Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys

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genre: historical fiction

Daniel Matheson has a pretty sweet life.  He's the son of a Texan oil tycoon daddy and a Spanish mother and on his first trip to Spain, his initial hope is that he'll find scenes worth photographing in between the expected embassy parties and cocktail hours.  But the Spain of 1957 is a complicated place, where Daniel as an American has luxuries and freedoms that the average Spaniard doesn't dream of under  Dictator Franco.  Told from multiple perspectives, The Fountains of Silence illustrates how complex and frightening life can be in a very restrictive society - and, most especially, the toll that silent memory can can take on an entire nation.

This book taught me.  The time period, the culture, it was an enlightening backdrop to a really compelling story.  I feel like I never actually knew who Franco was or what he did to his own people until now.  I loved the romantic thread, the characters felt fleshed out and intriguing, I liked the photography storyline and even though a few little threads tied up neater than is maybe completely believable, I'd totally recommend this to lovers of historical fiction.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

My Calamity Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows (audiobook)

genre: young adult historical fantasy

Calamity Jane is the whip-snappin' genu-wine heroine of this Western romp of a novel, although her fellow characters (familiar in their own right) hold their own!   With those hairy garou on the loose all over the plains, Calamity and her posse travel around with their Wild West show, amazing audiences with their skills but keeping their eye out for those pesky critters who can wreak havoc every time the moon is full.  Soon, there are games afoot and the adventure is a rootin' tootin' story full of strong lady characters who don't put up with any nonsense.  Anything you think you can do, chances are, they can do it better!

Shoot.  This was really funny.  I really love the witty dialogue and one-liners, the authors' interjectory comments and the clever plot.  The ending lasted a LITTLE too long for me and sometimes it felt like there were a few too many swirling threads but I laughed out loud so many times (especially at the randomly inserted and disguised pop-culture references).  I'm really glad I chose to listen - the narration was awesome and I never really knew where this story would take me.  Fun times.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

genre: fiction

Dellarobia is in a rut.  Much like her rural Tennessee town, she sees life going by while she wipes the mouths of her two children and languishes in an unfulfilling marriage.  But then, when she finally decides she's done with that drudgery, a miracle of the natural world stops her in her tracks and changes the trajectory of her actual existence.  Soon, her tiny world is blown apart by nothing less than science.  Facts.  Things she observes with her own eyes that cannot be denied despite the dubious questioning of science that she's grown up with.  Dellarobia and her small town are soon forced to come to terms with the world beyond their farms as forces greater than fear demand to be reckoned with.

This was a slow read for me, but a solid and stirring one.  While on the one hand Dellarobia is frustrating, she also becomes incredibly sympathetic as she dares to let herself learn and stretch and process the person she is and who she wants to be.  Her restlessness and curiosity while also loving her life as a mother rang so true.  I loved the scientific slant of this novel, the things I learned and the way this community became a part of something so much bigger than itself.  It's intelligent and literary while also being true to the Appalachian setting and the slower pace of life.  I loved the scenes of marvel, of the moments we take to truly appreciate the wonder and miracle that are the natural world.  I also loved this reminder of the ridiculously delicate balance that all that wonder and miracle hinge on and that our changing climate WILL inevitably destroy some of that wonder if we humans do not do our part - small or big if we're in a position to do so, to try and change our behavior.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (audiobook)

genre: historical fiction

For Eilis, Ireland is home. It's all she's known and since her father died, it's just been herself, her mam and sister Ruth at home.  Although the second world war is over now and she's learning to be a bookkeeper, work is hard to find.  When Eilis has an opportunity to travel alone to New York and be a shopgirl, she takes it.  Moving to Brooklyn from a small Irish village is a exactly as hard for Eilis as you'd imagine but from her ladies boarding house to her job to the Saturday night dances at the parish hall, she makes a life for herself that has some happiness in it, if she doesn't overthink it.  But will it ever be home?

 I really enjoyed this immigration story.  Eilis's world is small but full of characters and the common day-to-day troubles that one deals with as one learns how to be an independent adult.  I liked when Eilis chose to take opportunities and stand up for herself, when she figured out what she would put up with and what she wouldn't, even if she sometimes frustrated me with her reticence.  I even appreciated the way she had to work hard to figure out what her heart wanted.  This book transported me to another place and time and I'm looking forward to watching the film now.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Let's Call it a Doomsday by Katie Henry (audiobook)

genre: young adult  contemporary fiction

Ellis worries about things.  Worries a LOT about a LOT of things.  But mostly, though, she worries about the end of days. Doomsday.  Apocalypse.  And the only way she can mitigate this worry is by preparing for it. Then, when Ellis meets Hannah in her therapist's waiting room, she knows they are meant to be friends when Hannah tells her the one thing she needs to know most: exactly WHEN the world will end.  

I really had no idea of where this book would take me - the fact that the protagonist happens to be Mormon made it particularly fascinating to me as a reader, as I grew up a Mormon girl myself and still choose to practice.  The culture of my church, it's vernacular, its spiritual tenets, the centrality of "faith", it's all surprisingly spot on and it's importance in her life and her way of LOOKING at the world feels spot on as well.  Ellis is an intriguing character, with her love of language and words and her insatiable curiosity.  This is a book both about mental illness and about the hard things that happen to us - and then the choices that we make because of these circumstances.  It's about figuring out who we are and who we love.  It's about learning to control what we can and recognizing our power over our own selves.  I loved that we get to listen in on Ellis's therapy as well as the thoughts in her head.  Ellis's relationship with her parents was the only thing that made me not want to give this five glowing stars - it was such an important part of her experience but we finish the book not seeing a real resolution. What we did get, though, was a solid journey for Ellis as she learns important lessons about not just her place in the world but her own place within herself.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (audiobook)

genre: middle grade memoir

This beautiful novel in verse is about the early life of author Jacqueline Woodson, during a time when her heart is split between the rural South Carolina home of her mother's people and the New York City home where she lives.  We watch Jacqueline fall in love with words, with where they can take her and what they can do.  We see the Civil Rights movement through her young eyes, we see segregation and backs of busses, we see the lovingly knit Black communities where there is safety among those who look like you.  Her prose is absolutely perfect.  Stunning.  I was blown away by this portrait of a life as it unfolds and flowers.  Brown Girl Dreaming breathes life into a time and a place, but most especially, into the beauty that is a girl who finds the strength to love her dreams.

Also, the narration is fantastic.

Reaching for the Moon: The Autobiography of NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson by Katherine G. Johnson (audiobook)

genre - middle grade non-fiction, autobiography

You may recognize the name Katherine Johnson if you have seen the movie Hidden Figures - Katherine is the one who is wicked smart and ends up being the only Black mathematician (and only woman!) in a room full of white men who are trying to get a man on the moon.  This book, geared towards younger readers, tells Katherine's story, the way her experiences growing up strengthened her to not just manage the challenges and heartache in her way but to never give up on her dream: to work with numbers for the rest of her life.

I listened to this in the car with my sons on a roadtrip and both my seven year olds and my fourteen year old (but more my fourteen year old) were interested and had a lot of questions.  Katherine does not gloss over the racism and sexism she encountered throughout her life and it led to some good discussions.  I loved how close she was with her family and how the values she learned from her parents (most especially that her Blackness was not something to be ashamed of and that she truly was as good as anybody) were shown to help her when she was older.  I also got a lot of cultural history out of this book - as she learns and teaches in different schools as the years go by and while it was sometimes a little repetitive and she could've maybe gone a little deeper into the details of her work at NASA at the end, it still leaves you with the feelin that this woman led a full and well-lived life.  

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (audiobook)

genre: historical fiction

When Leni arrives in Alaska at the age of 13, it's hard for her to imagine a more remote and lonely place.  For her father Ernt, though, it's exactly what he needs.  Returning home from Vietnam was not a smooth transition, to say the least, and Ernt needs a fresh start.  Surely Alaska will be the place for Leni's family to finally settle down and for Ernt to work out his demons.  Alaska, though, has its own ways that can mess with a person - and it takes a special kind of survivor to be ready to endure what Alaska has to offer.  For Leni and her family, Alaska will either be the solution to the crisis or its breaking point.

This is definitely a coming of age story (which I like) and I have to first say that no book I've ever read has made Alaska and its wilds come alive for me the way this one has.  It practically oozes with the sounds and smells and glory that is this great northern wilderness.  So much of this story I appreciated and there was a lot of nuance with the characters and their relationships that was both interesting and upsetting - domestic abuse both emotional and physical are a thread throughout the book, so a content warning to those who might not be ready for that.  For my interest in the story and its characters (both main and secondary) and my appreciation of the writing, this book gets 4 stars.  I can't give it five because of a few plot holes that grated on me as well as a feeling that some of the things that happen in the later fourth of the book just felt like TOO much for me, where I had to start stretching my imagination a little too much for me to just enjoy the ride the way I wanted to.  Glad I read it though.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

In Strasbourg, France in 1518, a strange sickness seems to come over the citizens of this town - a compulsion to dance, whatever the cost - even until death.  Of course, there MUST be a reason for such a plague and one MUST find someone to blame, right?  Who would be more likely to begin such maddess than someone OTHER - than those Romany who left the countries who shunned them and snuck into Strasbourg?  It must be witchcraft, yes?

In the modern day, Emil and Rosella have their own connection to this mania, one that seeps into the deepest magic and seems to be a curse of its own.  A story where "otherness" is both celebrated and appreciated, Dark and Deepest Red takes readers on a journey that illustrates how intricately the past can be woven in our present.

I liked this and yet it frustrated me a bit.  We switched back and forth so often between time periods and narrators that I had a hard time becoming super invested in the characters - although, I connected most with Lavinia in Strasbourg.  The magical realism in this story worked enough for me to believe it and go along with it, even though I didn't LOVE it and fall all in.  It's an interesting twist on a fairy tale that gives readers who might feel like they have to be different to belong a reminder that actually, being exactly who you are will always take you to exactly where you are supposed to be (and who you are supposed to be with).

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

genre: young adult speculative fiction

January has grown up the ward of the wealthy and eccentric Mr. Locke.  Growing up feeling both safe and taken care of as well as stifled and lonely, in Mr. Locke's huge house, she sometimes feels like one of his special treasures herself.  But when one special book makes January's world all of a sudden so much larger and more intricate than she'd imagined, she knows a solid, quiet life will not be enough.  There are too many questions to be answered, too many doors to explore.

Okay.  I FELL IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK.  From the first chapter, January was my person.  I loved her spirit and adoration of the written word, I loved how books can be their own kind of door and I loved that I wasn't ever sure what was going to happen next.  The world building, the characters of color who were fleshed out, intelligent and aware of the way their world failed them, the authentic coming-of-age angst and self-actualization it felt "magical" to me in a way that novel just hasn't in a while.  If there were faults, they just didn't bother me enough to even slow me down.  The Ten Thousand Doors of January hit the spot for me in a deep and resonant way that a novel hasn't in a while. Highly recommended.
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