Monday, November 29, 2021

The Taking of Jemima Boone: Colonial Settlers, Tribal Nations, and the Kidnap that Shaped America - Matthew Pearl

Summary: On a quiet midsummer day in 1776, weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, thirteen-year-old Jemima Boone and her friends Betsy and Fanny Callaway disappear near the Kentucky settlement of Boonesboro, the echoes of their faraway screams lingering on the air.

A Cherokee-Shawnee raiding party has taken the girls as the latest salvo in the blood feud between American Indians and the colonial settlers who have decimated native lands and resources. Hanging Maw, the raiders’ leader, recognizes one of the captives as Jemima Boone, daughter of Kentucky's most influential pioneers, and realizes she could be a valuable pawn in the battle to drive the colonists out of the contested Kentucky territory for good.

With Daniel Boone and his posse in pursuit, Hanging Maw devises a plan that could ultimately bring greater peace both to the tribes and the colonists. But after the girls find clever ways to create a trail of clues, the raiding party is ambushed by Boone and the rescuers in a battle with reverberations that nobody could predict. As Matthew Pearl reveals, the exciting story of Jemima Boone’s kidnapping vividly illuminates the early days of America’s westward expansion, and the violent and tragic clashes across cultural lines that ensue.

In this enthralling narrative in the tradition of Candice Millard and David Grann, Matthew Pearl unearths a forgotten and dramatic series of events from early in the Revolutionary War that opens a window into America’s transition from colony to nation, with the heavy moral costs incurred amid shocking new alliances and betrayals. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I don’t know about you, but I know (knew?) very little about Daniel Boone. I know the folk hero-type things, and of course I feel like his reputation is the stuff of legends, but I haven’t researched anything about him. I didn’t even really know what time he was alive. Because of this, I found this book to be fascinating. First of all, Daniel Boone lives up to the hype. He’s as cool as “they” say he was, and even historical documents from all different walks of life and viewpoints remember him fondly and recognize how impressive he was.

Did you know that Daniel Boone was one of the first white settlers in Kentucky, and that the Native Americans there were not only fighting against him and the frontiersman for taking their land, but also because the British paid them to kill them and stop their progression? I didn’t know this at all. Also, this was all right around during the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. Because Boone and crew were living way off the proverbial grid, they often didn’t know when wars had ended or battles won and just carried on with their business until their heard otherwise.

The actual story of the kidnapping of Jemima Boone and her friends was really interesting and led to a lifetime of implications for Daniel Boone, the other settlers, and the Native Americans around at the time. I found this book to be well-researched and in-depth but also short enough to be a quick read. The writing was accessible and yet maintained a level of academic language that I appreciated to delineate it from just a novel or short story with the same information.

I appreciated the fair viewpoint taken by Pearl. The reactions of the Native Americans were discussed and explored, and their plight explored and described. I also really appreciated the role of women in the research, especially Jemima, and was glad the author gave them the credit that they deserved in the roll of settling the territory.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. I was just constantly exclaiming to various people how fascinating it was, and it was just so cool tying together things I had heard about Daniel Boone as well as learning about larger-than-life new facts that were just as astonishing as the folklore. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially if you’re interested in American history or folk heroes. It really is a cool book.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a book about colonialism in America, so there is violence inflicted on all people involved, including Native people and settlers. No one’s hands are clean in this book.

Friday, November 26, 2021

The Proudest Color - Sheila Modir, PhD & Jeff Kashou, LMFT with Monica Mikai (Illustrator)

Summary:  For me, brown is more than feeling proud.  It's the color I see when I see me.

Zahra sees the world in vivid color.  When she's happy, she feels razzle-dazzle pink in her hands.  When she's sad, she feels a deep blue behind her eyes.  But she isn't quite sure how to feel about the color of her skin.  Kids at school tell her she is different, but her mother tells her to be proud!  From a diverse team and based on extensive research, The Proudest Color is a timely, sensitive introduction to race, racism, and racial pride. 

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

My Review:  Zahra's life is filled with color in an unusual way; she's emotionally synesthetic, which means that when she feels emotions, she also feels a color specific to that emotion.  Happiness feels like a rush of pink; Anger is bright red sparks. Zahra's sad eyes fill with tears that feel blue and a case of the nerves makes her see purple.  Best of all the colors is brown. -- so beautiful and rich that Zahra sees it when she feels proud.  It's also the color she sees when she looks in a mirror, the color of her skin, which her mom reminds her 'glows and glows.'  

On Zahra's first day of school, she's both happy (pink) and nervous (purple), even more purple when she sees that she is the only child with brown skin.  Thankfully, she remembers her mom's words of encouragement and marches into class, shining with confidence (yellow).  When a classmate says something unkind about Zahra's skin, she feels so many colors -- one color she doesn't feel is brown.  At home, Zahra tells her parents about what happened and they remind her of all the people who share her brown skin and the amazing things they have done, people like Martin Luther King, Malala Yousafzai, Frida Kahlo, Barack Obama, and more.  As Zahra thinks about the many people who share her beautiful skin, brown begins to feel her heart again.

Now, it might have escaped your notice, since I'm just a pair of typing fingers here, but I am white.  I am not this book's target audience but I accepted this book for review because I am passionate about helping children connect with stories that help them feel proud of their own appearance and identity.  Not only is The Proudest Color an interesting introduction to synesthesia, it is an important reminder to children with brown skin that they are beautiful exactly as they are and a reminder to the world at large that BIPOC children are entitled to their own positive racial identity and experiences.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic - Leigh Bardugo (Illus. Sara Kipin)

Summary:  Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid's voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy's bidding but only for a terrible price.  

Inspired by myth, folklore, and fairytale, #1 New York Times - best selling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love

Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange -- to fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.  (Summary from back of book - Image from www.hachette.com.au and us.macmillan.com)

My Review:  The Language of Thorns is a collection of six tales full of thrilling magic, unlikely friendships, and dangerous deals that yield unexpected consequences.  Although each tale is unique, readers will find threads of the familiar myths and legends, hints of Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and others, as they wind their way through the stories.  I loved how the author incorporated wisps of more recognizable tales into her original work, often weaving several into one story.  For example, the first tale, Ayama and the Thorn Wood, has hints of at least three different fairytales and a dash of Greek mythology.  The overarching result is a gorgeous original work, filled with stories that feel ancient, delightfully creepy, and utterly unpredictable.

One of my favorite aspects of the book are the illustrations that corresponded with each story.  They began rather simply with a lone object -- a turret, a fox, a ribbon, a flower, a top hat, or a sea shell.  With each turn of the page, the drawing expands, lending new light to the story,  the images growing together from each side of the page until the end when readers are treated to an illustration that spans both pages and hints at the full meaning of each story.  As per usual, Bardugo's writing is evocative and atmospheric, but I felt the but Sara Kipin's artistry elevated everything and added to the overall experience of the book. 

Although this book is a book of fairytales, readers should expect something a little more Grimm than Disney.  Like the old fairytales, the stories do have some darker, more adult themes that might trouble or confuse younger readers.  It's not graphic but it's also not a children's book.  Though this book is subtly set in the Grishaverse, I believe it could be enjoyed by any reader, even one unfamiliar with the series.   Overall, it was a fun read and would be a great gift for someone who is a fan of fairytales or loves all things 'Bardugo.'

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:    As with most fairytales, there are witches, curses, and magic.  No profanity that I picked up on.  Some violence.  Some allusions to intimacy between characters and brief mention of a kissing between and across genders.   

Monday, November 22, 2021

No One Will Miss Her - Kat Rosenfield

Summary: A smart, witty, crackling novel of psychological suspense in which a girl from a hardscrabble small town meets a gorgeous Instagram influencer from the big city, with a murderous twist that will shock even the most savvy reader.
On a beautiful October morning in rural Maine, a homicide investigator from the state police pulls into the hard-luck town of Copper Falls. The local junkyard is burning, and the town pariah Lizzie Oullette is dead—with her husband, Dwayne, nowhere to be found. As scandal ripples through the community, Detective Ian Bird’s inquiries unexpectedly lead him away from small-town Maine to a swank city townhouse several hours south. Adrienne Richards, blonde and fabulous social media influencer and wife of a disgraced billionaire, had been renting Lizzie’s tiny lake house as a country getaway…even though Copper Falls is anything but a resort town.

As Adrienne’s connection to the case becomes clear, so too does her connection to Lizzie, who narrates their story from beyond the grave. Each woman is desperately lonely in her own way, and they navigate a relationship that cuts across class boundaries: transactional, complicated, and, finally, deadly. A Gone Girl for the gig economy, this is a story of privilege, identity, and cunning, as two devious women from opposite worlds discover the dangers of coveting someone else’s life. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: It’s been a while since I’ve read a fast-paced pot boiler. I try to consume those books at a reasonable pace and not read only those—not because I don’t love them (who doesn’t love exciting, page-turning, surprising crime mysteries?!) but because I feel like I need to be more responsible in my reading. I can’t eat only candy and sweets, can I (can I?...asking for a friend…) so I must also space out my reading with others things that I enjoy as well.

So as you might have guessed, this is a fast-paced, twisty-turny murder mystery that will you keep you guessing and page turning. I read this in a short amount of time, and if I hadn’t had all my other Adult Duties to deal with, I would have just knocked it out in one sitting. I love those books that prompt that kind of reading, don’t you?

This book is told in alternating narration and third person, which I really enjoy. I’ve decided that alternating narration, even if it’s told in some third person and some first person, is my jam, especially if the author does a good job delineating between voices and I know what’s going on. It’s no good if the voices all blend together, but Rosenfield was able to make sure that we knew who was telling the story, and that made for a personal look at the story as well as a bird’s eye view of the story. It was effective and the reading was very accessible and made for quick reading.

This is a mystery story that takes you many places you might not expect, some of it more plausible-seeming than others, but still a lot of fun and a good, fast-paced read. If you’re looking for something that you can just sit down and enjoy, or maybe something that doesn’t take a lot of brain power but still gives you the thrill of reading and some twists and turns, this book is for you. I think it would be perfect for a waiting room, a plane, or even just an afternoon where you’re done with reading something heavy-duty and just want some candy.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language, violence, and sex. I would say for a crime genre it was on the lighter side but remember that the competition includes the Scandinavian crime authors who spare no feelings. However, I would say if you read crime genre, this is a tame one comparatively.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Freeform Friday: Redemptor (Raybearer #2)- Jordan Ifueko

Summary: For the first time, an Empress Redemptor sits on Aritsar's throne. To appease the sinister spirits of the dead, Tarisai must now anoint a council of her own, coming into her full power as a Raybearer. She must then descend into the Underworld, a sacrifice to end all future atrocities.

Tarisai is determined to survive. Or at least, that's what she tells her increasingly distant circle of friends. Months into her shaky reign as empress, child spirits haunt her, demanding that she pay for past sins of the empire.

With the lives of her loved ones on the line, assassination attempts from unknown quarters, and a handsome new stranger she can't quite trust . . . Tarisai fears the pressure may consume her. But in this finale to the Raybearer duology, Tarisai must learn whether to die for justice . . . or to live for it. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: This is the second book in the “Raybearer” series. See my review of Raybearer here. I think it’s sometimes hard to follow up an exciting book. There’s a lot of pressure to keep the story going, and to get your readers up to speed without losing your momentum. I’m not sure this book was able to do all of this.

Before I write a review (and after I’ve read the book, of course) I go back and read the description that Goodreads has for it, just to make sure I’m back in the mood of the book. This book’s description is exciting. There is a lot to cover and a lot to get done, and to conclude this part of the story (and possibly the series, as Goodreads only has two books listed right now) a lot of things had to happen. I would say that those things happened, but I just didn’t find them very exciting. I’ve been searching my soul as to why this was. On the surface, it seems like I should have been totally swept up in this book. I like YA fiction, I enjoy strong female characters, and I love books that take place in interesting places with rich cultures. This book had all of it. However, instead of feeling as strong as she did the first book, she just felt whiny and indecisive. I understand that no one is completely strong all the time, but maybe I was just sick of the extent of it. The book seemed to go on and on, and then the parts that were important felt rushed. For instance, in the ending of this book (and I’m trying to keep ya’ll spoiler free here) there is a culmination of everything where Tarisai goes to the underworld, and in the end, it just sort of rushes through it all. Like she’s been dithering around the whole countryside for an entire book, but the important parts are concluded within a few paragraphs. Or just skipped over. Remember the end of one of the Twilight books (and I forget which one and don’t care enough to go looking) where Boring Bella sleeps through the whole fight and just wakes up on the other side? It wasn’t that bad, but it felt similar to it. There are other parts in the book that are like this as well. Also, the story itself felt disjointed and just kind of like the characters were muddling about without much direction. They wanted places to go, they had things to do, but the story just didn’t come out to organically allow them to do what they needed them to do.

Now that all being said, I feel like this was a fine conclusion to the book. The things that needed to happen, happened, and there was enough of a conclusion that if there isn’t another installment to this series, we’ll be fine. However, there is an opening for either another installment or an adjacent series as well. That’s a good place to be in.

If you read Raybearer, you should absolutely read this book. And the series is definitely worth your time. It’s got some great female characters, and an interesting culture and fantastical realm that is enjoyable.

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and a sex scene, but on par with others in the YA genre.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Mountain Between Us - Charles Martin

Summary: Lying together on a storm-ravaged night are gifted surgeon Dr. Ben Payne, who is facing an agonizing separation from his wife, and Ashley Knox, a young magazine writer en route to her wedding.  When their plane crashes in a frigid and remote mountain wilderness, Ashley and Ben are plunged into a life-or-death struggle.  As the days turn to weeks on the unforgiving mountain, the two heal from their physical wounds, even as they are forced to confront surprising and painful truths.  These intimate conversations and their dependence on each other create an extraordinary bond.  Finally with their survival hanging in the balance, they hatch a plan to escape the wilderness, but as desperate as they are to be saved, Ashley and Ben wonder what will happen to their powerful connection when they return to their previous lives.  (Summary from back of book - Image from pinterest.com)

My Review:  Dr. Ben Payne is a gifted surgeon, scheduled to be in the operating room in less than 24 hours.  Ashley Knox has a wedding to attend -- her own!  When their flight is cancelled at the last minute, they both end up on a small charter flight to Denver, desperate to make it to their respective commitments.  Unfortunately, the plane crashes, the pilot is dead, and the two strangers are injured, stranded in the middle of a vast mountainous wilderness, miles from civilization and with very little hope of rescue.  

I was drawn to The Mountain Between Us because I had seen ads for the movie version on Hulu, so reading the book first seemed like the natural step.  The story alternates between Ben and Ashley's present predicament and Ben's account of pivotal moments in his life, which he captures on a  medical recording device.  The story is told exclusively from the male perspective, which is understandable. Since Ashley is gravely injured for 98% of the book and often unconscious or sleeping, I can see why her perspective would be harder to write, but I did wish I could have seen parts of the story through her eyes. 

I don't read books in the survival genre a lot, so I'm not sure what passes for 'normal' these days, but the author made a few stylistic choices that bothered me.  First, after the plane crash when Ben was assessing available equipment, he started name dropping equipment brands which felt contrived and cringey, almost as if the author were trying to establish credibility with survivalist readers.  Second, the pace was incredibly slow, some might even say arduous.  I suppose that could have been intentional, to draw out the suspense, but mostly the story just felt bogged down by a great deal of unnecessary information.  Do readers really need to know exactly how Ben fashioned a stretcher out of A, B, C, and D by doing T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z.  Personally, I feel it is better to give a little less detail and let the reader connect some of the dots.  Finally, Ben seemed to be an expert in an unusual amount of areas. Not only is he a talented surgeon, he's also an accomplished hiker, a record-breaking runner, and Eagle Scout (and so on).  It all felt too convenient and a bit like the author was trying to feed into male-readers survival fantasies (where the Renaissance Man/Hero uses his impressive skill set to both defy certain death doom and rescue the damsel in distress.  

Despite these shortcomings, there were a few aspects of the story that I enjoyed.  I liked the 'running' theme that cropped up from time to time.  I can't go into the details without spoiling a few things, but I felt it enriched the story.  I loved the recordings Ben made for his wife, the insight and background they offered, and how they provided an emotional counterpoint to his present situation. I appreciated that the author kept the characters' relationship fairly 'PG.'  As my investment in the characters increased, my awareness of the flaws in the story faded, and I felt pulled to keep reading just to see how things would end.  I got the sense that the author was either intentionally misleading the reader or building to a bigger reveal and I was not wrong.  Although the eventual payoff was satisfying and the book was an 'okay' one-time read, it wasn't sufficient for me to recommend it to other readers with any kind of enthusiasm.  

NOTE: Since reading this book, I have watched the movie as well and will give you my thoughts about how the two compare below this review.  For those who might be interested....

My Rating:  2.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The book has a few swear words, some description of bodies as it relates to survival and some discussion of sex.  

HOW THE MOVIE COMPARES TO THE BOOK 

After reading the book, I hoped the movie would have a little less talking about the characters' every move and a lot more actual movement.  Since actors can do in seconds what it takes authors pages to describe, the movie delivered the appropriate pacing and eliminated some of my worries about excessive detail.  I also wanted the two main characters to be more equal partners, rather than one side doing most of the work; the movie delivered on that score too.  The one thing that was left out of the movie that I missed was the recorded 'flashback' moments from Ben's life.  I realize that there probably wasn't time to cover all the background, and so adjustments were made, but I missed the aspects of the story that the recorder (and its contents) brought to the table.  

Overall, I feel like the production staff read the book and said, "Well, we like the general concept so we're going to keep some basic plot points, mess around with the timeline, and tweak or omit everything else." I don't want to spoil any of the changes in storyline, but I will say that there is a level of PG-13 intimacy in the on-screen version that isn't present in the book.  I fast forwarded through it without too much of a problem, so if you aren't feeling like slogging through the Uinta Mountain range for more than 1hr 52 minutes, I recommend the movie over the book.  

Monday, November 15, 2021

For the Wolf - Hannah Whitten

Summary: As the only Second Daughter born in centuries, Red has one purpose-to be sacrificed to the Wolf in the Wood in the hope he'll return the world's captured gods.
Red is almost relieved to go. Plagued by a dangerous power she can't control, at least she knows that in the Wilderwood, she can't hurt those she loves. Again.

But the legends lie. The Wolf is a man, not a monster. Her magic is a calling, not a curse. And if she doesn't learn how to use it, the monsters the gods have become will swallow the Wilderwood-and her world-whole. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Oh my, yall! This book was quite the deal! At first glance, it is an obvious homage to “Little Red Riding Hood.” I expected grandmas and a red cloak and maybe big eyes. There was none of that. Save for the red cloak and a “wolf” (not a wolf), this was definitely just a light and passing reference to that fairytale that we all know so well. That’s ok, though! I’ve said many times that I’m enjoying these new takes on fairytales that we’ve got going on in literature right now. If you love those too, check out our “Fairytales” link in the right-hand column of our website and it will load you many fairytales that you will enjoy to your heart’s content!

Many of the fairytale retellings I’ve read have been YA fiction. That is not the case here. This is an adult fiction book, and with that came older characters with more at stake, and some adult language and content. Clocking in at 430 pages, this is a hefty book. I worried that it would take forever, but it turned out that I was able to easily manage it within a few days. The story moves quickly, and it brings the reader in right away and keeps things going. For such a meaty book I expected to have to slog through at least some points, but I’m happy to report that the story never did drag, which is rare in a book this long.

The story itself is interesting and has a great place character in the forest. I love it when a place becomes a character. This forest is uber creepy, too, and takes on a mind of its own. Because of the isolated place of the story, there aren’t a lot of human characters, but there are plenty of other characters, which makes for a story environment that feels rich and full, even if it isn’t just made up of humans. The writing is descriptive and makes for an almost-visual experience while reading. Colors matter in this story, and I liked how Whitten was able to create such a tangible feeling in the environment of the story. This is definitely a book that engages the senses.

This is a complicated story with complicated characters. Although there were only a few characters that we engage with as a reader, there are characters from the past and indeed all realms that make this book interesting and provide for a lot of different themes. Because of its length I wouldn’t suggest it for a book club (my book club gets nervous if it goes about 300 pages), but if your book club is able to take on longer books, this will provide for some very good discussion. There are lots of topics to explore here including parental expectations, familial relationships, religion and mysticism in a culture, misjudgments of people, etc. It’s not a heavy book, like I said, and it’s an easy read, but its size alone can be intimidating.

Don’t be like me and keep waiting for the grandma. This story has evolved way beyond that to become its own story. I am excited that there is a sequel, but not so excited that it’s so far away. That’s what happens when you read new releases right away.

If you’ve enjoyed the new fairytale stories, or are even a lover of fantasy books, you should check this book out. There are strong female characters and male characters in this book, and I appreciate that there is strength to share.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language in this book and some sex scenes. It is not a YA book. The author posted a full content warning here on her website (which was awesome, so thank you, Hannah Whitten).

Friday, November 12, 2021

Your Life Matters - Chris Singleton (Illustrated by Taylor Barron)

Summary: Empowering and validating, Your Life Matters reassures Black children everywhere that no matter what they hear, not matter what they experience, no matter what they're told, their lives matter.  Written by national speaker Christ Singleton, who lost his own mother in the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting, Your Life Matters teaches kids to stand tall in the face of racial adversity and fight for the life they dream of.  Each page depicts a famous hero from Black history mentoring a child of today and encouraging them to use their mind, heart, voice, and hands in that fight.  Hero-mentors in the book include: Maya Angelou, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Katherine Johnson, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and others.  

(Summary from book flap - Image from - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review and will be gifted to a child who will benefit from the message).


My Review: Your Life Matters is profoundly moving and sadly necessary epistle of encouragement written to any Black children who may be looking at the world around them and questioning whether their life has any value.  Vivid illustrations feature young children keeping company with such notable historical figures as Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Katherine Johnson, and more, while powerful prose reminds each reader of their own inner strength and inherent worth. 

To give you a taste of what I mean, here are a few of my favorite lines:

  • Oh child, your life matters more than you can possible know. From the tips of your hair to the  lengths of your toes, you are beautifully and wonderfully made.
  • Your eyes matter, for they can see a way where others see a wall. 
  • Your voice matters, for it can carry across generations and resound with the ring of truth.
  • So rewrite those stars, child.  Sketch your dreams high in the heavens.  We are with you.
  • Your Life Matters is specifically intended for Black children, with Black child-characters and Black hero-mentors.  It was not written for me nor was it written for my white children.  And, you know what?  That is okay!  Books don't have to be written with me (or, indeed, any white person) in mind to be worthwhile reads.  That being said, I do believe that the overall message will resonate strongly with Black children and might inspire other members of the BIPOC community, even if they aren't the target audience.   

    I adored the inclusion of hero-mentors from history, striving alongside young Black children as they utilize their mind, heart, voice, and hands in courageous defense of what is right and true.  I also appreciated that the author refrained from centering politics or specific current events, choosing instead to focus on the myriad positive ways that Black children can influence the world for good, even in the face of adversity.  If ever a book was needed, Your Life Matters feels like it lands pretty high on the list. 

    If you're interested in helping Your Life Matters reach a wider audience, consider picking up a copy or two for the little ones that matter in your life.  Alongside my hearty recommendation, I also want to take the time to give a shout out toe this Your Life Matters publisher, Bushel & Peck Books.  They are so dedicated to fighting illiteracy all over the world that for every book they sell, they donate one to a child in need.  How cool is that?!  To nominate a school or organization to receive free books, or simply shop their selection, please visit the link above. 

    My Rating:  5 Stars

    For the Sensitive Reader: All clear.

    Thursday, November 11, 2021

    Made for Me - Zack Bush (Illustrations by Gregorio De Lauretis)

    Of all the children that every could be, you are the one made just for me.  

    ...Tucked in tight, it's my heart where you'll stay.   Tomorrow I'll love you even more than today.

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

    My Review: My nine-year-old daughter snagged this book straight out of the box when it arrived, before I'd even had a chance to really look at it and then accosted me shortly thereafter:  "Mama!! Have you read this book?!  It's soooOOOooo cute!!"  Ordinarily, I'd balk at her reading a book I am sent before I get a chance to preview it, but with Familius -- a publishing company whose motto is "Helping Families Be Happy" -- I'm not terribly worried about her getting the wrong message.  And, you know what?  She was right.  It is soooOOOo cute!  

    In Made for Me a young father reminisces about the day he met his baby, the love that bloomed in his heart, and how, in one moment, his whole life changed.  As baby grows in the story, Dad talks about the child's increased curiosity, playfulness, and how excited he is to wake up each morning and spend time together.  With poetic lines like "It's now time to sleep.  Rest your beautiful eyes.  Soon the dark night will turn to blue skies," Made for Me is obviously best read cuddled up at bedtime, but short enough for everyday reading as well.  This particular version is a board book, my favorite kind of book for toddlers, and one that should last through countless bedtime readings.  


    Made for Me is an adorable love note from father to child and a testament to how the role of fathers can be defined in many ways.  There are scads of books that feature mom as the primary caretaker, so it was absolutely wonderful to see illustrations (above and below) with a father fully involved in feeding his child, managing bath time, changing diapers, playing, and 'tucking in' at bedtime -- all the roles a father might not have been shown in twenty years ago.  I loved the exaggerated size difference between father and baby (as seen on the front cover).  Compared to the father, baby is so very tiny -- which is exactly how babies seem when you first hold a brand new one.  Contrast that with an enormous father, who undoubtedly seems larger than life in the eyes of his child.  Together, the two are simply adorable.  


    It nearly impossible to write a book that will fit every reader, so if you're wondering whether this book will be the right fit for your little one, here are a few details that might help you decide:  

    • Baby has short-ish hair, neutral clothing, and is never identified by a specific gender.
    • The initial pages of the book show an expectant father sitting nervously, hat in hand, in a waiting room and then entering the hospital nursery. It's a very sweet moment and one that is certainly suitable for parents who were present for the birth of their child or adoptive parents who met their child the day they were born. 
    • Finally, the father's feelings about his darling child are almost universally applicable, but as the illustrations indicate, the characters in this book are light-skinned, which might make it tricky for those with darker skin to 'see' themselves and their loved ones physically-reflected in the story.  
    I'm not pointing these things out to be critical -- because, obviously, I really enjoyed this book -- but I think it's important to present the facts and let parents decide what books are the best fit for their baby.  Ultimately, Made for Me is a tender tribute to the indescribably special relationship between father and child.  While it might not fit every family situation, it felt perfectly made for ours. 

    My Rating: 4 Stars

    For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear.

    This book is also available in a Spanish translation, with the same illustrations - Naciste Para Mí.

    Wednesday, November 10, 2021

    Redhanded: An Exploration of Criminals, Cannibals, Cults, and What Makes a Killer Tick - Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire

    Summary: What is it about killers, cults, and cannibals that capture our imaginations even as they terrify and disturb us?  Do we find these stories endlessly and equally compelling and frightening, because they hold up a mirror to society's failings and to the horrors that we humans are capable of?

    Redhanded rejects the outdated narrative of killers as monsters and that a victim "was just in the wrong place at the wrong time." Instead, it dissects the stories of killers in a way that challenges perceptions and asks the hard questions about society, gender, poverty, culture, and even our politics.

    With candor, humor, in-dept research on real-life cases, and an unflinching analysis of what makes a criminal, Bala and Maguire take you through what drives the most extreme of human behavior to find out once and for all: what makes a killer tick?

    Based off the authors' popular podcast of the same name -- with millions of listeners around the world -- Suruthi Bala and Hannah Maguire's Redhanded explores real-life true crime cases to discover once and for all if a killer is born or made. 

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

    My Review:  Once upon a time, two twentysomethings met at a party, got a little bit tipsy, and discovered their mutual obsession with serial killers.  Not long after they started a podcast that is described on their website as "a weekly dose of murder, wit, and "WTFs" delivered with all the facts, anecdotal tangents aplenty, serious societal scrutiny, and real BRITISH flavor." Their podcast was (and continues to be) a smashing success and in September 2021 their bouncing book-baby was born.  I have zero experience with the authors' podcast -- too many 'little ears' in my house -- but if it is anything like the book, I can see why they have a loyal following. 

    Redhanded is informative, insightful, and -- I'm a little nervous to say -- unexpectedly diverting. I've never to read anything quite like it.  In eight horrifying but fascinating chapters, the authors' discuss a variety of elements that influence the making of a serial killer. They delve into the lives of both well-known and lesser known murderers, their backgrounds, and other factors that led them down a path of sickening depravity.  Their 'voice' is a distinctive blend of frank delivery, thoughtful commentary, and seething moral outrage, laced with clever quips and snort-inducing sarcasm.  It's also incredibly informative and, if the massive source list in the back is any indication, thoroughly researched.  The authors' frequently referenced recent papers, theories, statistics, studies, and interviews with experts in relevant fields.  That might sound like a bit of a slog, but it didn't feel that way; even the technical bits were riveting.    

    Amid the all the discussion of messed-up psyches, botched cases, and horrific murders, the authors insert their own brand of humor, a momentary but welcome reprieve that might seem wholly inappropriate if it weren't so desperately needed to lighten the mood.  The authors' seem to have developed the morbid sense of humor that inevitably comes from taking a deep, lengthy dive into the cesspool of sordid human behavior.  This sense of humor is never at the expense of the victim, but it is occasionally dark and salty -- like my favorite chocolate -- and might not be to everyone's taste.  The subject matter itself is incredibly interesting but matter-of-fact when it comes to discussing the murders.  It's not something I'd recommend to the overly squeamish.  You've been warned.

    Redhanded introduced a variety of interesting topics, but I was most drawn to author's summaries of the killers' backgrounds, which laid out their sad progression from innocent infant to hardened serial killer.  It became clear that many (not all) killers were impacted at a very young age by forces beyond their control.  Many serial killers are first victims of child abuse and a society that perpetuates inequality in education, housing, healthcare, opportunities etc. While this shouldn't change the way we view their actions, it might change the way we view them.  In that same vein, I respect the author's decision to refrain from using the word 'monster' when referring to serial killers, which they assert dehumanizes them and absolves society from any responsibility for their creation.  It was bold but a provocative reminder that (in their words) "what leads a person to deviance and depravity is usually something very human indeed." 

    Although the book is non-fiction in nature, it is not without bias. Throughout the book I noticed comments that seemed to indicate a personal bias against religion (not just cults) and law enforcement.  In saying this, I must also acknowledge my own bias as both a religious person and the wife of an officer who has spent the last 13 years serving as a sex crimes and homicide detective.  While I wholeheartedly acknowledge that neither religion nor law enforcement is without significant issues and failings (especially in some of the cases presented) I felt that a personal bias was driving the conversation in a way that painted both institutions with a rather broad brush.  Even though I don't agree with some of the authors' assertions, I kept reading despite the bias-issues because I felt that the rest of the book had intellectual merit.

    When the innocent fall victim to depraved and senseless violence, it is the nature of humanity to want to know more -- as if understanding the hows and whys of a situation could 'make sense' out of senseless violence.  Overall, I truly *appreciated* (enjoyed doesn't seem to be the right word) my time with this book and the opportunity to learn more about such a complex issue. As the authors' state, "the path that leads someone to kill another human being is a complicated and twisty-turny one." Redhanded may not hold all the answers (I doubt there is a book that does), but it will give interested readers a far better understanding of how serial killers are formed and what makes them tick.  

    My Rating:  3.75 Stars

    For the Sensitive Reader:    If you are sensitive to violence, gore, or explicit language, this book is not for you.   The authors don't shy away from discussing murder (in a very matter of fact way) as well as sexual assault, sexuality, and sexual deviance as it relates to the commission of a crime.  Additionally, there is occasional profanity and expression of anti-religious and anti-police sentiment. 

    Monday, November 8, 2021

    A Spindle Splintered - Alix E. Harrow

    Summary: It's Zinnia Gray's twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it's the last birthday she'll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.

    Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia's last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

    My Review: This was another one of those organic book findings that I love. I was walking through the library and it was on a display. I grabbed it and voila! It was like the good ol’ days.

    This is a small book that packs a punch. The cover art is beautiful and eye-catching, and there are also drawings inside that are fun, whimsical, but also disturbing. It’s a great combination. Whenever a book is this small, I worry that it won’t be able to cover what it needs to. This is an adult book, too, so I worried that the story wouldn’t be developed enough to make a novel. However, I was pleasantly surprised! Harrow is obviously not a novice author (she wrote such heavy hitters such as The Ten Thousand Doors of January and The Once and Future Witches) and she was able to create a succinct story that developed the characters, told the story, and left us satisfied. I was quite impressed, actually. That’s a lot to do in 119 pages, many of them heavily illustrated. According to Goodreads, this is only #1 in what is hopefully a series, or at least a duology, called “Fractured Fables.” Don’t you love Goodreads for having that kind of info? It’s awesome.

    The story itself is one that tackles a lot of issues—serious illness and mortality, homosexuality and cultural acceptance, princess/fairytale culture and how that has influenced how people view women and their role in society, etc. I was surprised how much Harrow was able to tackle and create a coherent discussion of it.

    I LOVED the stories of “Sleeping Beauty” and how many iterations were wrapped up in a “Spider-verse”-type story. I thought it was a great take on the idea. I’ve been loving these refreshing takes and retellings on fairy tales, and this one is an especially awesome feminist version that I thought was really empowering and awesome. I liked the characters, too. They felt real and fresh. The fierce friendships were lovely and the discussions of grief raw and insightful.

    If you’re into the modern retellings of fairytales, of which there are many, or you’re into some great female characters, I think you would really enjoy this book. I liked it a lot, and found it a refreshing, fun, quick read. I can’t wait to read more in the series!

    My Rating: 4 Stars

    For the sensitive reader: There is some language and homosexuality.

    Friday, November 5, 2021

    Partly Cloudy - Tanita S. Davis

    Summary:  Lightning couldn't strike twice, could it?

    After a terrible year, Madalyn needs clear skies desperately.  Moving in with her great-uncle, Papa Lobo, and switching to a new school is just the first step. 

    It's not all rainbows and sunshine, though.  Madalyn discovers she's the only Black girl in her class, and while most of her classmates are friendly, assumptions lead to some serious storms.

    Papa Lobo's long-running feud with neighbor Mrs. Baylor brings wild weather of its own, and Madalyn wonders just how far things will go.  But when fires threaten the community, Madalyn discovers that being truly neighborly means more than just staying on your side of the street -- it means weathering tough conversations and finding that together a family can pull through anything.

    Award-winning author Tanita S. Davis shows us that life isn't always clear, and that partly cloudy days still contain a bit of blue worth celebration. 

    (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: Partly Cloudy tells the story of a young girl named Madalyn, who is struggling to find healthy friendships in a new school, far away from familiar faces and the home she loves.   The author, Tanita S. Davis, uses Madalyn's story to teach a valuable lesson about life, family, friendship, and the importance of having hard conversations. 

    After a truly awful 6th grade year, in which her dad lost his job, her best friend moved away, and her old school dealt with some security issues, Madalyn moves in with her great-uncle so that she can attend a better school.  She's a little nervous about her first day, so when she trips over the curb and falls in front of the entire school, Maddie wants to sink into the floor.  There aren't any kids who look like her in her new class and, though most of the kids are nice, a few girls say and do things that make her feel uncomfortable.  As the book continues, Madalyn realizes that one of her 'friends' has some troubling issues and must decide how to respond.  

    Davis's writing hits dead center when it comes to portraying the ups and downs of adolescent female emotions.  Madalyn's feelings are complicated, and when upset, she tends to see the world through a very critical lens.  If you've ever read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, you'll know what I mean.  When she feels overwhelmed and confused, she often needs some time (and a little advice) before she can fully sort them out. 

    Although Madalyn's parents are elsewhere for much of the book, they seem almost superhuman in their ability to connect with their daughter and help her navigate the murky waters of friendship and have tricky conversations. Much of the advice they give her could also be directed at the helping the reader have healthier relationships and harder conversations in their own life.

    Some of my favorite advice dispensed: 

    "Just walk in there being your own brilliant self and see what happens.  You don't have to be a reflection of anyone else's attitude -- be your own original work of art."

    "If you couldn't say anything nice, you should at least say something true in the nicest way possible."

    "Just listen to her when she wants to talk. She has to work out how she feels her own way.  You don't have to agree with what she says, but it sounds like the best way you can be a friend is to listen."

    Partly Cloudy is primarily written for middle-grade readers -- tweens, if you will. As an adult, I experienced this book a bit differently than I imagine your average tween would.  I noticed the overall plot often plays second fiddle to the book's underlying message (which I'll get to in just a second), but the conversations surrounding that message felt manufactured, rather than a naturally-occurring extension of the story.  Luckily, I don't think middle-grade readers are likely to pick up on that issue.  Nor are they likely to mind writing that is slightly tailored to meet their reading level; in fact, they will probably prefer it.  

    Now about that message.  Conversations about race can be uncomfortable.  It is hard to know when, where, and how to have them.  Partly Cloudy offers a youthful perspective to relevant conversations about kindness, communication, and race that we all need to be having.  Readers will learn from Madalyn's own experiences that seemingly innocuous questions can be hurtful, how to approach difficult conversations, and that friendships can evolve if we commit to listen and grow together.  Overall, I think that Partly Cloudy has the potential to generate a lot of worthwhile discussion amidst a certain set of readers and would be an interesting tween/midde-grade book club pick. 

    My Rating:  3.5 Stars

    For the Sensitive Reader:  No language or sexual situations.  Some intense moments surrounding wildfires.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2021

    The Four Winds - Kristin Hannah

    Summary: My land tells its story if you listen.  The story of our family.

    Texas, 1921.  A time of abundance.  The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on the bring of a new and optimistic era.  But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage was a woman's only option, the future seems bleak.  Until the night she meets Rafe Martinelli and decides to change the direction of her life.  With her reputation in ruins, there is only one respectable choice: marriage to a man she barely knows.

    By 1934, the world has changed: Millions are out of work, and drought has devastated the Great Plains.  Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as crops fail and water dries up and the earth cracks open.  Dust storms roll relentlessly across the plains.  Everything on the Martinelli farm is dying, including Elsa's tenuous marriage; each day is a desperate battle against nature and a fight to keep her children alive. 

    In this uncertain and perilous time, Elsa -- like so many of her neighbors -- must make an agonizing choice; Fight for the land she loves or leave it behind and go west, to California, in search of a better life for her family.

    The Four Winds is a rich, sweeping novel that stunningly brings to life the Great Depression and the people who lived through it -- the harsh realities that divided a nation and the enduring battle between the haves and the have-nots.  A testament to hope, resilience, and the strength of the human spirit to survive adversity, The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

    My Review: The Four Winds begins in 1921 and follows Elsa Wolcott, from her years as a 25-year-old 'spinster,' demeaned and rejected by her own family, to her life as a wife and mother to two young children in the 1930s, farming the Great Plains during dust storms and drought, and through the Dustbowl migration to California, where she hopes to be able to provide for her children.  In the work camps of the San Joaquin valley, Elsa slams headlong into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, that threatens to break her spirit. Eventually, she makes a hard choice, exchanging one kind of risk for another, in an attempt to change her family's fate.

    The Four Winds is a testament to the strength of women, beautifully rendered in the characters of Elsa and Loreda Wolcott.  Elsa is all the things she thinks she isn't -- strong, brave, amazing -- a heroine for the ages.  It's ironic that for much of the book she feels so unloved because I loved her from the very beginning, in her self-bobbed hair and handmade dress, running out on her horrid parents.  I ached as she endured the loneliness that comes from a distant husband, the disdain of a teenage daughter, and unimaginable hardship, all with a quiet, indomitable strength that became increasingly evident as the story progressed.  The evolution of Elsa is truly phenomenal and one my favorite moments in the book is when she comes to terms with her identity as a mother. If any two sentences could properly convey the meaning of the entire book it would be these: She wasn't an 'I.'  She was a 'we'.  

    Elsa's daughter Loreda is gutsy and ferocious, with dreams far bigger than those found on the farm Initially, she's rather unlikable and disrespectful to her mother, who she blames for her father's unfortunate choices and sees her as the antithesis of everything she wants to be.  Heaven knows, I wanted to smack her sometimes because of her fiery insolence. However, as the family's situation deteriorates, Loreda begins to shoulder some of the burden and sees her mother through new eyes.  Unlike Elsa, who tend to keep her head down and push forward, Loreda is the kind of young woman who digs in her heels and stands up to injustice, regardless of the consequences.  Though the two women still butt heads, they are both exceptional in their own way.  

    The Four Winds is simply spectacular, incredibly well-researched, and brings our nation's history to life in meaning, relevant ways.  I learned so much about the Great Depression, the erosion of the Great Plains, the migration of families devastated by the Dustbowl Era, the daily life of farmworkers in California, and the classist politics of the region.  One of the most eye opening aspects of the book was the author's description of the prejudice and discrimination face by dustbowl migrants, the rigors of agricultural work, and what it was like for those 'lucky enough' to find employment in the work camps, trapped in a system designed to send them into a debt spiral.  The Four Winds also touches on a variety of themes that are relevant to the current news cycle, raising interesting issues about migration and immigration, worker's rights, women's rights, political corruption, and the systematic subjugation of the lower class.  I have heard certain terms my whole life, but the historical aspects of this book connected a lot of dots for me, put my own hardships into perspective, and helped me see and understand things on a grander scale.

    As far as criticism goes, I don't have much to cover.  There were a few sensitive reader issues which you can read about at the bottom of this review, but my biggest 'complaint' is that this book was emotionally hard to read.  Not only does bad stuff happen to good people, the ever-changing dynamic between mother and daughter sometimes hit a little too close to home. That's pretty much it, though.  

    Overall, The Four Winds is a historically fascinating novel, riveting, relevant, and a glorious tribute to the strength of women, mothers in particular.  Major events do inform the plot, but the real essence of the story is found in the subtle, poignant and compelling moments that hit dead center.  Everything moves at a slower pace, but the payoff is well worth the wait. Brace yourself for a story that is both heartrending and exhilarating with a brief but tender romantic thread and an epilogue that is all-the-good-things. 

    My Rating:  4.5 Stars

    For the Sensitive Reader:  Some innuendo and profanity (English and Italian).  Some brief sexual situations, relatively non-graphic.

    Monday, November 1, 2021

    Once There Were Wolves - Charlotte McConaghy

     

    Summary: Inti Flynn arrives in Scotland with her twin sister, Aggie, to lead a team of biologists tasked with reintroducing fourteen gray wolves into the remote Highlands. She hopes to heal not only the dying landscape, but Aggie, too, unmade by the terrible secrets that drove the sisters out of Alaska.
    Inti is not the woman she once was, either, changed by the harm she’s witnessed—inflicted by humans on both the wild and each other. Yet as the wolves surprise everyone by thriving, Inti begins to let her guard down, even opening herself up to the possibility of love. But when a farmer is found dead, Inti knows where the town will lay blame. Unable to accept her wolves could be responsible, Inti makes a reckless decision to protect them. But if the wolves didn’t make the kill, then who did? And what will Inti do when the man she is falling for seems to be the prime suspect?

    Propulsive and spell-binding, Charlotte McConaghy's Once There Were Wolves is the unforgettable story of a woman desperate to save the creatures she loves—if she isn’t consumed by a wild that was once her refuge. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

    My Review: I picked this book up because I am sucker for books where Place is important, and I especially love it if the setting is very much a character of the book. Also, this book takes place in Scotland and I feel a deep connection to there. My Granny is Scottish, and my mom spent many of her summers there with my Granny (my mom’s mother) visiting her Granny (my Granny’s mom). I love looking at the pictures and hearing stories, and I was hoping for a connection to Scotland with this book as well.

    And here’s the problem. I think that my main problem is that this book didn’t feel like Scotland to me. Granted I’ve never been there (there are Plans), but there are a lot of places I read about and have never been and I can feel the importance of the place. I’m not entirely certain McConaghy has actually been there, although I’m assuming she has. There was quite a bit of mention of the surroundings, but it didn’t feel unique to Scotland and certainly didn’t make me feel like the Cairngorms were delineated from any other mountain range in Scotland, or really delineated from any wilderness in general. I did love the discussion of wilderness and found that beautiful, but I wanted Scotland. I wanted brogues and descriptions of people and clothes that made me feel like I’d been transported there. When you are reading a book about wilderness, and that wilderness is specified, it stands to reason that it would hopefully feel like the Place where it takes place.

    My other complaint about this book is similar to the first in that I wanted to know more about the wolves. There was some discussion of wolves and wolf behavior, but when I read a book like this, I want to feel like the author is an expert that can some seamlessly discuss interesting facts and make the wolf scientists feel like they, also, knew a lot about what they were studying. It was rather disappointing, actually, because wolves are really cool and I would have liked to know more. Don’t get me wrong, there was some discussion of wolves, but I would have liked much, much more.

    I enjoyed this story. The mystery wasn’t so much mysterious as it was an interesting look at the situation as a whole—the complexity of what people are thinking and want to believe clouding their judgment and their senses. It was an interesting way to address human biases. I liked the characters. I felt like they were realistic and had both their strengths and their flaws.

    One of the best things about this book is the first sentence, “When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.” From there, it you understand the protagonist’s medical (and emotional) relationship to watching others’ pain and experiencing it herself. It makes for a very interesting story, and I thought it was a very clever way to experience the book through the sense of the protagonist’s physical abilities to feel others around her, even the animals.

    I thought this was an interesting book. There is a lot to be discussed, and I think it would make a really good book club book.

    My Rating: 3 stars

    For the sensitive reader: There was some language, discussion of violence (including hunting violence towards animals), and some vague discussions of sex.

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