these events are not laudable achievements, saying  'This is how it should always have been.  Many call it progress, but I do not consider it praiseworthy that only within the last generation did America reach the baseline for human decency." Those words hit me like a freight train and I have thought of them many times since.  We don't get to pat our ourselves on the back for reaching these 'achievements'; we still have a long way to go.  

Two of my favorite chapters center around the fallacious belief that 'harmony' signifies 'racial equality' and that nice people aren't racist.  I learned that the absence of outright conflict on the surface can perpetuate certain assumptions about race and often keeps us from exploring and resolving deeper conflict.  Harmony isn't helpful if we aren't learning from one another.  Engaging in racial dialogue only matters if it leads to meaningful change. I also realized that just because someone is 'a nice person' doesn't mean they can't be harboring racist ideologies.  In Brown's words, "Most white people still believe that they are good and the true racists are easy to spot..... when you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it's easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.

I used to think that being anti-racist was simply believing that skin color has no bearing on a person's worth and that we are all equal in God's eyes.  While I still believe both statements are true, I have come to realize that anti-racism is more complex and requires significant work, dedication, and humility.  The lessons I learned from this book didn't come from bullet points or chapter breakdowns; they came from reading about Brown's experiences and taking a long hard look at myself.  I'm Still Here does not provide a series of step-by-step instructions for how to be Anti-Racist, but I still came away with a series of steps I plan to take:

  • 'Listen to understand' more.
  • Discover and confront my own racial bias.  Work to overcome it.
  • Be active and intentional in my stand against (and study of) racial injustice.   
  • Read a variety of BIPOC perspectives.  
  • Do the work.  I should never expect a Black person to 'educate' me.  
  • Learn about our nation's BIPOC history and acknowledge the harsh, uncomfortable truths.  (I finished this book last year and highly recommend it.)
  • Pay attention.  Speak up.  Do what I can to make things better.  
  • Avoid centering white feelings and/or elevating white concerns over Black ones.

One final thought.  As a fellow Christian, I appreciated that the author didn't try to hide her commitment to her faith, nor did she shy away from calling out racist behaviors in her own religious community.  One of my favorite sections of the book is where Brown discusses the importance of having hard conversations and how the Spirit of the Lord can still be present when we disagree as long as we are seeking to understand one another.  In the chapter, entitled, The Story We Tell, Brown says:

Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort.  It's not a comfortable conversation for any of us.  It is risky and messy.  It's haunting work to recall the sins of our past.  But is this not the work we have been called to anyway?  Is this not the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate truth and inspire transformation?  

It's haunting.  But it's also holy.  

And when we talk about race today, with all the pain packed into that conversation, the Holy Spirit remains in the room.  This doesn't mean the conversations aren't painful, aren't personal, aren't charged with emotion.  But it does mean we can survive.  We can survive honest discussions about slavery, about convict leasing, about stolen land, deportation, discrimination, and exclusion.  We can identify the harmful politics of gerrymandering, voter suppression, criminal justice laws, and policies that disproportionately affect people of color negatively.  And we can expose the actions of white institutions -- the history of segregation and white flight, the real impact of all-white leadership, the racial disparity in wages, and opportunities for advancement.  We can lament and mourn.  We can be livid and enraged.  We can be honest.  We can tell the truth.  We can trust that the Holy Spirit is here.  We must.  

For only by being truthful about how we got here can we begin to imagine another way."  

I think I'm just going to end this review on those words because, if heeded, they give me hope for true progress and equality.  Needless to say, I highly recommend I'm Still Here to anyone who wants to become more compassionate, understanding, and intentional in the push for racial equality.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  If you are white and reading this -- please set aside your initial inclination to bristle at words like "white people," white fragility, "white tears," etc.  -- and read this book with an open mind.  The terms speak about the white community and certain behaviors in a generalized sense.  There is a small amount of swearing (mostly the D word) and the author uses the N word four times, when referencing other people's use of the word. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany - Jane Mount

Summary: This volume brims with bookish treasures, all delightfully illustrated by avowed bibliophile Jane Mount.  

Find your next great read in lovingly curated stacks of books! 

 Test your knowledge of the written word with quizzes!  

Sample the most famous fictional meals! 

Peek inside the workspaces of your favorite authors!  

Tour the world's most beautiful bookstores! 

And meet an adorable array of bookstore cats!  

Dive into this enchanting collection to fall in love with books over and over again.  

(Summary from back of book - Images from thriftbooks.com)

My Review:  Is your idea of interior decorating simply a matter of building enough bookshelves?  Are you constantly on the lookout for your next great read?  Do you think the smell of old books should be bottled and sold? If so, then Bibliophile is the book-lovers paradise you've been waiting to find. 

Bibliophile offers an exquisite blend of high-quality book recommendations, engaging artwork, and other occasionally quirky, always fascinating book-related content.  The author randomly cycles through the topics, rather than grouping them into sections, so that each turn of the page is exciting. I never knew exactly what was coming and I loved it.  It even has a thick, red, built-in bookmark, for picking up exactly where you left off, and is filled with the author's own colorful sketches of well-known book spines, book covers, famous libraries, bookstore fronts, and even bookstore cats.  Yes, cats. I think her artwork is simply mesmerizing and I'd quite happily stare at it for days.  The unanticipated benefit I found from spending a few days admiring the spines of these best-selling books is that it made them super recognizable.  After reading this book, I was in my local thrift shop and snagged FOUR books that I recognized from the shelf in a matter of minutes.  How cool is that?!  

My hands down favorite aspect of the book was how Mount's artwork seamlessly created a visual list of reading recommendations for specific genres with commentary and additional recommendations (see below).  

It has basic genres pages, like...

  • Historical Fiction
  • Mysteries
  • Short Stories
  • Poetry
  • Essays
  • Graphic Novels & Comics
  • Biographies & Autobiographies
  • Memoirs
  • Feminism
  • War
  • Dystopia
  • Southern Lit (British too!)
  • Love & Romance
  • History
  • Nature & Animals
  • Kid's Picture Books
  • ...and more

But also a gajillion* more specifically categorized genres, like these...

(my comments are in italics)

  • Formative Faves (those first books you read that really stick with you, seen above)
  • Girl Stars (books with female main characters)
  • Coming of Age (making it through those tough teen years)
  • Cult Classics (loved by some, hated by others)
  • Unhappy Families (these families are more messed up than yours)
  • Book Club Darlings (selections from Oprah, Emma, Reese, and more!)
  • Special Powers (these main characters have a little something extra)
  • Technothrills & Cyber Punks (futuristic and used-to-be-futuristic novels)
  • Space & Aliens (all the things that might be out there)
  • Us & the Universe (learn about the incredible world around and inside us)
  • A Sense of Place (novels that are set in far off locales)
  • Journeys & Adventures (adventure vicariously)
  • Regional Cooking (French, Indian, Mexican, and more...)
  • Reference Cookbooks (how to cook almost everything)
  • Everyday Food Inspiration (find your next great meal!)
  • Baking & Desserts (for all that quarantine-baking)
  • Food Writing (all the things for the food obsessed)
  • We're All Human (enjoy reading about other perspectives)
  • Finding Meaning (looking for a purpose?)
  • How to Write (want to be an author? This is your section!)
  • Creativity & the Pursuit of Happiness (how to create your best life!)
  • Sports (waaaay more than just stats!)
  • Innovation & Business (how to help you do what you do in the best way possible!)
  • Picture Books for Grown-Ups (they are making a comeback!)
  • ...and MORE!  (Seriously.  There are more.)
Each of the many genres listed above is presented as a gorgeously-drawn stack of highly-recommended books + another ten book recommendations (in actual list form) + even more genre-related book facts and author anecdotes.  Feel free to do the math.  I'll wait.  Answer: A LOT OF RECS.

And you know what?  

That isn't even all of them!  

In multiple sections called Bookish People Recommend, a collection of people who know books -- authors, librarians, booksellers, book buyers, and other book lovers -- talk about their favorite books alongside Mount's illustrations. Some of them I had read, many of them I hadn't.  I had a library copy and so I had to keep reminding myself that under no circumstances was I allowed to write in it, even though my fingers were itching to star, highlight and checkmark my way through it.  

I would give this book 5 stars on the artwork and book recommendations alone, but the author also  includes an assortment of other bookish treasures, scattered throughout: delightful little facts, historical anecdotes, bookstore fronts, author bios, fun quizzes, architecturally astounding libraries from around the world, and more.  I obsessed over the little free libraries and book-mobile pages and had a blast looking up the bookstores, libraries, and writer's rooms online so I could see if the sketches matched the photos (they did).  Wouldn't a worldwide tour of bookstores and libraries be divine?!

Long story short, Bibliophile is a a uniquely beautiful, unbelievably large, and insanely diverse catalogue of book recommendations.  In the intro, the author states that her objective was to triple my To-Be-Read pile. I'll admit, I thought that was a rather lofty goal, but she totally delivered.  Reading this book more than tripled my TBRs (by a lot) and even helped identify some gaps in my reading that I look forward to filling. Even though I have read Bibliophile from cover to cover, I still feel like I could read it a thousand more times and find something new. It is a passionate 'love letter' to all things book-related and the perfect gift for anyone who doesn't find that concept even remotely odd. 

*Okay, slight exaggeration.  But there are a lot.

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are a few instances of profanity - mostly in quote from from authors.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Daughter of Black Lake - Cathy Marie Buchanan

 

Summary: In a world of pagan traditions and deeply rooted love, a girl in jeopardy must save her family and community, in a transporting historical novel by nationally bestselling author Cathy Marie Buchanan.

It's the season of Fallow, in the era of iron. In a northern misty bog surrounded by woodlands and wheat fields, a settlement lies far beyond the reach of the Romans invading hundreds of miles to the southeast. Here, life is simple--or so it seems to the tightly knit community. Sow. Reap. Honor Mother Earth, who will provide at harvest time. A girl named Devout comes of age, sweetly flirting with the young man she's tilled alongside all her life, and envisions a future of love and abundance. Seventeen years later, though, the settlement is a changed place. Famine has brought struggle, and outsiders, with their foreign ways and military might, have arrived at the doorstep. For Devout's young daughter, life is more troubled than her mother ever anticipated. But this girl has an extraordinary gift. As worlds collide and peril threatens, it will be up to her to save her family and community.

Set in a time long forgotten, Daughter of Black Lake brings the ancient world to life and introduces us to an unforgettable family facing an unimaginable trial. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review:  I’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction, and I really enjoy it. I do love history and I love what good historical fiction does for it. Whether the historical fiction is based on a real character’s life or not, I feel like I understand so many things better when I read it—history, culture, society then and society now. How can we not be what our past has created? How can we avoid the mistakes of the past if we don’t learn about it? Why reinvent the proverbial wheel when something in history has worked, even if it’s just the base of an idea or action? Anyway, since historical fiction is such a popular genre, I know I’m not alone in thinking this, and since ya’ll are dedicated readers of this blog and therefore love reading in general, I’m probably preaching to the choir.

That all being said, I have to admit that I have not read a lot of historical fiction that is this old. Daughter of Black Lake takes place in the first century in the bogs of Britannia. I’ve seen quite a bit about this time in history—it’s an important time. Buchanan referenced many of the books she read (emphasis on many. She did a lot of research!) and I’ve heard of a couple of them at least. The bog people were an interesting people who lived at a unique time and place. Reading this book about them was super interesting, and I think that the thing that caught me most off guard was how different things are from modern society. That seems obvious, right? However, even the names, practices, seasons, etc., were just really different and foreign. The story itself just felt old. These were an ancient people, and their beliefs and ways of life were really foreign. I have a direct personal connection to Britain, especially Scotland and England where my ancestors came from (my Granny emigrated from Scotland, so she still has family there and such. My mom used to go stay there in the summers to visit with her Granny. Anyway, this is not distant). However, this was so ancient it felt like a completely different world…which I guess it was. I loved the pervasive feeling of time and place in this book. It really was very atmospheric.

This book is written in two different viewpoints, that of Devout (the mother), and Hobble (her daughter). Devout’s viewpoints were written in the past, telling the story, and Hobble’s were written in present tense with the story. It was an interesting way to discover things about both of them, and I loved the allegory and ancient practices. It is mind blowing to think where we as humans are today (for better or for worse) as compared to where humans were a couple thousand years ago. I love books that bring to light the history of culture and humans, and this book did just that.

The story itself was interesting but also difficult to read in some parts. These are not modern people with modern scruples. However, I believe it’s important to understand what life was like for people other than ourselves (and this is true for all reading). It wasn’t a super fast read, but it did move along and didn’t take long to finish. Once you figure out the naming system and keep all the characters straight, it makes it much easier. Naming people after their characteristics is super interesting (and makes a lot of sense), and is a lot different than what we do today, so it did take some time in getting familiar with that system.

Overall, I found this to be a really interesting book about a really interesting time. If you’re into historical fiction, especially ancient historical fiction, I think you should check it out. If you have any connection to Britannia or Roman occupation (or Druids!), this is also a really great read.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book has violence that is described but not overly gory or gratuitous. However, these are not modern people with modern scruples.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Don't Ask Me Where I'm From - Jennifer De Leon

Summary: Fifteen-year-old Liliana is fine, thank you very much. It’s fine that her best friend, Jade, is all caught up in her new boyfriend lately. It’s fine that her inner-city high school is disorganized and underfunded. It’s fine that her father took off again—okay, maybe that isn’t fine, but what is Liliana supposed to do? She’s fifteen! Being left with her increasingly crazy mom? Fine. Her heathen little brothers? Fine, fine, fine. But it turns out Dad did leave one thing behind besides her crazy family. Before he left, he signed Liliana up for a school desegregation program called METCO. And she’s been accepted.

Being accepted into METCO, however, isn’t the same as being accepted at her new school. In her old school, Liliana—half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadorian—was part of the majority where almost everyone was a person of color. But now at Westburg, where almost everyone is white, the struggles of being a minority are unavoidable. It becomes clear that the only way to survive is to lighten up—whiten up. And if Dad signed her up for this program, he wouldn’t have just wanted Liliana to survive, he would have wanted her to thrive. So what if Liliana is now going by Lili? So what if she’s acting like she thinks she’s better than her old friends? It’s not a big deal. It’s fine.

But then she discovers the gutting truth about her father: He’s not on one of his side trips. And it isn’t that he doesn’t want to come home…he can’t. He’s undocumented and he’s been deported back to Guatemala. Soon, nothing is fine, and Lili has to make a choice: She’s done trying to make her white classmates and teachers feel more comfortable. Done changing who she is, denying her culture and where she came from. They want to know where she’s from, what she’s about? Liliana is ready to tell them. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: The first page of this book is perhaps the most engaging, most telling first page I’ve read in a book for a long time. There were many things I loved about it, but mostly, I just loved that it gave an exceptional introduction to the main character’s voice. I loved the main character’s voice in this book—she is sassy, intelligent, honest, but also just so teenage girl that I couldn’t help but love her and how realistic she felt. Yeah, she has the normal issues that a teen would have, and yeah, she’s obviously not a completely reliable narrator because the book is first person, but her voice was so authentic and realistic feeling that the strength of her character development alone carried the book.

It didn’t need that, though.

This book is well-written. The story is compelling and feels like real life—frenzied, full, yet still nuanced. I loved the main character’s relationship with her family, and the different peripheral characters who were obviously important to the story in different ways. I thought the author did a good job of recognizing South American culture, and how it varied from other Latin cultures. I am not Latinx myself so I can’t claim to how one from a Latinx culture would feel about the representation offered in this book, but as a person looking in from the outside, I really appreciated the situations in the book that allowed the characters to tell the reader what it was like to be part of a minority culture in a mostly white school. The situations were realistic and the reader was able to be educated without it feeling forced or unrealistic. I think it’s important for young readers (and all readers, actually) to be exposed to other cultures and to understand that other cultures don’t feel the same way about their mainstream representation as the dominant culture might feel, and this book provides ample opportunity for that. I think it could actually be an exceptional book to be read in English classes everywhere so that students can be taught what questions to ask, what not to ask, how to embrace others from different cultures, and to let people from theses cultures to tell their own stories.

The main story in this book is one of immigration and one that is, obviously, very timely. It gives the reader an opportunity to see close-up what deportation means to a family, what it’s like to be an illegal immigrant in this country, and the perils it takes to try to get back. The news of late, especially with the former administration, has not allowed a narrative like this to exist just because of the complexity and weight of the issues, and this book allows a space for discussion.

 I really liked this book. If you are into very well-written characters, especially strong female protagonists, you should check this out. It is also one of the more engaging and enlightening books I have read on the plight of Latinx identity in this country, and even I, who live in an area of 25-40 percent Latinx people and try to make myself aware of these kinds of situations, learned a lot and really enjoyed it. I highly recommend it for teen reading, and if you’re into YA Fic as well, you should totally check it out.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and discussion of sex.

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