Friday, September 30, 2016

Beauty, Beast, and Belladonna

Beauty, Beast, and Belladonna
by Maia Chance
Berkley Prime Crime, 2016. 310 pgs. Mystery

It’s 19th century France, and variety actress Ophelia Flax has accepted the proposal of the rather gruff Comte de Griffe, but it was under false pretenses and she soon regrets it. While visiting his ancestral home she’s about to call the whole thing off when the money she’s saved for her trip back to America, along with her engagement ring, disappears. Her friend Henrietta assures Ophelia that if she plays along with the engagement for a little while longer (so that Henrietta can snag her man) she’ll pay Ophelia back double what she lost. Ophelia agrees but when a body shows up in the orangerie, and a local tale of Beauty and the Beast seems oddly relevant, Ophelia discovers that there is much more to the Comte’s de Griffe’s estate and village than any of the visitors realized.

This is the 3rd in the Fairy Tale Fatal mystery series, and I admit I haven’t read the first two books. It was an interesting twist on the classic Beauty and the Beast tale, and one that was an easy, light read, though I know there was some context I was missing out on. Despite that, I was able to follow the main storyline decently well. Fans of cozy mysteries and fairy tale retellings would most likely enjoy this series.

ACS

These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars
By Amie Kaufman
Disney Hyperion, 2013. 374 pgs. Young Adult

Although Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen come from different social strata, they find themselves on the same spaceliner traveling through hyperspace.  When the ship suddenly plummets toward the nearest planet, they find themselves stranded and struggling to survive.  But as they travel across the strange landscape in search of help, they realize their stories are more intertwined than they realize, and that they are in more danger than a simple survival situation.

This is a great book for fans of young adult science fiction or dystopias (although it isn't strictly a dystopia). The characters of Lilac and Tarver really carry the story - this story just wouldn't work if the characters didn't. I'm looking forward to the next book in this series.

BHG

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

North Korea Confidential

North Korea Confidential
by Daniel Tudor & James Pearson
Tuttle Publishing, 2015. 192 pgs. Nonfiction

There are lots of ideas about how North Korea functions. Many people picture them as a country that mindlessly worships an unstable dictator, is on the verge of starvation, and regularly detonates nuclear bombs. However, North Korean citizens are perhaps more similar to us than we may realize, despite their difficult circumstances. Through seven chapters about markets, leisure, power, crime, fashion, communications, and social division, Tudor and Pearson discuss day to day life and how people are making do in such a restrictive society.

Korean history and culture fascinates me, and while I’ve easily learned a lot about the South, understanding the isolated North is much more difficult. It was interesting to learn about how North Koreans have adapted to their restrictive government (mostly bribery and gray market transactions), and how life has changed over the decades since the Korean War. So often books about North Korea focus on the negative aspects (of which there are many), and while this book by no means ignores them, I think it gives a more balanced account of day to day North Korean life. I found it quite enlightening, so it’s an easy recommendation from me.

ACS

The Season

The Season
by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer
Viking, 2016. 344 pages. Young Adult

Set in modern day Dallas, Texas, fans of Pride and Prejudice will immediately recognize many scenes, lines, and characters from this novel.

Megan has always been a tomboy more comfortable on the soccer field while her twin sister, Julia, is the pretty, feminine one. So when their mother signs them both up to be Bluebonnet debutantes, Megan is completely shocked. Uncomfortable with the socialite scene, dresses and shopping, Megan thinks it’s all a waste of time. With family issues forcing her to stay a deb, Megan’s bad attitude slowly begins to transform as she realizes how badly she has misjudged many of the people involved. It also helps that a perk of being a debutante is being escorted to each party by a handsome gentleman. Especially when she is swept off her feet by the charming and down-to-earth, Hank Waterhouse.

I wasn’t completely sure about this book to begin with. First, I’m very particular about my Pride and Prejudice adaptations, and while it’s not a home run, it certainly was enjoyable recognizing all the parallels. Second, I really disliked Megan to begin with. She thinks she has all the answers and is very disrespectful at times. However, rather than staying bull-headed the entire season, she is eventually changed by her experiences as a debutante becoming a better person in all aspects of her life. It is this change that altered my feelings towards the book. Overall, I would say this was an enjoyable read.

AJ

Never Always Sometimes

Never Always Sometimes
by Adi Alsaid
Harlequin Teen, 2015. 313 pages. Young Adult.

Just before beginning high school, best friends, Dave and Julia, jokingly make a list of high school clich├ęs they vow to never do such as never run for prom king or torment yourself over a secret crush (something Dave’s been doing over Julia for years). Now seniors, they have successfully avoided everything on their “nevers” list. But when the year starts to drag, Dave and Julia begin to wonder if maybe they missed out. To liven things up, Julia decides they should instead try to do everything on the “nevers” list. However, things get complicated after Dave befriends and eventually starts dating a girl they initially dismissed as the stereotypical “smart girl” and Julia realizes her feelings for Dave run deeper than she thought.

There are a number of “best friends who fall in love” stories out there (Better off Friends, Galgorithm, Emmy and Oliver to name a few). However, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this one. Full of clever, laugh out loud banter and a less predictable ending. This one may be my favorite of the bunch.

AJ

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Nesting Place: It Doesn't Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful

The Nesting Place: It Doesn't Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful
By Myquillyn Smith
Zondervan, 2014. 199 pgs. Nonfiction

Self-taught decorator and blogger Myquillyn Smith has lived in homes of various shapes and sizes, moving 14 times in 20 years. Over all of those years, she's learned how to make her homes cozy and inviting while still living within her budget. In THE NESTING PLACE, Myquillyn shares her secrets of decorating for real people and real homes, not the photoshopped homes from glossy magazines.

I loved reading about the various dwellings the Smith family has found themselves in over the years, as well as admiring the beautiful photographs in this book. Myquillyn writes in a very personable style and her suggestions for how to decorate in a way that is "you" really resonated with me. If you're looking for some inspiration for your own home, take a look at this great book!

AMM

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Torch Against the Night

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2)
By Sabaa Tahir
Razorbill, 2016. 452 pgs. Young Adult

Elias and Laia are on the run. The Martials hunt traitors until they are captured, dead or alive. But the pair are determined to complete their mission – to break Laia’s brother Darin out of Kauf, the maximum security prison of the Empire. Whether it is by the ruthless Commandant, the sadistic prison warden, or the bloodthirsty emperor Marcus, Elias and Laia seem to be cornered at every turn. Most heartbreaking of all is that Helene, the emperor's new Blood Shrike and a former friend, has been ordered to kill Elias. It will take worldly and otherworldly help for Laia and Elias to evade their enemies and rescue Darin before it’s too late.

After waiting to pick up AnEmber in the Ashes until earlier this summer, I didn’t have to wait long for the second installment. This book focuses on the chase and character development but it also sets up the political backdrop for the next book. Helene, with her conflicted emotions and wavering loyalties, continues to be my favorite character. There is some resolution in the love quadrangle that will satisfy readers as well as unexpected plot turns. That it ended on a cliffhanger is not one of them. There are two more books in this series, if only I didn’t have to wait a year for the next book!

HSG

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Roses and Rot

Cover image for Roses and rot
Roses and Rot
By Kat Howard
Saga Press, 2016, 307 pages, Fantasy

Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program; Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there's more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she's dreamed about as a child, but it's one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart's desire.

If you can’t guess from this review and my recent review of The Invisible Library, Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. When I saw that he’d recommended this book I knew I had to read it! Roses and Rot is everything I hoped it would be—dark and mysterious and dangerously magical, it’s a modern fairy tale written for adults. I also loved that the main characters were women, dealing with the struggles and pressures that success brings. This book reminded me a lot of Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane in both tone and writing style.  Basically, I loved everything about this book!

MB

Alice

Alice (Chronicles of Alice #1)
By Christina Henry
Ace, 2015. 291 pgs. Fantasy

Alice has been imprisoned in the crumbling asylum of the Old City for more years then she can count. The last time she was free, she was at a tea party with a rabbit, blood, and horrors so unspeakable that her mind shields itself from the memory. Her only friend is Hatcher, her neighboring cell mate to whom she speaks through a mouse hole. He was captured years ago, when he was found with a bloody ax in his hands and bodies at his feet. When fire engulfs the asylum, Alice and Hatcher manage to escape and set out on a mission to discover what happened at the tea party and how to find the Rabbit before he finds them.

This is the first Alice in Wonderland retelling I’ve read, and it didn’t disappoint. It is darker than the source material but just as mad and bizarre – a perfect retelling for adults. Readers should be warned up front that the violence, especially sexual violence, is quite high, and is not for the faint of heart. Sadly, the graphic content was unnecessary and will keep some readers from picking up the book. In spite of this, I fell hard for Alice and Hatcher and the light and beauty of their relationship, which is nuanced and thoughtfully written. I was enthralled by their spine-tingling story and can’t wait to read the next book.

HSG

The Invisible Library

Cover image for The invisible library
The Invisible Library
By Genevieve Cogman
Roc, 2016, 341 pages, Science Fiction

Irene is a professional spy for the Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities (kind of like Noah Wylie and the TNT franchise The Librarians). Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative late-1800s London full of fairies, vampires, steam-powered technology and unstable magic. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous version of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The problem: By the time they arrive, it's already been stolen. London's underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do.

One review I read about this book likened Cogman’s writing to Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman, and I definitely agree. This book is chock full of weird, bizarre, funny, endearing characters and moments and the story is fantastical and fast-paced. The book doesn’t get too bogged down by world-building, yet it makes sense. I enjoyed every minute reading it. My one criticism is that this book is setting up a series, and it suggests the setting will stay in this alternate version of London. I hope future books explore other alternate realities and places. What's the point of creating a world of multiple realities when you only explore one of them?

MB

Monday, September 12, 2016

LaRose

LaRose
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 2016. 373 pgs. Fiction

I tried five times to write a short first paragraph for this review describing the plot of LaRose.  However, I just could not seem to do justice to the series of events and relationships represented in Erdrich’s new novel. So, I’ll have to start beyond the storyline and say that LaRose is a powerful story about family, community, redemption, revenge, friendship, loss, and forgiveness. 

The story focuses on two families and one very little boy given the responsibility to heal the wounds caused by a fateful hunting accident.  But vibrant secondary characters enrich the narrative and provide dynamic alternate perspectives that I found fascinating.

Erdrich has such a gift for weaving complicated stories with beautiful language.  She brilliantly creates a sense of place, both physically and emotionally.  Her characters are rich and vibrant.  Her themes are nuanced and insightful.  All this makes her novels a joy to read despite telling sad stories about hard things. 

CG

The Rainbow Comes and Goes

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss
By Anderson Cooper & Gloria Vanderbilt
Harper, 2016. 290 pgs. Memoir

Both Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt have names that are familiar to most Americans.  But many may not know, or like me repeatedly forget, that Gloria is Anderson’s mother.  In this fascinating and person collection of letters between the two collected over a year, they discuss their relationship and many turning points in their eventful lives.

Famous people often seem larger than life and far beyond the trials we common folk face daily.  What I loved most about The Rainbow Comes and Goes is how vulnerable, insecure, and just plain normal they both seemed.  This is an admirable accomplishment.  It takes a great deal of charm and candor to sound normal while discussing what it was like to date Frank Sinatra.

I listened to the audio version of this book which was read by both the authors.  I loved hearing them tell their stories in their words and in their voices.  This is a wonderful exchange and beyond the fascinating details from these fascinating personalities, there is a powerful message about the importance of family and preserving the stories of older generations before they are lost forever.

CG

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Capitalism and Freedom

by Milton Friedman
 University Of Chicago Press, 2002. 230 pages. Nonfiction

Originally published in 1962, this book serves as a foundational piece in economic literature. Capitalism and Freedom argues primarily that the former is a prerequisite for the former; starting with two broad chapters about economic theory and liberty, Friedman progresses to tackle in brief specific areas of American economic and social policy and makes a case for the problems caused by interventionism and how the free market can solve them. While confident in economic analysis, Friedman acknowledges his limited frame of reference, a refreshing trait in a Nobel Prize winning expert. His chapter on education was particularly enjoyable, as he opens with the caveat that he is not an expert in any way on education, but then makes predictions and suggestions that are both accurate and relevant for society in the new millennium.

Capitalism and Freedom walks the line between primer and textbook; while not an introductory work on economics (Friedman does his best to simplify theories and terms for the lay-reader, but assumes a basic knowledge), it also avoids getting bogged down into minutia and complex equations. Where more in-depth questions arise, Friedman clarifies his point and directs the inquisitive reader towards specialized works where authors (including him) have done and explain more detailed research. I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about economics but doesn’t want to wrestle with equations.

JMS

Friday, September 9, 2016

First Women

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies
by Kate Andersen Brower
Harper, 2016. 400 pgs. Nonfiction

Kate Andersen Brower, who received praise for The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House last year, has returned with another insider’s look at life inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In First Women, she describes the experiences and personalities of the last half-century’s first ladies, beginning with Jacqueline Kennedy. Rather than focusing on these women individually, she instead arranges her book topically, comparing the first ladies’ respective experiences as supportive wives, as mothers, as FLOTUS, and as public actors in their own rights.

Although Brower’s research is detailed and accurate, her writing had a gossipy element that I honestly really enjoyed. It was especially fun to learn about the first ladies’ relationships with each other. Deep friendships and intense rivalries have sprouted between the various first ladies, often in surprising ways. These nine women have had wildly differing temperaments and approaches to their roles, and it was delightful to learn about each of them. I will warn that I was initially put off by the audiobook narrator (it felt a little like Siri was reading to me), but I was soon so caught up in the stories that I didn't notice.

SR

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
by Ron Chernow
Penguin Books, 2004. 818 pgs. Biography

Alexander Hamilton is having a moment, 112 years after his death. Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton premiered in early 2015 and, in addition to selling out every performance, has won 11 Tony awards, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer Prize. The play’s success has inspired renewed interest in Hamilton’s life and has brought the 2004 biography it was based on, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, back to the bestseller lists.

I can be a little reluctant to read nonfiction, but I absolutely loved this biography. Chernow, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of George Washington, writes in a thoroughly researched but thoroughly readable way. Through his words, the cast of characters who populated the early United States come to vivid life. I experienced the anxiety of Hamilton’s many personal and political conflicts and finished reading both in awe of his accomplishments and surprised by his weaknesses. I also came away with a profound respect for Eliza Hamilton, who preserved her husband’s legacy and on whom Chernow rightly focuses the final chapter of the biography.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend listening to the Hamilton soundtrack after finishing the biography, as the two listening experiences can enhance each other.

I’ve jumped on the Hamilton bandwagon, and I'm proud of it.

SR

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Charming


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Charming
by Elliot James
Orbit, 2013. 480 pages. Fantasy.

Book one of the Pax Arcana series (of which book five, In Shining Armor, was released this April), Charming introduces John Charming, ex-knight Templar, occasional monster hunter, and secret half-werewolf. John reluctantly joins a valkyrie, a priest and a psychic as they hunt a vampire with radical new ideas about who should run the world. Within this frame, James expertly establishes his kitchen-sink style mythos and magic of the “Pax Arcana” that keeps it hidden from the rest of the world.

Charming pulls off that elusive unicorn of creative writing; funny dialogue that feels organic. James breathes life and believability into his characters, especially the antagonists. Picking this up for the first time a few nights ago, I was interested initially by the back cover of the newest book in the series, so I started at the beginning. Even knowing there would be further installments, the narrative kept me in suspense. Most of the material keeping the book from being a clean read was superfluous, but neither was it gratuitous or vulgar. I appreciated the candor of discussing mature topics (such as the prospect of a relationship or the best way to incapacitate an immortal snake monster) without it feeling too racy or graphic. I finished Charming excited to see where the next installments take John and his friends.

JMS

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake : The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson
Broadway Books, 2016. 480 pages. Nonfiction.


Eerily similar to the story of the Titanic, this is an action-packed account of the sinking of a luxury cruise liner during WWI. Its doomed voyage began in New York in May 1915, and ended just off the coast of Ireland – torpedoed by a German U-boat. This compelling story not only dives into the personal lives of some of the most famous, rich passengers, but also educates the reader about submarine warfare, the circumstances during WWI that led up to the attack, and the distracting love affair that President Woodrow Wilson was pursuing while the ship’s captain was kept mostly ignorant of the direct and imminent danger to the civilians aboard the ship. Though we are informed at the beginning of the book that 12,000 people died on this journey, we are filled with a sense of foreboding and dread as we read about the passengers and crew, the chain of command in the U. S. armed forces, and the miscommunications that led to this horrific event; we care about the lives that Erik Larson describes through personal letters and news articles, and we hope that the inevitable really won’t happen after all.

Erik Larson’s research on every detail of the voyage and the associated historical events is thorough and accessible – even down to the grisly details of how individuals died, and where their bodies ended up. He narrates the story in such an engaging way, that it’s best to read it on a weekend when you can read through the night and not have to wake up early the next day.

I heartily recommend this book for adults, though not for the squeamish, nor for those who are planning to embark on a cruise anytime soon.

BBG

Lily and the Octopus

Lily and the Octopus 
by Steven Rowley
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2016. 305 pages. Fiction.

Lily, the aging dachshund, has a new battle to fight, with an octopus. Or at least that’s what her owner, Ted Flask, has deemed the growth on her head, because “tumor” is too sad a reality. Together, the pair recount the wonderful and full life they’ve lived with one another; talking about cute boys, playing monopoly, and burrowing down into the best part of the blankets. As the battle with the octopus becomes more intense, and at times a bit magical (maybe even over the top), the charm and sweetness remain until the very last page.

I’d recommend this book to people who enjoyed The Art of Racing in the Rain or anyone who has ever imagined conversations with a beloved pet. This book reaffirms the way that animal companions enrich our lives, and bring a sort of joy that is unmatched. The heart of the book is in the relationship between dog and owner and the intimacies of pet/human relationships and love.The book was charming and emotional, as well as relatable to anyone who has really loved and cared for a furry friend.

RC

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sweet Tomorrows: a Rose Harbor novel

Sweet Tomorrows: A Rose Harbor Novel 
By Debbie Macomber
Ballantine Books, 2016. 337 pgs. Romance

Sweet Tomorrows is the final installment in Debbie Macomber’s Rose Harbor series. In this book, Jo Marie – owner of the Rose Harbor Inn – is recovering after the departure of her new love, Mark Taylor, who left Cedar Cove to right wrongs from his past career in the US military. Jo Marie has already lost one love to military combat, so she knows Mark’s chance of survival is slim. Just as Jo Marie seems to be following Mark’s parting request that she move on with her life, she receives some startling news.

The other half of Sweet Tomorrows, is about Emily Gaffney, a school teacher who’s forsaken love and moved to Cedar Cove to start her life over. Emily boards at the Rose Harbor Inn while house hunting, and with Jo Marie’s help she finds her dream home. Now Emily just needs to convince the handsome recluse who’s renovating the house that she is the perfect buyer.

Over the past five years, the release of each new Rose Harbor novel has become a ritual ending to my summer reading. So while I’m sad that this is the last of the series, I have to say that Sweet Tomorrows is a perfect ending. Debbie Macomber fans will not be disappointed.

CNC

Bandluck Way: a year on the ragged edge of the west

Badluck Way: a year on the ragged edge of the west 
By Bryce Andrews
Atria Books, 2014. 238 pgs. Biography

Bryce Andrews is now a tried and true rancher, but in this book he recounts his first year on Sun Ranch in southwest Montana. Andrews describes the grueling work building and maintaining fences, the heavy responsibility to care for the cattle, and the constant battle to survive in the brutal and beautiful landscape. Interwoven with his own experiences, Andrews also tells the story of the wolf pack that lives near Sun Ranch and the inevitable carnage when predator and prey meet.

I loved this book. Andrews writes on complex topics like conservation in a way that doesn’t oversimplify the topic but shows how his viewpoint changes as his pre-conceived ideas conflict with his new experiences. I enjoyed reading Andrews’s insightful reflections on the ranch and the wildlife he observes -- especially the wolves he wearily admires. Most of all, I love how Andrews shows our need to change and control nature often without realizing how nature has changed us. I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read survival stories, nature stories, or stories about the American West. 

CNC