Friday, September 21, 2018

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

genre: historical paranormal romance

Life in the Wilde family of British Long Island during the Seven Years War wasn't easy.  With some members off fighting and others left at home to worry, even when they are gathered together again life is complicated because of two captured French officers that are billeted in their home.  With tensions high and loss simmering on the surface, Lydia Wilde does her best to complete the monstrous task of helping to run her father's home all with two of the enemy under her roof.

In modern Long Island, Charley is dealing with a loss of her own while starting a job as the new curator of The Wilde House Museum. Delving into the history of this house and its former residents, its generations of farmers and sailors, soldiers and carpenters, exposes more questions than answers and one ghost story in particular leaves Charley wondering if there is more to the story of this house than meets the eye. 

I loved this book.  I love Susanna Kearsley's deft hand at weaving the past and the present together in a way that always feels fresh.  The paranormal aspect never feels overwhelming, for some reason - I've read enough of her books now that I wait for it, wondering how those who have passed on will make their appearance in some way to help the narrative.  I love that I get a romantic storyline in BOTH time periods and how both Long Island communities, past and present, have secondary characters that are fleshed out enough to make our main character's lives feel rich and complex.  I love the history - how much did I actually know about the French and Indian War beyond the basic storyline of The Last of the Mohicans?  Nothing.  That's embarrassing.  But I do now, and I liked seeing inklings of how things were handled in this war led to our own American Revolution.  Also, I am just a nut for historical home museums so part of my love of this story was just the general plot and setting in an old house with a story to tell. 

Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

genre: memoir

Damascus is Yusra's home. It’s where she goes to school, hangs out with her friends and, for her most importantly, where she swims. Pushed by her coaching father, Yusra dreams of making it to the Olympics someday.

Until the Syrian Civil War began.

It's not long before home is no longer safe - suddenly she and her family are caught in the crossfire and death is an actual possibility every day.

So they make a choice. And that choice means that one day Yusra finds herself in an overcrowded inflated raft on the sea between Turkey and Greece, staring death in the face again. Her story will make headlines later as she becomes a poster child for refugee adolescents everywhere.

There is nothing like reading someone’s story to truly put a face on a tragedy so huge it’s hard to comprehend. I have never taken the refugee journey with someone like I did in this book, not a modern one anyway. Not when the person living it is the same age my daughter was at the same time, living an unthinkable life and having to make unthinkable decisions. Yusra’s voice isn’t melodramatic or conceited and she’s open about the times when she could’ve handled things better. Mostly, she’s real. She makes me care about her. I loved her story of perseverance and passion - and I loved how she made peace with her experience by sharing it with others in the hope to encourage others in a similar position.

My only gripe is that her internal monologue does get a bit repetitious but 4.5 stars for making me feel and care and for an incredibly inspiring story.

Monday, September 17, 2018

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

genre: historical mystery/romance

When Holly's brother Ben goes missing, she doesn't even really know where to start looking in the little town where he'd been living.  Between an old diary from a former resident of the town as well as the infamous Winter Queen and her consort from the 17th century, two relics that seem to have power of their own will tie these distinct time periods together.  Can Holly keep herself safe when it seems as though time is sloshing around in her head?

This book is a pretty mixed bag.  On the one hand, I do love historical fiction that pops between two time periods and makes connections between them.  And there was a nice-ish romance in the modern portions.  But those connections I usually like?  They just didn't really flow for me, there were plot holes that were frustrating and Holly is just not as strong of a heroine as I wanted her to be.  The paranormal-ness just never actually worked for me - it was there but then not and not really discussed again, which left me asking questions that distracted me from the story.  Although the ending felt a bit jarring and rushed, I'm giving it two and a half stars because I liked it enough that I DID read the whole thing but if I compare it to a Kate Morton or especially a Susanna Kearsley, I just think this genre can be done in a tighter and more enjoyable way.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway (audiobook)

genre: young adult contemporary fiction

When high schooler Grace chooses to give up her baby for adoption, her own adoption story all-of-a-sudden becomes essential knowledge.  Trying to learn about her birth mom leads to not one but TWO biological siblings whose own experiences will soon impact her own in a huge way. Grace and her newly discovered brother and sister have to figure out what "family" really means and how to make a place for yourself in a world that feels like it's not legitimately yours in the same way it is for people who are raised by their biological parents.

The author really delves into ALL the adolescent issues in this one - adoptions, lgbtq issues, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, you name it, but as I listened to this story I really did start to care about these three teens.  I cared about their choices and the baggage they had deal with, I felt tender for their anguish as they sorted through their fear of being left behind.  There is a LOT of strong language in this one band I had to suspend my disbelief a and I really enjoyed thinking about all the many beautiful ways a family can be created, so it gets four stars from me.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

genre: young adult graphic novel

Rose has spent every summer of her memory in a beach house so familiar it's like home.  She's even got a best friend, Windy, who does the same thing and is a constant presence during her beachy months.  But Rose is a teenager now, and the things that used to be the best part of the beach now seem less fun than imaging what her body will look like when she gets older or figuring out what all the teenagers are talking about at the tiny store in town.  This One Summer is a summer of transition, of becoming old enough to understand why adults can be in pain and old enough to start feeling real frustration about your not-adult-but-not-a-child place in the world.

The art is so well done - while monochromatic, it's still vibrant and alive with Rose's experiences as well as her memories.  But the story left me feeling pretty blah, which made me sad.  There is a lot of pain here, a lot of drama - and while I BELIEVE it, and it does feel absolutely grounded in the kind of experiences I remember having at this in-between age, I still wanted a reason to like Rose and care about her story.  She's moody and often unkind to her friend without things ever being super resolved.  I think teens would probably like it more because it will feel more familiar, maybe?  But the language is ROUGH and there is some content too (no nudity but a lot of crass talk about sex) that would make me hesitate to hand it to a young teen. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

genre: young adult contemporary fiction

Eliza sees herself as, really, two different people.  There is the quiet girl who shuffles her way through high school, trying her actual best to just not be noticed by a soul.  And then there is her internet self: Lady Constellation, authoress and illustrator of the uber-popular online comic Monstrous Sea.  One Eliza is confident and creative and capable and the other is mortified by even the idea of popularity.  Anonymous is best.  For both Eliza's.

But when a new boy moves into town and suddenly her online world becomes less "online" and more "in-real-life," the fears Eliza needs to face and the choices she has to make will require all the courage she can muster.  Life always on the brink of panic is exhausting and Eliza knows she wants more for herself but to have her two worlds collide would just not be okay - not for her, and not for her beloved Monstrous Sea

There is so so much to love about this book.  It begs to be read in one grand gulp - from the first chapter I cared about Eliza and her world.  I loved delving into a fandom and the crazy dynamics of the online forums.  The text/picture format was engaging and wraps the reader into Eliza's headspace.  My only gripe, though, was that it was sometimes hard to piece together all the different plots of her comic that were spread out - I finally just gave up on keeping characters and settings straight and instead let myself just enjoy the beauty of the language and the drawings. 

Next paragraph could be considered a spoiler but no plot is revealed.

Most particularly, though, what I appreciate is Eliza's journey into deep anxiety and depression. How her relationships are affected, her thought processes, the words and ideas that the author uses to describe Eliza's descent into that black hole are so well done.  And I especially loved how Eliza dug her way out - I think books like this can be remarkable for their ability to engage younger readers in a dialogue about mental illness without being in any way pedagogic.  Eliza is amazing.  She is capable with an incredible talent. And she has debilitating anxiety that will eventually, we readers can sense, have to be dealt with.

Eliza's and Her Monsters is romantic.  It's creative.  It grabs you by the hands and makes you want to stay.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow

genre: historical fiction

A piece of music given to a child near the end of World War I ends up in the hands of a modern woman, New Yorker musicologist Meta.  But its not just a "piece of music"  - it is a fragment, only a portion of a sonata that promises to be astounding.  But finding the missing parts will take Meta on a search to Europe and, in a way, back in time to determine what happened to one woman and the people she loved.

I grabbed this off the library shelf only because of the cover and the word "Prague."  That's me being honest.  I traveled to Prague last year and fell IN LOVE with and I know that my feelings about this book are a bit biased because of how desperately I enjoyed reading about familiar places that now have a place in my heart.  However. I also found that I cared about this mystery!  I liked the journey and the trips into the past that gave the sonata its story.  I also loved how integral music is to the plot, how its love and power is woven into the narrative. 

I think it could've been shorter and been just as powerful. I would've loved a little bit more romantic tension  - but I really really enjoyed this story.  For a giant library book, I carted it around in my backpack and was always happy to pick it up.  This book took me to another place and I was always glad to go there.

genre: some language and sexual situations

Friday, August 31, 2018

Bright Side by Kim Holden

genre: new adult contemporary fiction

When Kate arrives in small-town Minnesota for her first semester of college, she knows exactly what she's left behind: a gorgeous and musically talented best friend, San Diego sunsets and a childhood that was equal parts horrible and full of love.  What she brings with her: a can-do attitude, a zest for life and a secret that she intends to keep.

One part of me did like this.   The romantic banter was fun and the secondary characters were (for the most part) interesting.  The dynamic between best friend/boyfriend was interesting enough too and I really liked all the music love.  But it's pretty repetitive.  And Kate is a bit TOO perfect to be true (her foul mouth notwithstanding) and it makes it so much of a Pollyanna story that it feels a bit cliche.  It's also pretty depressing, truthfully, enough bad things have/will happen to Kate that it's sorta hard to believe sometimes.  Well, there's actually several things that are hard to believe.  But apparently I believed enough to read the whole thing and I did find myself teary and sympathetic at the end so it wasn't a total wash.

WARNING: graphic sexuality and language would make this for sure for an older audience

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

genre: memoir

If you don't know who Princess Leia is, then maybe you have been living under a rock because even if you're not a Star Wars FAN, per say, it's hard to make it through life not learning about it.  I, myself, am a fan :)  I read this book hoping to learn some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the making of the original Star Wars and learn a bit about Carrie's life.  I did get a little of that.  But mostly I got to see that time period in Carrie's life through the lens of her memory and her actual diaries that she found from that time.  Her affair with Harrison Ford is a major (nearly encompassing) theme, as her younger self was constantly trying to process (through some quite good poetry) her feelings about him and about herself as a teen with a married, older man. 

I did really appreciate Carrie's reflections on celebrity and on her own demons as she grew older and was no longer that skinny 19 year old everyone always wanted her to keep being.  Her writing is snarky in the extreme (sometimes too much for me) but very readable and this one read quickly.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman

genre: non-fiction, food

In a country as new as ours (in the grand scheme of countries) and with the mesh of cultures we enjoy, our food customs are as colorful and varied as our citizens.  What this book does, however, is lay out eight different FLAVORS that have made themselves an integral part of American kitchens and cuisine.  These flavors are as varied as we are and while I was a bit dubious of her choices at first, our author convinced me.  By laying out the history and how each flavor became integrated into the fabric our our food, I not only found a new appreciation for the way (and what) I eat and enjoy, but I learned a lot about the past of different flavors also.

Black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha: do I think these are ALL the integral flavors that Americans typically appreciate or use in their food? No. But she does make the case for their relevance, even if my own food experience hasn't been quite as varied. I think that's a tiny bit about what rubbed me a tiny bit wrong about the book - she is SUCH a foodie that I sometimes felt a little out of touch with what she was saying.  I've never lived an incredibly thrilling food life full of SO many food-obsessed friends. I'm at home with five kids and I was raised by a third generation Czech-Irish mom who made good but essentially bland meals. But, even still, several of the dishes she referred to are things I have enjoyed either as a child, growing up, or that I've found as an adult, so I did still find meaning and appreciated what I learned, especially the history. I also appreciated learning about the different ways foods are made/processed and in the end, this book made me want to stretch out of my food-comfort-zones a bit and try to add more curry and Sriracha to my life :)  That's gotta be a good thing.
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