Thursday, September 30, 2021

The One with all the Cross-Stitch: 21 Unofficial Patters for Fans of Friends - Anna Selezneva

 

Summary: Craft with your friends.

Get stitching with this adorable cross-stitch book that combines your favorite TV sitcom with a fun and relaxing craft!  Relive the very best moments of Friends as you stitch together 21 iconic images and quotes, including: The Central Perk sign, "How you doin'?," the chick and the duck, The Thanksgiving trifle, "Pivot!," and more!

Whether you're making fabulous wall art to proudly display your Friends super fandom or one-of-a-kind handmade gifts for your friends and family, this cross-stitch book is a must have for any crafty, die-hard lover of Friends.

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

My Review:   A little over eighteen years ago, I was pregnant with my first child and went into early labor, which the doctors were thankfully able to stop.  I quit both my jobs from the hospital and headed home for a few months of solid bedrest.  I was bored to tears until an acquaintance lent me her Friends DVDS which I binge-watched as I worked on an enormous cross-stitch I hoped to hang in the baby's room. Since then, cross-stitch and Friends have always been inextricably connected in my mind.  Even now, as I review this book, I'm watching Season 7 with the very daughter that I was pregnant with during my first binge-session.  Could the timing of this review BE any more perfect?   I think not.  

The One with All the Cross-Stitch is a cleverly-named collection of 21 cross-stitch patterns that follow a Friends theme,  as well as a guide for beginner's on how to read a pattern, do basic stitching, knot thread, and finish a piece.  Here is a complete list of the different patterns, which may not make sense to every reader, but will certainly make sense to fans of the show:

  • Smelly Cat (see right)
  • Doesn't Share Food  
  • Pivot
  • The Chick and the Duck
  • How You Doin'?  (We all read that the same way, right?)
  • Unagi   (Ahhhh... Salmon Skin Roll)
  • I'll Be There for You
  • Moo Point
  • Thanksgiving Trifle
  • We Were On A Break
  • Seven (Yes, that Seven!)
  • NYC Skyline
  • The Yellow Frame
  • Lobster Love
  • Fire Beats Everything
  • Grandma's Taxi
  • Transponsters  (The guess that lost them the apartment)
  • Central Perk
  • The Turkey  (See right)
  • The Couch and the Lamp
  • and even the Friend's alphabet, so you can create your own favorite phrases from the show.  

Each pattern has an assigned difficulty level (11 Easy, 6 Medium, 3 Hard, and 1 N/A) and comes with fabric size and thread color recommendations for just the right look.  Personally, they seemed like great fun and something a focused cross-stitcher could pull together in an afternoon.  

It's important to note that this is an unofficial cross-stitch guide, which means that nowhere in the book are there images of the Friends cast or even direct mention of them. Don't worry, though.  While the author doesn't name names, she makes enough not-so-subtle references to Friends that the connection is hard to miss.  Long story short, The One With All the Cross-Stitch is an adorable tribute to an iconic TV show and would be a fun gift for your favorite crafty Friends fanatic -- even if that happens to be YOU!

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  One cross-stich (SEVEN!) has some rather sexual connotations.  

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Six of Crows Duology (including Six of Crows, #1 and The Crooked Kingdom, #2)

The Six of Crows duology is comprised Six of Crows (#1) and Crooked Kingdom (#2).  Six of Crows is set following the events of the Grisha trilogy (aka the Shadow and Bones trilogy), also written by Leigh Bardugo.  

To preserve the book timeline and avoid spoilers, it is best to read the Shadow and Bone trilogy (reviewed here) followed by the Six of Crows duology.

I had a lot of time to read this summer (hallelujah) and fell headlong into all things Leigh Bardugo, so I've decided not to torture you and included both books in this review.  You'll find our review of Crooked Kingdom just below our review of Six of Crows.  

Happy scrolling!

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Summary: 
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker.  Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams.  But he can't pull it off alone...

A convict with a thirst for revenge

A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager

A runaway with a privileged past

A spy known as the Wraith

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz's crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction -- if they don't kill each other first. 

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

A NOTE:  Although wildly popular in its own right, Six of Crows has found renewed success with the release of Netflix smash hit series Shadow and Bone (2021), which incorporates several of the characters from Six of Crows operating within the Shadow and Bone timeline.  I plan to discuss both story mediums later in my review, but first I'd like to focus solely on the book version. 

My Review:  Have you ever picked up a book and known within minutes that you're going cover-to-cover?  The stars have aligned, there's nothing else on the agenda, and you feel it in your bones; today is the day.  That's how I felt when I picked up Six of Crows.

First off, Six of Crows is literally gorgeous.  The silver-toned hardcover is stunning -- I especially love the font -- but that's really just the beginning.  It's the first book I've ever read where the edge of the paper (the part of the text that is visible when the book is closed) is completely black.  It makes the book look rather sinister, which is entirely fitting.  Open the book, expecting more black, and the inside cover (or endpaper) is a vibrant red, the only color in the entire book if you don't count the subtext on the front cover which reads: Six dangerous outcasts.  One impossible heist.  Throw in a few beautifully rendered maps (I'm a sucker for those) and, I mean, how could I not read this book ?

Six of Crows tells the story of Kaz Brekker, a brilliant but ruthless conman with a skilled crew of cutthroats, sneak thieves, and spies at his disposal.  Kaz and his associates make their own way in a brutal world, trading in secrets, stealing for their own gain, and never looking back. When the Merchant Council hires the crew to retrieve a high-value target from the clutches of the Fjerdan Ice Court, they jump at the chance to earn a small fortune.  As the group attempts to infiltrate the enemy stronghold, problems of the hell-in-a-handbasket variety arise.  Thankfully, if there is one area in which Kaz excels, it's improvisation. 

Where the Shadow and Bone series gave readers access to the upper echelons of Ravkan society, Six of Crows dives deep into the Barrel, the roughest sector of Ketterdam on the isle of Kerch.  Bardugo uses five main characters to narrate the story and, at least initially, doesn't offer much in the way of explanation or character introduction.  I was a little confused at first -- like, am I supposed to know what happened between these two characters? -- but soon realized that Bardugo was weaving backstory into the present predicament, revealing each character more fully as the plot progressed.  I began to look forward to these revelations as they often gave me a greater empathy for the characters and an entirely new perspective on the story.  Overall, Bardugo's writing is strong, brimming with fascinating characters and a thoroughly unpredictable plot that held my attention from start to finish.  

I would give this book 5 Stars based solely on its entertainment value and nothing else.  It never stopped moving -- ambushes and escapes, romance and betrayal, hidden agendas, explosions, trickery, and shenanigans galore. Some books have one plot twist, maybe two; this one had a gazillion.* I never knew what the plot was going to do and I loved it.  Add to that excitement some thoroughly engaging characters with some fairly spectacular chemistry, and you have a book that is nearly impossible to put down.  The main characters -- Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias -- are complex and relatable, and I love them all for too many reasons to innumerate here. If I had to pick a favorite, I'd probably land on either Inej or Nina (but probably Inej) because they are just too cool for words.  The character arcs and interactions were an absolute pleasure, often humorous, and for those with a romantic bent, there are plenty of 'ships' to sail on, if you know what I mean.

The list of things I didn't like about Six of Crows is rather short and mostly has to do with things I feel obligated to write about in the 'sensitive reader' section.  Overall, I think it was quite tame for what the genre has become but there are a few situations that contain slightly adult themes that could potentially lead to more adult themes in the next book.  There is also a little bit of profanity, some innuendo and non-graphic discussion of brothels (and the things that happen there).  

Overall, I loved my time with Six of Crows, getting to know the characters and follow along on their adventure.  It was fairly intense and though the ending offered some resolution, it left several loose ends that will hopefully see some tying in the next book.  Readers who are chomping at the bit after having devoured the Grisha trilogy and binged the first season of Shadow and Bone, should definitely put Six of Crows at the top of your TBRs.  I am desperately trying to finish this review so that I can *allow* myself to start the next book, Crooked Kingdom.  I am in line for a hard copy at the library (my preference) but I also checked it out on ebook and audiobook, just in case, because I am not waiting.

*okay, sliiiiight exaggeration.  But you get the idea.

My Rating (of the book):  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some violence.  A handful of swear words.  Some innuendo, discussion of brothels, and what occurs there.  There is a flirtation between two male characters.  For the most part, everyone's clothes stayed on unless it was absolutely necessary for the conservation of body heat.  

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You can scroll right over this next bit and head straight to CROOKED KINGDOM, if you aren't interested in how the Grishaverse books relate to the Netflix series.

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THE GRISHABOOKVERSE & THE NETFLIX SERIES

As someone who read the Grisha trilogy and watched the first season of Shadow and Bone prior to reading Six of Crows, I wanted to make a few post-review comments about how the story mediums relate to each other and my experience with them.    

In the book series, Six of Crows is set several years after the events of the Grisha trilogy.  Other than a shared history and a few minor characters, the two books don't interact much.  Not so with the Netflix series, which blends the characters from both series together in one season.  Thankfully, people who have seen the show first do not need to be worried about reading the same story in print (which is chronologically impossible anyway); the gang is on a new adventure. The Netflix series does not 'spoil' the Six of Crows experience, nor does the Six of Crows experience spoil the Netflix series.  It's all rather cleverly put together so that each story medium adds to the enjoyment of the other.  I was delighted to see some of my favorite Crow moments from the Netflix show appear on the page in the form of character backstory, but not all of the backstory makes it onto the screen (at least, it hasn't yet), so readers still receive a bigger dish on all the characters.  

As I was reading Six of Crows, I started to recognize aspects of the show that I hadn't realized were nods to the book when I watched it (There are so many).  Now that I've read the book, I've gone back and watched the series again (yup, I did that) and I have found even more, as well as some fore-shadowing that I did not pick up on.  Six of Crows and the Grisha trilogy have vibrant characters and the show honors that achievement with incredible casting (even if the show aged them up a bit) and creative blend of both stories.  Fans of the show will see some of their favorite 'scenes' played out on the page and see some of their favorite Ketterdam characters in a whole new light.  Personally, I plan to keep reading my way through the Grishaverse, but I am also rather excited to see more of the story play out in the Netflix series.  

___________CROOKED KINGDOM____________


Summary
: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn't think they'd survive.  But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they're right back to fighting for their lives.  Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope.  As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz's cunning and test the teams fragile loyalties.  A war will be waged on the city's dark and twisting streets -- a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world.  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

WARNING:  Six of Crows doesn't spoil much of the Shadow and Bone trilogy (aka Grisha trilogy), but Crooked Kingdom goes a bit further.  Four characters from the original S&B trilogy make an appearance, so it's obvious they don't kick the bucket in the other series.  What can I say?  If you don't want those spoilers, I suggest reading S&B first.

My Review:  After the events of Six of Crows, I was desperate to read the sequel, Crooked Kingdom.  I thought I might read it straight through like Crows, but ended up having to take a break halfway through, partly because I wanted the story to last a little longer and partly because, a certain someone was in imminent peril and I needed to calm down a little. It was so intense! Just when I thought the story would zig -- it zagged.  Just when I though the crew was in the clear -- betrayal, explosion, imminent peril!  And, for a book that isn't really billed as humor, I sure laughed my butt off! 

Crooked Kingdom picks up soon after the events of Six of Crows -- Kaz and the Dregs have been betrayed and the Wraith has been taken.  Kaz is determined to rescue her, recoup the crews lost bounty, and exact bitter vengeance by ruining both Van Eck and his arch nemesis Pekka Rollins. Meanwhile, someone or something is hunting Grisha, Matthias is worried about Nina (who is battling parem withdrawl), Jesper's past comes back to haunt him, Wylan's got a new face, and Inej is, well, busy trying to escape her captors.  On top of that, all the major players are intent on 'acquiring' Kuwei and the secrets he might hold. When the unthinkable occurs and it seems like all is lost, Dirtyhands must decide -- should he cut and run or stay and fight?  

Crooked Kingdom has a lot going on.  Like, a lot a lot.  Kaz's plans usually have a million moving parts and a million contingencies* that require the crew to pair off or split up and go their separate ways.  This means keeping track of who is doing what, where, and why.   Thankfully, this book has a gorgeous map of Ketterdam that makes it all a little easier. The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, including all the main characters from Six of Crows and one familiar addition.  As with her other novels, Bardugo continues to offer illuminating backstory and knows exactly how to end a chapter in a way that makes for riveting late-night reading.  Even though much of the story is action, there's still plenty of time for humorous banter, and some slow burn romance on a variety of 'ships'.  

I probably sound like a broken record by now (if you've read my Crows review), but I don't know if I can adequately convey how much I love Bardugo's characters, so I guess I'm just going to keep saying it -- I love them.  There were so many moments when these characters would say or do something that had me howling with delight and/or proclaiming my adoration of them to all within earshot.  For me, the story is sweet but the characters are golden.  Excuse me while I elaborate.

Kaz is billed as this hard-edged, no-nonsense criminal, who schemes faster than you can say 'Ketterdam,' but under all that sharpness, he's actually incredibly sweet (though he would strongly object to that characterization).  Despite his attempts to be stubbornly unknowable, it becomes clear to the reader (if no one else) that Kaz Brekker actually cares about his crew and what happens to them, especially *ahem* if they happen to have long dark hair and an affinity for knives.  

Speaking of knife-wielding warriors, Inej is equal parts strength and, in this book, vulnerability.  She's incredibly skilled, principled, and devoted to helping others, but is dealing with her own personal trauma and finds herself in a position that makes her question her value to the crew and to Kaz.  Her devotion to Kaz, and his to her, is the stuff of legend.  All I will say is that if certain 'Kanej' moments from this book don't somehow make their way onto Netflix's Shadow and Bone, someone is getting an angry letter.  

Jesper's backstory gets a major boost in Crooked Kingdom and I felt like I got to know his character so much better.  He is infinitely more than a charismatic sharp-shooter or gambling addict and this time around we find out why.  When a figure from his past comes sniffing around, a whole new window into Jesper's world opens up and I loved the insight it offered into his character.

Watching Nina and Matthias interact was one of the highlights of this book.  Bardugo's phrasing made me laugh so hard, my daughter actually came upstairs to ask me why I was, in her words, 'cackling'. Matthias is this intense but honorable guy, utterly devoted to Nina, who is headstrong, intelligent, and, on occasion, wildly inappropriate.  He is nearly incapable of subterfuge and she could sell glasses to a blind man in six different languages.  Together, they are the oddest sort of couple and yet, it works.  

By now, you're used to me singing the praises of all things Bardugo, but there were a few aspects of Crooked Kingdom that fell a little flat for me (hence the lower rating).  Even though I liked his basic storyline, Wylan was the character that I connected with the least.  I always felt like he was on the fringe of the group despite his presence in the narrative line-up.  I was unable to picture Wylan as anything other than a young boy in his early teens, whereas the other characters appear significantly older in my head (thanks to Netflix casting 23-39 year old actors).  This mental 'age gap' wasn't really a problem in the overall story until he ends up kissing someone and then, well, it wasn't my cup of tea. On that note, there were some more 'adult' thematic elements that I could have lived without (see 'sensitive reader' section), a minor villain or two that seemed superfluous, and one devastating event that I am actively attempting scrub from my memory.  Thanks to an accidental Instagram spoiler, I spent the whole book bracing myself for it.  All I will say is, not everyone gets their happily ever after. Prepare yourself for some bitterness amidst the sweet.  

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Crooked Kingdom.  The story offers resolution to the main conflict, but also leaves the author room to tell other stories.  As it relates to Netflix's Shadow and Bones series, I'm hopeful I will get to see some of my favorite moments from this book played out on screen.  Although I am forced to wait a while to see if those prayers are answered, I don't have to wait to read more in the Grishaverse.  King of Scars is sitting right next to me, calling my name. It's sequel, Rule of Wolves, will be joining us shortly.

*slight exaggeration

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Violence.  Some profanity (5-10 instances, give or take).   A man and a woman kiss and later make out (clothes stay on).  Some same gender and cross-gender flirtation.  Two men kiss, twice (non-graphic).   Some innuendo, discussion of dead bodies, human trafficking, brothels, and rape (not overly graphic but potentially triggering).

Monday, September 27, 2021

We Were Never Here - Jennifer Gilmore

 

Summary: Did you know your entire life can change in an instant?  For sixteen-year-old Lizzie Stoller that moment is when she collapses, out of the blue. The next thing she knows she’s in a hospital with an illness she’s never heard of.

But that isn’t the only life-changing moment for Lizzie. The other is when Connor and his dog, Verlaine, walk into her hospital room. Lizzie has never connected with anyone the way she does with the handsome, teenage volunteer. However, the more time she spends with him, and the deeper in love she falls, the more she realizes that Connor has secrets and a deep pain of his own . . . and that while being with him has the power to make Lizzie forget about her illness, being with her might tear Connor apart. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I dare you to find a topic that is sadder than a teen with a debilitating, life-threatening illness. Go ahead, I’ll wait. It’s like the saddest thing ever! Seriously. I have read several books on this topic, as I’m sure you have (none of us will ever be the same after John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars). It’s just YA Fic gold, especially when it’s well-written.

I don’t love reading about sick children (because that would be disturbing), but what I do love about a book like We Were Never Here is that it allows the reader to be immersed in difficult topics, and ones that are hard to discuss in a non-organic way. We want our teens to be understanding and sympathetic, and we want them to be able to extend kindness to those who are experiencing difficulties. And, heaven forbid, one of our teens has to go through this. It’s hard to bring it up naturally, though, right? You can’t just be sitting around your meatloaf and potatoes and be like “So what do we do when one of our friends is sick and dying?” I mean, we can, but I firmly believe that one of the things that reading does for a person is allow them to develop and experience an empathy that can’t be achieved any other way. We Were Never Here has a strong female protagonist, and since it is written in first person, the reader can experience the feelings and thoughts of one who has to experience such a thing. I found it to be extremely effective. I also thought that Gilmore did a great job of describing the illness in enough detail that we were able to understand the difficulties associated with it, without having to go too deep into the nitty gritty of it and scaring the reader. There is always a careful balance with this, and I found that Gilmore did a great job achieving that balance.

This book also had the benefit of having some excellent flawed characters and had some very healthy ways that the protagonist was able to deal with it. It’s easy to think that when we meet someone that our first impression is true. I liked that Gilmore allowed her characters to develop and reveal themselves in a realistic way. I also liked that this allowed the reader to explore mental illness as well in a very authentic way. Because of this, the ending was satisfying even though it wasn’t necessarily the fairytale we all want.

I thought this was a really good read. It was a fast read, and easy to get into it. I read it in a very short time. I liked the voice of the protagonist and enjoyed the character development. The topic itself was sad but dealt with in a manner that will help readers develop empathy and understanding, which I think is always important. If you’re a reader of YA fic, and especially if you loved Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, this is a book for you.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are a few instances of language, some medical procedures that aren’t too graphic, and one love scene that is somewhat detailed.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Freeform Friday: Before the Ever After - Jacqueline Woodson

Summary: Jacqueline Woodson's novel-in-verse explores how a family moves forward when their glory days have passed and the cost of professional sports on Black bodies.

For as long as ZJ can remember, his dad has been everyone's hero. As a charming, talented pro football star, he's as beloved to the neighborhood kids he plays with as he is to his millions of adoring sports fans. But lately life at ZJ's house is anything but charming. His dad is having trouble remembering things and seems to be angry all the time. ZJ's mom explains it's because of all the head injuries his dad sustained during his career. ZJ can understand that--but it doesn't make the sting any less real when his own father forgets his name. As ZJ contemplates his new reality, he has to figure out how to hold on tight to family traditions and recollections of the glory days, all the while wondering what their past amounts to if his father can't remember it. And most importantly, can those happy feelings ever be reclaimed when they are all so busy aching for the past? (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I’ve read quite a few books in verse these past few months, and I’d have to say that that is unique for me. I don’t usually love books in verse. However, these most recent books have been children’s books (YA and JFic), and I’ve found them to be surprisingly effective in bringing about their message and evoking the feeling of the book. Being written in verse certainly makes for a fast read, and I read this entire book within a few hours.

This book is sad. Tragic, really. Head injuries are difficult to read about, as the experiences are so life-changing for everyone around them. I thought this book did a really good job of touching on this difficult topic. I think so many times we take for granted the fact that children have to live through illnesses, accidents, and tragedies as well. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the adults having to experience these things (and of course the difficulty of this cannot be overstated), but children also have to experience the difficulties and the aftermath that comes. They have less control over the situation, less knowledge, and less ability to make choices in the matter. I thought that Woodson did a great job of displaying the fear and uncertainty that comes with children who have to live through such difficulties.

I appreciated this book addressing the toll that sports take on a human’s body. It is easy to forget what types of physical trauma can come from an elite athlete, because they seem so above and beyond the normal physical bounds that the rest of us face. I also appreciated this book addressing the toll a physical injury can take on mental health, as so much of our identity is tied to our physical abilities, and this is possibly even more true for professional athletes who also base their livelihoods on their physical abilities.

I am not really a sports person. I don’t watch follow professional football or look forward to sports seasons or what have you. However, I enjoyed this book and felt like it was an effective way to discuss topics that are important and timely. As mentioned above, it was a quick read, and I felt like the characters were relatable and the writing accessible.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean but does have some frank discussions of physical and mental trauma.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Not All Who Wander Need Be Lost: Stories of Hope for Families Facing Alzheimer's and Dementia - Lisa Skinner with Ken Paglia

Summary: Not All Who Wander Need Be Lost is a concise guide to navigating the heartbreaking challenges of having a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.

Through a rich trove of stories culled from her years in the eldercare industry, Lisa Skinner offers insight into the difficult questions families face, including:

- How do I respond to a loved one's false belief?

- Am I abandoning my parent if I place them in the care of professionals?

- How do we make the best of our time left together?

Skinner's original thinking and counter-intuitive solutions provide family members, spouses, children, caregivers, and others with the tools they need to effectively manage the symptoms of brain disease.

Readers of her book will feel empowered to work through the difficulties of the disease, and return to what matters -- enjoying their remaining time with their loved one.  

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

My Review:  As a behavior expert in the field of Alzheimers and related dementia, Lisa Skinner has had plenty of experience helping families faced with a life-altering diagnosis.  In Not All Who Wander Need Be Lost, Skinner shares stories from her own family as well as stories from her time as an eldercare advisor.  Most chapters contain the account of an individual struggling with Alzheimer's or dementia symptoms, how caretakers responded, and a special section that explains how reader's might be able to apply what they have learned.  Let me be clear: This book does not not contain a cure for Alzheimer's or dementia, but it does offer a slice of solace to those who are suffering and a glimmer of hope to those overwhelmed by the realities of a loved one in crisis.  

As I read the accounts in this book, it was interesting to see how a small change in environment or a renewed sense of purpose has the potential to calm a troubled heart.  I was especially moved by the story of a woman named Martha, whose Alzheimer's had affected her ability to communicate effectively.  She lived in a care facility and frequently screamed at the top of her lungs for no apparent reason, which was rather disconcerting for those who lived and worked in the immediate vicinity.  After Skinner returned from a special training, she introduced a 'life-station' to Martha's memory care unit, complete with a baby doll, clothes, and assorted child care equipment. Within a week, Martha found contentment with her new little charge and, by all reports, never screamed again.  A small change in Martha's environment and a renewed sense of purpose had made all the difference.     

Another aspect of the book that I found particularly impactful was the concept of 'joining' a loved one's altered reality.  So often we feel compelled to 'correct' an individual who is confused, when the best thing for their mental state might be to play along.  For example, if a loved one is insistent on 'going to work' long after retirement, creating a work-like space in the home or care facility can help them experience that reality safely.  The author reminds the reader that if a loved one perceives a specific, intense need, "the need doesn't have to make sense to be rooted in reality."   Whatever the need, it is real to them. Occasionally, we must place ourselves inside that reality if we hope to help.  What may feel like lying can, in fact, be compassionate care.  

Not All Who Wander Need Be Lost is a rather slim volume but its diminutive size is perfect for readers who might already feel lost in a sea of medical information and need a 'beginners guide' to Alzheimer's and dementia. One of my favorite aspects of the book was a brief but helpful glossary that defines certain signs and symptoms associated with dementia.  Using this glossary, family members may be able to pinpoint potential symptoms of dementia and use the correct terminology to communicate more effectively with care providers and medical personnel.  Following the glossary, there is also an addendum that delineates the basic stages of the disease's progression.  I know that sounds like it could be a bit of a slog but it is fairly condensed and straightforward.

If I have learned one thing from Not All Who Wander Need Be Lost it is that life does not have to end with an Alzheimer's or dementia diagnosis.  One of my favorite quotes from the book says:

So often when we talk about Alzheimer's disease, we focus on the effect it has on the family.  Slowly losing our loved one to brain disease is one of the hardest things we'll ever face.  But we speak as if our loved one is already gone -- as if there's no longer a person in that body who's aware of his or her surroundings.  And that's not always true.

Knowledge, flexibility, creativity, and compassion, can help a loved one find joy and purpose in their new reality, whatever that reality may be  Long story short -- If I were processing a loved one's recent diagnoses, Not All Who Wander Need Be Lost is the book I would want someone to hand me.  

My Rating:  4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Don't Lose Your Head: Life Lessons from the Six Ex-Wives of Henry VIII (An Unofficial Survival Guide for Fans of the Musical "SIX") - Harriet Marsden

Summary:
  If Queens could kiss and tell...

Survive alongside Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and the rest of King Henry VIII's ill-fated wives as they dish out their secrets in this fun and clever guide to life.  With a bit of sarcasm and a lot of charm, each of these legendary ladies explains how their sixteenth-century hard-earned lessons (from living with unstable men to enduring stifling Tudor traditions) apply to timeless topics like dating, marriage, and feminism.  You'll get the facts from the Queen Mother and the less-remembered but no-less important Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and more.

Packed with must-known historical trivia, witty anecdotes, and wise advice, Don't Lose Your Head is the unofficial handbook for fans obsessed with Broadway's latest historical pop musical, Six.

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

This book is independently authored and published and is not affiliated in any way with the musical Six.  

My Review:  Catherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour. Anna of Cleves. Katherine Howard.  Catherine Parr. 

Do these names ring a bell?  They should. These are the wives of King Henry VIII.  Until recently, I didn't know their names.  I knew Henry went through wives like toilet paper, but I couldn't have told you their names to save my life. 

Drawing its inspiration from the musical Six, Harriet Marsden's Don't Lose Your Head calls attention to the lives of these six women who, if you ask me, were handed a very raw deal and suffered horribly at the short end of the historical stick.  Where Six introduced me to Henry's wives by name (and stereotype) -- the pious Catherine of Aragon, the seductive Anne Boelyn, the beloved Jane Seymour, the spurned Anna of Cleves, the promiscuous Katherine Howard, and the stalwart Catherine Parr -- Don't Lose Your Head enhanced that knowledge and helped me get to know their individual histories. 

Don't Lose Your Head tells the story of each woman in first-person historical narrative, written from what the author imagines might be their perspective but with a decidedly more modern voice. The book begins with a family tree, followed by a foreword, a small introduction 'written' by the mother of King Henry VIII (which gives a little of his backstory), and a fact sheet that reads like Henry's own personal dating profile.  Then, we get into the meat of the book: the personal profiles, lists of lesser known facts, and essays 'written' by each of Henry's wives.  I learned a great deal from each of these essays, leaps and bounds more than I ever learned in school.  It all concludes with a basic timeline and a 'curtain call' by Princesses Mary and Elizabeth -- a fitting end for a book that amplifies female stories.

The tone of the book is decidedly unfriendly towards Henry VIII and the surfeit of other men who used these women as pawns in their own power games.  The wives speak freely about their lives, most with a hearty dose of righteous feminine anger with a side of clear bias.  I didn't mind the venom; it felt warranted.  Like the musical, there is an amusing level of resentment and the occasionally bickering among the wives as they interject their own sarcastic commentary (via text bubble) into each others perspectives.  I could have done without the infighting, but it did serve a purpose.  Although the title of this book hints at life-lessons, my main takeaway from the book is not to marry a narcissistic philandering megalomaniac, if you can help it. 

History is often told by men about men, so it was refreshing to hear things from a female perspective, even if that perspective had to be somewhat manufactured. Don't Lose Your Head calls attention to our biased, yet widely-accepted, historical narrative and makes you wonder about all the other women in history who were ignored, erased, or glossed over by history in favor of a man someone deemed more worthy.  What other stories have we lost to history and the men who wrote it?  I loved that this book was only written from a female perspective; the King and his cronies didn't get to weigh in at all and (whether history acknowledges them as such or not) the 'Queens' finally got their say.  

Unfortunately, I am not sure which parts of this book are verifiable and which are based on the authors own interpretation of history.  There isn't a source list provided nor are there any end notes to turn to if I want confirmation of a particular detail.  I suspect that the events are part of the historical record while the general mood is manufactured.  From a review standpoint, this makes the book difficult to categorize?  Is it fiction?  Is it non-fiction?  Humor?  I've decided to label it under all three for the time being, but it still doesn't sit right.    

Like the musical it inspired, Don't Lose Your Head offers a fresh historical perspective delivered in sassy, irreverent style.  I'm a huge fan of the empowering message behind the musical, but don't really care for the more explicit elements.  Same goes for Don't Lose Your Head.  I loved the feminist historical perspective (we most definitely need more of that in the world) but winced at the occasionally crude dialogue, callous quips,* and bawdy moments.  It all boils down to this -- if you love the vibe of the show, then you'll likely enjoy reading this book.  If anything in the sensitive reader section makes you cringe...well, you've been warned.

*TRIGGER WARNING* -- There are some rather tactless comments (made by other wives) about miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant fatality.   Reference to sexual abuse and grooming.  

My Rating:  3.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  If you're a die-hard fan of the musical Six, you won't have a problem with this book, but it might not be for everyone on your friends list.  Readers bothered by the occasionally crude humor, crass language, innuendo, and profanity (in any language) might take umbrage with this irreverent view of history.  *TRIGGER WARNING*:  Some rather tactless comments (made by other wives) about miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant fatality.  Reference to sexual abuse and grooming.

Monday, September 20, 2021

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin - Roseanne A. Brown

Summary: For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.

But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.

When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?

The first in an fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: This book is joining my recent parade of reviews of fantasy books with beautiful covers featuring fierce looking Black women in gorgeous costume and regalia. Man, they are so fantastic and I am loving it. Check out Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones, Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer, and Bethan C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water for more stunning cover art.

Although this book is fantasy, it is based on West African culture and that made it super interesting. I always love a good mixing of reality and fantasy, with a good dose of myth and lore to tie it all in. As you might imagine, this book has gorgeous descriptions. The sounds, sights, and smells of this vibrant place were a fun part of the descriptions and the story. I especially loved that the story featured people coming in from different areas of the kingdom to participate in a festival. This gave the reader exposure to lots of different cultures and people within the novel's realm, and I always love that. Even within a relatively limited geographic area there is a lot of cultural depth and difference between the people in it.

This is an exciting story that has a lot of intrigue and mystery and takes a lot of twists and turns. Because of the festival and the tournament involved in the festival, there is a lot of action and excitement. A good tournament always makes for good reading, right? You never know what’s going to happen next or what the stakes might be!

As with any good YA novel worth its salt, this one has a love story that is complicated and romantic. This one has an especially triumphant ending, as one would desire from a fantastical book such as this. If your YA characters aren’t wondering if the other one hates them and totally confused about the situation, are you even reading YA?

Because this book is long, it gives the reader lots of opportunity to get to know the main characters, which I always like. It’s nice to spend time with characters that you care about. This comes from just spending more time with them and understanding their thoughts, complications, strengths and weaknesses.

I feel like this book is similar in some ways to The Gilded Ones and Raybearer (both mentioned and reviews linked in the first paragraph), and so if you read those and loved them, this is another one you should check out. Of you haven’t read them, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is an excellent start into your cultural fantastical exploration of African culture and beauty.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is on par with other books in the genre, with some light language and fantasy violence.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors - Sonali Dev

Summary: It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian American family can a genius daughter be considered a black sheep.  

Dr. Trisha Raje is San Francisco's most acclaimed neurosurgeon.  But that's not enough for the Rajes, her influential immigrant family, who have achieved power by making their own nonnegotiable rules:

    - Never trust an outsider

    - Never do anything to jeopardize your brother's political        aspirations.

    - And never, ever defy your family.

Trisha is guilty of breaking all three rules.  But now she has a chance to redeem herself.  So long as she doesn't repeat her old mistakes.

Up-and-coming chef DJ Caine has known people like Trisha before, people who judge him by his rough beginnings and who place pedigree above character.  He needs the lucrative job the Rajes offer him, but he values his pride to much to indulge Trisha's arrogance.  And then he discovers that she's the only surgeon who can save his sister's life.

As the two clash, their assumptions crumble like the spun sugar on one of DJ's stunning desserts.  But before they can savor the future, they need to reckon with the past...

(Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is a modern retelling, loosely based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.  It tells the story of Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant neurosurgeon trying to reconnect with her estranged Indian-American family, and D.J. Caine, a talented chef who left a promising career to take care of his ailing sister.  D.J.'s dreams (and his ability to pay his sister's towering medical bills) hang on the success of his current catering job, so when a chance meeting in the Raje family kitchens leads to a heated conflict over caramel, Trisha and DJ jump to conclusions that couldn't be further from the truth.  From D.J.'s POV, Trisha is privileged, arrogant, and entirely too bossy, whereas Trisha finds D.J. rude, careless, and uneducated.  Cue the button-pushing, bickering, family drama, and romantic tension.  Over the course of the book, the two are forced to work together in a variety of situations and slowly begin to realize that their prejudice might be misplaced.  

I didn't have to look too closely to find the similarities to the original P&P, but I liked that Sonali Dev's version wasn't a cut-and-paste copy of the original.  It was more modernized with enough deviation from the original story that, even though I had a general idea of how things would end, I was in the dark on all the particulars.  D.J. and Trisha's interaction was amusing at times, stressful at others, and quite a bit more...um...chemically intense than Austen ever penned.  I spent a good chunk of the book mentally bracing myself for what would surely be an excruciating 'proposal scene' and Dev did not disappoint.  Like the original, it was pure torture!

I kind of expected Pride, Prejudice, and other Flavors to be a light beach read, but it had surprising depth, incorporating relevant societal issues regarding classism, racism, sexism (and a few other 'isms).  In her acknowledgements and afterword, the author wrote about wanting to weave a story that was loosely inspired by the "imbalanced power dynamics and preconceived notions" Austen explored, while creating characters that are "navigating the structure of society in more contemporary ways."  In that way, I believe she was successful.  I loved that the author challenged more 'traditional' gender roles by writing a female character that was significantly more wealthy and successful than her male counterpart.  It was interesting to see how that changed the gender dynamics between the characters.  I also loved the characters' diverse ethnic backgrounds and all the cultural depth that brought to the story (especially the food -- because I am all about the food!).  It was definitely interesting to see the classic novel filtered through a new lens.

Now for the downside..

While I enjoyed and was thoroughly entertained by the overall concept of the story, I had a few issues with the delivery which may or may not bother other readers.  First, there was a lot of profanity and some crude language (in both American English and British dialects).  I can usually let that slide if that is my only issue with a book, but I was disappointed that Trisha and D.J.'s relationship hit the TMI stage at the very end of the novel.  I don't care to read that sort of thing at all and will usually skip over it, but when sex comes at the very end of a book it really bothers me because it sends the message that sex, rather than the relationship, is the most important part of the story.  I like to be able to pass the books I enjoy along to my teenage daughters and I just wouldn't feel comfortable handing this one over.  The author has written several other books in the Austen-retelling family (Recipe for Persuasion and Incense and Sensibility) which might entertain a less finicky reader.  I admit the titles are fairly tempting but, since I assume they'll contain more of the same issues, I have read all that I plan to read.   

My Rating: 3.5 Stars 

For the Sensitive Reader:  Profanity, of both the American and British variety.  Enough that a quarter of the way through I just stopped trying to keep count.  Some risqué artwork (described, not pictured).  Crude, sexist language (from one character in particular).  Some innuendo and discussion of sexual assault, and sexual intimacy.  Some discussion of racism (thankfully, portrayed as a negative ideology).

Thursday, September 16, 2021

BFF or NRF?: A Girl's Guide to Happy Friendships - Jessica Speer (Illustrations by Elowyn Dickerson)

Summary: Friendships are tough to navigate, even for adults.  The preteen years can be particularly sticky, but we've got your back! Packed with fun quizzes, colorful illustrations, and stories about girls just like you, BFF or NRF? (Not Really Friends) is the ultimate interactive guidebook to help you learn the ins and outs of friendship.  Explore the topics of gossip, bullying, and feeling left out, along with ways to strengthen the friendships that mean the most to you.  

(Summary from the back of the book - Images from workman.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:   Have you ever thought someone was your friend only to find out they really didn't have your best interests at heart?  Do you have children and hope to help them avoid drama and build healthy friendships?  If so, you need to read BFF or NRF?: A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships, a useful tool to help young readers develop friendship and communication skills that will last a lifetime.  

BFF or NRF? is presented in a colorful, tween-friendly format, with easy-to-read font and engaging doodle-style illustrations.  My 11-year-old was drawn right to it.  To start, author Jessica Speer uses two straightforward quizzes (How Healthy is My Friendship? and How are my Friendship Skills?) to help direct the reader to the specific chapters best suited to their needs.*  Explored in this individualized manner or read cover-to-cover, young readers will learn how to evaluate the health of their own relationships and further develop their own friendship skills.  It even helps readers navigate some of the trickier aspects of friendship (e.g., what to do with an unsafe secret, how to give a sincere apology, etc.) and includes important reminders, personal stories, and quotes from other girls who are on their own friendship journeys.  I can (and will) go on, but Speer brings so much good stuff to the table that I'm going to bullet point the rest:

  • How to process big emotions like anger, fear, sadness in healthy ways (and how to recognize unhealthy ones).     
  • How to use I-statements to help resolve friendship problems (Conflict Resolution 101).
  • How to consider multiple solutions and choose what feels right.
  • Talks about the difference between close friends (aka BFFs), friends, and acquaintances and how to handle NRF's (aka Not-Really-Friends).  Hint: Approach with compassion and caution.
  • Contains tips for making new friends and taking care of oneself during hard times.
  • There's even a list of book club discussion questions, which helps facilitate conversations about the material!  💓💓💓

My favorite part of the book was the author's discussion of nine common sense truths about friends and friendships.  Though Speer explores each one more fully in the book, I'll share the basic truths here so you can fall in love with them like I did.  

  1. Healthy friendships feel safe and accepting
  2. Everyone develops friendship skills at a different pace.
  3. Friendships have different phases and change over time.
  4. Close friendships can be hard to find and may not happen until middle school or later.
  5. Some girls with strong friendship qualities may not have the "most" friends.  Sometimes girls with the "most" friends do not make the "best" friends.
  6. Everyone makes mistakes.
  7. We teach others how we want to be treated by speaking up.
  8. When things get tough in friendship, it's important to respond in a way that feels right to you.
  9. You choose which of your friendships to grow.  Grow the healthy ones!

Speers is always encouraging and never negative, which I adore. If either the reader or one of their
friends is struggling in a specific area, she emphasizes that those skills simply 'need some practice,' that we all learn at our own pace, and that everyone has the ability to choose and to change.

I have four daughters ranging in age from tween to teen and, quite frankly, all of them could use this book.  Although it focuses on helping female friendships, the lessons inside are equally applicable regardless of gender and incredibly important.  If you have kids and want to help them recognize, develop, and maintain healthy friendships, I highly recommend BFF or NRF?: A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships.     

*The author also reminds the reader (see right) to keep all quiz results and/or recorded responses private, to only share them with a trusted adult, and never use them to bully or criticize others, which I think shows an clear understanding of her audience and certain 'tweenage' tendencies. 

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Agnes at the End of the World - Kelly McWilliams

Summary: On Judgement Day, we shall shelter in the underground temple, with food enough for four hundred days.

Agnes loves her Red Creek home -- its quiet, sunny mornings, it's dusty roads, and its God.  There, she cares tirelessly for her younger siblings and follows the town's strict laws.  What she doesn't k now is that Red Creek is a cult, controlled by a madman who calls himself a prophet.  

Then Agnes meets Danny, an Outsider boy, and beings to question what is and isn't a sin.  Her brother Ezekiel will die without the insulin she smuggles in once a month, even though medicine is forbidden.  Is she a sinner for saving him? Is her sister Beth a sinner for yearning for the world beyond Red Creek?

As the prophet grows more dangerous, Agnes realizes she must escape with Ezekiel and leave everyone else, including Beth, behind.  But it isn't safe Outside, either:  A viral pandemic is burning through the population at a terrifying rate.  As Agnes ventures forth, she forms a mysterious connection with the Virus.  Will Agnes be able to choose between saving her family and saving the world?

This feminist, voice-driven, and genre-defying novel from Kelly McWilliams is a breathtaking story of survival and faith, perfect for fans of The Handmaid's Tale and Wilder Girls (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I suppose that I should start with the most important part of this review.  I didn't finish this book.  I tried to give it my all but eventually realized that I was forcing myself to read a book I had no desire to keep reading and had to remind myself that I don't do that anymore.  I read 264 pages out of 409.  Take or leave my review, as you will.

Agnes at the End of the World is told through the eyes of two teenage girls -- Agnes, and her younger sister Beth.  Independent of each other, each sister begins to question the teachings of the 'prophet' of Red Creek and each sister handles her faith crisis in a different way.  When a strange pandemic (timely, eh) begins to invade the community,  Agnes and Beth must decide whether they will follow their family into a bunker the 'prophet' claims will protect them from harm or make a desperate bid for freedom in an unknown world fraught with peril. Each chooses a separate path.

I approached this book with trepidation. I had read the above summary but wasn't quite sure what to expect.  Thankfully, this book does not glamorize cults or treat them kindly. The 'prophet' of Red Creek is portrayed as a sexist, power-crazed, conman who only cares about controlling his flock.  I have no problem, whatsoever, with this portrayal.  He's not a nice man.  However, some of the more mainstream concepts of Christianity, like revelation, prayer, scripture, temples, and prophecy, kind of end up lumped in with his teachings.  As a Christian myself, I appreciated that the author didn't seem to be trying to vilify all religion, but the juxtaposition of things I abhor alongside the distortion of things I hold sacred made me very uncomfortable and tarnished my experience with the book. Ultimately, I just wasn't enjoying myself and decided I'd much rather be reading...well, anything else.  So I did.  

My Rating:  2 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Those with a sincere belief in prophecy and revelation might want to steer clear, or at the very least, approach with caution.  Profanity is present throughout the book.  At least 25 instances in the part that I read.  I have no idea if there is any sex in the remainder of the book, but since Agnes was still hesitant to kiss anyone at page 264, I'm *guessing* you're all clear. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

House of Hollow - Krystal Sutherland

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Iris Hollow has always been strange. Something happened to her and her two older sisters when they were children, something they can’t quite remember but that left each of them with an identical half-moon scar at the base of their throats.

Iris has spent most of her teenage years trying to avoid the weirdness that sticks to her like tar. But when her eldest sister, Grey, goes missing under suspicious circumstances, Iris learns just how weird her life can get: horned men start shadowing her, a corpse falls out of her sister’s ceiling, and ugly, impossible memories start to twist their way to the forefront of her mind.

As Iris retraces Grey’s last known footsteps and follows the increasingly bizarre trail of breadcrumbs she left behind, it becomes apparent that the only way to save her sister is to decipher the mystery of what happened to them as children.

The closer Iris gets to the truth, the closer she comes to understanding that the answer is dark and dangerous – and that Grey has been keeping a terrible secret from her for years. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Many times I’ll pick up a book with the description promising me that I’ll be creeped out and scared, and many times I’m disappointed. It’s like they choke at the finish line. However, I am happy to report that this book does not choke at the finish line! NoSiree! You will be uber creeped out right until the end. That’s what you want, right? You pick up a scary book and you expect it to be scary.

First off, this cover is beautiful. It’s eye catching and really interesting. There are lots of cool covers out there, though, but this one is especially cool because it actually pertains to what happens in the book, which I find to be rarer than I’d like. A cool, creepy cover that actually shows something that happens? Sign me up now.

The story in this book is really creepy. After reading it I did a little digging into what it was based on, which was also creepy. I like that it was based on some creatures in real folklore. I do believe that many authors can create scary creatures that didn’t exist before, but there is also something special about writing your own take on a kind of creature that already exists in folklore and making it all your own. It makes it that much more relevant, I believe. If its something you’ve heard of, maybe something you’ve been threatened with by grandma/uncle/friend/scary cartoons/etc. (random examples, I know), its always sort of been at the back of your mind and a story like this brings it immediately to the forefront and takes all of that fear and previous scariness that you’ve assigned it and makes it that much more nuanced and layered. That is exactly what happens with this story, and I loved that about it.

This book is lush and vivid. The descriptions are strong and intoxicating. It embraces the beauty/social media world and has characters that are mysterious and tempting. This book also has quite a bit of violence and older YA themes in it. Although the main character is a young teen, I assure you that there is plenty to scare and creep out older teens. If your teen is into creepy things while enjoying their dose of very teen-ish themes (like beauty, huge social media followings, edgy bands, cool boyfriends, etc.) this is totally their book. I enjoyed it a lot and I am not a teen. 😊

If you like to dabble your toes in a good, creepy YA fairytale-type story, or even enjoy those lush alternative worlds that seem so dark and tempting, this is for you. If you are a YA reader looking for something scary and descriptive, this is also your book.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and mild discussions of sex, and quite a bit of fairytale-esque violence.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Freeform Friday: The Removed - Brandon Hobson

Summary: Steeped in Cherokee myths and history, a novel about a fractured family reckoning with the tragic death of their son long ago—from National Book Award finalist Brandon Hobson.

In the fifteen years since their teenage son, Ray-Ray, was killed in a police shooting, the Echota family has been suspended in private grief. The mother, Maria, increasingly struggles to manage the onset of Alzheimer’s in her husband, Ernest. Their adult daughter, Sonja, leads a life of solitude, punctuated only by spells of dizzying romantic obsession. And their son, Edgar, fled home long ago, turning to drugs to mute his feelings of alienation.

With the family’s annual bonfire approaching—an occasion marking both the Cherokee National Holiday and Ray-Ray’s death, and a rare moment in which they openly talk about his memory—Maria attempts to call the family together from their physical and emotional distances once more. But as the bonfire draws near, each of them feels a strange blurring of the boundary between normal life and the spirit world. Maria and Ernest take in a foster child who seems to almost miraculously keep Ernest’s mental fog at bay. Sonja becomes dangerously fixated on a man named Vin, despite—or perhaps because of—his ties to tragedy in her lifetime and lifetimes before. And in the wake of a suicide attempt, Edgar finds himself in the mysterious Darkening Land: a place between the living and the dead, where old atrocities echo.

Drawing deeply on Cherokee folklore, The Removed seamlessly blends the real and spiritual to excavate the deep reverberations of trauma—a meditation on family, grief, home, and the power of stories on both a personal and ancestral level. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I have always enjoyed reading books that are deeply steeped in culture, and this was just such a book. I find Native American folklore to be fascinating, and so this book that discusses Cherokee myths and history was right up my alley. I really appreciate authors that are willing to share their personal cultures with the rest of us. I firmly believe that only by being exposed to others’ beliefs, culture, myths, folklore, etc., are we able to understand and empathize with one another. Not only is it important to learn about others to do this, but when we are exposed to other cultures and their lore, we are able to discover understanding about ourselves and happenings in our own life. So many times I read books with a lot of deep cultural discussion and I am better able to understand my own thoughts and experiences, and often it allows me to describe and give word to those things that before I felt my own experiences and knowledge were inadequate to describe. Some other books I’ve reviewed recently that fulfill this experience for me are Tommy Orange’s There There, David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts, Toni Jensen’s Carry: a Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land, and Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians.

On the surface, this book is an interesting story about a Cherokee family with the terrible loss of a child. They are understandably upset, and it has affected each of the family members in different ways. The adult children have acted out and it has led to various troubles in their lives, and a lot of the story is based on following them around and seeing how they’ve dealt with the loss of their brother. The parents are also affected, but they are given a small miracle by virtue of a boy who comes back and reminds him of their lost son. The story at this point takes an interesting turn and goes from the reader following the lives of those left behind to the potential of being saved by a boy who has an unnerving likeness to the lost son.

One of the things that I liked most about this book was reading about modern day Cherokee people. I am very aware that the Native Americans in America didn’t just disappear once the days of yore were gone, but have evolved, adapted, and live in this world just like anyone else. I really appreciate understanding how they’ve adapted their cultural beliefs and practices to a modern world and am fascinated about how they walk that line of deep historical cultural practices but still must do normal everyday things of modern life. Learning about these cultural practices and adaptations brings vibrancy and depth to that important part of our society.

I would have liked for this book to have more storytelling. It is a fairly short book, and I would have liked for the story to be more fleshed out and even more cultural ties be formed. I feel like it was a missed opportunity that the reader couldn’t experience parts of the cultural ceremonies that were described as upcoming (such as the bonfire) and would have made the story feel more fleshed out. As it was, we skipped around to characters and there wasn’t a huge resolution made for any of them. I think there was a lot more to be explored. 

There has been some excellent Native American literature coming out of late, and if you have enjoyed those, you should definitely read this book as well.

My Rating: 3 Stars

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

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women's Voices from the Gulag - Monika Zgustova

Summary:
  The pain inflicted by the gulags has cast a long shadow over Soviet-era history.  Zgustova's collection of interviews with former female prisoners not only chronicles the hardships of the camps, but also serves as testament to the power of beauty in the face of adversity.

Where one would expect to find only hopelessness and despair, Zgustova has unearthed tales of love, art, and friendship that endured and even flourished in times of tragedy.  These stories, collected in the vein of Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel Prize-winning oral histories, turn one of the darkest periods of the Soviet era into a song of human perseverance, in a way that reads as an intimate family history.

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

My Review:  In Dressed for a Dance in the Snow, author Monika Zgustova, shares the accounts of several women who managed to survive the brutality of Stalin's forced labor camps, known as gulags, in the early to mid-1900s.  As defined by the regime, the gulags were "forced labor camps with a particularly harsh regimen for traitors to their country.'  Under Stalin's regime, men, women, and children were ripped from their homes, forced into prison, and sentenced to decades of hard labor where they endured brutal abuse, starvation, intemperate climate and squalid living conditions that often resulted in death.  Women often arrived at these labor camps in whatever finery they had been wearing when they were taken; shivering in the bitter cold, they seemed dressed for a dance in the snow (hence the title). 

Each woman's experience is slightly different -- the details of their previous life, the reason they were taken, the length their sentence, their assigned tasks in the gulag -- but each endured significant trauma and loss.  Prisoners were often shifted from place to place, shoved into crowded train cars with only a bucket for the sometimes months-long journey to another camp, another hardship. Many were assigned grueling and/or meaningless tasks, ordered to build a wall one day only to tear it down the next, again and again.  Perhaps the worst cruelty was the constant threat of violence and death.  As one woman recounted (trigger warning, violence):   

Many of the prisoners were killed by extrajudicial executions.  The most common pretext was attempted escape.  When we went to or from work, we always had an escort.  The order was clear: 'Left, right left...Anything else will look like and attempt to escape, and the escort will shoot without warning.' Exhausted people, incapable of walking in a straight line, might stumble or wobble or get left behind.  They were shot immediately, in front of everybody.  The same thing happened to those who got to close to the 'forbidden zone': a border of loose earth between the high outer wall and the inner barbed-wire fence.  An 'attempt to escape' served as an excuse for anything.  In the forced labor camps, there was no end to the abuse.  In the summer, if a prisoner committed a small offense, he was left naked to the waist and forced to stand next to the watchtower.  The mosquitos ate him alive.  It was impossible to stay still.  With the first movement, a shot rang out...

"Mass executions were frequent.  In the late 1940s, in the Mulda, the entire population of a men's Gulag was massacred on the pretext of a 'protest.' The floors and walls of the barracks in that razed camp were still spotted with blood and fragments of human brains when our group of prisoners was sent there to replace the victims. "

To put it plainly, the gulags were hell on earth.  And yet, many of the women Zgustova interviewed found a silver lining buried in all the muck, decrying the callous behavior of their captors while praising the kindness of their fellow prisoners.   Speaking of her experience in the camps, one woman said, 

After a long time, I came to value at least part of my experience.  I realized that it was in the camps where I had learned to recognize the profound evil my country had engendered.  The work camp was my most important lesson.  Those bitter, hard years were my best school, a school that would help me throughout the rest of my life.  I can't imagine life without the camps.  More than that: if I had to live my life over, I would not want to avoid that experience.  Why?  Because the most horrible struggles led to the strongest of friendships.  There's no place for that kind of bond in life.  It takes the most extreme situations to create that kind of love and solidarity."

Not all the prisoners agree on this point.  Another stated, "I believe that the positive effects of life in the Gulag do not compensate for everything that is negative about it.  In my experience, nothing made the Gulag worthwhile."

Dressed for a Dance in the Snow delves into a shameful era in Soviet history and highlights the female experience rather than the more-studied experiences of male prisoners.  These prisoners were normal women from every walk of life, mothers and daughters, students and dissidents, entertainers and medical professionals.  Each story taught me a little bit more about the troubling history of a nation and the enduring spirit of an oppressed people.  It was interesting to learn about the Soviet campaign against the intelligentsia (the educated elite) and the false history taught in schools at the time, as well as the regime's tendency to torture political prisoners, coerce confessions, and condemn entire families and friend groups to the Gulag for the often-fabricated actions of a single person.

One of the most compelling aspects of this book, outside of the individual stories, is the role of literature, art, and music in sustaining political prisoners both during and after their time in the Gulag.  Nearly every account speaks of forbidden literature, handmade children's books reconstructed from memory, hidden diaries, scraps of shared poetry, clandestine literary circles and musical performances that brought light to an otherwise gloomy existence.  According to the author, a book meant 'salvation! Beauty, liberty, and civilization in the midst of total barbarity.'  Even after the Gulag, this sentiment persisted.  In regards to her post-gulag interests, one woman said:

...my apartment filled up with hundreds, then thousands of books that began to take up almost all the space; they were the real inhabitants.  I couldn't stop reading.  It was my pastime, my passion, and my intellectual sustenance.  Reading, I forgot about my wasted life, my complex identity, the reactions of people, who treated me as if I had the plague.  By reading, I could enjoy a new life, start over again, live many lives.  

It was incredibly touching to read that something so near and dear to my heart was such an important lifeline to these women in times of crisis and a comfort during their recovery. 

From a structural standpoint, there were a few aspects of the book that didn't sit well with me.  First, the titles felt slightly crowded (e.g. Eurydice in the Underworld: Irinia Emelyanova).  While there were some similarities between the women in each title, I felt the references were often obscure and unnecessary.  The women of the Gulag can certainly carry a title on their own.  On a slightly more confusing note, several of the women's stories held multiple other stories and historical tangents.  I am certainly not complaining about hearing from more women, but sometimes it was hard to keep everyone straight.  Personally, I would have preferred chapter introductions that offered historical context so that the sole focus could be on each woman's unique story.

Dressed for a Dance in the Snow gives a voice to women whose experiences deserve recognition. While I can't say that I 'enjoyed' the subject matter -- it would be weird if I did -- I can say that I appreciated the opportunity to learn from it.  I would recommend this book to anyone who interested in learning more about the history of the Gulag from a female perspective.  

My Rating:  3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Discussion of violence, suicide, and murder as well as extreme deprivation.  

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Bookshop on the Shore - Jenny Colgan

Summary:  Desperate to escape London, single mother Zoe wants to build a new life for herself and her four-year-old son, Hari.  She can barely afford the crammed studio apartment on a busy street where shouting football fans keep them awake all night, and Hari's dad, Jaz, a charismatic but perpetually broke DJ, is no help at all.  But his sister, Surinder, comes to Zoe's aid, hooking her up with a job as far away from the urban crush as possible: working at a bookshop on the banks of Loch Ness.  And there's a second job to cover housing: Zoe will be an au pair for three children at a genuine castle in the Scottish Highlands.

But while Scotland is everything Zoe dreamed of -- clear skies, brisk fresh air, blessed quiet -- everything else is a bit of a mess.  The Urquart family castle is grand but crumbling, the children's mother has abandoned the family, their father is a wreck, and the kids have been kicked out of school and left to their own devices.  Zoe has her work cut out for her and is determined to rise to the challenge.  With the help of Nina, the friendly local bookseller, Zoe begins to put down roots in the community.  Are books, fresh air, and kindness enough to heal the Urquart family -- and her own?  (Summary from back of book - Image from harpercollins.ca)

IMPORTANT NOTE: While The Bookshop on the Shore can technically stand alone, it does have some shared characters with one of Colgan's earlier books also set in the Scottish Highlands, The Bookshop on the Corner.  If the idea of a bookmobile, some romance, and the Scottish countryside appeal to you, I would recommend reading Corner before Shore to avoid bouncing around the timeline.  

My Review:  For our 20th wedding anniversary, my husband and I decided to skip the crowds and masks (for the most part) and celebrate by staying at a quiet inn on the Oregon coast, visiting local beaches, whale-spotting, and hunting for sea glass.  Of all the books crammed into my suitcase, The Bookshop on the Shore was the one that caught my eye when the time came to pick a book. Ordinarily, I take notes while I'm reading to ease the review process, but I refuse to do so on vacation.  As such, I had to rely on my less-than-stellar memory for this review.  Take it how you will.  

Zoe is a young, newly single mother trapped in unfortunate circumstances; when a way out presents itself, she jumps at the chance for a change of scenery and a better life for son.  Zoe arrives at the shores of Loch Ness fully prepared to work in a bookshop and tenderly minister to the wounded hearts of three abandoned children.  What she finds is a bookmobile frequented by some very persnickety patrons and a ramshackle castle inhabited by three rather feral children and their woefully inattentive father.  The children give her an alarming nickname -- Nanny Seven -- and are resolved to send her packing. like all the rest.  However, Zoe has a sense that she is needed and minded to stay if for no other reason than she and her son have no one where else to go.  That's the gist of the story, anyway.  I'll leave it there, so as to avoid spoilers.  

The Bookshop on the Shore is not the be-all-end-all of English literature nor is it fluffy chick lit, but it was an enjoyable beach read.  The story sets out at a rather leisurely pace, picking up speed as the plot unfolds with traces of drama, humor, suspense, book-love, and a romance that takes ages to build.  Some aspects of the story were more serious than I expected, with themes regarding parental abandonment, mental health, and self-harm, but there were plenty of other moments that lighten the overall story.  The romance between the Zoe and another character is adorable, but never felt like the main focal point of the story until near the end of the book.  I wanted it to be a bit more obvious, but the upside is that it didn't overshadow the other aspects of the plot (i.e. Zoe's attempts to help the Urquart children, her interaction with the community, her efforts with the 'bookshop' and her own familial struggles) which made for a more well-rounded story .  

I am not sure whether this will offend the author or not -- if so, let's hope she never sees this -- but I think that the storyline has the makings of a romantic, slightly eerie Hallmark* Halloween movie.  To her credit, Colgan's characters are significantly more developed than those that generally inhabit a Hallmark, but I can see the main story playing out in my head and I would love to see it on screen.  Overall, I was entertained by The Bookshop on the Shore, and that's all I really wanted in the first place.  

*PSSssst.  I love Hallmark movies, so this should be read as a compliment.  

My Rating: 3.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: The romance is sweet rather than sultry, so no worries there. Some profanity sprinkled throughout, but one character in particular gets very drunk, very upset, and very saltywhich leads to numerous F words in one particular scene.  

Monday, September 6, 2021

Namesake (Fable #2) - Adrienne Young

Summary: Welcome to a world made dangerous by the sea and by those who wish to profit from it. Where a young girl must find her place and her family while trying to survive in a world built for men.

With the Marigold ship free of her father, Fable and the rest of the crew were set to start over. That freedom is short-lived when Fable becomes a pawn in a notorious thug’s scheme. In order to get to her intended destination, she must help him to secure a partnership with Holland, a powerful gem trader who is more than she seems.

As Fable descends deeper into a world of betrayal and deception, she learns that the secrets her mother took to her grave are now putting the people Fable cares about in danger. If Fable is going to save them, then she must risk everything—including the boy she loves and the home she has finally found. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)


My Review: This is the sequel to Fable, and you can read my review of that book here. Although Fable gave a great back story, if you’re reading Namesake, you should probably go back and read Fable first because it’s also really fun and the back story gives you a lot of insight into what is going on in the current story.

I’m just going to say right now that if you’re into reading about pirates, and you say the word “swashbuckling” a lot or participate in International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19th (or if you’ve even heard of this), you should probably read this book. It’s all the fun about pirates and none of the bloodshed, murder, and mayhem that they actually caused.

One of my favorite parts of this duology is the female protagonist. She’s tough, talented, and good at what she does. She also has characteristics that make her more realistic feeling. I mean, there is a lot of magic going on, and some places where one must suspend their knowledge of reality (like diving hundreds of feet down for treasure while just holding your breath…don’t get me started on this), but Young does a good job of making the characters feel authentic in that no one is completely good or completely bad. Even the villains are given some redemptive qualities. This is not to say that there isn’t a YA whimsical feeling to all of it. This is a pirate story, after all. There is a fair amount of Disney-esque wonder and pirate happenings that gives one those same feelings you might experience from watching the movies or even riding the pirate rides at Disney. If you’re already humming the song right now, you should go read this book.

The story itself was a fun one. It had some good twists and turns, and some fun new characters who had a whole new element of drama and delight. There is a love story, of course, because pirates in a YA novel have to have a love story between young characters or one would question the author’s intentions. There were some things I didn’t agree with, necessarily, but even with my own opinions on this I feel like the story felt organic, even though I did have to suspend some belief, because in the end I, too, like to be sucked up in a good swashbuckler.

If you’ve read Fable, or you’re planning to, you must certainly read this book. It’s a given. It left the reader on a cliffhanger, and this sequel does a good job of tying up loose ends after creating some more danger and complications to its own story. Sometimes a sequel is disappointing in that it doesn’t live up to the awesomeness of the first book. I didn’t find that to be true in this case. Namesake has its own fun story arc, and Young does a good job of creating a fun world where one can’t help but be swept up in the romance and whimsy of it all.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language, but there are also some pretty steamy love scenes. I was surprised, actually. There is quite a bit of detail and the scenes lasted longer than I would have thought for a YA audience. There is also typical pirate violence (which is not to say that violence should be typical, but more to say the categories of violence you would expect to see from a pirate).

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