Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Queen of Always by Sherry D. Ficklin (Stolen Empire Series Book 3)

genre: young adult historical fiction

With the Empress's health failing and her relationship with Peter on the verge of catastrophe, Catherine soon realizes that her troubles are not only within her own court.  There are those outside that want Peter off the throne of Russia, which puts both Catherine and her young son in danger. Soon Catherine is going to have to decide if she is strong enough to wield her own power among so many she cannot trust.  Amid wars and plauge from without and conniving and hatred from within, there is really only one way she can win - the questions is if she is willing to sacrifice what it will take to get there.

Catherine's love life has always been an important part of the books, which I understand, and this one is no different.  But this one was my least favorite, especially after she threw a very unrealistic threesome into the mix.  It felt very unbelievable and like the author was just trying to be scandalous. The plot is fast-paced, again, and I believed in her political frustration, ambition and lack of options, Catherine's choices were always made with such high stakes and the lack of morality among all the characters was sometimes frustrating - Elizabeth, especially, would stop at actually nothing.  It entertained me and wrapped things up well enough but I didn't love it.  What it did make me do is go and learn more about the real story and I do appreciate that the author did base a lot of big happenings on fact, more or less.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Queen of Tomorrow by Sherry D. Ficklin (Stolen Empire Series book 2)

genre: young adult historical fiction

Catherine did it: she married Peter and is settling in as the wife of the future emperor.  While navigating the tense political landscape,  treaties are made and broken with kingdoms to the west and war breaks out, Catherine's main goal is to remain useful and thus in power.  Her strained relationship with the ever-more-volitile Peter means that she must look elsewhere for happiness and soon even that is called into question when the need for an heir appears to trump anything that Catherine wishes for herself.

There is domestic abuse, here.  Strategizing and the use of the bedchambers as a political weapon call Catherine's own morals and heart into question.  She does what she pleases when it seems like that will help her get what she wants - but she also can deal with a LOT and she puts up with a LOT if it seems like that is the best way to her desired result.  She's an intriguing character who makes hard choices (some of them unwise in my opinion) and who suffers a lot of heartache.  Again, this installment is very readable and the plot moves fast - nothing life changing here but good entertainment.  It, again, has a lot of "romantic" scenes and while not graphic at all, sex is at the heart of this book in many ways as Catherine negotiates her husband and her lover.  I have no idea how much of it is factual (I'm thinking maybe not a huge amount) but it has made me interested in the real Catherine and I care enough about the story that I'll read the final book.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering by David A. Kessler, MD

NOTE: I read this book as part of a Book Tour via TLC Book Tours

genre: non-fiction

What is the root of mental illness - that continuum of afflictions that affect so many people in some degree? How are these illnesses related and can knowledge of that root somehow be used to stimulate change?

As someone with my own issues who also interacts daily with those using medication to help stem the tide of the pain of mental illness, I was interested in this book because I hoped it would give me some insight into the minds of these people that I love. I think I approached it in the wrong way - I was looking for Answers and the reality is that as advanced as science is, there are not really very many Answers to be found yet when it comes to the roots of Depression, Anxiety, Bi-Polar Disorder, etc. We know what medicines can sometimes make a big difference in terms of symptoms but the mind is so complex that something more than measurable chemicals is needed to help us understand what is going wrong in a mind that's struggling.

 What this book discusses is the idea of "capture," which was a bit hard for me to wrap my head around and I'm still trying to process it. My super basic understanding is that when a stimulus (a thought, something we see etc) somehow gets our attention and our behavior changes because of it, that's "capture." This book is not only a history of mind-theory (my made-up phrase) but also a series of case studies and stories about the different ways this capture can manifest itself - for both good and bad outcomes. The historical part got pretty deep for me, truthfully, in several sections I did have to do a little skimming.

I found the stories of people whose mental illness impacted either themselves or, just as tragically, others around them and the deconstruction of their thinking very interesting. I also think that this book gave me some concrete thoughts about how my own mind works, I've already found myself looking back at some ideas I highlighted as I think over it all.

The idea is capture is powerful because I feel like it empowers those struggling with mental illness to try and exert some influence over their unhealthy thoughts. Yes, medication and therapy are essential for a lot of people, but even when medicated, I know, unhealthy thoughts can make life very challenging. I almost wish there was a "junior novelization" of this book, or a cliff notes - where I could ingest more easily the big ideas in a condensed form.

Some of Capture was slow-going and some parts required a lot of brain power while other parts seemed not as relevant to the subject but in the end, I'm glad I read it. The storytelling sections are very readable and it's important for me to give myself time to think about this topic and I have some new ideas in my head. And that matters.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Queen of Someday by Sherry D. Ficklin (A Stolen Empire Novel)

genre: young adult historical fiction

When Sophie arrives in Russia, she's innocent enough to believe that her noble German upbringing prepared her for the scandal and intrigue that is the St. Petersburg court of Empress Elizabeth and her ruthless nephew Peter. As she slowly tries to maneuver herself into a crown, Sophie soon learns that true happiness will require a level of trust that may be difficult to obtain. She will be in need of all her energy and wits to make a place for herself and hopefully find love in the process.

This is some juicy YA historical fiction - really I'd call it historical romance. It's not explicit but there are romantic scenes, to be sure. It read really quickly for me and I enjoyed spending time in a Russia that didn't belong to the elusive Anastasia Romanov. This earlier Russia is just as dangerous of a place, though, and the action moves quickly (sometimes a little too quickly for my taste, I occasionally needed a little more detail to flesh relationships out to make them super believable). The ending was an interesting jumping off point for book two and while there isn't a lot of "moral" decision-making amongst the characters, I was definitely entertained.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

genre: young adult historical fiction

As fourteen year old Joan imagines her future on the farm in Pennsylvania in 1911, all she can see is more backbreaking work without acknowledgement or affection.  Intelligent and curious, she uses her diary as an outlet for her fears and ambitions as she decides that this sort of life isn't enough.  As a seed of hope sprouts, Joan takes her life into her own hands and she dares to go out into the world to become a Hired Girl.

Set mostly in Baltimore, Joan's experiences in the city force her to grow up quickly.  Aware of her own mind, Joan's thirst for knowledge leads to her own religious explorations while her desire to belong helps her to make a place for herself in a new household.

I really liked this diary-type novel.  It's funny and heartbreaking, as Joan navigates a world she knows nothing about.  I loved the religious interplay between the characters as well as Joan's first true romantic feelings, which felt dead on. The characters, the time and place, the plot - it all felt relevant and possible.  Fun read.

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

genre: fantasy, fairy tale retelling

Princess Alyrra is from a small kingdom - and when a King from a much more prosperous land requests her hand for his son, there really is no choice to be made.  She must go.  But before she arrives,  one betrayal suddenly gives Alyrra that glorious gift:  choice.   In her new role as goose girl, Alyrra can choose to work hard and find peace in her new rougher, but in some ways more free, life - or she can choose to help a prince who is surely full of secrets at a cost that may risk even her own life.

This is a fairly faithful retelling of The Goose Girl, although the more developed magical element gives it an interesting twist.  Because it's a faithful retelling, there is a talking horse and that took me a while to get used to, for whatever reason.  The "evil" character is an addition that adds depth to the plot and I liked how it resolved.  The romantic thread is mild and that doesn't necessarily resolve in that way you'd expect but I think I liked that too, it was realistic.    What I really liked was the deeper and more ethical threads of justice and mercy, the heavy responsibility that lies over those in a position to judge and meet out punishments.  Intriguing and more thought-provoking than the average fantasy novel, I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit

genre: historical fiction

The wives of Los Alamos didn't know WHY they were in Los Alamos. That wasn't information that could be discussed - even hinted at.  The wives of Los Alamos did what wives do: clean their house, cook their family's food, care for their children.  But they did these things in a tiny, barely constructed town that didn't technically exist, where their food had to be procured by the US Army and where their husbands went to work each day on a project they weren't allowed to understand.

They were from all over, their very cloistered life magnified to a great degrees all the little things that women can tend to (really, sometimes have to) worry about, as well as create a tiny fish bowl where everyone knows everyone else's business.    When their "project" is finally revealed in all its terrifying glory, the aftermath is just as complicated as its construction.

I have never read a book in this narrative style - there is no main character.  No plot, really - it's more a communal novel, written in first person plural.  Their story, the story of the women, is told from its essential beginning to its end but it's not ONE person's story.  Everything is "we" and "our." It's a cross section, an attempt at showing the patriotic unity on the surface of the more jealous, petty and unfaithful.  The balance sometimes felt a bit off for a historical fiction - really, THAT many women cheated on their husbands, were spiteful and bitter?   I know I didn't live then and maybe these sorts of feelings really were the product of a society where women were told what limited jobs were acceptable and behavior codes were so strict when it was time to be sociable that there had to be a backlash somehow?

I did like it, although truthfully, I kept waiting for more, somehow.  I maybe NEED a character, one particular person to feel rooted to - even if her experience somehow excludes the experiences of everyone else.  I did really appreciate the ethical discussion at the end, how very differently people looked at the issue and how, I think, we still struggle with this today: was it right?  For these women, that question was so close, so sharp and real that I can imagine it changed everything.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Peony: A Novel of China by Pearl S. Buck

genre: historical fiction

In 1850s China, Peony is Chinese bondmaid in a wealthy household.  The family whom she serves is not, however, a typical Chinese family - they are Jewish, a remnant of a group of people who arrived in their city of Kaifeng in centuries past.  As a foreign people in a fair and accepting society, each generation has found a way to hold on their religious traditions even as interrmarriages and business partnerships make life ever more "Chinese."   As Peony grows within this home of strange gods and rituals, she has slowly fallen in love their their only son, David, whom she can clearly never marry.  For himself, David's struggle with his mother's religious zeal and his love of the Chinese people and their religion and culture creates a powerful contrast.  How Peony and David's lives intermingle in this land of ancient customs as well as the Jewish plight abroad are at the heart of this novel.

I have never read anything like this, nor did I have any knowledge of Jewish people living among the Chinese, until I read this novel. Peony is a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, character.  Her choices and feelings felt very realistic, her introspection and behavior, are fascinatingly different to what I would imagine other people would do in her situation.  Sometimes she is so wickedly manipulative and other times so loyal - you definitely get an interesting look at the role a slave/servant played in a household, as a person who stood in the background and heard everything - how that intimate knowledge could be used for good or evil.   It's a rather tragic story, in many ways, one particular scene completely surprised me with its tragedy.

The decline of a culture and religious community is a painful thing and I loved how Buck explored the emotions of all the different people involved as it becomes more and more certain that decline is inevitable.  I felt sympathy for, especially, David's mother - who wasn't perfect but I get her soul-deep desires for her son.  I get David's feelings too, to be caught between the people he has always lived among and the man his mother wants him to be.  

I loved how I felt that the writing truly took me to China, it felt intimate and real - and even if it sometimes got repetitive (especially when describing all the getting-dressed and doing-hair etc.) I never wanted to give up on it and in the end, I'm very glad I finished it.  Peony's arc as a character was rather beautiful, her loyalty and kindness are their own happy ending.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Parent Hacks: 134 Genius Shortcuts for Life with Kids by Asha Dornfest

genre: parenting

I have five kids.  My youngest two are three year old twin boys.

You can probably imagine my life.

I have followed the Parent Hacks blog for a while now, even searching specific problems to see if other parents out there have good solutions (they almost always do!).  When I saw that the blog author was publishing a book, I knew I wanted to read it.

As soon as I opened the first page, I knew this book was a winner, and not just for the content.  The format is genius - fun illustrations, actual highlighting to give you the gist of the idea, perfect for a parent with little brain space.  The hacks are organized by topic (sleeping, feeding, traveling etc) to help if you are just thinking about a specific issue you're dealing with.

I found myself dog-earring pages with things that can help me even now with my boys.  Of course, they wouldn't ALL work for me now and they don't all apply to my life now either but still, even at age 3.5, there are lots of helpful tips.

You know what I wish?

That someone had given me this book at my first baby shower, fifteen years ago.  Several of the hacks in this book I already used because someone along the way gave me the tip but so many would've been helpful if only I'd KNOWN!  I think this is my new favorite shower gift for a first time Mom, even just to help remind you that creativity counts with parenting - we're all winging it!

Great idea for a book and great presentation.

I'm a fan.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (adapted from the German)

genre: middle grade adventure
This is the actual copy I read

When Father and Mother boarded a ship in Europe with their four sons, they anticipated a new life in a new colony - what they got was even more adventurous.  Under the strain of stormy weather, they are run aground and abandoned by the crew, left alone to fend for themselves on an unknown and deserted island.  Father's expert survival knowledge and the ingenuity and hard work of each family member lead the them to an incredibly successful life in their new home.

I decided to read this book when my 94 year old grandpa told me it was his most favorite book as a boy - he told me he read it repeatedly throughout his youth.  It was fun for me to keep him in mind as I read.  I'm incredibly familiar with the Disney Film, it was a favorite of mine as a kid (I wonder how much influence my love of that movie had over my love of survival stories even now?) so I couldn't help comparing the two somewhat.

They are quite different :).

The comparison made it fun, though, and I have to say that overall I really enjoyed it (read in essentially one sitting).  It is definitely a story seeped in religious vigor and moral instruction, it feels very pedantic at times and it's clear that the author wanted to teach young boys about the virtues of hard work and honesty, as well as resourcefulness and outdoor skills, in an exciting setting.    Of course, there are random animals from every conceivable continent on this island, as well as every resource you could ever possibly need to make anything under the sun - but that's what makes survival stories interesting.  Surely this was an influential work, especially for my own grandpa :)
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