Friday, February 27, 2015

Ticker by Lisa Mantchev

genre: young adult steampunk

Penelope Farthing has cheated death.  In the place of her failing heart, the genius Warwick gave her a new mechanical one: her ticker.  In becoming the first of the "Augmented," Penny found herself at the center of the battle between those who support the progress of Augmentation and those who demand flesh and blood purity.   When Warwick begins using evil methods to further his work, his trial incites a trail of mayhem and mystery that demands Penny take action.  And take action she does, our Penny, with her genius brother Nic, her sidekick Violet the punkish baker as well as a few other delightful characters that will charm the pants off you if you let them.

So, you should know that I am a fan of steampunk.  The Victorian/mechanical twist just works for me, especially when you've got the formal attitudes with a huge dash of snark and wit. There is nothing about this story I didn't enjoy, Penny is swashbuckling and tough - and her mechanical heart made her vulnerable in a way that you can't help but sympathize with. There were a few good twists and the plot moved quickly.   No, my life isn't changed but I had many lovely out-loud chuckles to myself over Penny's dialogue and I do feel happier, so that's worth four stars to me.

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Narvla's Celtic New Year by Therese Gilardi

genre: contemporary young adult

Narvla's in love with all things Celtic - she's an Irish Step Dancer, she wants to write Irish-themed literature and the only school she wants to go to is Notre Dame.  So, when her mom gets a job as the Irish Ambassador, she is thrilled to move to Ireland.  Things aren't always as easy as you hope, though, earning a spot on a new dance team is tough, school is tougher and the beautiful Irish singer-boy on the street corner is less than pleasant to her.  When there is betrayal at home, Narvla has to work even harder to find happiness in this new country, it's going to take some of that serious Irish luck to make this year turn around.

I have a hard time writing reviews of books I don't like.  I know that authors are out there, real people, and I don't ever want to hurt anyone's feelings. However, this one didn't do it for me.  I want to note what I did like: being in Ireland with Narvla, I have always wanted to go there.  I liked a secondary character that clearly had an autism-spectrum disability and that was treated with care.  I wanted it to be more about step dancing - which she is supposedly so good at that she's winning huge championships but the details just didn't ring true - it's not just wigs and rhythm and drama between the dancers.  The best-friend character and love-interest character swung widely around, too perfect sometimes then (especially in the love-interest case), too snarky.  There are actual factual errors, dialogue that's way too formal and intense, a few strange grammatical choices and sometimes just errors - like people are walking somewhere and then in the next paragraph they are somewhere else.   People are too talented and good to be true.  I think probably with a better editor this story could be tightened up and made more fun to read - because I did like it enough to keep reading until the end, I just found it frustrating.

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

genre: adult fiction

Jenna's mother, Alice, is missing.  Alice has been missing ever since one tragic night at the elephant sanctuary and as soon as Jenna was old enough to understand, she's been searching for her. Desperate for any help she can find, Jenna hires two unlikely companions: a private investigator and a psychic.  When these three begin unraveling that night, memory and evidence spiral in a narrative where some answers only lead to harder questions and Jenna may not be happier when the search is over.  But when it comes to your mother, any answers are better than only questions.

Since Alice was a researcher studying elephants and grief, this story delves deep into the emotional intensity of these fascinating animals.  While I am not usually a reader of mystery stories, I was hooked from the first chapter, since from the very beginning it is clearly a story of mothering and love, grief and how those we love are never truly gone from us.   I love a book that, while having an engaging plot, also introduces me to a new world and teaches me something.  Leaving Time, with its focus on elephants, especially mothers,  and their rituals, really took that to a new level.

As the story is told from several different viewpoints, it takes almost the entire book for us to make any kind of conclusion that makes sense and I found this style very compelling - I could not put it down!  The only reason it gets four stars instead of five from me is that I had a hard time letting my brain be at peace with the whole psychic/paranormal/talking to spirits aspect.  While I think it was very well done and I let myself believe it because it was a great story and I wanted to, I had to work really hard.  I'm glad I did, though, because the ending was surprisingly satisfying, even if it wasn't what I'd thought it would be.

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Heaven Is Here: An Incredible Story of Hope, Triumph and Everyday Joy by Stephanie Nielson

genre: memoir

I never read the Nie Nie Dialogues blog until my sister told me about it - that was right after the blogger named Stephanie Nielson and her husband Christian nearly died in a private plane crash.  I was so moved by this story - of her four young children left behind and cared for by her sisters while she fought for life in a burn unit.  It touched a deep part of me, she and I lived similar enough lives as Mormon stay-at-home moms that I found myself thinking of her often, of what she'd nearly lost and what I took for granted.

This book, Heaven is Here, is essentially her story - her life up through about a year after the plane crash.  It's written in a very casual style - she is candid and very honest about both how hard things were and how amazingly blessed and incredible her life was (and is).  I initially tried listening to the audiobook but I found myself very distracted by the narration and so I switched to the paper book, which was a good choice.  And, actually, I just found myself vaguely frustrated by the first third of the book. Maybe she was just trying to get across how wonderful her life was before the crash, so we could appreciate how unexpected this was, but it sometimes felt like she was bragging to me.  I'm also super impatient with dialogue in memoirs because I always am distracted by thinking that people never really remember exactly how a conversation went (always, always my problem with memoirs and I recognize this is a personal problem with me and memoirs, not this book in particular).

However, despite it being a little hard for me to get into it, I did find myself very engrossed by the final 2/3, where she and Christian have to slowly recover and put a new kind of life back together.  I cried my eyes out over her journey to reconnect with her kids.  Of all the parts of the book, that touched me the deepest.  As a mom myself, I can only imagine how deep the hurt would go if I felt like my ability to mother or that relationship with my children was somehow damaged and the road to repairing it was so hard.  She inspired me with her efforts and how far she came in such a short time. I think she is a great role model for anyone who has had to slog through incredible challenges.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

genre: middle grade

Willow Chance is a special kid.   Although middle school turns out to be far less of an experience than she'd hoped, she has her books and her garden to keep her mind occupied.   When Willow's own life falls into pieces,  she's going to have to either find her own new way to grow or give up and wither - and Willow Chance is a girl who knows how to grow things.

Not only is Willow wicked smart (as in, autism spectrum smart) but she also has a way of finding the special parts of people.  She uses her knowledge to create beauty and a kind of harmony that naturally endears her to others.  I really liked Willow's voice - I felt like she was genuine and spunky.  Her insights were often both thoughtful and poetic.  I felt like the plot itself left me working hard to suspend my disbelief (especially near the end - I needed some more explaining) - but because I loved how tender and interesting it was, I made the effort to do so.  I loved the themes of growing plant life and reaching one's potential, of the visceral importance of feeling like you belong and how empowering that is.

I can see why people are raving about it.  Characters that seem awkward and strange at first really do find a place in your heart, their growth and change is palpable. I liked how Willow was appreciated and loved for who she was - quirky behaviors aside - and that awkwardness was acknowledged and then life just moved on.   I loved that she was African American without that being the point of the story - she just was a girl who happened to have dark skin and was full of a zest for life and learning. Some lovely, lovely images in this story.  I'd hand it to someone I love.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Room by Emma Donoghue (audiobook)

genre: adult fiction

Born into captivity in a small shed, five year old Jack has never known "Outside."  Jack's mother, Ma, was kidnapped and locked into the shed by Old Nick, who keeps them both there as prisoners. With only his mother, a TV and a few belongs, Jack and Ma make a life for themselves until Ma has had enough and her bold plan to escape doesn't account for what lies afterward for the two of them.

Told from Jack's perspective, Room is intricate and emotional.  We learn about his predicament as Jack does - snippets and innuendo, a puzzle of what Ma has been through and how she is handling it. Extremely literal and bright, Jack's observations of our world were so spot on and clever sometimes. It really made me think about all the things I take for granted - not just in the ease and comfort of my life but how amazing we all are that we process so much stimuli and just KNOW so much without ever being taught, just because we've grown up watching the world go on around us.

It took me a little while getting used to Jack's voice - but since I am around children all the time, it never bothered me.  I have read other reviews being annoyed by this device but I think it makes the story 100% more interesting.  To put yourself into the shoes of a child rips any experience down to its most molecular level - all assumptions disappear and suddenly you are at the root of what makes us most human, those most instinctual things.

I listened to the audiobook, meaning that almost the entire story read by a little boy, which I really, really liked.  I think reading it might have actually made me frustrated, but to just hear a little boy talk to me in a little boy way felt more realistic and believable.  Ma is amazing.  Her strength and ingenuity, her patience and perseverance - all those things made me admire her and hurt for her.   The fact that she had a few very real faults, the fact that sometimes she DID have to be annoyed and frustrated, that rounded her out into someone I could believe really did survive such a trial while keeping her son as innocent and loved as she possibly could.  I appreciated how this story delved into such a challenging experience with grace and gentleness.  Obviously as there is rape happening (not graphic at all) and horrible emotional abuse, and the fallout is very intense for both Jack and Ma, but the tone, through Jack's voice, is so curious and questioning and malleable that I didn't finish reading it feeling emotionally scarred.  I felt amazed by human resilience and the love of a mother.

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

Friday, January 30, 2015

To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

genre: non-fiction

The subtitle of this book is: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery and there is another blurb on the front that says An Inspiration for the Popular Television Series Downton Abbey.   Truth: this last bit is why I read the book :)

I love Downton Abbey.  I don't care that it's all drama and soap opera happenings.  I love the historical period, I love the things I'm learning and the way the show makes me think.  As a regular follower of the show, I will say that this book gave me so much insight!!  Actual things that I wondered about during different episodes were made clear.  BUT, if you do NOT watch Downton, I need to tell you that it doesn't matter - since this was written beforehand and has nothing to actually do with the show itself :)

This book is a social history - a look at a very newly wealthy class of Americans at the end of the 19th century who, unable to find a spot for themselves among the old money in New York,  chose to look for social status in England.  American Heiresses found titled husbands and those husbands found a crazy pot of money to help with the upkeep of their estates in an age when a title did NOT equal wealth.  Soon it wasn't just new money looking abroad either, a love of all things British created a wave of blended American/English families.  Winston Churchill himself is the result of one of these unions!

I loved learning about the social codes of the time as well as how challenging it was for these women to make a place for themselves in English society.    Really, it is a history of the rich at the time - the authors make no qualms about focusing on that small and specific group of people.  We learn a little bit about "downstairs," but only in how they interacted with the upstairs, not their own way of life, per se, which is obviously very different.  We become acquainted with the finest dress makers, how one goes about hosting the King at one's home, how to throw a lavish wedding at the turn of the century and how to go about having an affair in a socially acceptable way.

My only qualm is that the layout and formatting sometimes made it hard to enjoy the overall text. There were so many page or two-page small sections on specific topics that stopping to read those (because I was interested in it all!) made me loose the flow of the main narrative.  It didn't spoil the book for me, but I did notice it.  There are a LOT of names to keep track of but there is a brilliant index in the back to help keep people straight.  There is also a ton of photographs, which  really helped me to image the lavishness of the time period.

I now have to pass this little treasure along to my fellow Downton lovers :)

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

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."
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