Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (audiobook)

genre: historical fiction

When Nella arrives in the Amsterdam of 1686, it is as a new wife.  Johannes Brandt, her new husband, is a wealthy merchant in town and Nella is eager to make a place for herself in her new household.  Not only must she learn to find her way among the streets and canals of this new city, she also must interact with the servants, and try to understand the ways of her forceful and patronizing sister in law Marin. When Johannes gives her a large wooden dollhouse as a wedding gift, Nella is at once both underwhelmed and incredulous.  Lonely and unoccupied, she soon decides to begin furnishing the house with the help of The Miniaturist, a choice with consequences both intimate and far-reaching.  In a city where there is hatred and bigotry under the sheen of gold and riches, Nella will have to navigate both the rigors of trade and society as well as the intricate dance of her own marriage.

I really wanted to like this.  It got such great reviews, I was anxious to listen but I found myself not being particularly ever excited to put it on.  The reader is wonderful for all voices EXCEPT the protagonist, whom while she is young, isn't a child and her voice for Nella felt far too childish.   As for the text itself, it was slow going.  I love little miniature things, always have, and the plot line with the miniaturist felt like it stuttered and stopped in a bizarre way and, truthfully, never really made a lot of sense.  The story is solid historical fiction except when it came to the miniaturist and it never really stamped itself out as magical realism - just "oh, that's so strange" and then moved on.  It was a real disconnect for me that never resolved.

As for the rest, it was entertaining enough.  There are a few disturbing scenes, one graphic sexual one that caught me completely off-guard while I was driving.  I liked Nella and Johannas' relationship, how it grew and matured in a way I didn't expect.  I liked watching Nella get to know her world (sometimes her naiveté grated on me) and the plot with Marin was intriguing also.  Just overall, it felt like a bit of a let-down.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Arabella by Georgette Heyer

genre: historical fiction

Arabella, as one of the vicar's many children, has never anticipated a sparkling and wildly successful London season.  Just to GET to London, to see its sights and no longer have to only imagine its wonders would be enough.  But when Arabella's Godmother invites her for the season, Mama makes it happen.  Along the journey, however, Arabella crosses paths with none other than THE Nonpareil, Mr. Robert Beaumaris.  A careless remark on his part and Arabella tells a fib that turns her season upside down - in ways both amazing and horrifying.

Okay.  This is so very fun.  I completely ignored everything else I was supposed to do for a day because I had to follow this story to its end.  Arabella isn't Heyer's best heroine but she is delightful, with her passionate desire to help the wretched and her ability to stir up trouble coupled with an intense desire to do right.  Mr. Beaumaris is just as romantic and witty as he should.  I will say that a secondary plot with Arabella's brother wasn't quite as enthralling and I did skim a bit, but overall, this book gave me everything I need from a Georgette Heyer Regency Romance: entertainment.

Friday, November 13, 2015

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

genre: young adult (caveat: lots of swears and sex)

In Seattle, four teens are slogging through the mess that is high school when that bright star in the sky is confirmed to be an asteroid that has a good chance of colliding with earth.

Begin apocalypse readiness.

Each of these four characters have their issues, of course.  There's the perfect-girl-gone-bad, the stoner musician, the artsy girl who sleeps around, the basketball star with a heart of gold - while they all slip around inside their stereotypes, they definitely still are stereotypes, which is a bit of a bummer.  However, I will say, the writing in this book (while FULL of swears, full), is pretty amazing.  I like that as we go from chapter to chapter we switch characters and go back in time JUST a bit, seeing the previous scene from a different point of view.  That was awesome.  As you can imagine, it's a dark story - with that existential countdown looming over you head and its interesting to see how differently people handle the dread of coming doom - some parts are pretty violent.  While there are no actual graphic sex scenes, sex is a huge component of these teens' lives - how often they've had it, will they have it before the end of the world, can they take it from someone by force or give it as a gift?  All of that. Definitely a treatise on teenage sexuality, and I can't say I always agreed with the message but every once and a while someone would hit on an idea that rang true to me.

I REALLY liked the ending, surprisingly.  For a minute I felt a bit cheated but all the text in the last few chapters felt so purposeful, so real and like it was trying to get even ME to think a bit deeper, that it made complete sense. One quote at the end felt particularly poignant and I'm still thinking about it, about the idea that we just never get to pick what happens to us no matter WHAT, come asteroid or cancer or car accident or one true love.  What we get to actually pick from the universe is so small that when we've found something good, we'd better hold on tight.

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Rebel Wing by Tracy Banghart

genre: ya fiction

Aris is a flyer, she lives and breathes her wing jet and is far more comfortable in the sky than she is on earth, where the affects of an old illness have left her weak and unstable. But when war reaches its tentacles into her private life and suddenly Calix, the man she loves most, is preparing to leave, all the things that SEEMED important have faded.  What matters most is being near Calix, and if that means giving up everything and joining the army as a man, it feels worth it.

Hmmm.  I tried this once and it bored me so I stopped.  I tried it a second time and got in a bit further and did get invested in Aris's story.  I'm not sure why it didn't connect with me very well.  The plot is Yentl-like, obviously, with her pretending to be a man in a man's world.  I think maybe it was just too predictable.  I don't want to spoil but I guessed just about every other main plot point in the story. But it wasn't an un-interesting story, and there was one plot twist that caught me by surprise.  I care enough to go read about what happened to them but not to actually pay money to read the following books.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer with Susan Dworkin

genre: memoir

Edith Hahn spent her youth in a proud Vienna, full of good food, a loving family and cultural beauty. After the Anschluss, however, Vienna was no longer safe for people like Edith, because Edith is a Jew.  After slowly watching life get harder and harder for her friends and neighbors, her turn to be forced to leave finally comes and she is sent to a labor camp.  When she manages to return to Vienna, she makes a choice: to save her life, she will bury the intelligent and capable Edith and become someone new.  She becomes the meek and docile Grete, German and Christian. Terrified but determined, Grete creates a new life, eventually becoming, yes, the wife of a Nazi officer.

This is an absolutely amazing story - I am so glad that Edith Hahn took the time to write it down so the rest of us could appreciate both the horror those in hiding experienced as well as the resourcefulness that individuals are capable of.  It's also a testament to those non-Jews in Nazi Germany/Austria that DID help, that sacrificed for Edith and literally risked their lives to help her in her new identity.  I like Edith's tone - I felt like I got to know her and her conversational way of telling the story made me feel like I was in her living room with her, just listening to her reminisce without pretense or a desire for glory.  Her thoughts about how she was feeling at the time were especially poignant, I can only imagine how hard it was for her to put herself back into that time and even her sometimes contradictory emotions regarding men that she loved felt very real and understandable. She's honest about why she made her choices without trying to justify anything, although she hardly needs justifying.  I sometimes forget, especially, about what life in Germany must've been like right after the war was over - when everything's been destroyed and the Russians are ruling with their own kind of iron fist.  I like that this story didn't end right when she was "liberated" but that we lived those dark days with her as she figured out who she was after all those years being Grete.

I know I have read hundred of books about surviving World War II and every one teaches me something different - I really enjoyed this perspective and I feel like my knowledge of history and the human spirit has definitely expanded.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

genre: fantasy

For sure, read Queen of the Tearling first, this is the sequel and they definitely should be read in order.

Kelsea is now Queen of the Tearling - and the worst thing she could imagine is about to come to pass: the Mort Army is preparing for invasion, and there is nothing her small army can do to stop them.  With this threat ever-present and the priests in the Avarath making their own demands, her life feels like a lead weight but with one interesting development: in her mind, Kelsea keeps traveling to the past.  Not just to random parts of the past but to the life of one particular woman whose fate seems somehow linked with her own. With no solution to the Red Queen's Army marching into the Tearling and her own pain and anger always bubbling at the surface, Kelsea needs to find where her strength lies in time to defend her kingdom, even if she can't save herself.

This is an intense book: the threat of invasion, Kelsea's choices (which are sometimes quite upsetting), her fight against evil both from without and within, I felt almost anxious while I was reading sometimes.  However, it's also very well-written, the plot grabbed me from the first chapter and never let go and there is a glorious plot revelation in the second half that had my brain shifting and mulling for quite a while.  The two time periods worked really well and I liked it a lot and I am excited to see how it ends.

NOTE: It's got enough mature content (swears and sexuality) that I'd hesitate to call it young adult, although I'm sure older teenagers would certainly appreciate the story.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

genre: young adult fantasy

Kelsea knows who she truly is, despite being brought up alone in a cottage in the woods. She is the Queen of Tearling and while she doesn't know the real state of affairs in her kingdom, she does know enough to be aware that when her guard comes to get her on her 19th birthday, she will be riding into a hornets nest.

With her uncle acting as regent and a tyrannical neighboring queen breathing down her neck, Kelsea has no time to waste figuring out what sort of ruler she wants to be in a time when much of the worlds knowledge has been lost and she has very few people she can trust.  Set in a future that feels far more medieval then science-fiction, and in a land across the water from a long-ago America, Kelsea's choices have the power to change everything.

At first I was a bit annoyed because so many elements of this book reminded me of The Girl of Fire and Thorns.  However, it came into its own in a very interesting way and soon I was totally hooked.  Political intrigue, impulsive and plain-looking heroine, a special jewel - it really feels like the same story retold in some ways, only significantly more dark and edgy. Not for younger teens, in my opinion (lots of graphic language).  I really liked the Queen's relationships with a few of the secondary characters and the battle she's tying to fight is an ugly one but she wants what I'd want for my people: safety, dignity, education - and her efforts to try and swim against a raging tide make for a fast moving story.

I'd give it five stars if I'd read it before Girl of Fire and Throns but it's still captivated me enough that it deserves four solid stars.  I've already bought the sequel, it's that good.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why by Amanda Ripley

genre: non-fiction

I am, admittedly, very interested in disasters and their aftermath.  I have been ever since I was a girl - I remember reading about The Titanic with fascination.  I was obsessed with Pompeii for a while. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, all of it.  Maybe it's because when I was young my town flooded for several days, our basement filling with water and my dad away all day filling sandbags as the streets flowed like a river.  I don't know.  But I've always had a healthy fear of and fascination with what happens when things go wrong.

When a friend recommended this book to me, I checked it out from the library right away and I'm glad I did.  Ripley's writing style is both informative - citing studies and interviewing researchers in the field of human stress and behavior - as well as casual in tone.  She interviews disaster survivors from 9-11, fires, active shooting situations and plane crashes, giving insight into the different types of reactions that one can have when confronted with an extremely stressful situation.  We learn about the three phases of a human's disaster response and how to help ourselves do a little better to ensure that we are more likely to be safe.

I found it fascinating - I wanted to bring up some of the ideas with people I talk to as well as apply some of her thoughts into my own life.  It's straightforward and frightening sometimes but isn't trying to be scary - it's trying to inform and change behavior.  Highly recommended for anyone who wants to feel more confident about how to keep themselves safe in those once-in-a-lifetime situations.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Pure by Julianna Baggott

genre: young adult dystopian

Pressia's world is a dark one, coated in ash - what remains of our earth after the Detonations.  Alone with her grandfather, they eke out a living in the shadow of The Dome - a self-contained city that's safe from the contamination that has ravaged earth.  As she approaches the age in which Pressia will either be conscripted as a soldier or trapped and used as a live target, she knows she needs to go underground.  But when she meets Partridge - who clearly managed to escape the effects of the Detonations - everything she thinks she knows begins to shift. He has spent most of his life inside The Dome, but it's clearly not the paradise those from the outside imagine.  Surrounded by a wasteland populated by unimaginably horrible creatures and aware that something bigger than what they know is happening, Pressia and Partridge need answers.  Fast.

Hmmm.  I liked this.  I actually did - at first I wasn't sure because the dialogue felt simplistic and almost cheesy and that made it slow going for me but about 2/3 of the way through the action picked up and things got more interesting.  In fact, in the last few chapters we are fed so many answers and given so many more questions that it felt almost as though the pacing was off - but I can't deny that I'm intrigued.  If the book ended three chapters earlier I would've ditched the series - I still don't love the dialogue and the romance is pretty flat to me but I think I've committed because I do want to know what happens to these characters.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

genre: science fiction

Mark Watley is an astronaut and he's just been left behind on Mars.

And not on purpose.

The Martian is the story of his efforts to survive - his ingenuity and resourcefulness, his mistakes and the disasters that strike that he can't control.  It's the story of the world that he's left behind and his crew that is still in space.  It's about a desolate planet and what it takes for one human to survive and create a semblance of a life there.

It's pretty dang amazing.

Mark is like a wicked smart McGyver - and most of the book is his log entries told in first person so you really get good doses of his humor.  There's also the politics of the space program and the ethics of what we as a nation are willing to give up to save the life of one person.  The pacing is very good as is the switching between ground control and the spaceship and Mars - sometimes when we know things before Mark does it's super intense.  It is science fiction at its finest, in my opinion - I BELIEVED it.  There is a LOT of science talk here - and as much as I'm sure it could all be completely made up, it certainly didn't feel like it.  And because of Mark's humor, the science wasn't overwhelming or off-putting either.  His language - now, that was something else.  He had a particularly foul mouth and although I'd started this as an audiobook I ended up reading it.  The narrator is actually very good and the story itself is an awesome read aloud, I just prefer my swears to be on paper instead of in my ears and this one was a doosy on the swears.

I actually want to give this book five stars.  I think it deserves it because it is an incredible survival story - like Tom Hanks in Castaway only you're stranded in a land that humans can't even breathe in. And every single thing that could ever be helpful to you has to arrive on a spaceship from actual YEARS away.  The science is just completely entertaining and enthralling - where my brain gets stretched and then slowly understands (some of it :)  It's got heart and humor and a story I was dying to finish.   If you can handle lots of swears, I totally recommend it. 
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