Friday, December 24, 2021

Reading For Sanity's BEST BOOKS of 2021

Hello, fellow book lovers!

We're about to head out for our winter break, but before we do, here are links to the best books we've read (and reviewed) in 2021

5 STAR REVIEWS

(in no particular order)

THE SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo



THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker



WHEN YOU CAN'T GO HOME: PORTRAITS OF REFUGEES IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST by Karisa Keasey

MAKE YOUR BED: LITTLE THINGS THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE...AND MAYBE THE WORLD by Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

MY LADY JANE by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton & Jodi Meadows


I'M STILL HERE: BLACK DIGNITY IN A WORLD MADE FOR WHITENESS by Austin Channing Brown

BIBLIOPHILE: AN ILLUSTRATED MISCELLANY by Jane Mount



WHEN YOU WERE EVERYTHING by Ashley Woodfolk


THE GIRL AND THE GHOST by Hanna Alkaf

YOUR LIFE MATTERS by Chris Singleton


and now for our...


RUNNERS UP: 4.5 STAR REVIEWS

(in no particular order)


THE FOUR WINDS by Kristin Hannah

OPHIE'S GHOSTS by Justina Ireland

UNSETTLED by Reem Faruqi

SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo

SEIGE AND STORM by Leigh Bardugo

BEARMOUTH by Liz Hyder

SNOWFLAKE SCIENCE ACTIVITY BOOK by Michael Peres and Patricia Cost

DON'T ASK ME WHERE I'M FROM by Jennifer De Leon 

THE HERO CODE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM LIVES WELL LIVED by Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

HOME IS NOT A COUNTRY by Safia Elhillo

GROWN by Tiffany D. Jackson

SEA STORIES: MY LIFE IN SPECIAL OPERATIONS by Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

BLACK FLAMINGO by Dean Atta

HUMANS by Brandon Stanton


And that's it for us in 2021!  

We'll see you back here bright and early

 on January 3, 2022!  

May your holidays be filled with 

love, laughter, family, and (of course) BOOKS! 



Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Iron King (The Iron Fey Series #1) - Julie Kagawa

Summary:  Meghan Chase has a secret destiny -- one she could never have imagined...

Something has always felt slightly off in Meghan's life, ever since her father disappeared before her eyes when she was six.  She has never quite fit in at school...or at home.

When a dark stranger begins watching her from afar, and her prankster best friend becomes strangely protective of her, Meghan senses that everything she's known is about to change.

But she could never have guessed the truth.  That she is the daughter of a mythical faery king and is a pawn in a deadly war.  Now Meghan will learn just how far she'll go to save someone she cares about, to stop a mysterious evil no faery creature dare face...and to find love with a young prince who might rather see her dead than let her touch his icy heart.

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

My Review:  Confession time.  I picked this book up from the library because I saw it recommended on Instagram and didn't even look at the summary on the back until I had finished reading it.  If I had, I might not have read it.  That last line (above) is all the cheese.  But anyway...

Meghan Chase's father disappeared when she was six.  Soon after, her mother hauled her to the middle of po-dunk nowhere and married a pig farmer.  Now she attends school in hand-me-down rags and her mom and step-dad barely seem to give her a passing thought.  The only light in her life is her best friend Robbie and her four-year old half brother named Ethan, until the day Ethan is stolen.  Soon, Meghan is pulled into the world of the faery and discovers a destiny and heritage she never could have imagined.  

That's the long and short of it, without any major spoilers.  A lot happens.  Like, a lot a lot.  It felt a bit like one of those attraction rides at a theme park.  Think Pirates of the Caribbean but on 20X speed. Crises galore -- each one quickly overcome just before the next crisis looms (and is quickly over come before the next crisis looms).  You get the idea.  I like my characters to take their time tackling a few big problems, rather than low-hurdling a bunch of little ones that serve as filler more than anything else. It made the plot feel rather middle-grade, as if the author kept things moving just so the kiddos would continue reading.  That writing style may work for a younger reader, but unfortunately, it felt directly at odds with some of the more adult language and innuendo sprinkled throughout.  

Since the plot was almost entirely action-driven, I never felt like I had a good handle on the characters.  With the exception of Meghan, who I assume is the girl pictured on the cover, I was unable to hold an image of any of the characters in my mind for longer than the time the author spent describing them.  They just didn't stick.  I know that Ash has silver eyes, but I seriously couldn't describe Robbie to save my life.  Some of the secondary characters felt more like caricatures and Meghan's mom might as well have been a stick figure for all the effort that went into crafting her character.  

I know I have pretty much unloaded on this one, so I would like to close with a few of the things I liked about it (sans spoilers).  First, Ethan 1.0 and the Rat Pack are pretty darn adorable.  Second, I liked the concept of how all Fey were born and how that played into the story, especially in regards to technology.  Finally, there is a moment towards the end where a character is reminded of their worth and galvanized to step forward  I won't say any more, but it gave me chills (the good kind).   

I picked this book up after having to abandon another book (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue*) that was also recommended on Instagram.  Moral of the story:  Sometimes Instagram recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt (says the same girl who actually has a 'bookstagram' account).  I currently have the second book in the Iron Fey series on loan from the library, but it's going back tomorrow. I have no plans to read further in the series.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Swearing scattered throughout (mostly D, H, Bs, Sh, and one F, if you want specifics). Some sexually-tinged bullying.  Attempted rape, brief and mild in description.  Some innuendo.  

*Here's my mini-review of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue - Too many sensitive reader issues (of the sexual variety) for me to keep reading in full. I skipped to the end and am not sorry.  

Monday, December 20, 2021

No Gods, No Monsters - Cadwell Turnbull

Summary: One October morning, Laina gets the news that her brother was shot and killed by Boston cops. But what looks like a case of police brutality soon reveals something much stranger. Monsters are real. And they want everyone to know it.

As creatures from myth and legend come out of the shadows, seeking safety through visibility, their emergence sets off a chain of seemingly unrelated events. Members of a local werewolf pack are threatened into silence. A professor follows a missing friend’s trail of bread crumbs to a mysterious secret society. And a young boy with unique abilities seeks refuge in a pro-monster organization with secrets of its own. Meanwhile, more people start disappearing, suicides and hate crimes increase, and protests erupt globally, both for and against the monsters.

At the center is a mystery no one thinks to ask: Why now? What has frightened the monsters out of the dark?

The world will soon find out. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: You know what is refreshing? A male author writing about fantasy characters. No really. Hear me out. There is something to be said for a different viewpoint on things we’ve already read about. Wolves? I’ve read about that. Some of them cavort with vampires. Dragons? Shapeshifters? Smoke? All of this has been done by female and male authors alike, but I really did appreciate a new viewpoint on the normal story of fantasy-creature-in-the-real-world-trying-to-find-their-way. Most recently, I read A Chorus Rises about mermaids and sirens, and that type of book has a totally different feel than this one. Instead of the focus on beauty and popularity, Turnbull takes us down a fantasy lane of darkness, confusion, and a fight for freedom between those who are monsters and those who are not. There was room for social discussion and room for fantastical happens.

This book takes place with differing viewpoints and different time periods, but the creatures coincide. This gave the reader different looks at how each of the creatures was dealing with different issues that arose from their monster coming out. Some families were supportive, some were not so much, and there was always the underlying current of a rich fantastical life that we have been given a glimpse of.

While reading this book I looked it up on Goodreads and it indicates that it is the first in the series. This makes a lot of sense because my main complaint about this book is that there is not a lot of cohesion in the story. Yes, there is excitement and yes, there is stuff going on, but there didn’t seem to be a cohesive thread that tied everybody together in a common cause. They existed and they knew each other, and they had a common cause to rally for, but story spent very little time fostering and building this up. It very much seemed an origin story-type installment, and I’m expecting that the next books will fill in with a common cause and a common storyline that will address my complaint.

If you’re into monsters, or fantastical beings, and are looking for something a little darker and more “grown up” than, say, sparkly vampires, you should check out this book. It’s well-written and a quick read, with some interesting ideas and pertinent social discussion.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and some violence in this book.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Firekeeper's Daughter - Angeline Boulley

Summary: As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

The only bright spot is meeting Jamie, the charming new recruit on her brother Levi’s hockey team. Yet even as Daunis falls for Jamie, certain details don’t add up and she senses the dashing hockey star is hiding something. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into the heart of a criminal investigation.

Reluctantly, Daunis agrees to go undercover, but secretly pursues her own investigation, tracking down the criminals with her knowledge of chemistry and traditional medicine. But the deceptions—and deaths—keep piling up and soon the threat strikes too close to home.

Now, Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Anishinaabe kwe (Ojibwe woman) and how far she'll go to protect her community, even if it tears apart the only world she’s ever known. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I worked at the book fair at a local elementary school, and this school has a notable Native American population. While I was there, I noticed several of the children who were Native American were purchasing books where the main character was also Native American, and I could see in their eyes how excited they were to purchase a book that had characters that looked like them and shared some of their cultural background and beliefs. It was touching, actually, as I saw them walk right in and pick up those books, and I was so happy that there were book choices that they saw themselves reflected in. This book also features a main character who is a Native American young woman, and Boulley notes that it is important to her that Native American readers have characters they can relate to. I loved that about this book. I think it was not only culturally relevant for Native American readers, but for white readers such as myself who want to understand and support Native authors and Native characters.

First and foremost I think this book is brave. It is difficult to write about one’s culture and not be tempted to only include the good things. I think we all do it. We want to paint ourselves and our people in the best light, right? However, it is reality that not everyone, nor every culture is perfect. We all experience difficulties. Some of them are unique to our culture and even our race, while some are universal struggles that all people deal with. The key is to be able to celebrate and honor your culture while also recognizing that it’s not perfect. Boulley did an excellent job of this. I loved the cultural aspects of this story. The places, the people, the ceremony, the language was explored and embraced, but Boulley wasn’t afraid to also talk about struggles that this particular culture faces. I loved that. I thought it was brave and honest and gave me a better understanding of not only the culture, but also the reasons why they struggle with the things that they do. When I see others able to be vulnerable, it allows me freedom to be more honest about myself and my own culture and what struggles and difficulties we face.

Besides the important cultural relevance of this story, I thought it was just a really good book. The characters are great, and I especially liked the main character. She was strong and intelligent, but also had enough flaws to feel real and authentic. The other characters were great, too. The story itself is really good. It’s full of lots of intrigue and twists and turns and a downright good mystery that keeps you guessing until the end. There were some parts of the mystery that seemed somewhat obvious to me, but when the story was resolved I liked how I was right, but I also wasn’t. Do you get what I’m saying there? Even if you know some of the whodunnit, there is more discover and more to flesh out in the story.

I thought this was a great book, and definitely one that new adults and adults alike would enjoy. I especially recommend it for those who are into reading Native American literature and about Native American characters.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, drug use, sex, and violence. I would definitely say that it is for new adults and maybe mature older teens.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Scholomance Series (Including #1, A Deadly Education, and #2, The Last Graduate) - Naomi Novik


Today we're reviewing the first two books in The Scholomance series by Naomi Novik,  A Deadly Education and The Last Graduate.  Reading the second review will spoil the first book.  You've been warned.  


A Deadly Education
 
Summary: I decided that Orion Lake needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Everyone loves Orion Lake.  Everyone else, that is.  Far as I'm concerned, he can keep his flashy combat magic to himself.  I'm not joining his pack of adoring fans.  

I don't need help surviving the Scholomance, even if they do.  Forget the hordes of monster and cursed artifacts -- I'm probably the most dangerous thing in the place.  Just give me a chance and I'll level mountains and kill untold millions, make myself the dark queen of the world.  At least, that's what the world expects.  Most of the other students in here would be delighted if Orion killed me like one more evil thing that's crawled out of the drains.  Sometimes I think they want me to turn into the evil witch they assume I am.  the school certainly does. 

But the Scholomance isn't getting what it wants from me.  And neither is Orion Lake.  I may not be anyone's idea of the shining hero, but I'm going to make it out of this place alive, and I'm not going to slaughter thousands to do it either.   Although I'm giving serious consideration to just one.

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

My Review: I hereby dub Naomi Novik the Queen of Dramatic Entrances and Exits.  The Lady of Epic First and Last Lines.  The opening sentence of A Deadly Education is an instant hook.  You've already read it, actually.  It's in the above summary and likely what enticed you to read this review:  

I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.  

I mean, who doesn't have questions that need answering after a sentence like that?!  And the last line of the book?  Well, all I will say is if it doesn't have you reaching for the next book, The Last Graduate, I don't know if we can be friends.  

Okay.  I had to get that out of my system.  Now I can try to write a normal review.  *ahem*

Wizards. Spell books. A magical school. I know what you're thinking and let me stop you right there.  A Deadly Education is not another HP wannabe; it's got it's own thing going -- an action-packed, rollicking good time set inside a clever, inhospitable world, with a decidedly remarkable heroine.   

In A Deadly Education, young wizards of the Scholomance train to use their magical powers of incantation, alchemy, or artifice, while battling a host of looming threats.  Danger, even death, lurks behind air vents, inside shower drains, under lunch tables, and down every darkened corridor.  Those who lower their guard, fall prey to the mals, an inventive array of monsters that routinely infiltrate the school to gorge themselves on a dead wizard energy, or the malifecers, fellow wizards who use dark energy to get ahead.  Once in, there is one way out of the Scholomance, other than death --through the 'graduation gates,' a section of the school teeming with the worst sort of mals.  Only those wizards with strong energy and trusted allies stand any chance of survival and both can be hard to come by.  Those who survive are virtually guaranteed access to power, safety and wealth, in whatever enclave will have them.  

El refuses to be just another hapless damsel in distress resident school 'hero' Orion Lake has saved from imminent death. Twice. She has enough power to level cities; it's just a wee bit volatile, so she keep her affinity for destruction under wraps.  Now Orion Lake is following her around and the whole school thinks they're dating, which brings all sorts of unwanted attention.  His rescue makes her look weak and his interest makes her a threat.  El's needs a powerful alliance if she's to survive graduation, but in the Scholomance one thing is certain -- everything comes with a price.  

El's a plucky heroine, that is hard to like but easy to love -- full of sass, fire, and tremendous courage -- and easily my favorite part of the book.  Underneath all her posturing and prickles, lies a genuinely good person who does the right thing even when no one is looking (though she isn't likely to admit it).  El's interaction with others is hilarious at times, especially when it comes to Orion, who provides as an uber-light romantic component to the plot that is quite fun but not central to the overall story.  Mostly, I loved following El's character arc from acid-tongued loner to cautious team player as she ever-so-slowly finds her tribe and learns to trust and to give without expecting anything in return.  

El's school is just this whole other thing.... I loved that the Scholomance felt like a character, with it's own moods, motivations, quirks, and personality.  Like the students, I was never quite sure what the school would do, nor was I entirely certain whether it was good or evil.  It seemed to have it's own reasons for doing what it did, but I haven't pinned them down yet.  Perhaps those answers are being left in reserve for other books in the series.  The Scholomance is not Hogwarts, nor is Hogwarts the Scholomance.  In certain ways, the Scholomance is more interesting.  

A Deadly Education can be read purely for entertainment, but it was hard not to notice some of the real-world parallels that could be drawn between the students who come from enclaves (and thus have guaranteed spots after graduations) and those who come from less fortunate circumstances.  Anyone wishing to discuss topics like social inequality, class privilege, morality, etc. would find plenty of relevant material.  Novik even includes drawings at the end of the book to show the difference between the rooms (and resources) of wealthier students vs. poorer students.  I suspect she will continue to explore these issues in other books and I look forward to the results.

I have a few criticisms of the book that you can take or leave as you will.  Initially, the story's vernacular was a lot, but once you get past the explanations and settle in it gets easier to process. Next, there was more profanity than I like to read, and finally, it seemed primarily plot driven and, thus, lacking character development.  El keeps to herself and doesn't know much about the other characters, and since the story is written from a first person POV, the reader won't either, but the problem was that I didn't really feel like I could 'see' any of them in my head.  At best, I could guess at their ethnicity based on their name or enclave status, but it felt kind of presumptive to just start picturing anyone named Kaito as Japanese, you know?  

Criticisms aside, A Deadly Education is one of those books that I could easily have read in one sitting if I didn't have other obligations.  I do, so I didn't, but I definitely could.  Instead, I drew it out a bit and, reading between tasks, finished in two days.  And that's that.  Excuse me, while I get on with the highly-anticipated and desirable task of reading the sequel.  As always, I'll let you know how it goes... 

My Rating: 4.25 Stars 

For the Sensitive Reader: The characters occasionally use words like 'effing' but most just drop fully loaded f-bombs (approximately 7-10 times total).  A few uses of a British derogatory term (aka tw*t).  One joking sexual reference to "pet mals" that lives in all boys' pants. *eyeroll* 

AND NOW, ON TO BOOK #2....

THE LAST GRADUATE

Summary:  In Wisdom, Shelter.

That's the official motto of the Scholomance.  I supposed you could even argue that it's true -- only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter's rather scant.

Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students -- but now that I've reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it's suddenly developed a very particular craving for me.  And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven't any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive. 

Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction.  That would certainly let me sail straight out of here.  The course of wisdom, surely.

But I'm not giving in -- not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance.  I'm going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good -- even if it's the last thing I do. 

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

My Review:   Naomi Novik, the heretofore dubbed Queen of Dramatic Entrances and Exits, and Lady of First and Last Lines is on my list -- a list I reserve especially for authors that like to end on cliffhangers so deliciously evil that I am forced to make a list especially for them.   If you are incapable of waiting a yet-to-be-determined length of time for the not-yet-titled third book to release -- approach this book with caution.  You have been warned.  

The Last Graduate picks up immediately after the events of A Deadly Education, with barely a breath between the end of one book, where El receives a cryptic warning from her motherand the beginning of the next, where she quickly decides to ignore it.  El has enough to worry.  The Scholomance has inducted a new round of helpless students and although the mals are giving Orion a wide berth, El, seems to have become their sole focus.  The entire senior class is prepping madly for graduation, solidifying alliances, taking out threats, and tackling a treacherous obstacle course that is supposed to help them, but grows more deadly with every attempt to defeat it.  It's pretty nuts.  Meanwhile, El has a dark prophecy hanging over her head, a more-brutal-than-usual course load, and she can't help feeling the school is up to something.  When El finally realizes the awful truth, she hatches a mad plan that may or may not get everyone killed.  Will she stand alone to face the looming threat or find new friends willing to fight alongside her? 

El's personality is the best; her dry humor and sarcasm are flipping hysterical and she's entirely too curmudgeonly for a girl her age, which only made me love her more.  One of my favorite lines from the book discusses El's thoughts about saving a fellow student, and it reads, "I did have to turn one of them to stone at one point to save her from being bitten in half, but I turned her back afterwards, so I don't see what the problem was."  This type of matter of fact, do-what-must-be-done flippancy is classic El. Though she may try to fight it and would certainly deny it, El has a fierce moral integrity and a genuine concern for others, and I admire her outright refusal to take the easier path.  

In The Last Graduate, El states that the Scholomance "isn't exactly a living thing, but it isn't exactly not."  It is hard to define the school as 'good' or 'evil,' but it most certainly has a personality and purpose. Whatever it may be, the school has a lot going on behind the scenes and I loved this aspect of the story.  As the story progresses, the school's motivations become clearer and I came to more fully appreciate its idiosyncrasies and my feelings toward it, shall we say, expanded a bit.  

One of my favorite aspects of the book is hard to describe without spoilers --- so I am going to intentionally 'vague it up' a bit.  I loved the relationship arc between El, her friends (she has friends!), and the other students, how their interactions change over the course of the book, and the accompanying moral message (Which, again, I can't get into, because spoilers.)  I can say that I think that message made the book.  

Now for the less fun part...

As often happens in YA novels, the tone of The Last Graduate is more 'adult' than A Deadly Education, with more adult themes regarding sexuality and sexual situations.  If you're bothered by this sort of thing, you can read more specifics about these things in the 'for the sensitive reader' section at the end of this review.  Moving on.  I wish that more time had been spent on character development because, scads of new characters were introduced and many of them felt like faceless names on a page because I didn't have much to go on.  Sometimes I felt like the author was stalling for time, loading a particular scene with interesting but unnecessary details in order to hit a certain page count before proceeding to the final encounter.  There were also so many different types of mals that I eventually stopped trying to keep track, opting to simply accept the idea that they were varied, dangerous, and innumerable (which, now that I think about it, might have been the point).  Finally, I spent much of the book wondering why El's mother gave her such a cryptic warning about Orion and I am not entirely content with the book's answer.

Towards the end of the book, the pace really picked up and I was swept away, white-knuckling my way through it and thoroughly enjoying the ride.  That is, until I was flung headlong off a cliff in true Novik fashion, with a brutal parting line, a final sentence even worse than the previous book that will leave the reader scrabbling for any hold and dutiful searching for the next book.  Good luck finding any!  As of 11/21 there isn't a peep.  Like I said -- Naomi Novik is on my list.

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are some more 'adult' themes in this book than the last, with sexual innuendo, mention of kissing between two female characters, brief kissing between two male characters, as well as several pages of moderately descriptive 'making out' and sexual intimacy between a male and female character.  Some violence, crude words, and profanity in this book, though slightly less than in the last one.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Amaranth Enchantment - Julie Berry

Summary: Lucinda Chapdelaine's story begins with a royal ball -- but not in a dancing-and-glass-slippers sort of way.  Her parents stepped into a coach, went to the ball, and never returned.  As a young orphan, Lucinda was sent to live with her uncle and evil step-aunt in their lonely jewelry shop.  Now, years later, and single magical moment is about to change her life once again.  

On an ordinary day in the shop, Lucinda encounters a handsome young gentleman, a mysterious woman, and an unusual gem.  The gem has unbelievable powers and the gentleman is a prince, but it is the mysterious woman who will prove most valuable.  She is none other than the Amaranth Witch, and she has a daring task for Lucinda.  If she succeeds, Lucinda will reclaim what is rightfully hers, find a true friend, and perhaps discover her own happily ever after.  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  A few years ago I had a visitor in my home who  noticed The Amaranth Enchantment sitting on my shelf and emphatically told me it was her favorite. book. ever.  I hadn't read it yet but figured if she loved it that much, it must be pretty darn good. I had been reading a lot of emotionally heavy books and needed something light and uplifting, so I pulled it off the shelf.  In hindsight, I probably should have left it there. 

I don't want to belabor the point, so I'll keep this brief.  The Amaranth Enchantment is primarily dialogue driven, with very little time spent on character development or setting.  As a result, I could never really "see" any of the characters or get a sense of the world they inhabited, so I never felt invested in the outcome.  The writing was fairly easy to read and I liked the general plot, but the story never took on any real depth.  Every problem had an easy solution, love developed in a matter of moments, and towards the end, it felt like I was stuck in a pinball machine, getting flung all over the place with little warning. Ultimately, if you are looking for light and uplifting YA read, you could read this one, but there are probably some better books out there.  

My Rating: 2 stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear.

Friday, December 10, 2021

My Heart is a Chainsaw - Stephen Graham Jones

Summary: Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She lives in her own world, a world in which protection comes from an unusual source: horror movies…especially the ones where a masked killer seeks revenge on a world that wronged them. And Jade narrates the quirky history of Proofrock as if it is one of those movies. But when blood actually starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and predicts exactly how the plot will unfold.

Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges… a portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the Jason Voorhees mask: angry, yes, but also a girl who easily cries, fiercely loves, and desperately wants a home. A girl whose feelings are too big for her body.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: You know how you’ve got that one obsession that is kind of niche and you’re always trying to bring it into everyday conversation? Like maybe it’s something you’ve enjoyed your whole life and you know a whole lot about it…like more than a normal amount about it…and now that there’s the internet you can find Your People and y’all can talk about this weird thing you all love and just totally geek out on it? And then maybe you fantasize about using all this knowledge you’ve acquired over the years to wow and stun a captive audience with your knowledge and prowess of this one topic? Well, maybe you could be like Stephen Graham Jones and just write a book!

Stephen Graham Jones is obsessed with slasher/horror movies.

I learned that quite vividly and descriptively while reading My Heart is a Chainsaw. It’s basically an ode to horror movies and all his pet theories. It’s not surprising, really, considering the other book I’ve read by him, The Only Good Indians. So horror and crime are obviously his thing, and this book takes it to the Next Level. He’s obviously been watching every horror movie all his life and loves to talk about them, obsess about them, theorize about them and the characters and why they are who they are and such…and now since he’s become a well-known author, he has an audience who will read it.

Horror movies are not my thing. I’m not into the gore of it all, and body count does not make me excited. So that part of the story? I didn’t love it all that much. However, My Heart is a Chainsaw does have some great things going for it. First off, Graham Jones is a talented writer. The writing is easily accessible, and the story is an interesting one. The main character is flawed and very interesting. She felt authentic but also somewhat unlikeable, which I think was part of the point. I also really enjoy his takes on the culture of Native Americans in the U.S., and especially the complicated relationship of Native Americans and white people. I feel like there is a lot of very relevant social discussion in this book, especially concerning white privilege and rich white people who feel free to come in and take and buy land and try to edge out Native Americans by encroaching and changing their culture and boundaries of an area.

I know that there are a lot of people who love slasher movies, and if you are one of those people, I think you will really get a kick out of this book. It’s almost tongue-in-cheek with the slasher genre, and it is obvious Graham Jones knows A LOT about it and is able to incorporate it into a clever story.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and a lot of violence.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Starfish - Lisa Fipps

Summary:
Ever since she wore a whale swimsuit and madea  big splash at her fifth birthday party, Ellie's been bullied about her weight.  To cope, she tries to live by her list of Fat Girl Rules, which are all about not standing out.  And she's found a haven in her swimming pool, where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world.  In the water, she can stretch out like a starfish and take up all the space she wants.  

Ellie finds an ally in her new neighbor Catalina -- a girl who refreshingly doesn't judge -- and in her new therapist, a woman who knows how to laugh at the right things.  With these good people buoying Ellie up, it's a lot easier to face the bullies and starfish in real life -- by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.  

Lisa Fipps poignant, inspiring debut novel confronts fat-shaming and its effects head-on, and while speak to anyone who's been made to feel "less than." Readers will cheer for Ellie as she realizes her own worth and begins to move forward into a hopeful, confident future.

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

My Review:  
  • If you're fat, there are things you can't have.
  • When you hear laughter, someone's laughing at you
  • You don't deserve to be seen or heard, to take up room, to be noticed. 
  • Make yourself small.  
These are just a few of many 'Fat Girl Rules,' eleven-year old Ellie has scribbled in her diary since her fifth birthday party -- the day her sister called her a 'whale' in front of everyone. Ellie isn't bothered by her size, but she hates what others have to say about it. She's been bullied mercilessly by kids at school, random strangers around town, and even in her own home, where her size-obsessed mother and resentful siblings are critical at every opportunity. Ellie hides out in her school library (librarians are awesome!) and finds solace in the support of a few good friends, her well-meaning father, and an incredibly intuitive therapist.  With their help and her own hard work, Ellie realizes her own worth and learns to stand up to the bullies without tearing others down.  

In Starfish, author Lisa Fipps uses free verse poetry to touch on profound societal issues with  astounding brevity and a compelling grace.  I loved the dedication of the book, which reads: 
To every kid who's ever been told, "You'd be so pretty or handsome, if... " You ARE beautiful.  Now.  Just as you are.  You deserve to be seen, to be heard, to take up room, to be noticed.  So when the world tries to make you feel small, starfish! 
Indeed, that quote effectively sums up my favorite part of this book, the main message that, regardless of our size, ethnicity, or income level, we each have immense personal worth.  Through Ellie's story, the author introduces a concept I instantly loved -- starfishing.   In the pool, Ellie loves to spread her arms and legs wide like a starfish, taking up as much space as she wants and floating weightless in a world that buoys her up.  Yet in life, she tends to make herself small to try to please those who resent her for her size and shape.  As the story progresses, Ellie learns how to 'starfish' by embracing her right to take up space in the world.

I love that Ellie's emotional breakthroughs often provide insight in ways that could help the reader handle their own tricky emotions and conflicts. For example, the author introduces the concept negative self-talk with Ellie's tendency to hold onto the insults that are flung her way and repeat them to herself.  Through Ellie's therapy sessions and talks with friends, the author shows the reader specific ways to combat those negative thoughts as well as other relevant truths and helpful concepts which offer wonderful opportunities for discussion.
 
While I read Starfish, I really only had one major criticism; some of the bullying that Ellie endures seemed so far-fetched, so incredibly cruel, that it felt overdone.   As I finished the book and prepared to write this review, holding tight to my main criticism, I happened to glance at the 'Author's note.'  It turns out that every single one of Ellie's encounters with bullying happened to the author herself, in one variation or another.  This is one of those *facepalm* scenarios.  All I can say is that I stand corrected, horrified, and without another significant criticism. If anything, the author's note made me realize how very necessary Starfish, and other books like it, are to the reading community.
 
Starfish has plenty to say and I'd like to share a few of my favorite quotes to give you an idea of what you can expect:
It is unknown how many students' lives
librarians have saved
by welcoming loners at lunch.
No matter what others say or do,
embrace what makes you, you.
Stereotypes stink.
They give people an excuse to
hate people who are different
instead of taking the time
to get to know them.
Whatever someone did is
a reflection of them.
not you.
Spend your energy focusing on
what and who makes
you happy,
instead of focusing on the fools
who don't like you
--for whatever reason.
It would be great if people realized that
we're all different, in all kinds of ways,
and different is okay.

As you can see, Starfish is full of sage advice.  Much of that advice, while directed at Ellie, is perfect for growing readers of all shapes and sizes.  To paraphrase:  Words do matter.  Accept and love others as they are, regardless of what makes them different. Don't hide -- be your amazing self.  There's room for each of us to 'starfish.'  These messages are both vital and validating for tweens or young adults who have ever been bullied or felt 'less-than' because they skew differently than the status quo.  For those who aren't the target of bullying, Starfish offers a new perspective and a lesson in compassion.  I'd recommend it to anyone who has been bullied, knows someone who has been bullied, knows a bully, is a bully, or anyone who wants to generate meaningful conversation in a classroom or book club.  So....pretty much, everyone.  

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This story contains numerous instances of fat-shaming/bullying (always portrayed in a negative light).  While the resulting storyline might be cathartic, the instances of bullying might be triggering for some.  Other than that, you're all clear. 

Monday, December 6, 2021

The Ice Coven - Max Seeck

Summary: Six months have passed since Jessica's encounter with the mysterious serial-killing coven of witches and the death of her mentor Erne. Her nightmares about her mother and the witchcraft that undid her have only gotten worse, but she's doing what she can to stay focused. Her homicide squad, now under new leadership, has been given a murder case and a new series of disappearances to investigate. A young woman's corpse has washed up on an icy beach, and two famous Instagram influencers have gone missing at the same time.

The missing influencers and the murdered woman all have ties to a sinister cult. Jessica finds an eerie painting--of a lighthouse on a frigid island--as she investigates and under the picture is a gruesome poem detailing a murder. The nightmares about her dead mother have intensified and seem all too real, making Jessica wonder if the woman might be trying to tell her something about the killings. And as Jessica works frantically to solve her latest case, her terrifying past and the coven of witches that almost killed her shockingly reemerge and threaten to destroy her. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: This is the only time I’ll say this so don’t worry. I’m not going to keep whining. But this has nothing to do with witches. I was led astray. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, but the title and the description on the back led me to believe that I would be reading about witches whereas now I realize that maybe this was literally lost in translation as this book is a Scandinavian crime novel that has been translated for the enjoyment of English-speaking audiences. That is all. Do not be like me and think that you’ll be reading about witches because you won’t be. Women do not automatically equal witches to me. There are women in this book. They don’t appear to be witches.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a Scandinavian crime book. There is usually a lot of violence and that violence is not only extreme, but also almost excessively described. There is also usually a lot of sex, and some of it violent and non-consensual. Despite what you may think from the kinds of books I like, I don’t always enjoy reading about these kinds of things. I do enjoy some good crime reading, as any normal person does, but I have to vary it and read some different things in between. I am happy to report that this book was actually on the lighter side of violence and sex. There was violence, but it wasn’t meticulously reported. This book is about prostitution (which is legal in Finland), but there is prostitution that is also taken to the extreme, and you will know what that means when you read this book. Surprisingly, neither of these are descriptive to the point of discomfort or disgust, and I actually really liked that. I like my crime reading to not make me sick to my stomach (and I have a pretty high tolerance because I do like a good crime mystery).

I encountered the normal problems that I think may come from an English reader like me when reading Nordic noir—the place names are completely unfamiliar and almost unreadable. Some of the names are difficult as well. However, I found the place names to not be essential enough that I missed something (or if I did, I guess I didn’t even know) and the names were either American-looking (maybe they were translated, because there were definitely American names) or they different enough from each other that I was able to tell what was going on, so I appreciated that.

This was a twisty-turny story that keeps you guessing until the end. I don’t try to solve murder mysteries when I read them, rather, I just try to enjoy and let the story take me along. The story was layered and nuanced, and although the characters weren’t necessarily deeply explored, there was enough information given and them fleshed out enough that the story worked.

If you like the Scandinavian crime novels but maybe are leery of the violence and sexual content, this book is for you. It’s a good mystery with all the grit but minus the excessive description and violent sex.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: As far as the genre, this book is light. There is violence and one sex scene, but it is not a violent sex scene. The violence is not overly described.

Friday, December 3, 2021

After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again - Dan Santat

Summary: My name is Humpty Dumpty.  

I'm famous for falling off a wall.  

(You may have heard about it.)  

But that's only half the story...

Because I decided to get back up.  

And when I did, something amazing happened.

This story is about my life...AFTER THE FALL.

Inspiring and unforgettable, this epilogue to the beloved classic nursery rhyme will encourage even the most afraid to overcome their fears, learn to get back up -- and reach new heights.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  A friend raved about reading After the Fall to her five little girls and she was so excited that I knew that I needed to take a look for myself.  We've all heard the story.  Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, had a great fall, and neither human or equine assistance could put him back together.  It's really quite tragic.  

Or is it?  

I'm going to let readers in on a little known secret -- Humpty survived!  And okay, he's been through something pretty traumatic, terrified of heights, and constantly worried that bad things will happen, but eventually he learns to face his fears and enjoy life.  Humpty Dumpty gets back up on that wall with his beloved birds and what happens next is it's just. so. perfect.  Readers of all ages will enjoy this happily-ever-after.

Dan Santant brings readers the rest of the story in a way that is both moving and insightful.  Initially, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't in rhyming verse but overall I think the sweet message more than makes up for the lack of poetry.  Readers might even notice some meaningful parallels between Humpty's journey and their own.  After the Fall was a beautiful story and a tender testament to our ability to overcome trauma and be who we were always meant to be.  

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Even though the book never mentions a diagnosis, Humpty seems to be struggling with depression and anxiety following his fall.  This might be emotionally difficult for some readers.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

73 "Read-All-Night" Book Recommendations for JOLABOKAFLOD

Have you ever spent whole night reading?  You're lost in a book, time flies, and before you know it the first light of dawn is cresting over the hills.  It's a truly beautiful thing!

If this sounds like heaven on earth, then it's time to pack your bags, board a jet, and move to Iceland.  Aside from the beautiful landscapes, free education, and low crime rates, Iceland is also home to my absolutely favorite Christmas tradition, Jolabokaflodwhich is pronounced YO-luh-BO-kuh-FLOWD and roughly translates to 'Christmas Book Flood.'  

Cue the brief backstory...

During World War II, supplies were scarce, so the people of Iceland began giving books as gifts. Since then, the culture of giving books as presents has turned into a yearly tradition, Jolabokaflod, where Icelanders exchange books with friends and family on Christmas Eve and then snuggle up with a hot cocoa and read late into the evening.  

Incidentally, the Icelandic word for bliss is sæla (pronounced SIGH-luh)!

If you are thinking you'd like to start your own version of Jolabokaflod this Christmas Eve, we'd like to give you a head start.  Below you'll find a host of titles that we have either read cover-to-cover in one sitting or really wanted to, but life got in the way. Most fall into the Adult or YA genres, though you'll find a few for the younger set as well.  Linked titles will take you directly to our reviews!

RED RISING by Pierce Brown 

(It'll be a long but enjoyable night)

LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE by Laura Esquivel

 

BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman


CINDER by Marissa Meyer


ONE FOR THE MONEY by Janet Evanovich


BLACKBIRD HOUSE by Alice Hoffman


BEASTLY by Alex Flinn


THE MOONFLOWER VINE by Jetta Carleton




LEGEND by Marie Lu






SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo


GONE, GIRL by Gillian Flynn

A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING by Ruth Ozeki

THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield

STEPSISTER by Jennifer Donnelly


GREEN ANGEL by Alice Hoffman




BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP by S.J. Watson


EDENBROOKE by Julianne Donaldson


THE GIVER by Lois Lowry

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi


ROOM by Emma Donoghue






GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier


SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo


THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN by Kate Morton




THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows


TELL NO ONE by Harlan Coben


THE WRATH & THE DAWN by Renée Ahdieh


THESE IS MY WORDS by Nancy E. Turner


THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer



ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes


WONDER by R.J. Palacio


ARCHANGEL by Sharon Shinn


THE HONEY THIEF by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman




THE WINTER SEA by Susanna Kearsley


MOCKINGBIRD by Katherine Erskine


THE DA VINCI CODE by Dan Brown


AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir


BEARMOUTH by Liz Hyder


REBEL QUEEN by Michelle Moran


MAKE YOUR BED by Admiral William H. McRaven (Retired U.S. Navy)


A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness


UNBROKEN by Lauren Hillenbrand


THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd




ELLA MINNOW PEA by Mark Dunn


I AM THE MESSENGER by Markus Zusak


THE SEASON by Sarah MacLean


EARLY DEPARTURES by Justin A. Reynolds


THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes


THIS MUCH COUNTRY by Kristin Knight Pace


OLD BONES by Preston & Child


WILDER GIRLS by Rory Power








WE WERE NEVER HERE by Jennifer Gilmore


HOUSE OF HOLLOW by Krystal Sutherland


VIRGIL WANDER by Leif Enger


WHEN YOU WERE EVERYTHING by Ashley Woodfolk




A SPINDLE SPLINTERED by Alix E. Harrow


WATCH OVER ME by Nina Lacour




CURSES by Lish McBride


CIRCE by Madeline Miller



And, of course, there's a few others you've probably seen on a million lists (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Fablehaven, The Hunger Games, etc.).  Just assume we've recommended those too.

We hope that you've found something you'd something 
you'd like to give (even if it is to yourself) 
on Jolabokaflod!

Happy Reading!


LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails