Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Queen of Someday by Sherry D. Ficklin (A Stolen Empire Novel)

genre: young adult historical fiction

When Sophie arrives in Russia, she's innocent enough to believe that her noble German upbringing prepared her for the scandal and intrigue that is the St. Petersburg court of Empress Elizabeth and her ruthless nephew Peter. As she slowly tries to maneuver herself into a crown, Sophie soon learns that true happiness will require a level of trust that may be difficult to obtain. She will be in need of all her energy and wits to make a place for herself and hopefully find love in the process.

This is some juicy YA historical fiction - really I'd call it historical romance. It's not explicit but there are romantic scenes, to be sure. It read really quickly for me and I enjoyed spending time in a Russia that didn't belong to the elusive Anastasia Romanov. This earlier Russia is just as dangerous of a place, though, and the action moves quickly (sometimes a little too quickly for my taste, I occasionally needed a little more detail to flesh relationships out to make them super believable). The ending was an interesting jumping off point for book two and while there isn't a lot of "moral" decision-making amongst the characters, I was definitely entertained.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

genre: young adult historical fiction

As fourteen year old Joan imagines her future on the farm in Pennsylvania in 1911, all she can see is more backbreaking work without acknowledgement or affection.  Intelligent and curious, she uses her diary as an outlet for her fears and ambitions as she decides that this sort of life isn't enough.  As a seed of hope sprouts, Joan takes her life into her own hands and she dares to go out into the world to become a Hired Girl.

Set mostly in Baltimore, Joan's experiences in the city force her to grow up quickly.  Aware of her own mind, Joan's thirst for knowledge leads to her own religious explorations while her desire to belong helps her to make a place for herself in a new household.

I really liked this diary-type novel.  It's funny and heartbreaking, as Joan navigates a world she knows nothing about.  I loved the religious interplay between the characters as well as Joan's first true romantic feelings, which felt dead on. The characters, the time and place, the plot - it all felt relevant and possible.  Fun read.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to http://ratedreads.com

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

genre: fantasy, fairy tale retelling

Princess Alyrra is from a small kingdom - and when a King from a much more prosperous land requests her hand for his son, there really is no choice to be made.  She must go.  But before she arrives,  one betrayal suddenly gives Alyrra that glorious gift:  choice.   In her new role as goose girl, Alyrra can choose to work hard and find peace in her new rougher, but in some ways more free, life - or she can choose to help a prince who is surely full of secrets at a cost that may risk even her own life.

This is a fairly faithful retelling of The Goose Girl, although the more developed magical element gives it an interesting twist.  Because it's a faithful retelling, there is a talking horse and that took me a while to get used to, for whatever reason.  The "evil" character is an addition that adds depth to the plot and I liked how it resolved.  The romantic thread is mild and that doesn't necessarily resolve in that way you'd expect but I think I liked that too, it was realistic.    What I really liked was the deeper and more ethical threads of justice and mercy, the heavy responsibility that lies over those in a position to judge and meet out punishments.  Intriguing and more thought-provoking than the average fantasy novel, I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit

genre: historical fiction

The wives of Los Alamos didn't know WHY they were in Los Alamos. That wasn't information that could be discussed - even hinted at.  The wives of Los Alamos did what wives do: clean their house, cook their family's food, care for their children.  But they did these things in a tiny, barely constructed town that didn't technically exist, where their food had to be procured by the US Army and where their husbands went to work each day on a project they weren't allowed to understand.

They were from all over, their very cloistered life magnified to a great degrees all the little things that women can tend to (really, sometimes have to) worry about, as well as create a tiny fish bowl where everyone knows everyone else's business.    When their "project" is finally revealed in all its terrifying glory, the aftermath is just as complicated as its construction.

I have never read a book in this narrative style - there is no main character.  No plot, really - it's more a communal novel, written in first person plural.  Their story, the story of the women, is told from its essential beginning to its end but it's not ONE person's story.  Everything is "we" and "our." It's a cross section, an attempt at showing the patriotic unity on the surface of the more jealous, petty and unfaithful.  The balance sometimes felt a bit off for a historical fiction - really, THAT many women cheated on their husbands, were spiteful and bitter?   I know I didn't live then and maybe these sorts of feelings really were the product of a society where women were told what limited jobs were acceptable and behavior codes were so strict when it was time to be sociable that there had to be a backlash somehow?

I did like it, although truthfully, I kept waiting for more, somehow.  I maybe NEED a character, one particular person to feel rooted to - even if her experience somehow excludes the experiences of everyone else.  I did really appreciate the ethical discussion at the end, how very differently people looked at the issue and how, I think, we still struggle with this today: was it right?  For these women, that question was so close, so sharp and real that I can imagine it changed everything.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Peony: A Novel of China by Pearl S. Buck

genre: historical fiction

In 1850s China, Peony is Chinese bondmaid in a wealthy household.  The family whom she serves is not, however, a typical Chinese family - they are Jewish, a remnant of a group of people who arrived in their city of Kaifeng in centuries past.  As a foreign people in a fair and accepting society, each generation has found a way to hold on their religious traditions even as interrmarriages and business partnerships make life ever more "Chinese."   As Peony grows within this home of strange gods and rituals, she has slowly fallen in love their their only son, David, whom she can clearly never marry.  For himself, David's struggle with his mother's religious zeal and his love of the Chinese people and their religion and culture creates a powerful contrast.  How Peony and David's lives intermingle in this land of ancient customs as well as the Jewish plight abroad are at the heart of this novel.

I have never read anything like this, nor did I have any knowledge of Jewish people living among the Chinese, until I read this novel. Peony is a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, character.  Her choices and feelings felt very realistic, her introspection and behavior, are fascinatingly different to what I would imagine other people would do in her situation.  Sometimes she is so wickedly manipulative and other times so loyal - you definitely get an interesting look at the role a slave/servant played in a household, as a person who stood in the background and heard everything - how that intimate knowledge could be used for good or evil.   It's a rather tragic story, in many ways, one particular scene completely surprised me with its tragedy.

The decline of a culture and religious community is a painful thing and I loved how Buck explored the emotions of all the different people involved as it becomes more and more certain that decline is inevitable.  I felt sympathy for, especially, David's mother - who wasn't perfect but I get her soul-deep desires for her son.  I get David's feelings too, to be caught between the people he has always lived among and the man his mother wants him to be.  

I loved how I felt that the writing truly took me to China, it felt intimate and real - and even if it sometimes got repetitive (especially when describing all the getting-dressed and doing-hair etc.) I never wanted to give up on it and in the end, I'm very glad I finished it.  Peony's arc as a character was rather beautiful, her loyalty and kindness are their own happy ending.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids by Asha Dornfest

genre: parenting

I have five kids.  My youngest two are three year old twin boys.

You can probably imagine my life.

I have followed the Parent Hacks blog for a while now, even searching specific problems to see if other parents out there have good solutions (they almost always do!).  When I saw that the blog author was publishing a book, I knew I wanted to read it.

As soon as I opened the first page, I knew this book was a winner, and not just for the content.  The format is genius - fun illustrations, actual highlighting to give you the gist of the idea, perfect for a parent with little brain space.  The hacks are organized by topic (sleeping, feeding, traveling etc) to help if you are just thinking about a specific issue you're dealing with.

I found myself dog-earring pages with things that can help me even now with my boys.  Of course, they wouldn't ALL work for me now and they don't all apply to my life now either but still, even at age 3.5, there are lots of helpful tips.

You know what I wish?

That someone had given me this book at my first baby shower, fifteen years ago.  Several of the hacks in this book I already used because someone along the way gave me the tip but so many would've been helpful if only I'd KNOWN!  I think this is my new favorite shower gift for a first time Mom, even just to help remind you that creativity counts with parenting - we're all winging it!

Great idea for a book and great presentation.

I'm a fan.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (adapted from the German)

genre: middle grade adventure
This is the actual copy I read


When Father and Mother boarded a ship in Europe with their four sons, they anticipated a new life in a new colony - what they got was even more adventurous.  Under the strain of stormy weather, they are run aground and abandoned by the crew, left alone to fend for themselves on an unknown and deserted island.  Father's expert survival knowledge and the ingenuity and hard work of each family member lead the them to an incredibly successful life in their new home.

I decided to read this book when my 94 year old grandpa told me it was his most favorite book as a boy - he told me he read it repeatedly throughout his youth.  It was fun for me to keep him in mind as I read.  I'm incredibly familiar with the Disney Film, it was a favorite of mine as a kid (I wonder how much influence my love of that movie had over my love of survival stories even now?) so I couldn't help comparing the two somewhat.

They are quite different :).

The comparison made it fun, though, and I have to say that overall I really enjoyed it (read in essentially one sitting).  It is definitely a story seeped in religious vigor and moral instruction, it feels very pedantic at times and it's clear that the author wanted to teach young boys about the virtues of hard work and honesty, as well as resourcefulness and outdoor skills, in an exciting setting.    Of course, there are random animals from every conceivable continent on this island, as well as every resource you could ever possibly need to make anything under the sun - but that's what makes survival stories interesting.  Surely this was an influential work, especially for my own grandpa :)

Monday, March 21, 2016

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson (audiobook)

genre: non-fiction history

1927 was, in many ways, a banner year for America.  Progress, that giant of wealth, technology and creativity, was moving forward at break-neck speed.  Air travel, celebrity, talking pictures, notorious crimes, musical theater, television and radio, nationwide sporting events as American institutions - all of this was just either being invented or coming into its own.  It is astonishing how from the happenings in one four month period, you can get such a cross-section of modern American life that was just beginning to take root and flourish.  In One Summer, Bill Bryson begins in May and takes us through September, highlighting major events but also giving an in-depth background that fleshes out the landscape and makes those events meaningful in context.

I really enjoyed it.  But, then again, I am a nut for popular and pop culture history.  I loved learning about Babe Ruth and the Yankees, Al Capone, Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge and Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly.  I am so intrigued by this pre-depression era, where it felt like America was finally coming into its own.  Flight is a major overtone to the entire book, as Charles made his historic journey that summer and became the darling of the world, and often events would be chronologically compared to whatever Charles Lindbergh was doing at the time - I had no idea he was such a huge phenomenon!

Bryson has such a readable style, he always seems to find the fascinating tidbits to make any event more interesting and memorable.  I enjoy listening to him narrate his own books and I find them very easy to pay attention to, which isn't always the case with non-fiction.  If I am truthful, the epilogue was actually sort of a downer, I almost wish I hadn't listened to it, and I did catch one error (BYU is in Provo, not Salt Lake, Bill!) - aside from that, I really feel like I have put a lot of ideas in order in my head with the help of this book.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

Ayn Rand's Anthem: The Graphic Novel by Charles Santino, Joe Staton

genre: graphic novel

Equality 7-2521 is a man among many men, and yet, he is alone.  He alone chooses to think for himself, to explore the questions of his mind and dare to defy the communal "Us."  Living in a society that values conformity and unity above every other virtue, his explorations into a lost past and his discoveries that could change their future set him apart in such a way that he knows that "us" will never be enough.

So, I have never read the original but when I saw this I thought it would be a good chance to get the gist of the idea.  Since I cannot compare this adaptation with Rand's text, I can't say if it has the same feel but I thought it was full of very interesting ideas. There is a powerful creation-story element to it, as Equality 7-2521 decides to start a new way of living, that was intriguing to me.   I read it super fast, the text is sparse and the illustrations flowed.  It really made me think about society, as in, all of us collectively - what it can be good for and what it can really mess up.  It is true that one individual, only thinking about himself, can cause great destruction, but I think the opposite is just as true - one person, doing good, being creative, searching for answers, can also change the world for the better.    Now that I've read this I'm actually more interested in the book itself, it's a little much to wrap your brain around sometimes, but in a good way.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

genre: young adult science fiction

Etta is on the cusp of a life as a true professional violinist, a dream come true.  But on the night of one pivotal performance, everything she knows is turned inside out and she very suddenly finds herself not only in an unfamiliar place, but an unfamiliar time.  In short order, Etta learns that the life she's known is absolutely nothing like reality and the people she's always trusted have kept a grand secret from her that has now come to light.  And Etta has a huge problem to solve that will take her both miles and centuries from home.

On the one hand, I liked it, in the sense that I was always happy to pick it up and see what happens next.  The love interest (NOT triangle, thank goodness) is of a different race than Etta and that made things a bit more interesting - the romance was mostly believable and the overarching plot is dramatic and intense.  The time-travel devise worked well, for the most part.  But then other times, it didn't.  I found myself having a hard time suspending my disbelief on occasion and sometimes a bit of dialogue just came enough from left field far enough that I found myself reading a sentence two, three times to make sure I'd understood.  I liked visiting different places and times but again, sometimes the intricacies of the "time travel" scenario felt a bit forced and hard to wrap my brain around in a way that made enough sense.  Sometimes I just moved on, assuming it would work itself out.  I'm glad I finished it but I DO wish I'd looked to find out that it's only the first in a series because with a book that long, I'd really have thought it would stand alone.  Alas, I will have to wait to find out more.  If I read good enough reviews of the second book, I do think I'm interested enough to find out where it goes from here.

3.5 stars for me.

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