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.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Lost in the Never Woods - Aiden Thomas

Summary: When children go missing in the small coastal town of Astoria, people look to Wendy for answers.

It's been five years since Wendy and her two brothers went missing in the woods, but when the town’s children start to disappear, the questions surrounding her brothers’ mysterious circumstances are brought back into light. Attempting to flee her past, Wendy almost runs over an unconscious boy lying in the middle of the road, and gets pulled into the mystery haunting the town.

Peter, a boy she thought lived only in her stories, claims that if they don't do something, the missing children will meet the same fate as her brothers. In order to find them and rescue the missing kids, Wendy must confront what's waiting for her in the woods. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Some days you’re just going along, minding your own business, having your own memories of fairy tales and cultural icons, and then a book comes along and changes all of that. What was once familiar and normal is suddenly questioned, and the very nature of the fairytale is turned on its head. Well, folks, this is that book. Here I was, going along, remembering Peter Pan as that friendly fellow in the Disney movie, and then this book happened.

This book had a pervasive sense of creepiness and dread throughout it. Indeed, you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to think and who is the “bad guy” and who isn’t. I mean, Peter Pan is all jolly and good, right? It’s normal to basically kidnap children and take them to faraway places without their parents and such, right? Well, maybe not, and Thomas feels free to question the very fabric of our Peter Pan believing society and create a book that puts all of this in doubt.

I’ve read quite a few retellings of fairytales, as I’m sure you have as it’s a thing these days, and I’ve enjoyed them. I think it’s fun to re-examine childhood beliefs and just see where it takes you, especially when the story is re-examined and put in a modern framework. I think too often we just accept the cultural stories we’re told, and then we find ourselves being ok with a story that is maybe not as innocent as we had originally thought. It’s important we question our fundamental beliefs at times, right? And it’s not like this is an earth-shattering soul-wrenching thing to do regarding fairy tales. It’s okay to look again and reframe it and maybe examine what it really means. I like that Thomas did just this, and although this book wasn’t the jolly Neverland adventure that I was familiar with, it was interesting and captivating and created a mood I wasn’t familiar associating with Peter Pan.

As I’ve mentioned before, I appreciate how YA readers are able to accept magical realism as normal and every day, and this book did just that. But while, considering the topic, you might think this books is aimed at younger teens, this is not the case. This very much has some older young adult themes, and the characters involved are high school seniors, so don’t be fooled and get this for your 12-year-old. There is some sinister content, and it reflects many characteristics of a true crime novel, involving kidnap and murder of children. Seriously. It was so trippy reading about Peter Pan in a true crime novel.

I thought this book was inventive, and did a good job walking the line between true crime and fairytale retelling (never thought I’d write that sentence). The intermarrying of these two things wasn’t always perfect and seamless, but I do think that if you’re into YA and especially YA retellings of fairytales, you should absolutely check this out.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and violence towards children. It isn’t full-scale adult murder novel, but it is certainly it’s little sibling who desires to get there.

Friday, May 14, 2021

The Gilded Ones (Deathless #1) - Namina Forna

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity--and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki--near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire's greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she's ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be--not even Deka herself. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Sometimes I like to start a book without refreshing myself why it was on my to-read list in the first place. I put a book on my to-read list or start reading a book because I’ve read the summary and am interested, but I don’t always remember what the book was about by the time I get it. Maybe my to-read list is too long? Is that a thing? I’m saying no.

Anyway, I started this book without reading the summary again. I had a general idea of what it would be about because of the title and the beautiful cover art, so when I started reading, I wasn’t completely in on the schtick yet. I really liked the way it started out—it dumps you straightaway into the stressful wake of a ceremony that will determine whether you are pure or not, and follows the protagonist in her feelings of outsiderness and inadequacy. It isn’t as “poor me” and annoying as some books that start out like this, which I liked. Now don’t get me wrong, some people are definitely allowed to feel “poor me” and like the world is against them, because the world is actually against them. However, I feel like some YA novels take this to the level that seems unrealistic and whiny and like an author is trying to create something instead of letting it organically happen and be discovered by the reader. Discovery is part of the process of reading, and when that is taken away by the author that is a missed opportunity.

This book is very descriptive and creates a visualization of people, costumes, and environmental regions that is really interesting and fun to read. I pretty much always prefer a book over a movie, but I would have to say that I would love to see these descriptions come to life in a movie. They were so rich and varied. There are also some great fantastical creatures involved as well, and that’s always a fun element.

The story itself is really interesting and I liked it a lot. It was fast-paced and exciting, and it actually reminded me in some ways of Raybearer, which I just reviewed and enjoyed a lot. They are different stories, obviously, and are both worthy of reading and appreciating separately, but if you loved the African-esque culture and influence of Raybearer, I think you should check this book out, and vice versa. I appreciated the bad-assery of the women in this book, and I’m totally digging these strong female protagonists of late, especially in YA literature. This is a book of girl power and also girls who are forced to make difficult decisions. They have often faced extreme difficulties in their lives and have had to overcome it. This book is also great in that it gives some spotlight to men who are adjacent and loyal to these powerful girls and women, and that is great as well. There is a love story, and it is sweet and tender.

If you’re into YA adventure stories, especially ones with cool fantastical creatures and rich culture, you should definitely check this book out.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some intense violence in this book, and most of it towards women.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...and Maybe the World - Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

Summary:  If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. On May 17, 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven addressed the graduating class of the University of Texas at Austin on their commencement day.  Taking inspiration from the university's slogan, "What starts here changes the world," he shared the ten principles he learned during Navy SEAL training that helped him overcome challenges not only in his training and long Naval career, but also throughout his life; and he explained how anyone can use these basic lessons to change themselves -- and the world -- for the better.

Admiral McRaven's original speech went viral with more than 10 million views.  Building on the core tenets laid out in his speech, McRaven now recounts tales from his own life and from those of people he encountered during his military service who dealt with hardship and made tough decisions with determination, compassion, honor, and courage.  Told with great humility and optimism, this timeless book provides simple wisdom, practical advice, and words of encouragement that will inspire readers to achieve more, even in life's darkest moments.

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

My Review:   I picked up Make Your Bed late one evening, intending to read a chapter or two before calling it a night.  Instead, I read the whole dang thing and it wasn't even hard; I couldn't put it down.  The book is based on retired U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven's ten life-changing principles, first outlined in a speech* he gave to the graduating class of University of Texas at Austin in 2014.   Each chapter examines a specific lesson that McRaven learned during Navy SEAL training and expands on the concepts expressed in his speech, offering more context, additional details, and specific experiences that drive the point home. The result is a volume of wisdom that is concise, compelling, occasionally bittersweet, and utterly inspiring.  

McRaven relates his own personal challenges, successes and failures, as well as accounts of others who have persevered in the face of adversity.  I loved his stories and the invaluable, relatable lessons they so effectively taught.  They were encouraging, occasionally humorous, and sometimes brought me to tears.  I really want to share my favorite lessons here, but I feel that to do so would take away from the impact of he book.  You really need read them yourself to have the full experience.  I will say that a bunch of SEALS-in-training, neck deep in mud, and united in show of defiance made me exceedingly weepy.  Don't judge.  You'll likely get a little misty too.

Make Your Bed was truly a joy to read.  I closed it feeling edified, uplifted, and inspired to move forward with hope, courage, and determination.  I borrowed my copy, but plan to pick up my own as soon as possible, along with McRaven's other book Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations.**.  If I could say only four words about this book they would be: Add to cart, people.  

*The entire speech is worth listening to, but skip to 4:35 if you want just the ten principles.

**Update:  I picked up Sea Stories and read it in a couple of days. You can read my review here (after 5/26/21).

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear!

Monday, May 10, 2021

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line - Deepa Anappara

Summary: Three friends venture into the most dangerous corners of a sprawling Indian city to find their missing classmate.

Down market lanes crammed with too many people, dogs, and rickshaws, past stalls that smell of cardamom and sizzling oil, below a smoggy sky that doesn’t let through a single blade of sunlight, and all the way at the end of the Purple metro line lies a jumble of tin-roofed homes where nine-year-old Jai lives with his family. From his doorway, he can spot the glittering lights of the city’s fancy high-rises, and though his mother works as a maid in one, to him they seem a thousand miles away.

Jai drools outside sweet shops, watches too many reality police shows, and considers himself to be smarter than his friends Pari (though she gets the best grades) and Faiz (though Faiz has an actual job). When a classmate goes missing, Jai decides to use the crime-solving skills he has picked up from TV to find him. He asks Pari and Faiz to be his assistants, and together they draw up lists of people to interview and places to visit.

But what begins as a game turns sinister as other children start disappearing from their neighborhood. Jai, Pari, and Faiz have to confront terrified parents, an indifferent police force, and rumors of soul-snatching djinns. As the disappearances edge ever closer to home, the lives of Jai and his friends will never be the same again.

Drawing on real incidents and a spate of disappearances in metropolitan India. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: It is completely my fault that this book was not what I thought it was. I saw it at the library, and I had heard about it, and I didn’t really read the summary carefully before I just committed and grabbed it. At first, I thought it was just a book about djinns, and I do love books about djinns and such since I’m all about some magical realism, especially when it relates to cultural stories and cultural paranormal phenomenon. That is what I was expecting. That is not what this was.

I’m hoping that by the time this review goes live that the Covid situation in India will have lessened, or at least slowed. At the writing of this review, things are extremely tragic in India, with people dying without oxygen, very few in the population vaccinated, and the world scrambling to help them and help address Covid numbers that are record setting every day. This book is not about that, but is about child disappearances in India, especially among the lower classes, and this coupled with everything going on in India right now with Covid made it very difficult to not just be totally devastated about all that is going on there right now.

There were some really great things about this book. I loved reading the author’s note at the end and felt like she did a great job explaining why she wrote this book (and I’m so glad she did). This is obviously a topic that the world may not be super familiar with, and especially at this time when Covid is so in the forefront, I worry that these child disappearances will continue happening and will not get the focus they deserve. Anappara did an excellent job creating fun and funny child main characters, with lots of wit and a happy and resilient attitude. They were faced with such difficulty, both because of the child abductions of their friends and family that were happening, but also just their living circumstances. However, they were funny and good-natured and really made a very dark story more palatable and readable. I do believe there are a lot of children this way, and I think Anappara accomplished her goal of making these children innocent and fun and yet storied in their wisdom and unfortunate circumstances.

The book is well-written, and I enjoyed the Indian words interspersed with out (and was also grateful for the glossary). It made it feel like a more authentic experience and set the atmosphere. Anappara did a great job of incorporating Indian words and phrases that allowed the reader to be very much immersed in the culture, and yet didn’t detract from the story or the understanding of what was going on because of confusion or misunderstanding of the language.

The story in this book is really sad, and is one that encompasses a lot of things—caste systems, the rich verses poor, police corruption and brutality, child trafficking, poverty, unequal opportunities, cultural strife and genocide…it really is a book that takes on a lot of hard topics. However, Anappara does an excellent job of keeping all these issues straightforward and understandable, even though there are complex and nuanced.

To say that I liked this book doesn’t seem appropriate, given the topic and the timeliness of it (not just in India, either). However, I greatly appreciated reading about it, and was grateful that Anappara had created a world in which I could step into, see what India and the lower classes experiences are, and gain some insight. I also appreciated the resources she left at the end. I believe we can’t all make the world a better place if we aren’t aware of issues that are going on, even if these issues aren’t right in our faces all of the time. I was grateful for the wakeup call.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, child trafficking, and insinuation of violence. There is also police brutality.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Freeform Friday - The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race - Jesmyn Ward

Summary: In response to recent tragedies and widespread protests across the nation, National Book Award-winning writer Jesmyn Ward looked to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time for comfort and counsel.  In the essay "My Dungeon Shook," Baldwin addresses his fifteen-year-old namesake on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  He writes: "You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon."

Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin's words ring as true as ever today, and she has turned to some of her generation's most original thinkers to write short essays, memoirs, and a few essential poems giving voice to their concerns.  The Fire This Time is divided into three parts that shine a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestle with our current predicament, and attempt to envision a better future.  Of the eighteen pieces, ten were written specifically for this volume.  

In the fifty-odd years since Baldwin's essay was published, entire generation have dared everything and made significant progress.  But the idea that we are living in the post-civil rights era -- that we are a "postracial" society -- is a callous corruption of a truth that our nation must confront.  Baldwin's "fire next time" is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about. (Summary from book flap - Image from simonandschuster.com)

DISCLAIMER:  As I write this review, I feel it's important for me to be up front.   As a 40-something white woman, living in a rural area with a population that is 0% Black, located just outside a town that is 1.56% Black, I don't have a lot of opportunities to interact with the Black community face-to-face.  During the increased racial tension of 2020, it has been very easy for me to see the 'police perspective.' because my husband is a detective and 18 year veteran of the local police department.  However, I fully acknowledge that the police perspective is only one side of an often complicated issue. I read books like this one to learn more about what it means to be Black in the U.S. and how I can help promote anti-racism in my home and community. 

My Review:  The Fire This Time is a collection of  essays and poems from a new generation of BIPOC authors.  Editor Jesmyn Ward was inspired by James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which she turned to in her mid-twenties, longing for the acknowledgement of racial inequality in our nation.  Ward wanted to gather a new generation of voices and "provide a forum for writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon."  The collection is divided into three parts which address the past, present, and future of the Black experience in America.

I learned a great deal while reading these essays and came away with a lot to mull over.  There were several essays in particular that felt incredibly powerful.  I'll talk about a few of them here:

In Lonely in America  author Wendy S. Walters talks about the emotional complexity of being Black in America, carrying the weight of history, and the enormity of racial/class disparities in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  I was especially moved by her discussion of the lack of respect for Black places of rest in New England, specifically, graves that had been desecrated and paved over with city expansion.  

In The Dear Pledges of Our Love author Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers calls into question the validity of our historical record in regards to people of color, stressing the importance of verifying sources and considering the perspective of those sources, especially if they might have been influenced by racial stereotypes.  

Both Where Do We Go From Here and White Rage highlight an important topic -- the cyclical nature of Black progress closely followed by a white attempts at suppression. White Rage's Carol Anderson said it best, "For every action of African American advancement, there's a reaction, a backlash."  Anderson then supports this controversial (to some) statement with historical facts and further explains the concept of 'white rage.' <-----I am going to expound on that term in a minute...

The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning by Claudia Rankine discusses the incredible emotional toll taken on Black Lives that are forced to "exist in a state of precariousness" and near constant fear -- fear that a loved one may not make it home because someone might view them as a threat based solely on the color of their skin.  I admit, the daily strain of such an endeavor seems unfathomable.   

In This Far: Notes on Love and Resolution Daniel José Older's writes letter to his wife, as she worries about having children and bringing more Black lives into a country that doesn't seem to value them.  He also advocates for more reform and diversity whilst also calling out the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaims equality for all without ever actually having it.  

Edwidge Danticat's Message to My Daughters talks about being torn between the responsibility of preparing her daughters for the challenges they may face in this country and wanting to allow them to live unafraid a little longer.  She also makes a sobering point that felt like a *mic drop* in a silent auditorium -- If any immigrant group were subjected to the same treatment in their home countries that Black citizens receive daily, they would likely qualify for asylum in the US.    

Know Your Rights discusses the "talk" that most Black parents are compelled to have with their children (what to do when contacted by the police) and the difference between how white children and black children must "behave" in order to be safe.  (My thoughts on this are straightforward:  Parents should not need to talk to their children about how to 'protect themselves' from the police.  If they feel it is necessary to have that talk -- then the police have a problem that needs fixing.)  

One of the most powerful essays, for me, was Black and Blue. The author Garnette Cadogan writes about growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, roaming the streets till the wee hours to avoid going home to an abusive stepfather.  He never had to worry about sticking out; he was simply another Black face in the crowd.  When Cadogan attends college in New Orleans, he continues to roam the streets, only to find himself the subject of intense scrutiny from passersby.  In an effort to make complete strangers less fearful, he begins dressing a certain way, adopting specific behaviors and intentionally avoiding others in order to project a 'safe,' non-threatening image.  Even then, a friendly wave at a police car one night ends with Cadogan in cuffs, detained for his 'suspicious' behavior.  A few days later, a brief visit back to Jamaica offers a welcome break.  In the author's own words: 

I was astonished at how safe the streets felt to me...no longer having to anticipate the many ways my presence might instill fear and how to offer some reassuring body language...In Jamaica, I felt once again as if the only identity that mattered was my own, not the constricted one that others had constructed for me.

Later, when the author moved to NYC, he had to employ the same behaviors to avoid being unfairly labeled.  The author calls his carefully constructed behavior a 'pantomime undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.' It may have had the desired effect on his audience, but Cadogan himself felt anything but safe.  One night Cadogan was running to the subway and had another interaction with the police, this time with their guns drawn.  The ensuing pat down and questioning was incredibly traumatic, but the author knew that "anything beyond passivity would be interpreted as aggression." Although Cadogan was eventually released, it was with a warning that if he had not been polite, things would have 'gone differently' -- an implied threat, indicative of a much bigger problem.  

Black and Blue was one of the most impactful essays for me because of the should-be-ridiculous ways that Cadogan had to moderate his behavior so that others felt more at ease in his presence.  So preoccupied was he in this endeavor that he could no longer enjoy walking in the manner to which he had become accustomed in Jamaica and was forced to 'tiptoe' around New Orleans and NYC, rather than fully experience them in the way a white person is able to experience them.  (This brings up a simple question -- why should Black people bear the responsibility for making white people feel safe?  Answer: They shouldn't.)

The Fire This Time brings up a lot of good points that I needed to hear.  Here are the ones that stood out most to me, in no particular order:.  

  • First, was the the very clear message that Black people feel their lives are not valued or safe in this country.  They are saying it in every way that they can and white people need to do a lot more listening to the reasons why they feel this way.  
  • Second, racism is often more subtle now than during the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement.  It frequently surfaces in a more passive aggressive way -- which brings me to the concept of 'white rage' and how that rage (and the racism behind it) is most often expressed.   Put simply, white people channel their rage differently than Black people, because they have more options and avenues to express that rage.  White rage is most often expressed by white leaders in positions of power enacting policies that adversely effect people of color, or abolishing practices that benefit them.  
  • Third, history is filled with accounts of conservative backlash to Black advancement.  It is important to acknowledge that history so that we might be able to avoid adding to it.  We also need to always consider how if any legislation is 'retaliatory' in nature or may disproportionately affects people of color
  • Fourth, we have a tendency to center whiteness in this country, meaning that white problems, white issues, and white solutions are given center stage and full consideration while BIPOC problems, issues, and solutions are brushed off. We need to surrender the limelight or, at the very least, learn to share it.  
  • Finally, the behaviors Black people have adopted to appear 'non-threatening' and avoid negative encounters with the police should be unnecessary.  The fact that they are common practice among Black people, and especially Black men, is a huge indicator that racism is still a problem in this country.  

If I'm being totally honest, this wasn't a particularly 'pleasant' read.  I can't speak to how a BIPOC person would feel while reading, but as a white reader, it brought up a lot of emotions -- especially shame, anger, and frustration -- and yet if there is one thing I have learned it is that I cannot deny or dismiss the accounts, feelings, and experiences of others simply because they make me uncomfortable or frustrated.  I believe understanding those feelings is essential if we are to confront racism in all its forms and move towards true equality.  I am not sure that I understood the full meaning of every essay or caught all the terms and references, but I loved hearing from such a vast array of experiences and voices.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some swearing.  At least one use of the "N" word.  A small amount of sexual innuendo.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest - Mark Synnott

Summary:  A hundred-year mystery lured veteran climber Mark Synnott into an unlikely expedition up Mount Everest during the spring 2019 season, which came to be known as the year Everest broke.  What he found was a gripping human story of impassioned characters from around the globe, and a mountain that will consume your soul -- and take your life -- if you let it.

The mystery?  On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out to stand on the roof of the world, where no one has stood before.  They were last seen eight hundred feet shy of Everest's summit, still "going strong" for the top.  Could they have succeeded decades before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?  Irving is believed to have carried a Kodak camera with him to record their attempt, but it, along with his body, has never been found.  Did the frozen film in that camera have a photography of Mallory and Irving on the summit before they disappeared into the clouds, never to be seen again?  Kodak says the film might still be viable...

Mark Synnott made his own ascent up the North Face along with his friend Renan Ozturk, a filmmaker using drones higher than any had previously flown.  Readers will witness firsthand how Synnott's quest led him from oxygen-deprivation training to archives and museums in England, to Kathmandu, the Tibetan Plateau, and up the North Face into a massive storm.  The infamous traffic jams of climbers at the very summit immediately resulted in tragic deaths.  Sherpas revolted.  Chinese officials turned on Synnott's team.  An Indian woman miraculously crawled her way to frostbitten survival.  Synnott himself went off the safety rope -- one slip and no one would have been able to save him -- committed to solving the mystery.  

Eleven climbers died on Everest that season, all of them mesmerized by an irresistible magic.  The Third Pole is a rapidly accelerating ride ot the limitless joy and horror of human obsession.   (Summary from book flap - Cover Image from amazon.com)

DISCLAIMER:  My brother was part of this expedition.  I received daily updates on the team's progress and knew about the overall outcome before this book was released.  I do not personally know the author, Mark Synnott, nor did I receive any compensation for this review (other than a free review copy).  I will give an honest review of this book, regardless of my personal connection, but please forgive any sisterly pride that seeps through.

My Review:  In 2019, a record number of climbers attempted to summit Mt. Everest, creating a 'traffic jam' in the perilous Death Zone, an area above 26,000 feet where oxygen is scarce and temperatures are well below freezing.  Eleven people died.  However, as crowds of hopefuls pushed for the peak, one team of veteran mountaineers hung back.  They had not come to summit Everest, indeed several already had.  Their primary mission was to search the harsh landscape surrounding the peak for the remains of Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine, a British climber last seen on June 8, 1924, just below Everest's summit with his climbing partner George Mallory.  If found, Irvine, or rather, his camera, could hold the key to solving a mystery nearly a century old.  Had Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay really been the first to stand atop the world's tallest mountain?  Or had it been conquered nearly three decades earlier by Mallory and Irvine?  

The Third Pole tells the story of the team's arduous search for Irvine as well as the harrowing stories of many others who have dared attempt the summit.  Many of the chapters are packed with historical, geopolitical, and scientific information which places the mission within the context of a much larger story.  The author layers the account of his own expedition with a fair amount of background and historical detail, especially regarding the expedition that claimed the lives of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, frequently switching between the modern and historical perspectives.  This had the unfortunate side effect of disrupting the flow of what I felt was the main story...but it also kept me reading late into the night.  As someone unfamiliar with the mountaineering field, I was fascinated by the accounts of the different expeditions, but felt a little overwhelmed by the massive influx of additional information, however relevant.  That having been said, I do believe that the extra details ultimately served to enhance my overall understanding of the Everest experience. 

Without a doubt, The Third Pole is a must-read for anyone who is even remotely contemplating adding 'Climb Mt. Everest' to their bucket list. The author refrains from romanticizing the mountain, instead offering a realistic view of the team's experience as they endure frigid temperatures and cyclone-force winds, battle the effects of high altitude exposure, maneuver around corpses and camps strewn with trash, and tiptoe around the troublesome Chinese Tibetan Mountain Authority.  He also doesn't shy away from discussing the rampant commercialization of the Everest climbing industry, which has led to an influx of inexperienced climbers, clogging routes and putting the lives of others at risk, which is valuable insight for prospective climbers.

Toward the end of the expedition, in what was, perhaps, the most compelling section of the book, the author draws attention to the moral dilemma that climbers may face in the Death Zone -- what to do if they come upon a climber in acute distress.  Though the answer may seem clear from the comfort of our couches, morality often gets muddled on the high mountain, and many pass by, choosing to push for the summit with the assumption that the struggling soul is beyond saving.  The author highlights this dilemma, along with perils of the climb, and other economic and environmental concerns, inadvertently (or perhaps, intentionally) raising the question: Is the summit worth the cost? 

Personally, I loved reading about the team's expedition. Although I already knew the basics of the mission, reading about the adventure in its entirety was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.  I was also pleasantly surprised by the author's inclusion of accounts from other climbers on the mountain.  I can't say I 'enjoyed' reading about hardship and death, but the additional material was riveting.  Overall, I gained a greater understanding of the rich, tumultuous history of Everest, an increased sense of respect for the mountain, and nothing but admiration for those who climb responsibly.  I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone who is thinking about climbing Everest or anyone who simply wants to learn more about the complex issues surrounding the mountain.  

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some death and description of dead bodies, ranging from non-graphic to moderately graphic.  Occasional instances of profanity*

*My brother needs a swear jar.      

Monday, May 3, 2021

Bearmouth - Liz Hyder

Summary: Life in Bearmouth is one of hard labor and isolation, the sunlit world far above the mine a distant memory. Newt has lived in the mine since the age of four, and accepts everything from the harsh working conditions to the brutality of the mine’s leaders—until the mysterious Devlin arrives and dares to ask the question, “Why?” As tensions rise, Newt is soon looking at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective—challenging the system and setting in motion a change of events that could destroy their entire world.

An utterly distinctive voice, propulsive and page-turning storytelling, high stakes, heart-stopping twists, and a sense of moral purpose make Bearmouth an unforgettable and unparalleled debut. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I didn’t know at all what to expect from this book. I read the description, I looked at the cover, and yet nothing prepared me for what it would be like to read it.

I felt like this book and its presentation made the story almost tangible. I saw one reviewer on Goodreads who rudely insinuated that this was a “Hooked on Phonics nightmare,” and I would just like to point out that it was a conscious decision of the author to have the writing style such as it was, and I, for one, thought that it was very effective in conveying the age and learning of the first person narrator. There is no doubt that the style could slow one down at times. I’m a very fast reader, and this relatively short book took me a little longer to read just because of the writing, which is very phonetic, but also includes the dialect. However, as I said, it was extremely effective in creating an environment and fleshing out the narrator’s character. I thought it was brilliant, actually, and made the voice of the character extremely strong and ever present.

Straight up, this book was frightening. It starts out scary, and the environment is foreboding and devolves as time goes on. There is nothing scarier than the evil of an evil human, and the circumstances alone were scary let alone making the children out to be prey. This book was so disturbing to me that I had to look up the historical situations it was based on i.e. children used in mines and, unfortunately, it was very true. And that scared me even more! I know I’m not alone in saying this, and I certainly don’t have the corner on the market of feeling different after having children, but it is hard to read about child exploitation, abuse, and endangerment after having children. It just makes it so much closer and scarier to think of my own children being put in a situation like this. However, it wasn’t just because I have children that this was a very scary book. Hyder does an incredible job of creating an atmosphere, one that is as contained and unique as the mine in which it takes place. The culture that was created to force the miners to stay and not revolt was also really interesting, and when I did my online research and looked in the faces of those poor children who actually lived down in mines, it made it even more difficult.

I thought this book was super interesting and one of the more noteworthy ones I’ve read in a while. It is not for the faint of heart though. There is violence, sexual violence, exploitation, and oppression. I was really surprised it was a YA book because I would be very careful about which teens I let read it. In fact, I would be careful about what adult I recommended it to, but that is not because I didn’t think it was a really great book with an incredibly developed atmosphere, possibly one of the best I’ve read. It is a really great book, about a very important historical topic, and well-written. But it is scary. You’ve been warned.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is not a good book for a sensitive reader of any age. There is violence, sexual violence, exploitation, oppression, and even some language.

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