Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale 
By Margaret Atwood
Anchor Books, 1986. 325 pages

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the earliest and most influential dystopian novels of our time. The story centers on Offred, a woman living in the newly formed region of Gilead (formerly the American Northeast). Due to low fertility rates in the US, women have been stripped of their freedoms, and forced into specific roles to increase the birth rate. Offred is a Handmaid—a woman whose sole purpose is to bear children to prominent men.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a disturbing look into a possible not-to-distant future, and is relevant to our modern day. The fictitious Republic of Gilead uses strict Christian/Puritan theology to justify the removal of personal identities and the reordering of society. Women are banned from reading and writing, relationships are strictly controlled through the government, and any dissenters are publicly executed. Reminiscent of both The Scarlet Letter and 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale is sure to provoke strong emotions in readers.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill

By Greg Mitchell
Crown, 2016. 382 pgs. Nonfiction

The Berlin Wall fell nearly 30 years ago.  Many have forgotten the price people paid to cross that barrier between East and West Berlin.  Before it was built in 1961 Berliners traveled from east to west for daily jobs, school, to visit families – and to flee to the West. Once the infamous barrier was built a person’s life was forfeit for trying to cross it.  Yet thousands and thousands defied the East German government, crossing the barrier by balloon, jumping from windows across the barrier into firemen’s nets in the west, using fake papers, and escaping via underground tunnels joining East Berlin and West Berlin.

In 1961 no one was sure whether western pressure against the Russians and East Germans because of the wall might escalate to war. JFK was already embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis and famously said, “A wall is better than a war.” This compelling book gives accounts of several tunnel projects that were successful routes for escaping East Germans. The author also fills in the details about the political tensions of the time which could easily have flared into war.  SH

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fire By Night

The Fire By Night
By Teresa Messineo
William Morrow, 2017. 306 pgs. Historical Fiction

Shedding more light on less familiar aspects of World War II, The Fire By Night paints an unflinching portrait of the brave American women who served as nurses on the front lines of World War II.

Jo finds herself abandoned with a handful of seriously injured patients, near the German lines.  With few supplies and no support from nearby American troops she is pushed to a breaking point just fighting to keep her soldiers alive.  Jo’s close friend from nursing school, Kay is on the other side of the world.  Her service takes her to a terrifying POW camp in Manila which she is determined to survive. 

Like The Women in the Castle, The Fire by Night tells of the strength of women.  Often unaware of their own resilience until they are truly tested, they have the potential to stare down true evil and utter hopelessness.  Their stories are sometimes left untold but are represented beautifully in these recent works of historical fiction.


The Women in the Castle

The Women in the Castle
By Jessica Shattuck
William Morrow, 2017. 353 pgs. Historical Fiction

Marianne was widowed in 1944 when her husband was executed for taking part in the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  As the war winds down she battles the chaos of her crumbling homeland to find the wives and children of fellow resisters. 

She rescues them from refugee camps, Nazi reeducation homes, and from the hands of the occupying Red Army soldiers.  Those she is able to find, she brings to an old family castle and creates a makeshift family.  Each rescued woman has her own story of loss and perseverance and each has their own secrets to keep and dreams to pull from the rubble left after years of war. 

This is a wonderfully rich story of the strength of the soul and terrors of war.  Each character was a survivor and a hero though their pasts were messy and their choices questionable.  What would you do to keep what was left of your family alive when everything you loved has been destroyed?  The Women in the Castle touched my heart and brought new light to an often forgotten outcome of World War II.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee -- a Look Inside North Korea

By Jang Jin-sung
Atria Books, 2014. 339 pgs. Nonfiction

Having shown his gifts as a poet while still a teenager, Jang was given a job in North Korea’s United Front Department, the government section responsible for inter-Korean espionage. Honored by being invited to meet Kim Jong-il because of his poetry, he becomes one of the “Admitted,” making him virtually immune to punishment for any infraction without approval from the “Great Leader” himself.  In his work he was allowed to read and study books, newspapers and magazines from South Korea so that he could write propaganda as though it had been written in South Korea. Gradually Jang becomes disillusioned with the government of North Korea. Having lived his whole life in Pyongyang, he is horrified when he visits a friend in the countryside and sees the starvation and poverty of ordinary North Koreans. When he violates the rules of his job and loans a restricted book to a friend he suddenly finds himself being investigated by his unit.  Knowing that it is only a matter of time before he is arrested, he and his friend cross the Tumen River into China.

This memoir is far different from other recent books about refugees from North Korea because the author is so familiar with the propaganda tools and techniques of the North Korean government.  He was an insider who experienced the privileged lifestyle of the elites close to Kim Jong-il. He is also a gifted writer, and currently the editor of a website that reports on North Korea. I highly recommend this memoir to those who are interested in North Korea.


The Vicar's Daughter

The Vicar's Daughter: A Proper Romance
By Josi S. Kilpack
Shadow Mountain, 2017, 315 pgs. Romance, Historical Fiction

Cassie is the youngest of six sisters. Her parents have made a rule that she can't be out in society until her older sister makes a match. The problem is that Lenora in in her third season and is so painfully shy that she shows no signs of even being able to talk to a man. When Lenora shows a slight interest in Evan Glenside, who recently became heir of a nearby estate, Cassie decides to take matters into her own hands. She begins to write letters to Mr. Glenside in Lenora's name. Her good intentions become complicated when she finds herself starting to fall in love with Evan. It becomes even worse when he starts to court Lenora, thinking she is the one whose personality he admires from the letters.

I wasn't sure how this book was going to turn out. Cassie, Evan and Lenora were all such great characters and part way through the book I realized that this couldn't turn out well for everyone involved. I liked that this book was a little messy and very realistic about what happened once all the secrets were revealed. Too many romance books wrap things up too nicely. This book still had a very satisfying ending and I liked how it got there. This is another great Proper Romance for those looking for a good, clean romantic story.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Exquisite Captive

Exquisite Captive 
by Heather Demetrios
Balzer + Bray 2014, 463 pgs, Young Adult Fiction

Nalia, a young jinni of a powerful and ancient ruling class, is the sole survivor of a violent coup in her homeland of Arjinna. Surviving as a slave on the Dark Caravan, she must obey every command of her master, Malek, until he makes three wishes. However Malek believes he is in love with Nalia and will never make his third wish. Enter Raif, the enigmatic leader of the rebellion. War against the new rulers of Arjinna is not going well and he believes Nalia can make the difference. Raif can break the slave bond magic, but freeing Nalia from Malek proves to be more difficult that either she or Raif had imagined.

I loved this story! The writing is good, and the story is complex and engaging. The characters have depth and faults, and experience a realistic range of emotions. I especially like the emotional maturity displayed by Nalia. Even though she is haunted by past actions that proved to have severe consequences, she still demonstrates strength in dealing with the problems of the present. I also appreciated how the magic was set up. The jinn use element-related magic that varies in strength depending on the race of the jinni, and wishes have binding qualities that aren’t fully understood by most. I would recommend this book to someone interested in a complex story, or a book with magic in a modern setting.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz

Cover image for Survivors club : the true story of a very young prisoner of Auschwitz
Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz
By Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017, 348 pages, Young Adult Nonfiction

In 1945, in a now-famous piece of archival footage, four-year-old Michael Bornstein was filmed by Soviet soldiers as he was carried out of Auschwitz in his grandmother's arms. Survivors Club tells the story of how a father's courageous wit, a mother's fierce love, and one perfectly timed illness saved Michael's life, and how others in his family from Zarki, Poland, dodged death at the hands of the Nazis time and again with incredible deftness.

This incredible true story is a must read for anyone interested in World War II. Told from the point of view of Michael Bornstein, who was too young to remember the early years of Germany’s occupation of Poland, much of the story is really told as the result of research and interviews with relatives and survivors who knew the family. However, the number of amazing things that had to line up in order to allow such a young boy to survive in a Polish ghetto, and finally in a Nazi concentration camp, is staggering. This story is one that belongs alongside such classics as Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer Lovin'

Summer Lovin'
By Carly Phillips
Harlequin, 2005. Fiction, 298 pages.

This cheerful romance is the typical romance where opposites attract, mixed with a generous helping of family drama. Zoe Costas is an independent Greek New Jersey girl who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. Her large family is hoping to formally adopt their foster daughter Sam, until Sam's long-lost uncle randomly shows up. Ryan Baldwin is a handsome straight-laced lawyer from Boston, who is the opposite of everything Zoe would ever imagine in a suitor. As sparks fly, the two discover the real reasons why Sam’s mother ran away and in the process heal two very different families.

This is a fun, happy-ending and fairly predictable beach read. I liked the two polar opposite families and seeing how the romance develops despite differences. The teenage foster daughter’s temper tantrums got on my nerves but Zoe and Ryan’s relationship is entertaining and loveable.


The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

Cover image for The curious charms of Arthur Pepper
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
By Phaedra Patrick
Mira Books, 2016, 331 pages, Fiction

Sixty-nine-year-old Arthur Pepper lives a simple life. He gets out of bed at precisely 7:30 a.m., just as he did when his wife, Miriam, was alive. He dresses in the same gray slacks and mustard sweater vest, waters his fern, Frederica, and heads out to his garden. But on the one-year anniversary of Miriam's death, Arthur finds an exquisite gold charm bracelet he's never seen before. What follows is a surprising and unforgettable odyssey that takes Arthur from London to Paris and as far as India in an epic quest to find out the truth about his wife's secret life before they met--a journey that leads him to find hope, healing, and self-discovery in the most unexpected places.

Arthur Pepper is surprisingly willing to go with the flow. The more he finds out about his wife’s life before she met him, the stranger things get. Yet Arthur embraces it all with surprising acceptance even when he finds himself in unusual situations. He’s less curmudgeonly than Fredrik Backman’s beloved Ove, but he finds himself surrounded by characters who are even more interesting. Fans of books about people who go through unlikely transformations (like A Man Called Ove, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, or Etta and Otto and Russell and James) will love this book.


The Burning Point

The Burning Point
By Tracy McKay
By Common Consent Press, 2017. 269 pgs. Biography

The subtitle perfectly summarizes this book, "a memoir of addiction, destruction, love, parenting, survival, and hope." Tracy weaves the story of her friendship, marriage, and later divorce to her husband David. The book is written with flashbacks and portions of her blog to tell her experience as a single mom, living in near poverty, and raising her children one of whom is on the Autism Spectrum. While David's decisions had a vast influence on not only her life, but her children's as well, Tracy doesn't bash him at all. She shows his humanity and his wonderful qualities and how addiction impacted their family.

Tracy writes with hope and love amidst some truly difficult situations. I've read Tracy's blog, Dandelion Mama, for years and while I was familiar with her story, this memoir was incredibly interesting to read. I was brought to tears several times reading about not only the hardships she faced, but also the many good people who helped her during her trials.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Vaccine Controversy: the History, Use, and Safety of Vaccinations

The Vaccine Controversy: The History, Use, and Safety of Vaccinations 
by Kurt Link, M.D.
Praeger Publishers, 2005, 196 pgs. Nonfiction

 Vaccines save countless lives every year by preventing a multitude of dangerous diseases. In The Vaccine Controversy, Dr. Kurt Link explores the history and use of both the common and uncommon vaccines used in the United States and other parts of the world. The book begins with explanations of how the immune system works, how the different types of vaccines are made, and how vaccines trigger an immune response. He then discusses several disasters and near misses in the history of vaccines. A significant portion of the book takes an in-depth look at each vaccine and the disease it prevents. This book maintains relevancy despite the publishing date because much of the information is historical and the effects of the disease stay relatively the same over time.

 This book was fascinating! I really liked how the author presented rather complex medical information in a way that was easy for someone without a medical background to understand. The second thing I appreciated most about this book was the depth with which it examined each disease. A study of the disease is a vital part of any research on vaccines, and this book did a wonderful job of keeping those two facets of the subject together. While the author states he is a strong supporter of vaccination programs, he didn’t shy away from the mishaps and disasters that have occurred because of vaccines. He does a good job of keeping an informative tone without inserting lots of opinions. Despite the title, the controversies surrounding vaccinations were only lightly discussed. This book could use an updated edition, but overall I found it to be highly informative, and would recommend it to anyone looking to expand their understanding of vaccines and the diseases they are meant to prevent.


Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living
By Shauna Niequist
Zondervan, 2016. 236 pgs. Nonfiction

Shauna wrote five books in nine years and has spent considerable time on the road promoting those books and speaking to audiences of various sizes. As she started to realize the toll this schedule was taking on herself and her family, Shauna knew that something needed to change. In this book she writes essays on how she is making changes for the better and how these changes are not always quick or easy.

I really enjoy Shauna's writing and have read several of her other books. These essays gave me a lot to think about and consider how I can make changes in my own life. In particular, I loved the essays entitled You Put Up the Chairs, On Stillness, and Heart and Yes. I'd recommend this book to anyone who's looking for ways to find a little more peace in their crazy schedules.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Whistling Past the Graveyard 
By Susan Crandall
Gallery Books, 2013. 308 pages.

Starla Claudelle has run away from life with her overly strict grandmother and plans to make her way to her mother whom she hasn’t seen since she was three. But the road from Cayuga Springs, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee is not easy for a nine-year-old, and Starla soon meets more trouble than she bargained for. On the road Starla meets Eula, a black woman traveling with a white baby. Together, Starla and Eula learn a new meaning of friendship and family as they look out for one another on Starla’s journey.

Though this story deals with difficult topics such as abuse, racial inequality, teen pregnancy, and abandonment, the details are toned down due to Starla’s nine-year-old perspective. What really resonates with me is how the story illustrates the transformative power of love in someone’s life. Readers will enjoy Starla’s spit-fire attitude as well as her endearing deep south vernacular. This is a great pick for book club discussions and is now available as a book club set at the library.


Monday, July 31, 2017

American Foodie

American Foodie
By Dwight Furrow
Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. 179 pgs. Nonfiction

 Is food a fine art? Can it evoke emotion and consideration the way music and art do? Furrow argues that yes, it is art, and it no longer serves as just a way to simply keep us alive. Food can be experienced as an expression of art from the way tastes play together, to the presentation, and the history and culture that influence a dish. From the transformation of the food industry that hailed ready-made and pre-packaged food as fine cuisine, to today’s fascination with celebrity chefs, food bloggers, and creativity in the kitchen, Furrow takes the reader on a culinary journey about how society’s view of food has changed, and why it should be considered a fine art.

This was a fascinating, though dense read. I’m not a foodie by any means. I appreciate food, but probably the same way a kid appreciates going through a fine art museum, “I like that painting, it’s pretty,” and done. “I like that food, it tastes good,” and done. This book has inspired me to consider my food a little more thoughtfully both when I make it, and when I eat out. Where is this food coming from? What cultural influences are present in this dish? How has this dish/recipe been modified over time? I would recommend this to those who, like the author, view food as an art form.


Saturday, July 29, 2017

Miss Whitaker Opens Her Heart

Miss Whitaker Opens Her Heart
By Jennifer Moore
Covenant Communications, 2017. 207 pgs. Historical Fiction,  Romance

Sarah Whitaker came to Australia at a young age to join her father on his sheep farm. Her excitement and dreams were shattered when she learned of her father's death shortly after her arrival. She beats the odds and becomes a successful business woman in a harsh land mostly populated by petty criminals from England. She has learned one important lesson over the years - don't trust anyone.

Daniel Burton made some really bad choices in life and was sentenced to death after a race-horse scandal. Fortunately his wealthy uncle was able to arrange his exile to Australia. Once in Australia he is given a pardon and ends up purchasing the land next to Sarah's. The two neighbors have a lot to learn from each other.

I really enjoy that Jennifer Moore's books are about the Regency era but they take place in different locations around the world. This book deals a lot with prejudice, trust and forgiveness. This is another clean romance that leaves you feeling good.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Letting Go of the Words

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works
By Ginny Redish
Morgan Kaufman, 2012. Nonfiction. 333 pages

No website, no matter how great the design, will be successful without well-laid-out and well-written content. Author Ginny Redish, a linguist by training, is an expert on information design. In her book, she shows the reader how to produce clear, easy to comprehend writing that will help users find what they came to the website to learn and retain what they read.

Unsurprisingly, this book is easy to read and immediately put into practice the many great words of advice. Before reading this book, I thought I already understood how to write good web content, but Redish has given me new guidance that I had not previously found on websites that seek to provide the same information.

I would highly recommend this book to any wanting to learn how to write more clearly for any type of writing, not just on the web.


Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited

Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
By Steve Krug
New Riders, 2014. Nonfiction. 200 pages

This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. After finally reading it, I can definitely say I wish I had read it sooner. For over 20 years, author Steve Krug has been a website usability consultant for a wide variety of clients like Apple,,, NPR, the International Monetary Fund, and many others. He uses this expertise to create a how to guide on creating good websites that are actually usable and useful.

This is not a technical guide on how to design a website but rather a practical look at topics such website usability standards, accessibility, avoiding wordiness, organization and hierarchy, and other related topics. I found this book very easy to read and understand. There are lots of illustrations and the overall feel of the book is lighthearted. It has definitely changed how I will approach web design from here on out.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry 
By Neil deGrasse Tyson

Everyone’s favorite celebrity astrophysicist once again enthralls readers with his entertaining approach to science. Approachable and concise, this volume explains the cosmos in this condensed volume, discussing topics such as dark matter, the solar system, the light spectrum, and the search for life in the universe.

 This book has so many appeals. Busy readers will enjoy the short chapters, perfect for fitting in a quick science lesson here and there. Tyson’s wit and humor makes for some seriously entertaining astrophysics. The actual book itself is charmingly small and beautifully designed. Perhaps best of all, fans of Tyson’s honey-sweet tones will enjoy his reading of the audio book. Uplifting and positive, readers can’t help but feel passionate about our place in the universe after this great introduction.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

On the Edge

On the Edge 
by Ilona Andrews
Ace Books, 2009. 326 pgs. Science Fiction

On the Edge is a story about Rose Drayton who live in the Edge, the land between The Broken where people shop at the Neighborhood Walmart, and the Weird, a land still ruled by aristocracy and magic. Rose is 18 and lives with her two little brothers her mom died when she was young and her dad skipped out a few years ago. Living in the Edge means that you have some magic not enough to thrive in the Weird and you never really fit in when visiting the Broken. Rose thought that if she practiced her magic enough then she would be able to change her station in life. That did not go according to plan. Everything changed when Declan came knocking on the door one day. They will have to work together to defeat a danger that has crossed over from the Weird and will take everything they have to survive.

I had a lot of fun reading this story. I have found that for me Ilona Andrews books takes me about 80 pages before I really get interested but once that passes I devour them in hours. I enjoyed what I felt was the realness of Rose’s character. They write her as being an imperfect mom to her brothers which totally makes sense because she is just barely an adult herself and is struggling to figure her own life out let alone how to help her brothers cope with the magic they were born with. Overall it was a good read.


Big Mushy Happy Lump

Big Mushy Happy Lump 
By Sarah Andersen
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017. 128 pages. Graphic Novel

Sarah Andersen's Sarah's Scribbles comics are hugely popular, and last year's book Adulthood is a Myth won the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Graphic Novels and Comics.  She is back again with a new book and dozens of new comics, as well as a few illustrated personal essays on some of her real-life experiences and how they influenced her work.

I enjoy Andersen's self-deprecating humor and find her very easy to relate to. She is also open about issues that she struggles with such as anxiety and lack of confidence, and I appreciate her bringing attention to those issues and helping people to understand them better.  This is a quick read but humorous and uplifting.


A Murder in Time

A Murder in Time
By Julie McElwain
Pegasus Books, 2016. 498 pages. Mystery

Kendra Donovan is one of the most promising young agents at the FBI.  When an important FBI raid is compromised by a double agent and half of her team is murdered, Kendra has payback on her mind.  She travels to England to assassinate the man responsible, but an unexpected gunman drives Kendra into a stairwell in Aldrich Castle.  When she comes out again she is in the same place, but a different time: 1815.  While she tries to figure out how to get home, Kendra poses as a lady's maid and is hired to help with a summer house party.  But when a body is discovered on the grounds of the castle, Kendra starts to feel there was a purpose to her incredible journey.  Despite the lack of 21st century technology, Kendra relies on her training and wits to help resolve the girl's death and stop a murderer.

If you're a fan of the Regency era in England, chances are you've read your share of Austen fan fiction, Regency time travel fiction - both forwards and backwards, as well as a generous helping of historical romances set in the period.  And by now you've come to realize that while most of these novels aren't going to win any Pulizers, they are fun, escapist fantasies, and if that's your thing - as it is mine - then I can recommend this book to you.  I think there are some valid criticisms you can make about this book, but ultimately this is a decent whodunnit and the added interest of experiencing the time period with Kendra and watching others experience her logical, deductive reasoning makes it a fun read.  There is some language and suggestive content.


Monday, July 17, 2017

The Hidden Memory of Objects

The Hidden Memory of Objects

This book is a page-turner, I couldn't put it down. I found it easy to relate to Megan, both as an artist myself and as someone (like many of us) who crave any connection possible with a loved one who has passed. While Megan gets more than she bargained for, her newfound ability teaches her to face her pain and proves the old adage, "Pain shared is pain halved." This fantastic debut novel has something for everyone; I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries/thrillers, tales of personal growth, fans of American history, creatives/artists, romance (it's not a major plot point, just there enough to feel believable but not enough to detract from the action) and though Megan would blush to hear this comparison, superhero fans (you'll get it when you read it).  

My Life, My Love, My Legacy

My Life, My Love, My Legacy
By Coretta Scott King; as told to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds
Henry Holt & Company, 2017. 356 pgs. Biography

There are so many inspiring people in the world and I am constantly regretting the little I know about some of them.  To rectify that as much as possible, I try to pick up memoirs and biographies to fill the gap left by either my education or my poor memory.  Before her death in 2006, Coretta Scott King told her life’s story to journalist Barbara Reynolds.  My Life, My Love, My Legacy is the result of that and numerous other interviews and is written entirely from Coretta’s point of view.

Her story began in the deeply segregated south where she was born to determined parents who wished a better life and world for their children.  Thanks to her hard work as a student, Coretta attended Antioch College in Ohio and then she traveled to Boston where she studied classical music.  It was at this point that she met Martin Luther King, Jr. and eventually made his cause and his dream her own.

I love memoirs.  Hearing people interpret their own lives is a power thing.  This memoir presented a vaguely familiar story in vibrant colors and with heartfelt sentiment.  The courage, patience, hard work, and perseverance of this determined woman radiates from her words.  The audio version is partially read by Phylicia Rashad which made it an additional treat.


The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
By Lisa See
Simon & Schuster, 2017. 371 pgs. Fiction

Born in a remote Yunnan village, high in the mountains of rural China, Li-yan’s life is as far from the modern world as possible.  Her family and neighbors live life based on ancient Akha traditions which have guided them for generations.  Li-Yan starts to break from those ancient ways as she attends a number of schools and obtains a limited understanding of the wonders that exist outside her secluded world.

A growing obsession with pu’er, a rare tea that is grown by many of the Akha villages, brings their carefully insulated lives into contact with businessmen and tea connoisseurs.  Li-Yan’s education makes her the mouthpiece for her family and starts her on a journey far from the quiet hillside of her birth.

The Tea Girl of Humminbird Lane takes readers to a beautiful part of the world and shows how fragile customs and cultures can be.  The human drama of See’s story spans the lives of several key characters, all trying to find balance in a frequently chaotic world.  Her writing, like the tea she describes, is powerful and a pleasure to consume.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out
By Susan Kuklin
Candlewick Press, 2014. 182 pages. Young Adult Nonfiction

Beyond Magenta is a window into the lives of six teens who have blurred traditional gender lines. Kuklin conducted personal interviews to write the book, but she quickly fades to the background as full page photos and first-person narratives help the teens tell their own stories. Four of the six teens are transgender, identifying themselves with a different name and sex than what appears on their birth certificates. From childhood to college years, these teens describe their lives and the pivotal events that led them to where they are now. From the first time they questioned their gender, to coming out to their parents, to making the decision to transition, each of the four has something new and different to share. The remaining two teens are queer and intersex, respectively, and their tales broaden the book even further by calling into question the simple delineation of trans-gendered and cis-gendered.

I saw this book on a library display and couldn’t look away from the beautifully androgynous teen on the cover. It intrigued me. Wasn’t the point of swapping genders to be convincing in your chosen role? Once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. I had to know what would happen next. Would Jessy’s family accept him as a “him”? Would Mariah achieve the body she always wanted? The more I read, the more my original question about the cover lost its meaning. Beyond Magenta demonstrates that gender isn’t a black-and-white dichotomy, but a spectrum, and that any place on the spectrum can be okay. This book can be hugely helpful for teens who are exploring their own gender identity, but I think the intended audience is broader than that. All of us could be more understanding of the transgender community, so I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about LGBTQ issues.


Open Heart: a Cardiac Surgeon's Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Table

By Stephan Westaby
Basic Books, 2017. 287  pgs. Nonfiction

From the time Stephan Westaby watched his grandfather die of heart failure he was determined to become a heart surgeon.  In this book he recounts unique heart operations he has performed during his lengthy and influential career. as a cardiac surgeon. In spite of the all too fragile line between life and death that he encounters daily, his memoir is positive and compassionate as he tells of patients young and old he has helped by developing groundbreaking surgical techniques and technology.    

This is a wonderful book but it is literally not for the faint of heart because he describes the surgeries quite graphically.  SH

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Useful Woman

Cover image for A useful woman
A Useful Woman
By Darcie Wilde
Berkley Prime Crime, 2016, 357 pages, Mystery

The daughter of a baronet and a minor heiress, Rosalind Thorne was nearly ruined after her father abandoned the family. To survive in the only world she knew, she began to manage the affairs of some of London society's most influential women, who have come to rely on her wit and discretion. So when aristocratic wastrel Jasper Aimesworth is found dead in Almack's, London's most exclusive ballroom, Rosalind must use her skills and connections to uncover the killer from a list of suspects that includes Almack's powerful patronesses.

I love reading Jane Austen-type books, but it drives me nuts when the characters don’t act like they live in the Regency era. *snif* “Jane Austen would never!” Darcy Wilde does an excellent job of setting her story firmly in Regency England, while still managing to create a strong female character who also just happens to fall into a situation where she fights crime! Although they live in different eras, Rosalind Thorne reminded me a lot of Maisie Dobbs or Mrs. Marple, in all of the best ways. There is a slight hint at a possible love triangle brewing, but the shining star of this book is the mystery set at the heart of fashionable London. More great news is that book two in the series, A Purely Private Matter, was released earlier this year.


Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
By Sheryl Sandberg
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 226 pgs. Nonfiction

Sheryl Sandberg's world changed forever when her husband passed away while they were on vacation. In this book she talks about how this experience has changed her and her outlook on life. Sheryl and co-author Adam Grant discuss his research on resilience and rebounding from adversity using experiences from her life.

This book reminded of Brene Brown's work. I appreciated seeing how Sheryl worked through the grief process and how she has dealt with the impact of her husband's death with her children, friends, and co-workers. Although the topic of death is never a fun one, I never felt like this book was heavy or depressing. This book gave me a lot to ponder as I think about the ways that I can face adversity with resilience in my own life.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Every Falling Star: the True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea

By Sungju Lee & Susan McClelland
Amulet Books, 2016. 314 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

As a young child, Sungju Lee experienced a life of privilege in Pyongyang, North Korea until his father was forced to flee to the northwestern town of  Gyeong-seong after the death of Kim Il-Sung.  There they lived in a small, unheated house and eventually used up the savings they brought with them. FInally, Lee's parents left him to hunt for food – his father heading for China and his mother to another town to seek help from relatives. When they didn’t return, Lee had to survive on his own.  Stealing what he needed in the local marketplace, he eventually formed a gang of boys to steal and beg and work together to protect each other. Moving from city to city they defeated other gangs in order to control local markets for their own benefit.

The life Lee experienced as a boy was all too common during the famine that struck North Korea in the late 1990’s when many people died of starvation .The only relief from the intensity and nightmarish quality of his story is the knowledge that he lived and escaped from North Korea to tell it.  Though written for young adults, for some the story will be too brutal and unendurable to read. I highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in the insular and repressive North Korean regime and enjoy reading about the personal triumphs of refugees.


Monday, July 10, 2017

A Fine Gentleman

A Fine Gentleman
By Sarah M. Eden
Covenant Communications, 2017. 238 pgs. Historical Fiction, Romance

Jason Jonquil is a London barrister who has spent his entire life being respectable and serious. His ordered world turns upside down when Mariposa Thornton walks into his office. She is a Spanish beauty that knows how to push him to the end of his patience. He agrees to take her case only because he wants to get rid of her faster, but what he thought was a simple inheritance question turns into a much more complicated matter. Mariposa appears to not have a care in the world, but she has endured unimaginable heartbreak in her short life and is determined not to show any weakness.

Sarah Eden is one of my favorite authors. I loved getting to read about another Jonquil brother. The great thing about the Jonquil books is that each one can stand alone but that the characters interact and overlap. Mariposa was a little much for me at the beginning. I didn't understand why she had to be so rude but as the story unfolded, I came to understand her motivations. I also loved watching how Jason's interactions with Mariposa and his family changed throughout the book. This is another great Regency romance.


Friday, July 7, 2017

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
By Nathan Englander
Vintage International, 2000. 205 pages. Fiction

This short story collection showcases devout Jews in a variety of situations, from familiar to strange. Yiddish authors in Russia discuss literary theory before being executed. The Hasidim of a German ghetto escape the concentration camps by posing as circus acrobats. A wigmaker travels outside her insular Jewish community and ends up blackmailing a New Yorker for his hair. In the title story, a Hasidic man in Jerusalem is surprised when his rabbi gives him special dispensation to visit a prostitute.

The first thing to know about this collection is that the stories are meant to be Literary with a capital “L.” The writing is phenomenal, but occasionally self-engrossed. I would still say that the read is well worth it, though. The characters are real and provide a fascinating window into Jewish culture. The more you read, the more comfortable you become with the Jewish world—the world of rabbis, Hasidim, and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the surroundings fade away into familiarity, you come to recognize who the people in the stories would be without their obvious identifying markers: humans just like the ones we interact with every day. I found this collection powerful and enlightening, and I would recommend it to fans of Jonathan Saffron Foer and to fans of literary fiction in general.


Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
By Gail Honeyman
Pamela Dorman Books, 2017. 336 pgs. Fiction

Eleanor Oliphant goes about each day the same way. She gets up, puts on a sensible outfit, does her work while ignoring her inane coworkers, eats lunch while completing a crossword puzzle, finishes her work, heads home, cooks and eats a frozen Margherita pizza, and drinks as much vodka as possible. She struggles to connect with other people and to numb the pain of her traumatic childhood. Nothing seems likely to change until an unwelcomed encounter with Raymond, the unkempt but friendly IT guy from work, and an elderly man named Sammy set off a chain reaction of events that might just save Eleanor from her isolation.

I found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine delightful. Eleanor’s dry and insightful observations about other people, combined with her occasional cluelessness about herself and social norms, provide an entertaining contrast. I appreciated, however, that the humor is never really at Eleanor’s expense. Instead, I felt like the author depicts her protagonist with a compassion and respect that other books I’ve read about socially awkward characters don’t always show. I was surprised by the way that Eleanor’s backstory was dramatic, mysterious, and even a bit like a thriller – her unusual behavior makes perfect sense as her history is gradually revealed. In addition to that, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine has a whole lot of heart, in a way sure to charm fans of A Man Called Ove, Vinegar Girl, The Rosie Project, or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.


City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris

Cover image for City of light, city of poison : murder, magic, and the first police chief of Paris
City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris
By Holly Tucker
W.W. Norton, 2017, 310 pages, Non-Fiction

Nicolas de La Reynie, appointed by Louis XIV as the first police chief of Paris, unearths a tightly knit cabal of poisoners, witches, and renegade priests, and discovers that the distance between the quiet backstabbing world of the king's court and the criminal underground is disturbingly short. As he continues his investigations, La Reynie must decide just how far he will go to protect his king.

I am sad to admit I don’t know much about Paris in the late 1600s, but Holly Tucker paints a highly detailed and interesting picture. She had me hooked from page one, where she describes the incredible crime rate that existed before the appointment of Nicolas de La Reynie as Paris’ first police chief. I could feel the darkness of the absolute night closing in, and I could almost sense someone lurking around the corner. La Reynie changed this almost overnight by mandating that lampposts be installed on every street, giving Paris the nickname the City of Light.

Tucker’s detailed descriptions and meticulous research are also prevalent as she describes what would later become known as the Affair of the Poisons. The Affair of the Poisons was an investigation and later a secret tribunal that required La Reynie to interview 442 accomplices from all walks of life, including the aristocracy. 218 people were put in prison, 34 were executed, and 28 were sentenced to life in prison or the galleys. Although occasionally on the graphic side (there are descriptions of torture methods and black masses), this book is intensely readable. The fact that this is a true story makes it even more so. Fans of true crime, Paris, and history will enjoy this book.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

One True Loves

One True Loves
By Taylor Jenkins Reid
Washington Square Press, 2016. 331 pgs. Fiction

Emma and Jesse met and fell in love during high school. Both of them longed for the day when they could leave their hometown and travel the world. After college they do just that and also embark on the adventure of marriage. Just days before their first anniversary, Jesse goes on a work trip to Alaska. He is ecstatic to photograph glaciers, however the helicopter he's riding in goes down and he is presumed dead.

Emma's world is rocked by the death of her husband. She grieves deeply and soon decides that she doesn't want to continue living in California, but that she wants to go home to Massachusetts. Although as a high schooler she couldn't wait to escape her family owned bookstore, after Jesse's loss she begins to really enjoy the comfort of the store. A few years after Jesse's death, she runs into Sam. Sam worked with Emma at the bookstore in high school and while they were friends, they haven't been in contact for years. They slowly fall in love and have become engaged when one day Emma receives a phone call from Jesse. He hasn't died at all, but has spent several years on an island trying to find his way back home. Now Emma has to choose who she wants to be with, her husband and or her fiance.

I inhaled this book! I listened to it over the course of three days and was totally captivated by the story. Jesse and Sam are both really good guys and I was intrigued to see how and who Emma would choose. If you are looking for a light yet thought provoking read, I recommend you try this book!


Friday, June 30, 2017

Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride

Something Blue: Tales from a Makeshift Bride
By Lucy Knisley
First Second, 2016. 292 pages. Graphic Novel, Biography.

Graphic novelist Lucy Knisley opens a window to her life for us once again, this time as she navigates the minefield of planning her own wedding. A simple celebration of love with her friends and family sounds easy enough to put together in a year, right? Easier said than done, turns out. Wedding planning is fraught with of cultural, familial, and commercial expectations, and sifting through it all is a bigger job than the the author and her groom-to-be realized. Lucy shares it all, from proposal to wedding day - and all the bumps in between - with her relatable, honest humor.

 As a fan of Knisley's past work, I was pretty keen on reading this book. While I'm not married or anywhere near becoming engaged, I've been a part of several weddings so I had no trouble giggling or cringing along to these hilarious anecdotes. It's easy to relate to Knisley's tales thanks to her easy-going and accessible storytelling, and her quest to create a meaningful wedding focused on her marriage, not just the party, will resonate with Utah brides/bridegrooms past and present. If you're new to Knisley's work, she loves food (check out her book Relish: My Life in the Kitchen) and as one of the between-chapter interludes she includes a recipe for poutine (fries with cheese and gravy). PS. It's delicious.


Zahra’s Paradise

Zahra’s Paradis
By Amir & Khalil
First Second, 2011. 255 pgs. Graphic Novel

During the street protests after the 2009 elections in Iran, a young man, Mehdi, disappears. His mother and brother, a blogger and the book’s narrator, search for him everywhere, but there’s no trace of him. He’s not at the morgue, the hospital, and the prison claims to have no records of him. Mehdi’s family fight to find him against the cruel and corrupt regime, but soon their poking around attracts the worst kind of attention.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this graphic novel, but I found it very moving, and also very unsettling. I know very little about the 2009 Iranian elections, but this provided me a small glimpse of the aftermath and what it looked like for regular families. I really appreciated that it shows a side of Iran that is often overshadowed or ignored in the media. For someone hoping to broaden their horizons and understand a little better what the people of Iran have experienced, this is an easy recommendation. However, be aware that this is definitely for a mature audience.


Chickens in the Headlights: a novel

Chickens in the Headlights: a novel
by Matthew Buckley
Covenant Communications, 2005, 206 pgs. Fiction

Summer vacation has just begun for the Buckley family and all seven boys, under the age of eleven, are ready for summer adventure! They have begged their parents for farm animals ever since they moved to the country in Utah, and this year their dreams are realized. They will be getting chickens and goats! But before the real excitement can begin, they have to travel to visit grandma in California. Seven boys in one giant van with barely functioning air controls for 15 hours makes for a chaotic road trip that nearly drives dad crazy. Once they return home they finally get their farm animals, however taking care of chickens and goats is more difficult than the boys imagined. Told from the perspective of the second oldest brother Matthew, this book has crazy family home evenings, an unfortunate incident with warm powdered milk, an executive order to save the last zucchini plant, and a fight with the school bullies, and it will keep you laughing from start to finish! 

This book is hilarious, and I absolutely love it! I have read it multiple times and it has me laughing hard every time. The brothers get into all sorts of shenanigans and I love how the writing style shows the logic of an eight year old. I also highly recommend the audio version because the narration is excellent. This is a clean read that the whole family can enjoy.  This book has a sequel, Bullies in the Headlights.


Dead Letters

Dead Letters
By Caite Dolan-Leach
Random House, 2017, 332 pgs. Fiction

After an estrangement of several years, Ava Antipova must return home from graduate school in Paris when she learns that her twin sister Zelda has been killed in a tragic fire.  The problem is, Ava knows her sister too well.  Zelda's death is too perfect and Ava struggles to believe she is actually gone.  Then when she starts receiving email messages from beyond the grave Ava is determined to figure out what her sister is up to and find her before this extreme prank goes too far.

I enjoyed this novel far more than I had expected to.  The Antipova family were a bit hilarious,  alarmingly dysfunctional, and fun to get to know.  The mystery kept me guessing and while the ending wasn't completely unexpected it was completely satisfactory.  Finding hidden gems in our fiction collection is always a treat and I'm glad I ran out of things to listen to and tried something a little different.