Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas (the Elemental Trilogy Book 1)

genre: young adult fantasy

Iolanthe was born with the ability to control the elements, well, three of the four, anyway: earth, fire and water will bend to her command.  Living a life among elemental mages, however, these abilities don't particularly set her apart.  Soon, however, Iolanthe is in danger and she doesn't even understand why.  When Prince Titus reveals the true nature of her forseen fate and the power she hasn't even yet comprehended, the world of mages is no longer safe for her.  Soon she must decide between what she wants and what she almost believes is her destiny.

A girl who can call down lightening or manipulate water?  A boy with wicked spellcasting skills and a heart that is determined to be fearless no matter the task he must face?  I could not get enough of this story.  I found myself listening in every spare moment, the narrator is amazing!  I loved that their relationship was complicated, not an easy linear romance and not a love triangle either.  Just two people with an incredible burden, living in a world where they are constantly watched and their best may never be enough.  The world building is SO good, this parallel magical realm plus extra-dimensional spheres had my brain stretching just enough that I was completely engrossed.   Lots of little intriguing threads that make me eager for the next story to begin.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Ghost Map: the Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

genre: non-fiction

Cholera is not a part of my life.  It never has touched my personal experience in any tangible way.  I'm lucky that I live in a sanitary and sweet-smelling space - the complete opposite of the world that Londoners were living in during the summer of 1854.  At this time, cesspools and a putrid-smelling and filthy Thames river meant that clean drinking water was somewhat hard to come by. It might have looked clean, but the human eye was obviously unable to see the microbes floating within, ready to strike.  When Cholera made it into the water on Broad Street, within days hundreds were dead and it took two special amateur investigators to not only determine how cholera spread from one person to another, but how to curb the tide.

I LOVE disease stories.  My sister the epidemiologist is always recommending books about how diseases are discovered and investigated and it is fascinating to try and imagine a world in which there is no germ theory, where people truly believe that smells actually can make you deathly ill and vaccines do not exist.  This is an incredibly readable story, a tale of not only disease investigation but also social history and the personalities of a doctor and a priest that used creativity and critical thinking to turn a stack of statistics and narratives into a defined path of contagion.   We also spend time learning about urban sprawl itself, it's benefits and shortfalls, how millions of people living in proximately to each other can affect our health.  Yes, it's nasty. We are talking about waste and filth and people who are living in the actual dung heaps of London life.  But it was reality for generations of people and their lives deserve to be documented.  As a history and a mystery, this story is at the literal heart of modern-day epidemiology and I was fascinated.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

genre: young adult fantasy

Nyx has always known her fate: to marry the Gentle Lord and then to destroy him.  Only by destroying him can she free her land from his tyranny.  But of course, it's never that simple.  Nyx's own heart is full of a blackness that will swallow her whole if she lets it and soon the Gentle Lord himself has Nyx asking questions about both her own reality and the quest she's set her life upon. The answers will lead her to a place she can't even imagine.

This caught my attention from the third chapter. I love a Beauty and the Beast retelling and this is far deeper and darker than any I've tried.  The backstory is so fleshed out and convoluted that it made my brain work really hard (although one major plot point was obvious from the first moment I saw it, it still worked out well).  The ending was NOT was I was expecting and that's always a pleasant surprise.  With deep mythological roots, Nyx's story is really about finding peace in yourself and figuring out what is truly worth dying for.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

genre: young adult science fiction

Cassie's life is unrecognizable.  After aliens from outer space have sent four different waves of destruction to the planet, all she has left to believe in is that no one can be trusted - and that her little brother Sammy is still out there.  He has to be.  And she is going to find him.

I am of two minds about this book.  It totally caught my interest and although the writing was sometimes a bit repetitive, I was totally along for the ride.  My time on the treadmill flew by while I was reading.  Sometimes Cassie's skill set seemed a bit impractical, but whatever.  For the most part I could just let all the little annoying things go.  But the bigger annoying questions like, WHO the heck are these aliens?  HOW THE HECK did this all really work?  WHAT IN THE WORLD?  That part was harder to get over.  Maybe I just need to read the next book to have the backstory more fleshed out but it there were whole paragraphs that I would read and think, "HUH?"  But again, I liked reading it even if it did feel like there were a lot of familiar things happening (especially reminding me of The Host with some Hunger Games).  I think I just like this KIND of book and so I liked it because of its parts, not the book as a whole, if that makes sense.

I think I care enough to see what happens next.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Books I've Given Up On Part 3

I am Malala - I am ashamed.  I really am.  I don't know why this just didn't grab me. I loved the narrator's voice, and I think Malala is AMAZING.  She's an incredible girl with a grit I can't even imagine.  I just never wanted to listen to it.  I had it on my audible for TWO MONTHS and listened for TWO HOURS in that two months and I finally just returned it.  I think it's all the Pakistani history.  It just wasn't taking me away from the toddler twins the way I needed it to.  Maybe I'll try again someday with a paper copy instead of the audiobook.  Because her story really is incredible.

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer - I love Heyer but in the first chapter one gentleman was referred two by FOUR different names and the person he was talking to was called two different names and for the love of Pete I got annoyed trying to figure out who was talking to whom.  I just didn't care about the plot and that's okay.  I've got another one of hers in my queue that I'm pretty sure I'll love.

Red: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf by Reese Reed - for me, the accent and Amish-type way of speaking for several of the characters, was hard for me to swallow, as well as some colloquialisms that just jarred me out of the world she was trying to create.  Also, I needed more back story to feel some kind of investment in Red as the story begins.  The main character's journey into a fantasy world is a good idea I just wasn't in love with the execution - but others may like it.

The Westhampton Leisure Hour and Supper Club by Samantha Bruce-Benjamin - Wordy.  SO WORDY.  I read so many pages and have been told SO MUCH and yet all I can tell you is that their marriage was horrible (for reasons I don't know) and there was a secret (a big one, based on how much we talk about it) but NOTHING IS HAPPENING.  Sorry.  I've tried twice to get into this one but I am done trying.  I think there is going to be a big storm and that intrigues me but it is taking so dang long for there to be any actual plot that I give up.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

genre: young adult contemporary

Maddy is allergic to everything.  That's what you need to know about her,  first thing.  She spends her life in a hypoallergenic bedroom with occasional forays around her house to play games with her mom or eat an especially prepared meal.  Life is a continual round of filtered air and turned book pages until someone unexpected moves in next door.  Olly.  Olly full of life and energy with his own pain, Olly who takes Maddy's filtered, orderly world and shrinks it down to one thought, one idea: if she lets herself love, it could really hurt.

Most of me liked this a lot because it is clever and beautifully written, because Maddy is an exceptional and intelligent character and because I love her notebook pages and doodles.  Olly is fleshed out also, and their relationship felt plausible and lovely.  The idea of Maddy's disease is fascinating and terrifying, the bleakness of her world is stark and it makes even me, as an adult, realize how incredible LIFE is, out in the world.  I just sometimes had niggling things that bothered me, questions about different events that felt off and although as the book ended things fell into place, that niggling feeling still made me not enjoy the rest of the book as much.  I know that sounds cryptic but I hate spoilers so, there you go.   I had to stretch my ability to suspend my disbelief a bit too much for it to be a 5 star read for me.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling

genre: memoir

Do you know of Lindsey Stirling?  She's a dancing violinist, YouTube phenomenon. She's also a quirky and passionate young women who belongs to the same religion I do.  This book is her story - her childhood, her demons, her rise to fame and the hard work of staying there.  While my teenage daughter is the first person who showed me her work, I got to know more of her story when I saw one of my husband's motivational videos in which a small part of Lindsey's journey is told - the part where she was absolutely ripped apart on a nationally-televised talent show and then DIDN'T GIVE UP.  Then I saw an I am a Mormon video in which she spoke a little bit about having an eating disorder, I was impressed by her bravery to open up about it.  So when I saw she wrote a book, I actually did want to know more.

So, like I said, she's quirky.  Her writing style is quirky too but it didn't annoy me, sometimes it made me chuckle but it always entertained.  My only hang-up was that sometimes the quirkiness verged on cheesy.  She's self-depreciating without downplaying her success - she just seems like a real person, shocking.  I really appreciated her honesty about the things that were hard - anorexia, failure, selfishness - she shared her truth and then what she learned and is still learning.  Also, she is so open about her decision to be faithful, to choose modest clothing and to not join in the party scene.  For me, it's super relatable and while it might not be for others, maybe a new perspective on the party scene is a good thing.

She's got guts, that Lindsey Stirling.  I'm super happy for her success.

Friday, January 22, 2016

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

genre: young adult contemporary

5 stars

Theodore Finch is awake now. But he's not always. Sometimes he's sunk into a stagnant darkness but when our story begins, he's at the top of a bell tower, contemplating the jump. When he is joined on the bell tower ledge by Violet, a relationship begins that will change both of them in profound ways. Violets own deep loss connects in something very alive in Finch and soon they are wandering around the state of Indiana together for a high school project, finding beauty and sorting through the demons whose tendrils wrap tight around both their hearts.

When I offered up this book to my book club, one of the girls asked if I knew it was about suicide? Did we want to read about suicide? I know that suicide is not a pretty subject but it is nonetheless a reality that touches nearly everyone and yes, I guess sometimes I do want to read about it. A very beloved friend of mine committed suicide just after high school and the guilt and pain that naturally comes afterwards for those left behind is very real - if we DON'T write books and have conversations about suicide and, just as importantly, mental illness, then we are perpetuating the stigma around this vast problem.

 Bullying. Literature. Writing. Mourning. Abuse. Not all super uplifting subjects, I know, but Finch is so remarkable, his and Violet's story is so filled with meaning that it hits you right in the heart. I appreciate that without being preachy, it's clear how important it is to have help and support when you go through trauma or are experiencing mental illness. The writing is harsh and painful when it needs to be and at other times so poignant it's a different kind of painful. There were tears, yes. It hurts to read about a boy in the thick of an illness that shapes the way his synapses fire and dictates how much of himself is able to interact with the world. I love Finch. I love his love of wandering that we share. I love Violet too, for what she learns and how she grows. For all its heartache, I love that this tale was told.

Warning: strong language and teen sex (not graphic)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Great Fire of London by Samuel Pepys

genre: memoir/diary

When I was in England, I took an amazing walking tour about ancient/medieval London.  My guide spoke several times about a man named Samuel Pepys who kept a diary during the years 1665-1666. These are very important years for the city of London because not only did the plague ravage the city, but Pepys was an eyewitness and recorder of the Great Fire of London 1666.  When I was in the basement gift shop of St. Martin's in the Field, I found a small published copy of his dairy and snatched it up.

It's a short little book, 51 pages, but it is a ridiculously amazing time capsule.  The language is dated, obviously, and the spelling is garbled compared to our day, but it's quite readable.  Granted, he is clearly a nobleman with access to the king and other great nobles - he works for the Naval office and talks often about the weight of his work and how busy it is, especially with a war going on with the Dutch on the sea at the time.  It's truly like going back in time, to read it - his dinner parties and meetings, his traveling up and down river meeting with friends and the constant letter correspondence, it really gives you a feel for what life was like for part of the population.   He is always referencing people I don't know and didn't even ever even try to learn - the one that comes up most often, though, is Sir W. Penn, Pepy's neighbor and the father of the William Penn that founded Pennsylvania!

And then, the fire.   The destruction is inconceivable, he has a wonderful way with words as he describes the horror.   "With one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops..."  You can just imagine the streets teeming with people carrying everything they own, trying to get to safety near the river.

I am so glad I took the minutes to read this.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

For Laia, life under Empire rule is a bleak existence.  As a scholar, her people are downtrodden and depraved, a class squashed under the foot of the Martials, who rule her part of the country with an iron fist.  When her brother is arrested for treason and Laia is left truly alone, she turns to the only entity she thinks might help: the Rebellion.  What they ask of her, though, is a price almost too steep to pay: to spy at the Martial military academy, where the most brutal soldiers in the Empire are trained from childhood to kill and destroy.   It is this school where Elias has learned how to become a weapon, he is the most skilled student among hundreds of warriors.  In his heart, however, what he truly wants is to be free from the rigidity and darkness of the life that has been forced upon him.

Seeped with Roman undertones, An Ember in the Ashes is a fast-paced and wickedly addictive story of personal freedom and responsibility.   With characters and situations that are both violent and troubling, Laia and Elias have choices to make that will determine the course of the history.  There are so many things about this story to appreciate.  I shall make a list:

*Laia's arc as a character is strong - she's not immediately a heroine, she's got fear and makes mistakes

*Elias is beautifully complicated as well, he knows what he wants, he's amazingly capable but isn't so perfect that he isn't uncertain often and makes his own poor choices with good intentions

*the female friendship thread is lovely and felt authentic, all the secondary female characters were intriguing, with some questions left unanswered in a way that makes you want the next book NOW

*the romantic relationships are complicated and multi-dimensional. Sometimes emotions felt a little flippy-floppy, but I also know that it's hard not to love the one you're with so it didn't really bother me too much, I thought it was well-thought out and kept me guessing more than I usually do with this kind of story

*the all-knowing holy men and the fantastical creatures that sneak their dark selves into the plot - this fantasy element was woven just clever enough to not make the fantasy feel thick, just intriguing

*the plot moved really quickly for me and there were plenty of unforeseen twists, which I appreciated and as much I loved the plot, I loved the introspection of our characters, and there is a lot of it. Vaguely repetitive, maybe, but knowing how they were feeling all the time, their dread and horror, their snippets of joy and most especially, their guilt and pain and staunch desire to just stay true to their most honest and merciful selves (even if they don't always succeed), THAT I really loved learning about

*also, I cannot recommend the audio enough - it's read by two of my most FAVORITE narrators, Fiona Hardingham and Steve West (they also read Scorpio Races together and she read A Corner of White).  It has been such a long time since I COULD NOT STOP listening at the end of an audio book, I walked around with a phone to my ear all afternoon to finish.  Really well done performance

And so, yes, while it is not actually perfect (there are always a few little annoying things) this one had HEART even with all the violence (yes!  lots of violence! and some swears, maybe).  The next book is set up well at the end so you know where you're going but no idea how you'll get there and I love a strong female character so much.  I am gushing, I know.  So annoying.  But for pure imagination and keeping my interest so well, this one deserves its accolades.
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