Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

genre: fiction/historical fiction

Alexandra has arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, ready to do a little exploring before she begins her English teaching job. One choice, one inadvertent mistake, turns Alexandra’s vacation time into a desperate hunt to return something she has accidentally become in possession of: an urn of ashes. Whose ashes are they? How can she find the rightful owner? It isn’t long before she’s beginning to see that something isn’t right - danger is lurking and sorting things out will require delving into Bulgaria’s dark history and the personal experiences of one Bulgarian: Stoyan Lazarov.

I can’t decide if this deserves 3.5 stars or 4. It was really engaging - the story swept me a long and I started caring about the characters. I liked learning the history of Bulgaria and things tied together well in the end.  The switching between time periods worked for me and although it was hard to read, I found Stoyan's hardships under Communism to be very powerful - a real test of the human spirit.  I just had to suspend my disbelief quite a bit - relationships matured super quickly and there were a few coincidences that felt like a stretch. But again, I always wanted to read it - so I’m glad I finished.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

Oh my GOODNESS!  This is the third installment in this four book series and I am dying to know what happens next - but make sure you read the first two books first:

#1 An Ember in the Ashes

#2 A Torch Against the Night

The ladies in this story are at the forefront: Laia is trying to track down the Nightbringer, SURE he is up to something horrible and Helene - now truly the Blood Shrike - is focused on keeping the Empire safe from its enemies both within and without.  While Elias is learning how to play his role as Soul Catcher, the line between the dead and the living, as well as the imprisoned jinn, become ever important.

ALL the feelings in this story, so many revelations and then, by the end, SO MANY QUESTIONS.  My sister and I had a fifteen minute conversation today just about all the things we want to know!  Such a powerful story about people trying to be true to themselves while protecting those they love.  I wish we'd had a bit more Elias but I can tell his role is essential and I love watching Laia and Helene grow and learn, they are intricate and complicated characters.  I seriously loved this book and HIGHLY recommend the audio - wonderful narrators and accents that really helped me be a part of the story.  Helene, particularly, made me FEEL in this book, and part of that was the beautiful narration.

If you are a YA fantasy lover that can handle some pretty violent stuff, I really recommend you try this series out.

The Wilder LIfe by Wendy McClure

genre: non-fiction, memoir

For Wendy, the Laura of the Little House books is a childhood friend, such a prominent feature that part of who she is is wrapped up in these prairie stories.  As her mother gets sick and passes away, suddenly becoming acquainted with all there is to do with Laura and her real life.

Real life is not, of course, the same as stories and Wendy's experiences in "Laura World" are hilarious, disappointing and strangely satisfying, sometimes all at the same time.  She travels to Minnesota and the plains of South Dakota, to Missouri and Iowa, following the path of Laura's life and always searching for what it is that she felt so connected with as a girl.  Along the way, we learn what from the books is actual fact and what is embellishment, out of chronological order or just plain fiction. Not only that, but she also tries her hand at being a "prairie girl" herself, trying the skills and recipes that were a part of Laura's experience.

While I wasn't in love with it, I did find this one entertaining, especially as I was preparing to visit several of the same sites - it helped me to know a little bit of what to expect/not expect.  She's got a great way with words and a couple times I did laugh out loud.  I liked how she wrapped up her ideas at the end and while sometimes her internal monologue got a bit overwhelming/long winded, I'm still glad I gave it a try.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

genre: contemporary fiction

Eleanor lives a solitary life, which is exactly how she likes it.  She goes to work, she does her job, she goes home.  When you are aware of how ridiculous and disordered the world (and most of the people in it) is, it's better to just be alone.  Her weekly talks with Mummy and her unavoidable interactions at work are nearly too much as it is.

Except then she has to interact with Raymond, who really is not put together at all.   He does, however, have other qualities that make him unbearably endearing, although Eleanor doesn't have the social vocabulary to admit it.  When a random situation throws them together, soon she allows him to be a tiny part of her life, just enough for her to start to see what a different kind of life might look like.

Oh Eleanor.  I have so many FEELS about this book which I listened to and HIGHLY recommend.  There is a lot of language, for those sensitive to that, so there is your warning - but it's been a while before I have met a character in a book that I felt so much tenderness for.  Her highly opinionated observations, her impatience with nonsense and frivolity, her quirky way of looking at things we take for granted, I just could not get enough.  For a story that deals with trauma, addiction, mental illness and loss, it really did make me chuckle out loud so many times.  When I mention that list of issues I know it sounds like TOO MUCH but I'm telling you, it is dealt with so tenderly and sensitively.   I think this is an an important story because of how it treats these issues, how it is a roadmap for the way out of them and how it gives a voice to those who view the world and social relationships in an atypical way.

Thanks to everyone that recommended it.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover (audiobook)

genre: memoir

Tara grew up on a mountainside in Idaho, the seventh child of two survivalist, extremist "Mormon" parents.  I have to put "Mormon" in quotes because as a Mormon myself, I know that many of her parent's beliefs are not in harmony with actual church doctrine.  Regardless, Tara's parents opted out of all public programs - be it insurance, medical care or, most particularly in this story, public education.  Believing that the end of times was near, a religious education and the value of hard physical labor were the priorities for Tara's parents, most particularly her father.   When Tara finally manages to get herself into a true classroom, the depth of her ignorance astounds her.   Having been raised in an abusive, manipulative, patriarchal environment, Tara's "education" is going to require a lot more than learning how to do trig or writing an essay.  She's going to have to learn how to think for herself.

This was fascinating. I know that as a memoir I need to take every thing I read with a bit of a gain of salt, however, even if it WASN'T 100% true, this is an incredibly well-written story of a girl who manages to escape a toxic family environment and discover what life really has in store for her on her own terms.  I believed her pain.  I believed her struggle. I hurt for her and was astonished by some of the things she lived through - especially the medical emergencies in a family that actively opposed formal medical care.  It blew my mind.  The abuse and gaslighting made me feel sick, to think about someone truly living this kind of life.  The writing is rich and poignant, she set me firmly in her experience and, especially in the terrifying bits, I was lost to the world around me as I listened.  I've got a lot of respect for Tara speaking out and standing up.  Great book.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies by Jason Fagone

genre: biography, history

Elizebeth knew words.  She knew numbers, too.  Elizebeth Friedman had a mind that could arrange and rearrange until a scrambled mess of symbols became a message that someone else wanted to keep secret.  This woman's capabilities and efforts during World War I, during Prohibition and, most especially during World War II, literally changed the course of history.  At the forefront of the entire science of cryptology and codebreaking, Elizebeth's story is part spy-novel and part love story - as her husband, William, was similarly gifted in the field.  And while he was lauded as a pioneer and a genius, her massive (and certainly comparable) contributions went mostly unnoticed for years.  They are unnoticed no longer.

This is a fascinating story.  I cannot fathom the depth of intelligence that allowed her to do what she did, even just reading about it sometimes felt overwhelming.  It's technical and precise and yet a total guessing game sometimes - and Elizebeth was an incredible educated guesser.  I mourned for how women were treated during this period, how undervalued and unappreciated, and even though she occasionally had her moments to shine, it was almost with surprise - WOW!  A woman can USE HER BRAIN!  AND she did that while raising children and helping to emotionally support a troubled husband.  I am so grateful for women like Elizebeth Friedman who led the way for future generations of women to get a place at the table - and not only that:  I am grateful for what she did during the war, for what she gave up to ensure that our troops had the best information possible so they could stop the Nazis.  I learned a LOT of history in this book that I'd never known before - it's a history-heavy story and while it was a slower read for me than usual, I am very glad I finished.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True by Brigid Pasulka (audiobook)

genre: historical fiction

In a Poland on the cusp of World War II, two unlikely people will fall in love.  Their courtship, their choices and all the hardship and terror of war will guide the rest of their lives and the lives of those that come after them.  Told in two time periods, we also come to know Beata - a millennial living in the post-Communist New Poland, who has come to Krakow to try and find a direction in life.  Living with her aunt and cousin and working dead-end jobs, Beata knows that there are essential pieces to her grandmother's stories that have been left out but will the answers help her make peace with her past?  Or with the past of her beloved Poland, who in the past half century was literally drawn through the wringer and back out?

Both an engaging and well-woven book of family stories and the power of family ties as well as a love letter to Poland and Krakow, in particular, this book will break your heart and put it back together again.

I loved this.  Loved it.  The narrators were INCREDIBLE.  I loved hearing the correct pronunciation of proper names and places. Yes, it's sometimes a really hard and sad story. But I felt like the author never shoved me down so far that there wasn't a way back out, there is beauty and kindness and sympathy too.  There is determination and an incredible ability to overcome hardship, I loved getting a better sense of the Polish people and how important collective memory is in a country that has been occupied twice, by two different groups of people, in recent memory. I really wish I'd read it before my trip to Poland but the nice thing was that as I read, I had Krakow in my mind, so much was familiar that it's possible part of why I loved this book so much had to do with how much I fell in love with this country when I visited last year.

I liked the switch between the two time periods and how things slowly were tied together between the two.  I loved the differences between village life and city life and how that could change you.  I appreciated how the author allowed her characters to grieve and how they managed to work through it.  Just a really interesting and well-written story.

note: strong language and adult themes

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

genre: fiction, children's literature

Everything I wrote last time I reviewed this book still is relevant.  I found myself being more introspective this time, trying to imagine how hard this life must've been for Pa and Ma, how desperate things might've seemed.  How lonely.  I really felt empathetic towards Ma and the sacrifices she made.  I had SO MANY great talks with my five year olds during this book.  I did censor a LITTLE bit of the American Indian parts, I don't need them to hear "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." So while we alternated between the audiobook and the actual book, I always made sure to read those chapters aloud so that I could form our discussion about the topic on their level.  But they ATE IT UP.  All of it. Again, I worried it would get dull but they were just all in.  Laura is an inquisitive main character and while much of what happens is completely out of her control, reading about it through her eyes makes this a uniquely pleasing story.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa (audiobook)

genre: memoir

What would it take for a person to risk their life to leave an oppressive country?  I've wondered this often, especially as several groups of political-asylum-seeking refugees have resettled and made new lives in our town.  How bad can it get that dying while escaping is worth the chance?  Well, after reading this gripping and horrible story, I can imagine it.

Masaji was born in Japan but went to his father's home country of North Korea while he was still a child.  And while life in Japan in the period just after the Korean War wasn't easy, it was paradise compared to his new life in North Korea.  It's heartbreaking, how desperate and tragic life experiences are.  I am embarrassed by my ignorance of much of this period.  As he spoke about the famines happening while I was in high school I wanted to cry, imagining what my life was like while he and his family were suffering so much.

This is an important book. Mr. Ishikawa is a witness, a voice crying out his story to the world, validating the horror of life under a dictatorship and the subsequent stratifying of society that left millions to literally just rot.  It's incredibly dark and sad, and not my usual fare at all, but I am glad I let myself to go this hard place, I feel better connected to North Korean history and more compassionate for those who have similarly suffered.   It's not literary, sometimes things feel a bit choppy and his narrative voice is sometimes a bit rough and surely.  I think part of this was in the translation and some of it was just the thick skin you had to grow to survive.

note: adult themes here and some pretty foul language

Friday, April 27, 2018

Things I'd Rather Do Than Die by Christine Hurley Deriso

genre: young adult contemporary
disclosure: thanks to Netgalley for a free copy to review

Jade and Ethan run in completely different social circles.  He's a football jock and she's an intellectual book nerd who just happens to have a job at the local gym.  When the gym gets robbed one night while both Ethan and Jade are there, their orbits align for one terrifying experience and things are never quite the same afterwards.  Beyond the pressures of senior year, both of them are slogging through some really painful family challenges and it's possible that life is just too complicated for them to have a story of their own.

I'm of two minds about this book.  On the one hand, it's pretty predicable, there are some plot holes and I had to suspend my disbelief quite a bit. But, I also felt tender at the end, especially toward Jade and her family, so I did at least eventually care about her as a character.  I liked that Jade is a strong, non-white character who is intelligent and has a close relationship with her father.   As a religious person myself I liked that there is some legitimate wrestling with the idea of God and the role he can play in our lives.  It felt like it came out of the blue, a bit, based on my initial take of the book, but it definitely is a book that deals with faith.  For all it's Christian discussion, the language is strong and the romance never gets to a particularly sweet spot where I really was rooting for it.  I'd bet older teens might appreciate it if they are okay with the religious piece.
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