Monday, January 26, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

genre: historical fiction

A French girl, who has gone blind.

A German boy, scientist turned soldier.

The French girl's father, a locksmith.

A gemologist, desperately searching for something.

A veteran of the first World War, lost in his demons.

These characters and their experiences during the horror of World Ward II are what make up the story of All the Light We Cannot see.  As we move back and forth in time and place, we see the war through the eyes of both the Reich and the French Resistance.  The way all these different people find each other - the pain they both inflict and heal and the light they are capable of bringing, the specific beautiful things which can bring joy, no matter the circumstances - these are the things that make this book incredibly lovely.  Some parts were so poignant and exquisite that it brought tears to my eyes, usually it was moments of stunning beauty amidst the carnage and heartache of war.

I'm feeling particularly torn because it didn't end how I wanted it to.  Meaning, things happened I just didn't like.  Can I rate a book less because things didn't happen how I thought they should?  Is it fair to an author to discount the power of a book because certain character's lives turn out differently than a reader would want?  Since I finished reading it yesterday I have had to give myself some time to really think about this.   I think a younger me would've said yes, that this book only gets 4 stars because I wanted the plot to wrap up differently.  But with some years and some heartache of my own under my belt, I know now that we don't always get to pick what happens to people.  We sometimes have to look for the good and the peace that comes from a hard situation that we didn't choose.

There is too, too much good in this book for me to not give it five stars.  Even though something happened that made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.  Even though there is horrible violence that is really upsetting.  Even WITH those things, there is so much that is startling in its beauty.  The writing is almost poetic.  I think what I liked most was how often people are saved - saved from grief, saved from their demons, saved from their own indifference and saved from themselves.  Saved by memories from their childhood, saved by a choice to do what's right,  saved by thoughts of a bird or a snail or a favorite book, the open ocean or radio waves transmitted across a continent.

Books about a war are not going to be pretty.  I know that and I am learning all the time that life means we don't get to choose what happens to us or the people we love.  For me, this book is about how despite all of the hard, there is light and peace in the good choices we make, in the not giving up when it would make sense to do so, in the small things that we connect with people and places we love.   While I recommend it with caution to sensitive readers (there is strong language, also), I do, definitely still recommend it.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Thursday, January 22, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: A Flavia de Luce Novel by Alan Bradley (audiobook)

genre: mystery

This is the seventh Flavia de Luce book, and if you haven't already read the others (which you should) you probably wouldn't find this book much fun.  There would be too much that's over your head.  However, as someone who has been devoted to Flavia for many years now, I was so happy to hear Jayne Entwistle speaking to me again.

Flavia has been sent away from home to a boarding school in Canada.  Not surprisingly, she's not there 24 hours before she's in the vicinity of another corpse.  This time, however, being both far from home and away from the usual characters, the story is invigorating and unique.  She has to get very creative to gather clues and it's hard to know who to trust, both students and staff.  I enjoyed being in a new place and the mystery itself wrapped up as interestingly as I could've hoped, even if I must admit there are small pieces I still don't really "get."  Truth be told, I listen for Flavia herself, not really for the mystery.  I just think that she's quirky and snarky and I love her tone, especially during her monologues.  I wish we'd seen a little more chemistry work, but being away from Uncle Tar's laboratory did make it more difficult.

My only complaint is that, with the audio this time, I had a harder time keeping all of the new characters straight - in a boarding school there are SO many people!  All new!  Eventually I sorted it out and it didn't spoil it, I just noticed I wasn't always sure of who people were.

I will listen to more.  I will listen to Flavia until there is no Flavia left to listen to.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist

genre: memoir/Christian/non-fiction

Truth: there is going to be good and there is going to be hard.  No matter what.  No one can get away with avoiding that juxtaposition.  The idea of life being bittersweet is at the heart of this book of essays.  Shauna takes snippets and experiences from her life and uses them as a springboard to encourage her readers to look for ways to bring their lives in harmony with both God's will and the specific things that will bring them true happiness.

I feel somehow disappointed in myself for not loving this more.  I did highlight a lot of quotes - I DO think she has a lovely writing style and a lot of what she had to say rang very true to me.  But, somehow, by reading so much about her life, I found myself feeling like mine was missing something.  This is exactly what she warns us against, of course, but yet, somehow her enormous, world-wide circle of very close friends that are always somehow managing to be together and eat together and commune together made me feel like my own circle is too small somehow, not nurturing enough or flavorful enough.  It may be that she is still more than ten years younger than me - she has only one child and he's just turned three.  I remember those years of my life as being very full of people too - but this stage of my life, with teens and pre-teens and toddlers, is very different.  Sometimes unmanageable and sometimes unthinkably lonely. And reading her advice just made me feel even more like I'm not doing enough.  That isn't fair to her, probably, but that's my reality.  I wanted her to be older than me - in the stage of life I'll get to next - and THEN tell me these things.  I needed her to have more life experience to base her conclusions on - maybe that's it.  

So, the book itself is full of good but because of where I'm at, I wasn't able to let it DO as much good as it could have.  Even with her heartache (which sometimes she is specific about sometimes she is incredibly and frustratingly vague about) I just didn't feel connected enough with her life that I felt like I could do what she was asking me to all the time.  I think really at the crux of it is that I see a lot of myself in her - her zest for life, her desire to have it all and DO it all and BE in all - and I just know how the years from 25-35 changed me.  I'd love to hear what she has to say with some more hard under her belt.  I keep feeling like this isn't a fair reason to not connect with a book, but I can't change it myself, so there you go.

I'll finish it with a quote I really did like: "And that's the core of prayer: admitting that just maybe, there's something going on that we can't see.  So when I'm afraid, I pray, and I ask for God's help, that I will be able to see something I wasn't able to see before, or at least trust him to do the seeing."

Oh, and another one, one that REALLY rang true: "Sometimes we have to leave home in order to find out what we left there, and why it matters to much."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Board Book Review: Pictivities by Meg and Corbin Frost

genre: board book for toddlers

I was given a copy of this book to review.

What do my two year old twins love?  Interacting with me.  Being close.  BOOKS.  When I sat down with the book Pictivities for the first time, I didn't know what I'd started.  The first page has a candle on it.  It tells me to touch it but then blow on my fingers and say "HOT!"  I helped my babies do this.  Then we had to shiver with cold, pretend to eat an apple, get a "hurtie" on a nail and tickle a spider.  My sons ATE THIS UP.  I mean, could not get ENOUGH of this book. My husband and I will read it to them until WE are done because they never get done!  Really.  Sometimes I hide it to get a little break :)  I love that it's so interactive, they are laughing their heads off at their silly daddy pretending he's a monster or that he's hurt his finger on a nail.  It's neat that now they KNOW what to do on a page and don't even need us to tell them.

My only complaint is that I don't completely love all the illustrations - the baby doesn't look super babyish to me, although my sons will pet his head and snore right along with him anyway :)  GREAT fun!


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Seed by Lisa Heathfield

genre: young adult

Pearl has spent her entire life in one safe, secure place: Seed. Seed is her home and her world.  Under the watchful eye of Papa S., Pearl knows how to live so she can be in harmony with Nature and the rest of her Seed Family.  When newcomers arrive at Seed, Pearl is suddenly forced to begin thinking of Outside and soon, it's hard to tell whether the dangers lies outside of Seed or within it.

I appreciate a carefully written cult story - it's so intriguing to see how people's minds can be shaped and what damage you can do by falsely teaching people who have no interaction with the outside world.  It really makes you think about how much power "nurture" can have.  It takes a really long time for Pearl to figure things out and while that was sometimes frustrating to me as a reader, I knew at the same time that it was incredibly realistic.  To fight against a lifetime of indoctrination just does not happen overnight.   I can't say I loved the ending, but as the conclusion to this journey, I can't say I didn't believe it or understand it, as hard as that was.  This is a deceptively peaceful and beautifully written story about a place where frightening violence is just under the surface.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Snowpiercer by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette

genre: adult science fiction graphic novel

On a frozen future earth there is a train.  A train that never stops running through the snow.  On that train is the last life on earth, human beings living in a classed-society not unlike they lived in on earth, for both the good and the completely horrible.  One day, a man from the back of the train decides he's done and his choice will change life on the Snowpiercer forever.

Please note, this is a VERY adult graphic novel.  Not for children.  Or young adults.  I was lucky enough to be handed a rather cleaned-up copy.  The idea is compelling and imaginative - the execution is so dark, violent and explicit.  I appreciate a good revolution - how brave the leaders need to be, how grand their vision and willingness to die for a cause.   Throw that onto a post-apocolypic snow train and there is a lot you can do with it.  Did I love it? Not particularly.  Was I intrigued enough to want to finish it?  Yes.

Books I Liked Best in 2014

I love to read everyone else's lists, so I am going to quick write down some of my favorites.  I read 63 books this year, which is pretty impressive considering this has been the busiest year of my life so far :)

Best overall for taking me away from the crazy that is my life:

Best Historical Fiction

Best Young Adult
(beware some language in this one)

Best Fantasy

Best Non-Fiction

Best Classic

Best Audiobook

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

genre: adult fiction

quote: "and if these incidences now seem full of significance and all of a piece, it's probably because I'm looking at them in the light of what came later..."

Kathy is nearing the end of one phase of her life and as she prepares herself emotionally for the change, she begins to look to her past to help her understand her present.  Growing up in an exclusive boarding school in the secluded English countryside, her world revolved around her many peers and a few guardians.  Interactions with two particular friends, Ruth and Tommy,  are the basis of this novel as minor incidents and conversations begin to reveal the enormity of the experience they've had and the implications of the truths Kathy learns.

This book is a lesson in "read between the lines."  The skipping-around narration, never spending more than a few pages in one time period, could be really jarring.  Sometimes when she'd say, again, that she first has to explain something else to me before she could tell me any more, I would have to actually sigh out loud. Sometimes interactions between the characters felt so scripted and stilted and other times so deeply real, I couldn't decide if it annoyed me or if it was clearly a device the author was using to teach me about the characters and I should just let it go.  It took a long time to get to the crux of this novel but I can't say I didn't enjoy it.  Kathy is mild and naive but she does feel things deeply.  Her humanity is compelling, especially as you reach the end of the novel and truths begin to be very apparent,  it's pretty fascinating what the author has created in this novel.  I would recommend NOT reading spoilers because I liked the figuring things out for myself.  I appreciated how it made me think through some deep and disturbing issues as well as make my brain work a little harder than the average novel.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (audiobook)

genre: adult fiction

It's hard to imagine what such a day would be like - the day when you realize that the way you've always been able to live is done.  That the high-speed, small-world, convience-ready world you've grown up in has shuttered to a halt.  But when a flu explodes on our planet and the majority of human life dies in an incredibly short period, there really isn't any other choice but to believe it.  What will be left of us, when most of us die? What will the survivors choose to keep and remember, sustaining if they can, and what will become the stuff of legend and myth?

I loved how this book answered that question.

While sometimes it meandered a bit much - it gets four stars from me instead of five because sometimes it just moved a little too slow - there was also a lot to appreciate from this story.  I really liked that it was so character driven, we follow several different characters from pre-flu life into post-flu life and the things they remember and learn and experience are essentially the plot of the book, if you can call that a plot. There is a LOT of flipping back and forth in time, which could get obnoxious if that bothers you.  Once I got used to it, I really liked seeing where people connected, where small moments ended up mattering so much in a future world that no one could imagine.  I liked Station Eleven as a plot device (no spoilers from me :) but I think what I liked most was the fact that it really made me think about what I take for granted.  It really made me think about if all the "modern" of my life fell away and I had to someday teach my grandchildren about what my own experience was like, what would matter enough to share?  What ideas are so thoroughly foreign and useless in an essentially medieval world that it only makes you sad to remember it?  Very interesting food for thought.

This isn't an action story. It's a meandering look at a world that is so easy to believe could be real.  It's a deep and hard look at beauty and creating and finding what is worth surviving for.  The art-and-theater-and-museum lover in me really appreciated that theme.   A great listen.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Friday, December 26, 2014

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

genre: historical fiction

Sara is a wiz with numbers.  Codes calm her and when an opportunity arrives to decode an old journal, it sounds like just the right task.  As the journal begins to reveal its secrets, Sara finds so much more than a list of daily experiences, the life of Mary Dundas is a tale of a journey.  Mary becomes embroiled with exiled Jacobites and danger is only one piece of what she finds once she makes the choice to live a more adventurous life.

I have read a LOT of Susanna Kearsley and I have enjoyed them all, but I think this might actually be my favorite (a toss up between this and A Winter Sea).  Both plots were so fleshed out and real.  I liked living in both of these worlds - France in the present and France 300 years ago.  One thing I particularly liked was that Sara, our protagonist, has Asperger's Syndrome.  Any book that can gently and respectfully have a person with a disability in the narrative without making the disability be the point of the narrative gets three cheers from me.  Sara is open and honest with us in her inner monologue about what she struggles with and how she copes with those things.  She learns that having this disability doesn't make her un-lovable and wow, that's a great thing to learn.

I liked the thread of Scottish lore and culture that's woven throughout Mary's story.  The Jacobite period is clearly a favorite of Kearsley and Mary's interaction with the cause is a different twist than in previous books.

Kearsley is just good at what she does - strong historical presence and sense of place.  Her end notes show how deeply she researches the time period.  This one is different in that there is no paranormal activity to help us as readers go back and forth in time - the journal plot device worked really well for me.  Lovely romantic threads in both time periods, which I also found very fun.   I'm a fan.

*note: I was given a complementary advanced readers copy courtesy of Netgalley*
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