Monday, July 24, 2017

You'll Think of Me by Robin Lee Hatcher, 2017

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In a small town in Idaho’s idyllic wine country where the past looms large, can two people realize their individual dreams for the future … together?

Abandoned once too often, Brooklyn Myers never intended to return to Thunder Creek, Idaho. Her hometown holds too many memories of heartache and rejection. But when her estranged husband Chad Hallston dies and leaves his family home and acreage to her and their ten-year-old daughter Alycia, it's an opportunity to change their lives for the better—a chance Brooklyn can't pass up, for Alycia's sake if not her own.

Derek Johnson, Chad's best friend since boyhood, isn't keen on the return of Brooklyn Myers to Thunder Creek. He still blames her for leading his friend astray. And now she has ruined his chance to buy the neighboring ten acres which would have allowed him to expand his organic farm. To add insult to injury, Chad's dying request was that Derek become the father to Alycia that Chad never was. How can he keep that promise without also spending time with the girl’s mother?

Brought together by unexpected circumstances, Derek and Brooklyn must both confront challenges to their dreams and expectations. He must overcome long held misconceptions about Brooklyn while she must learn to trust someone other than herself. And if they can do it, they just might discover that God has something better in mind than either of them ever imagined.

(320 pages)

First, let's just acknowledge that the premise of You'll Think of Me is slightly creepy. Brooklyn's husband dumped her penniless ten years ago when he found out she was pregnant, but he decided to track her down and leave her his family land to raise their daughter Alycia. He then proceeds to write to his childhood best friend Derek, whom he'd been promising to sell that same house and land to for years, and told him "yeah, I changed my mind. Also, I want you to be the father I never was to Alycia."

I'm sorry, but . . . what? It doesn't sound like Chad ever paid a penny of child support to Brooklyn in all this time–he owes her big-time! But instead of bequeathing her the money she really needs, he leaves her a dusty old fixer-upper and a bunch of land in a town she hates. Then he asks a friend of his to be Alycia's father, as though he has any parental claim to the girl (or any right to ask a stranger, without Brooklyn's consent, to take on such an intimate role with her daughter!). I feel like Derek never completely acknowledged how messed-up his old best friend's actions really were. Brooklyn does, which is good, but he just skirts around it and talks about "honoring Chad's last wishes" with Alycia.

Setting that aside, though, I did enjoy reading You'll Think of Me. Once in a while, it's nice to just read a fluffy romance book. This one reminded me of that old Sandra Bullock movie, Hope Floats, just with less questionable behavior and more religious lines. This is one of the first Christian romance books I read where I didn't feel like the portrayal of faith was so cheesy it was ridiculous, though, so that's good.

Basically, if you're looking for a fun, fluffy romance read then this fits the bill. It's nothing extraordinarily memorable, but it's entertaining and even meaningful and better than most of the books out there. Once you get past Chad's questionable role in Brooklyn's life, there's a lot of good to be discovered here–the characters are realistic and flawed, the situations are plausible enough, and the relationship that grows up between Derek and Brooklyn is sweet (though I never felt as emotionally invested in it as I'd have liked).

Have you read You'll Think of Me? If so, let us know what you thought of it in the comments section below!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Batgirl at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee, 2017

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Get your cape on with the DC Super Hero Girls the unprecedented new Super Hero universe especially for girls! Readers of all ages can fly high with the all-new adventures of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, and some of the world s most iconic female super heroes as high schoolers!
Batgirl has always hidden in the shadows but does she have what it takes to stand in the spotlight at Super Hero High? 

Barbara Gordon has always been an off-the-charts, just-forget-about-the-test super-genius and tech whiz, and then she gets the offer of a lifetime when Supergirl recognizes that Barbara s talents make her an ideal candidate for Super Hero High. Donning the cape and cowl, Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl, ready to train at the most elite school on the planet, next to some of the most powerful teenagers in the galaxy. She s always had the heart of a hero . . . but now she ll have to prove that she can be one. Good thing she loves a challenge! 

Award-winning author Lisa Yee brings mystery, thrills, and laughs to this groundbreaking series that follows DC Comics most iconic female Super Heroes and Super-Villains. Move over Batman and Superman the DC Super Hero Girls are ready to save the day and have fun doing it!

(240 pages)

Oh, gosh.

I honestly don't know how to review this book. For one thing, it's an audio book; I'd literally never listened to an entire book on audio before Batgirl at Super Hero High, so my library of comparisons is completely blank. I have no idea if this was a good or a bad narrator, whether the packaging was appropriate, nothing. So I guess I'll just talk a little bit about what I noticed and then discuss the story some.

Packaging first, I guess. It comes in a rectangular cardboard box which holds a plastic thing that takes up about half of the box's width, and then a white cardboard fold-out thing that holds the four CDs that contain the actual audio. The entire audiobook takes 4.5 hours to listen through from beginning to end, which was very convenient for me–I listened to the entire thing over the course of two days while I did hands-on jobs like cleaning my room and walking the dog! I really liked the narrator, a rather perky young woman, and listening to her speak was almost like watching a movie. Once or twice I couldn't tell which character was supposed to be speaking, because there are so many she had a hard time giving them all distinct voices, but that was a very minor issue.

As for the story, well, what do you expect from a story set at "Super Hero High?" It's ridiculously hokey and unrealistic–Batgirl's ability to reprogram complex objects in mere seconds is a particularly egregious example of this–but it's so fun and exciting that you can't help but engage in some major suspension of disbelief. It is a superhero story, after all, so logic (and science!) work a little bit different there. I was never a huge superhero reader when I was younger, mainly I think because I just wasn't exposed, but Batgirl at Super Hero High shows me the sort of ridiculous fun my young imagination was missing out on for all those years. If you or a kid you know is looking for a superhero book, then this one might be just right!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A. Bussie, 2016

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Jacqueline Bussie knows that too many Christians live according to unspoken "laws" that govern the Christian life: #1: Never get angry at God; #2: Never doubt; #3: Never question; #4: Never tell your real story; #5: Always speak in cliches about evil and suffering; and #6: Always believe hope comes easy for those who truly love God.

Living according to these rules is killing real Christian life;
Outlaw Christian proposes a rebellious, life-giving, authentic alternative. Through captivating stories and with disarming honesty, Bussie gives concrete, practical strategies to help readers cultivate hope, seek joy, practice accompaniment, compost their pain, and rediscover the spiritual practice of lament. Tackling difficult questions without political divisiveness, Bussie speaks to both progressive and conservative Christians in ways that unite rather than divide. And in doing so, she provides a new way to handle the most difficult and troubling questions of life in a broken world that God will never abandon.
(288 pages)

I moved eight times over the course of my childhood, which means I've attended nine churches (plus visiting dozens more). We've found several good permanent churches over the years, but they've been in a variety of denominations. Over the past 18 years, I have been a part of Presbyterian, Church of Christ, and even non-denominational churches. There are even more denominations, I'm sure, that I simply can't remember at the moment.

I say all this simply to point out that my family has never stuck to a specific set of "laws" tied to a certain sect of the church. We're definitely not revolutionaries, and most of my parents' (and my) beliefs likely fall most closely in the "moderate" area of the political/religious scale, but I was raised to pursue my own ideas about God and religion rather than to parrot the dogma of any one specific church. For a long time, though, we faced limited church options and wound up attending a rather strange conservative church. Looking back now, I realize that I gained a bitterness and disrespect for the church from my time there because I was constantly in interaction with people who had their own set of rules about what it took to be a "good Christian" that didn't match my own. Now that we've been away from that church for almost two years, that outlook is fading–largely thanks to books like Outlaw Christian that introduce me to other people who share some of my criticisms of church culture but still participate in it and pursue a meaningful relationship with God.

Reading Outlaw Christian, I get the vibe that Bussie is someone I would legitimately like if I ever met her in person. She's thoughtful about her faith and honest about her struggles, patient with those who disagree with her, and open-minded/nonjudgmental while still confident in her own beliefs. She tackles the hardcore issues like death, grief, hardship and abuse, arguing that we should feel comfortable bringing our anger and doubts to God instead of letting them fester while we do our best to feign perfection. I really like her arguments against the misconception that a Christian has to be happy all the time.

Just a note, her points are great and sort of organized by topic by the different chapters, but they meander a little bit. I didn't mind, but others who are a little more finicky than I might. Also, I really want to take Bussie's college class on religion now. Any chance you'll be heading to St. Andrews, Scotland any time soon, Dr. Bussie?!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dog Company by Lynn Vincent and Roger Hill, 2017

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Two decorated American war heroes survive combat in Afghanistan only to find themselves on an unfamiliar battlefield - the courtroom - in this true story by the commander of Delta Company, 1/506th a.k.a. Dog Company.

The deaths of two of his men is agony for Captain Roger Hill and the agony is intensified when he realizes those responsible - 12 Taliban spies- have been working right under his nose on the American base.

When unreasonable military regulations demand that he free the spies within 96 hours, and Hill can't get his superior officer to respond to the deadline, he takes action to intimidate the prisoners to confess - and to protect his company from another attack.

Instead of being thanked, Hill's superior brings him up on charges making this decorated officer's next battle a personal one - for his honor and for that of 1st Sergeant Tommy Scott, his second in command.

Combining the camaraderie and battle action of
Band of Brothers with the military courtroom drama of A Few Good Men, Roger Hill's story will leave you impassioned, inspired and forever changed.
(448 pages)

I'm not sure what was going through my mind when I asked to review Dog Company. It's not exactly my typical read, you know? I've been trying to become a little more informed about modern international relations, though, so I guess I thought a true story about soldiers deployed in Afghanistan could be a beneficial read.

I guess I forgot that I really don't like war. I mean sure, I've read lots of stories set during wars–about Jews fleeing the Holocaust, for example, or the brother-against-brother quandaries confronting soldiers during the Civil War–but the main characters in my books almost uniformly are either civilians or green soldiers. Captian Hill is just that: a captain. At the time of the events in the book, he'd served for eight years, and most of his men for far longer. They're all just such complete . . . well, soldiers. And I'm really not one. And I never really want to be. Lots of respect to the men and women who risk their lives to keep the nation safe, of course, but I could never stand the idea of shooting anyone; if I felt the call to join the service, I'd do it as a medic of some sort rather than as a soldier. The other reason I'd never want to be a soldier–and this is a huge one for me–is that I'd dread the day my higher-ups ordered me to do something that went against my moral code.

And really, that's what happened to Captain Hill. He was under orders to release the twelve men who were unequivocally spies for the Taliban, men whose intel had directly led to the deaths of two of his men, back into their freedom because his higher-ups wouldn't accept custody of them. Before they went, he wanted to get some good information out of them that would help them take down the Taliban and, presumably, prevent the loss of more men. To do so, one or two of the soldiers first slapped around a few of the prisoners (something that, in and of itself, was definitely illegal). When that didn't work, Hill grabbed one of them and pulled him outside, dumped him on the ground and shot at nothing so the other prisoners thought he'd killed their comrade. When they still didn't talk, he pretended to shoot two more men and then one of the remaining men cracked, spilling valuable information.

That's . . . pretty awful. I mean, I know the prisoners were probably all horrible people who would have done even worse to the soldiers if the roles had been reversed, but that still doesn't excuse that sort of behavior. We're supposed to be better than the Taliban; that moral high ground is our only real excuse for being in Afghanistan in the first place. So while I can understand the emotional reasons why Captain Hill decided to break the law and use such violent scare tactics on his prisoners, I actually agree with the decision to punish him. Was completely kicking him out of the army necessary? Definitely not, that seems rather disproportionate to his crimes. He should have just been demoted a rank or two (or however they call it) and posted somewhere where he could be monitored a little more closely.

Anyway, while the core moral dilemma is an interesting one, I didn't really enjoy reading Dog Company. It's broken up into units that jumble the chronology just enough to be rather confusing, and just kind of randomly jumps into the backstory of soldiers that were interesting but not exactly relevant. It also covers more than I really needed to know of the months leading up to the prisoner situation, which shifted from intriguing and educational to just straight-up boring by some point. I wound up skimming through a lot of the second half of the book. People more interested in military stuff might find those parts more entertaining than I did, though. Also, the language in the book is atrocious–gobs of f-words are littered in all over the place along with a whole alphabet of other (mildly less offensive) swear words. I pushed past them to read the book, but it wasn't pleasant.

If you've reading this review to the end, then you probably have a pretty good idea of whether Dog Company is for you. I can't say that I really recommend it personally, but it might do something for you that it didn't for me.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 10, 2017

My Brother's Keeper by Rod Gragg, 2016

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Thirty captivating profiles of Christians who risked everything to rescue their Jewish neighbors from Nazi terror during the Holocaust. 

MY BROTHER'S KEEPER unfolds powerful stories of Christians from across denominations who gave everything they had to save the Jewish people from the evils of the Holocaust. This unlikely group of believers, later honored by the nation of Israel as "The Righteous Among the Nations," includes ordinary teenage girls, pastors, priests, a German army officer, a former Italian fascist, an international spy, and even a princess.
In one gripping profile after another, these extraordinary historical accounts offer stories of steadfast believers who together helped thousands of Jewish individuals and families to safety. Many of these everyday heroes perished alongside the very people they were trying to protect. There is no doubt that all of their stories showcase the best of humanity--even in the face of unthinkable evil.
(352 pages)

I asked to review My Brother's Keeper because it looked like a really great compilation of nonfictional stories from WWII, but once it actually showed up on my doorstep I continually put off cracking it open because I thought it would be too depressing (and also because it looked kind of boring).

It wasn't boring, though. Come to think of it, I've never read a book about the treatment of Jews during WWII that was boring–everything was just so horrific back then that even the most snooze-inducing historian couldn't dull the horrifying tales. As for my other concern, yes, My Brother's Keeper was definitely depressing. Its description of the systematic hunting down and wiping out of an entire race is horrifyingly detailed, and primary source quotes and images are used hauntingly throughout the book. Every chapter opens with a black and white image, occasionally of the featured person/family but often of German soldiers or real children who were murdered in concentration camps. In the beginning of the chapter there's a little bit of background on the featured figures, a detailed description of the historical context and the evils that they faced (including some truly horrific descriptions of German murder techniques), and then a detailed account of how they risked their lives to help the Jews and what happened to them afterward. I'd say that most of the featured people wound up surviving the war, though a large amount of them spent at least some time in a concentration camp. In one or two instances, the heroes–and their entire families–were murdered outright for their "crimes" under German law.

Honestly, it's pretty amazing to read about the people who risked everything to help save hundreds (sometimes thousands) of Jews from the Germans. Many heroes found it incomprehensible that the Jewish children were also being targeted, so they set up elaborate systems that rescued thousands of young innocents right out from under the Germans' grasp. It's amazing. But at the same time, I can't believe the depths of inhumanity that went on during the war. It's great that there were some heroes who rescued children, sure, but it's also horrifying to learn that 1.5 million kids died during the Holocaust. That's obscene. That's . . . I can't even find words for it. Monstrous fits, but it's not even enough. The actions of the people described in the book were amazing, incredibly brave, but they didn't even begin to conquer out the terrible evil of all the people who perpetrated the murder of innocents–or all of those who sat by and watched them do it. Gragg discusses the fact that many Christians throughout Europe allowed themselves to get swept up by the Germans, swearing their loyalty to the Third Reich and turning their backs on their Jewish neighbors, but he says that all of the people in My Brother's Keeper channeled their belief in God toward a conviction that they had to help the Jews in whatever way they could. I think that's amazing, but again–I only wish that more people, Christian or atheist or whatever, had stood up to the monstrosity of the Nazis.

But then I stop and wonder what I would have done in their shoes, and I'm afraid that I would have shut up and put my head down in order to save myself. And even if I worked up the courage to sacrifice myself, it's hard to decide whether it's worth saving others at the risk of having all of my loved ones murdered. It was an impossible time, an impossible situation. The Nazis were truly monsters in every sense of the word, and the noble secret actions of these thirty heroes (and of many more, I'm sure!) are even more incredible in contrast to the inhumanity surrounding them. I weep for all those they couldn't save, but I still celebrate every life they managed to save.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Cheesus Was Here by J.C. Davis, 2017

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Sixteen-year-old Delaney Delgado knows miracles aren’t real—if they were, her kid sister wouldn’t be dead. So when the image of baby Jesus appears on a Babybel cheese wheel, she’s not buying the idea that God’s got a dairy obsession. Soon, religious signs begin turning up all over Del’s hometown, tiny Clemency, Texas. Overnight, news vans fill the streets and religious pilgrims start searching for God in the discount aisle of the grocery store.

Hell-bent on proving the so-called miracles are fake, Del convinces her best friend, Gabe, to help her find the truth. While Gabe’s willing to play detective, as a preacher’s son he’s more interested in finding evidence that supports the miracles. But when the whole town becomes caught up in religious fervor and even the late-night talk show hosts have stopped laughing and started to believe, finding the truth might cause more trouble than Del can handle. This novel is neither pro nor anti-religion, and will appeal to fans of contemporary YA novels that explore deep themes with an element of humor. The voice and characters are funny, strong, and full of heart. This is a book for anyone who loved
(272 pages)

I waffled on this one.

I almost didn't agree to review Cheesus Was Here because I worried it would be offensive to me as a Christian. The teaser promised it was "neither pro nor anti-religion," though, so my curiosity won out and I got the book. I agree that it doesn't wind up siding firmly with one side of the argument of the other, though there are some interesting points made along the way. In many ways, I almost thought it was a little biased toward religion.

Don't get me wrong–as I said, I'm a Christian myself. But I find it rather disturbing that the entire town of Clemency believes in the miracles except for Delaney, and that everyone (including characters who are considered by the author to be voices of reason!) constantly tells Delaney that her only reason for trying to disprove the miracles is some sort of bitter, slightly immature vendetta against God for her sister's death.

I mean, I don't know about you, but if people started worshipping a hunk of Babybel cheese I'd definitely be skeptical and start investigating. You can be religious without being gullible, and you can roll your eyes at some baby-shaped cheese just because you think it's stupid (and not because you're angry at the universe). Granted, Del's particular reasoning may have had something to do with her sister's death, too, but it would have been good to see some other viewpoints.

Besides that, though, I thought the book's take on everything was really good. The crazed way people start worshipping the hunk of cheese (and then later a window and a board that appear to be similarly marked by God) is frustrating but realistic, and Del's emotional turmoil and cynicism after her sister's death by cancer the year before rings crushingly true. There's a little bit of language and some references to mature topics (including sex and homosexuality), but nothing horrible to turn people away.

Basically, Cheesus Was Here is a really interesting book that raises some fascinating questions about religion and death and mourning. I really enjoyed it, much more than I thought I would.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Cold Summer by Gwen Cole, 2017

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Today, he’s a high school dropout with no future.
Tomorrow, he’s a soldier in World War II.

Kale Jackson has spent years trying to control his time-traveling ability but hasn’t had much luck. One day he lives in 1945, fighting in the war as a sharpshooter and helplessly watching soldiers—friends—die. Then the next day, he’s back in the present, where WWII has bled into his modern life in the form of PTSD, straining his relationship with his father and the few friends he has left. Every day it becomes harder to hide his battle wounds, both physical and mental, from the past.

When the ex-girl-next-door, Harper, moves back to town, thoughts of what could be if only he had a normal life begin to haunt him. Harper reminds him of the person he was before the PTSD, which helps anchor him to the present. With practice, maybe Kale could remain in the present permanently and never step foot on a battlefield again. Maybe he can have the normal life he craves.

But then Harper finds Kale’s name in a historical article—and he’s listed as a casualty of the war. Kale knows now that he must learn to control his time-traveling ability to save himself and his chance at a life with Harper. Otherwise, he’ll be killed in a time where he doesn’t belong by a bullet that was never meant for him.

(322 pages)

Some of my favorite story tropes include childhood friends falling in love, time travel, and kids healing and growing after parental abandonment. Cold Summer has all three of those, so it seems like it should be perfect for me.

And in some way, it is. I really, really enjoyed reading it. Kale and Harper's relationship is so beautiful, built on the shared experiences of their childhoods. They trust each other completely and it's beautiful to watch. Kale's struggles with his uncontrollable time travel and the PTSD from living as a soldier during WWII are tragic, though also preventable (he's literally offered an out at one point!) and occasionally skated past (we spend a lot more time in the drama of the present than in the life-or-death horror of the past). The storylines about Harper's neglectful-to-the-point-of-abandonment mother and Kale's tense-and-angry father are very delicately and honestly done.

But at the same time, the book isn't perfect. Like I said, I liked the romance between Kale and Harper–but I also didn't like how physical things got between them. At one point, they nearly even had sex! Also, the language was less than ideal: swears are littered here and there, and the f-word is even used maybe once a chapter. It's used during times of great stress usually, sure, but that's still not great especially for younger readers. I thought Harper's abandonment issues were dealt with way too quickly at the end, and the time travel mechanism still seems kind of hazy to me. I like the "purpose" they realize Kale's experiences served, but it seems really random that he was chosen for that one thing out of everything he could have done throughout history.

All that aside, I still spent a couple of hours reading and enjoying Cold Summer. It's a good summer read, full of plot and grit while somehow managing to simultaneously be rather fluffy. If you're curious, and you don't mind the medium to high-level racy material and swearing, then you might like it. Let us know in the comments section what you think if you do decide to read it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Duke of Bannerman Prep by Katie A Nelson, 2017

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Words are weapons. Facts can be manipulated. And nothing is absolute—especially right and wrong.
Tanner McKay is at Bannerman Prep for only one reason: the elite school recruited him after he brought his public school’s debate team to victory last year. Bannerman wants a championship win. Debate is Tanner’s life—his ticket out of his poor-as-dirt life and family drama, straight to a scholarship to Stanford and the start of a new, better future.

But when he's paired with the Duke, his plans for an easy ride seem as if they’ve hit the rails. The Duke is the quintessential playboy, beloved by everyone for his laissez-faire attitude, crazy parties, and seemingly effortless favors.

And a total no-show when it comes to putting in the work to win.

But as Tanner gets sucked into the Duke’s flashy world, the thrill of the high life and the adrenaline of existing on the edge becomes addictive. A small favor here and there seems like nothing in exchange for getting everything he ever dreamed of.

But the Duke’s castle is built on shady, shaky secrets, and the walls are about to topple down.

A contemporary retelling of 
The Great Gatsby, Katie Nelson’s taut debut is perfect for fans of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Kate Brian’s Private series, and anyone who’s encountered the cut-throat world of competitive high school.
(352 pages)

I'm a huge sucker for fairytale retellings, and I loved reading The Great Gatsby in English class. I decided to read The Duke of Bannerman prep as a way of combining those two favorites of mine into (hopefully) a new one: a retelling of Gatsby set in modern day!

And at first, it was every bit as awesome as I'd hoped it would be. The book managed to stick closely with the essential plot points of the original story while adding a lot of cool new twists–like the fact that Tanner's (the Nick character's) reason for being at Bannerman Prep essentially revolves around his talent at debate, and that we learn quite a bit about his family back home. He has a mentally handicapped younger brother named Sam. I really liked Sam. I also inwardly fangirled every time Nelson threw in references to the original book. At some point, one of the characters literally drops a copy of The Great Gatsby that they're reading in English!

As the story went on, though, I began to notice more flaws. It must have been insanely tricky to work out all the ways to transform a book about adults in the 1920's into a 21st-century novel about a bunch of kids at boarding school. One area that never really worked for me (and I mean it worked even less for me than the already-sketchy original version) was the romantic triangle between the Duke (Gatsby), Abby (Daisy), and Blake (Tom). Abby is portrayed pretty sympathetically, but her decisions make no sense: why does she refuse to break up with Blake, who's not even her husband, in order to start dating the Duke? And why does she fall so hard for the Duke when they'd never even met before Tanner's first day of school? Without the shared history that Daisy and Gatsby had, and the social pressures that helped keep Daisy and Tom together, the dynamic just feels really forced. And Tanner seems like even more of a tool for enabling it.

Honestly, Tanner is such a pushover it's ridiculous. I know Nick was to a certain extent too, but not in the same way. I think the cheating issue put things over the top. I also struggled with how the Duke was portrayed, because–again–he missed the backstory with Abby/Daisy that made the original story so beautiful and tragic. The ending was quite altered with him as well, and I'm not sure I liked how it went over. I thought Jordan's character (now named Kelsey) was actually changed for the better, though.

I think that summarizes my feelings toward the book quite well. If you're looking for an interesting (if not exactly scene-for-scene) retelling of The Great Gatsby, and you don't mind a little bit of crudeness/making out here and there, then The Duke of Bannerman Prep might be just what you're looking for.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Call Me Sunflower by Miriam Spitzer Franklin, 2017

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Sunny Beringer hates her first name—her real first name—Sunflower. And she hates that her mom has suddenly left behind her dad, Scott, and uprooted their family miles away from New Jersey to North Carolina just so she can pursue some fancy degree. Sunny has to live with a grandmother she barely knows, and she’s had to leave her beloved cat and all her friends behind. And no one else seems to think anything is wrong.

So she creates “Sunny Beringer’s Totally Awesome Plan for Romance”—a list of sure-fire ways to make her mom and Scott fall madly in love again, including:

Send Mom flowers from a “Secret Admirer” to make Scott jealous and make him regret letting them move so far away.
Make a playlist of Scott’s favorite love songs—the mushier the better—and make sure it’s always playing in the car.
Ask them about the good old days when they first fell in love.
But while working on a photo album guaranteed to make Mom change her mind and rush them right back home, Sunny discovers a photo—one that changes everything.

Sunny’s family, the people she thought she could trust most in the world, have been keeping an enormous secret from her. And she’ll have to reconcile her family’s past and present, or she’ll lose everything about their future.

(256 pages)

Call Me Sunflower is a rather . . . odd book. I guess that's a good thing, but I think it doesn't quite hit the mark with me.

For one thing, I'm rather horrified that Sunny's parents kept her so in the dark about her past and their present relationship. No one should be that clueless and uncertain about their family dynamics, and her mother has done both Sunny and her sister a huge disservice by keeping everything murky. Also, this whole idea of a fractured family that was never truly together (where the mom adopted a baby and the dad agreed to act as the father to a kid he had no direct ties to) seemed really odd. Sunny's mother and the father should have either married and adopted together, or should have gone their separate ways altogether.

I don't know, I just feel like the whole dynamic was really weird. Don't get me wrong here, I have no issue with a single mother adopting babies–in fact, a friend of mine and her sister were both adopted as babies by a single mother! It's really the father figure role that doesn't quite add up for me. Besides that, I also thought the way the relationship between Sunny and her grandmother played out was a little strange (and the plotline surrounding her grandmother's fur store was especially forced). I did like her interactions in school, which were slightly along the beaten path of middle school drama but which nevertheless rang true. The increasingly-distant emails between Sunny and her best friend Madeline from her old hometown felt especially real to me, as someone who has exchanged more than her fair share of those moving-away conversations over the years.

To be honest, I think that this particular type of quirky story is going to sit really well with some readers and just not be quite right for others. I fall into the latter category, but you might be in the former; if you do decide to give Call Me Sunflower a try, let us know in the comments section what you think of it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Prisoner of War: A Novel of World War II by Michael P. Spradlin, 2017

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Survive the war. Outlast the enemy. Stay alive.

That's what Henry Forrest has to do. When he lies about his age to join the Marines, Henry never imagines he'll face anything worse than his own father's cruelty. But his unit is shipped off to the Philippines, where the heat is unbearable, the conditions are brutal, and Henry's dreams of careless adventuring are completely dashed.

Then the Japanese invade the islands, and US forces there surrender. As a prisoner of war, Henry faces one horror after another. Yet among his fellow captives, he finds kindness, respect, even brotherhood. A glimmer of light in the darkness. And he'll need to hold tight to the hope they offer if he wants to win the fight for his country, his freedom . . . and his life.

Michael P. Spradlin's latest novel tenderly explores the harsh realities of the Bataan Death March and captivity on the Pacific front during World War II.

(272 pages)

It's so awful. I can't believe that people were so terrible to each other–and this isn't even the Germans in their usual racist evilness, but the Japanese conforming to their archaic, ingrained ideas about proper military behavior. They literally believed that the American soldiers were despicable, subhuman creatures because they'd surrendered territory, something a true Japanese warrior would rather die than do. Or at least, that's the reasoning they gave–I'm sure the men who actually committed the atrocious acts also just enjoyed the feeling of absolute power their positions offered, and the opportunity to punish someone for the pains of WWII.

I have a hard time reviewing books like Prisoner of War because they are so valuable for me to read, literary qualities aside. I'd never read a book directly focused on the experience of captured soldiers in the Philippines (well I guess I have, but not one focused on the men who experienced the Bataan Death March). It's horrible to read about the depths of inhumanity reached during WWII, so I didn't necessarily enjoy reading this, but I felt like it was a necessary read. We need to know the darkest parts of our collective history as a species so we can move forward and prevent the chain of events that would lead to a similar situation ever again.

As an aside, part of me wonders why today's education/society focuses on the murder of European-born Jews to the almost entire drowning out of stories like the Bataan Death March from WWII. So many more Jews than soldiers were killed, of course, but these were our own soldiers who suffered under the Japanese hand. Was there no public backlash when we discovered how completely the Japanese had ignored the Geneva Convention's rules about prisoners of war? Or were we so emotionally devastated by the waves of horror rolling out of newly-liberated European concentration camps that we didn't have the emotional energy to become angry at this fresh piece of brutality? Or perhaps we felt so conflicted about the morality of bombing innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that we didn't think we were in any position to argue against the mistreatment of our soldiers.

Anyway, as far as the actual story is concerned I liked Henry but I never felt like I got to know him super well. The characters are portrayed with as much nuance as the book's short length allows, and it's clear that the author has done a lot of research. It did feel in some parts like the soldiers were idealized a little bit while the Japanese were almost universally pure evil, but that may well have been what it felt like for the real soldiers in Henry's shoes. Anyway, this is a good starting point for anyone interested in this area of WWII. I probably won't be reading any more on the subject just because it's really depressing, but I'm glad I at least read Prisoner of War. If you know of any other good books about life in the Philippines during WWII, post them in the comments section down below so others can check them out!

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited, complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Girl Who Wouldn't Die by Randall Platt, 2017

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It’s 1939 in Poland, and Arab knows that standing up for anyone—especially her Jewish family—only paints a target on her back. So she plans to survive the Nazi occupation the way she always has: disguise herself as an Aryan boy, lead her street gang, and sell whatever she can steal.

But though Arab starts the war with the one goal of staying alive, others have different ideas for her. When a stranger asks for her help with a covert rescue mission, Arab has to make a choice. Trying to be a hero is a surefire way to get killed. But if she doesn’t do it, who will?

Hard-hitting and unforgettable, 
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is a story about survival, the necessity of resistance, and the hope that can be found when the world is at its darkest.
(304 pages)

Oof, this book is gritty. And I don't necessarily say that because it has violence (though it definitely does!), I've read books that beat The Girl Who Wouldn't Die when it comes to straight up bloodshed. No, it's super gritty because it's so dang dark. Arab is a street rat in Warsaw, Poland during the German bombings and then the occupation, eking out a living for herself and a band of children made up mostly of war orphans. As we all know, horrible things happened in Poland during WWII–especially to the Jews. Every turn of the page seems to offer some new twist in Arab's story, and it's usually a bad one.

To be honest, I really couldn't get a feel for Arab's character. She was this really cutthroat, merciless street rat who . . . came from a wealthy Jewish family and loved children? What? I still don't really understand why she felt forced into a life of crime on the streets while her family was literally down the street–oh, wait, unless she was saving her neck by distancing herself from Judaism. I suppose that makes sense. But her father literally bought a gravestone and pretended to bury Arab just because she got caught robbing a jewelry store. I can understand him being really upset about her crimes, of course, but completely abandoning his daughter? Why? I just can't comprehend it.

Honestly, though, that's the main flaw in the story for me: I can't understand Arab or her family. Other than that, The Girl Who Wouldn't Die was a very gripping and intense read that was gritty and dark but also managed to focus on the selflessness of a few individuals focused on salvaging all the good they could from a bad situation. It's a little more vulgar than I would like in some parts, especially when it comes to language (the f-word is used sporadically). Because Arab disguises herself as a boy, she's accused of being lesbian a few times. There are also many deaths throughout the book, some described in a passing manner and others in gruesome detail.

I don't usually like books that have bad language or detailed violence in them, but I occasionally make an exception for a WWII book that uses them for the purpose of portraying such a terrible time in the past. This is the case with The Girl Who Wouldn't Die, so while I wouldn't say that I enjoyed the book, I will definitely say that it was a good book for me to read. If you've read it, let us know in the comments what you think!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Catching the Wind by Melanie Dobson, 2017

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What happened to Brigitte Berthold?

That question has haunted Daniel Knight since he was thirteen, when he and ten-year-old Brigitte escaped the Gestapo agents who arrested both their parents. They survived a harrowing journey from Germany to England, only to be separated upon their arrival. Daniel vowed to find Brigitte after the war, a promise he has fought to fulfill for more than seventy years.

Now a wealthy old man, Daniel's final hope in finding Brigitte rests with Quenby Vaughn, an American journalist working in London. He believes Quenby's tenacity to find missing people and her personal investment in a related WWII espionage story will help her succeed where previous investigators have failed. Though Quenby is wrestling her own demons--and wary at the idea of teaming up with Daniel's lawyer, Lucas Hough--the lure of Brigitte's story is too much to resist. Together, Quenby and Lucas delve deep into the past, following a trail of deception, sacrifice, and healing that could change all of their futures.
(416 pages)

Of all the many WWII books I've read over the years, I can't even think of any that split the narrative between the war-time era and modern day the way Catching the Wind does. I really love the way we discover Brigitte's story alongside Quenby, as the modern-day reporter is hired to track down leads about her aged employer's childhood best friend lost during the tumult of emigrating from Germany to England. I got just as swept up in the investigation as Quenby did, and I was impressed by the way Dobson managed to incorporate pieces of Brigitte's story into letters and the like so that Quenby could mostly stay on the same page as the reader (without the benefit of chapters dedicated to telling her tale!), and to do so in a way that didn't make things redundant.

If I'm really nitpicking this aspect of the story, though, I do have to admit that I can't really believe that none of the other searchers found the trail of clues that Quenby does. A well-trained investigator should have been able to find all the same leads, yet everyone else Daniel hired couldn't. That didn't quite add up to me, because he was supposed to have been hiring the very best people for the search. An everyday journalist does not have the experience or training to beat out a real investigator, I don't care how passionate and empathetic she may be about the case. This is no dig to Quenby, of course, because she does make some incredible discoveries–I'm just saying there must have been something wrong with Daniel's hiring process before.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. It's extremely dramatic–some might even say melodramatic–but in a way that still seems almost possible. Plus, the most unbelievable stuff happens during WWII, a time period known for incredible happenings, so I can mostly buy all the plot twists that happen throughout the course of the book. Except possibly the last one. I totally saw that one coming but I still think it's just too much of a coincidence.

Basically, I highly recommend Catching the Wind. It's a fast-paced and engaging read split between the challenges and deceits of WWII and a modern-day pursuit for truth (sprinkled with a just-right amount of romantic tension, to boot!). While it does skate close to becoming ridiculous a few times, Dobson keeps ahold of the story and manages to steer it safely into port. I do wish the characters had debriefed a little more, because I felt like a lot of relationship issues were brushed past a little too quickly for my liking, but I suppose that just leaves more room for the imagination. Anyway, I hope you like Catching the Wind! Have you read it? If so, let us know in the comments what you thought of it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Promise Me This by Cathy Gohlke, 2012

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Michael Dunnagan was never supposed to sail on the "Titanic," nor would he have survived if not for the courage of Owen Allen. Determined to carry out his promise to care for Owen's relatives in America and his younger sister, Annie, in England, Michael works hard to strengthen the family's New Jersey garden and landscaping business. Annie Allen doesn't care what Michael promised Owen. She only knows that her brother is gone--like their mother and father--and the grief is enough to swallow her whole. As Annie struggles to navigate life without Owen, Michael reaches out to her through letters. In time, as Annie begins to lay aside her anger that Michael lived when Owen did not, a tentative friendship takes root and blossoms into something neither expected. Just as Michael saves enough money to bring Annie to America, WWI erupts in Europe. When Annie's letters mysteriously stop, Michael risks everything to fulfill his promise--and find the woman he's grown to love--before she's lost forever.
(416 pages)

I am a total sucker for anything connected to the Titanic. I went through a massive Titanic obsession phase in middle school, reading everything from eyewitness accounts to fictionalized retellings, and to this day I will still snap up any book that promises to tell a story about the doomed ship. That's why I leaped at the chance to receive a copy of Promise Me This, which is marketed with a literal Titanic on its cover.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, for those of you who don't like maritime disasters), the time on the ship actually only takes up about two chapters and it's not really dwelt on too much by Michael afterward. The rest of the book is either establishing backstory in Ireland/England or detailing the progression of events in the lives of Michael and Annie through the start and end of WWI. I actually really liked that Gohlke recognized and drew a connection between the ship and the massive war that came after it, because I always felt like books were either about the Titanic or WWI or the Russian Revolution, but never all of them. This one at least was about two of them. And it approached the war from a fairly novel angle, to boot.

To be perfectly honest, though, I didn't actually like the relationship between Michael and Annie that much. I felt like they just sort of started having feelings for each other over time, without much interaction or even letters exchanged, and that even when they did start writing letters to each other regularly we never saw much of a spark between them. I think the main problem was that we didn't really get to read many of those letters: we are told about them, but we don't get to watch Michael and Annie grow to know each other organically. Their relationship moves forward rather erratically because we don't really see it advancing until all of the sudden it has.

Also, the plotline about why Annie is suddenly cut off from contact with anyone else felt really contrived and unrealistic. I can't talk much about it, but there's no way I can see it working like that in real life. Besides that, though, I actually did enjoy the book. It's full of many different storylines that weave themselves around each other very well, and the historical research that went into it was clearly extensive–even this Titanic trivia nut had zero complaints about her description of the ship (except for the fact that I still think the band ended with "Autumn," not "Nearer My God to Thee," but this is quite definitely up for debate!). Anyway, Promise Me This is a good book for when you're looking to read a rather fluffy book that still has some real drama in it. If you do read it, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section down below! And do tell me your favorite Titanic reads so I can check them out!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through the Tyndale Rewards program (click here to check it out–by using my link you'll get 25 credits, which is enough to get a book).

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Runaway by Claire Wong, 2017

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Shortly before her eighteenth birthday, Rhiannon Morgan runs away from the remote Welsh village of Llandymna. Camping out in Dyrys Woods, she starts to make a new life for herself. In the woods she finds space for her active imagination--weaving together the stories she loves and memories of her past, including the mother she lost thirteen years ago.

Back in the village, Rhiannon's disappearance triggers a series of events that uncover the cracks in Llandymna's quiet surface. Relationships become frayed as a young police officer is forced to investigate his neighbors, and the village's elderly storyteller hints at a secret that the older generation has kept for decades. But as painful as the village's past may be, it may hold the key for hope in the present...

Claire Wong's strong debut explores how human relationships develop, how we change as we interact with one another, and the role of folktales and mythology in small communities.

(302 pages)

When I agreed to participate in the blog tour for The RunawayI didn't really know that much about it. I thought it would be kind of interesting, with its story of a girl who ran away from home and of secrets in the village, and that the "surviving in the woods" storyline would be Hatchet-style thrilling while the village stuff would be kind of contrived and ridiculously dramatic.

It turned out completely different from how I was envisioning it. For one thing, the story is way more complex and intriguing than I expected it to be. Rhiannon turns out to not have as big a part to play in the story as we're drawn to believe, as most of the action during the middle of the book takes place in the village rather than in the forest, but it was still interesting to see the way she grows up over the course of the book. She's pretty much a self-centered jerk at the beginning of the book, believing herself to be so much better than everyone else in the village because she's "not a hypocrite" and is good in school, but as time goes on she begins to gain perspective on everything as she carves a life for herself in Dyrys Woods. Switching away from Rhiannon, though, I liked learning more about the motivations of her perfectionistic aunt/guardian who copes with tragedy by micro-managing everyone in the village. There's much more beneath Diana's surface than what first meets the eye. I also liked reading about Tom the policeman and Nia the rather oppressed farm-wife and Maebh the old woman who knows everything that has ever happened in the town. My favorite characters were probably Maebh and the sibling pair who came into the village a little ways into the book.

The book is called The Runaway for a reason, and it goes much deeper than just Rhiannon's last-minute decision to leave her aunt's home for the woods. Over the course of the book, we read about two more people who run away to Dyrys, each for their own unhappy reasons. The focus of the book is truly the village, not the woods, because we begin to discover the rotten reasons villagers are driven to run away from their homes and into the woods. You know how some books aren't necessarily super violent, but they still manage to drive home the complexities and occasional horrors of human nature? The Runaway is most definitely one of those books. I can't dive too much into that because of spoilers, but it is in every sense of the word a people-driven novel.

The Runaway was not quite the fluffy quick read I went in expecting, but I loved it even more for that. It's a fascinating exploration of human nature and the community in a small town, and I really, really liked it. I don't usually keep ahold of books I get for review, but I'll definitely hold off on passing this one along because I know I'll want to revisit it sometime down the line. And since this was just Wong's debut (and one of the most impressive debuts I've read in a long time), I'll be keeping a hopeful eye out for many more books by her in the future!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wings of the Wind by Connilyn Cossette, 2017

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Alanah, a Canaanite, is no stranger to fighting and survival. When her family is killed in battle with the Hebrews, she disguises herself and sneaks onto the battlefield to avenge her family. The one thing she never counted on was surviving.
Tobiah, a Hebrew warrior, is shocked to find an unconscious, wounded woman among the Canaanite casualties. Compelled to bring her to a Hebrew healer back at their camp, he is soon confronted with a truth he can’t ignore: the only way to protect this enemy is to marry her.
Unused to being weak and vulnerable, Alanah submits to the marriage—for now. As she comes to know and respect Tobiah and his people, however, she begins to second-guess her plans of escape. But when her past has painfully unanticipated consequences, the tentative peace she’s found with Tobiah, the Hebrews, and Yahweh is shaken to the core. Can Alanah’s fierce heart and strength withstand the ensuing threats to her life and all she’s come to love?

(352 pages)

I have read very, very few books set before the lifetime of Christ.

Actually, make that books set before the Renaissance. Or maybe even books set before the 1700s. Really, most of the novels I read seem to either be fantasy stories (i.e. not set in our timeline) or based in more modern times. That's why I was really intrigued by Wings of the Wind, which promised to tell a fascinating romance story set during the battles between the Canaanites and the Israelites near the end of the forty years in the desert after God's people had fled from Egypt.

And it delivered. I honestly really, really enjoyed reading Wings of the Wind. I have no idea how historically accurate it was, but it seemed well-researched and relatively plausible. The characters are all realistic, and though I saw some of the plot twists coming from a mile away I definitely didn't foresee how everything wound wind up tying back to the biblical narrative. The romance between Alanah and Tobiah is relatively gradual and realistic, and not as creepy as the whole forced marriage plotline could have gone. I liked them together and was rooting throughout everything for them to stay together throughout everything that was happening. I also really liked the depiction of Yahweh, because he was so active in the Israelites' lives during this period and I think Cossette depicted his powerful justice and simultaneous mercy very skillfully.

That being said, I do want to warn potential readers that this book doesn't pull any punches. There are many references to what soldiers do to unarmed women they come across, and of Alanah's desperation not to let that happen to her, especially at the beginning of the book. Then there are some scenes that describe a couple in love and some *ahem* morning after scenes. Later in the book, Alanah encounters another city that is teeming with vice and prostitutes. Basically, there are a lot of references to both having sex and avoiding molestation throughout the book that I thought were a little bit much. In her author's note, however, Cossette explains her choice to include the atrocities committed by the Canaanites by describing her desire to provide a clear-eyed look at the people who were being wiped out. I still don't know that I can totally be okay with wiping out a whole people in order to steal their land, but I suppose God must have known what he was doing.

Anyway, this is one of the most well-written and fascinating Christian fiction/romance books I've ever read, and–with a warning about the mature material it includes–I do recommend it highly. If you're in the mood for this sort of book, then just know that Wings of the Wind is one of the good ones.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Washed Ashore by Kerr Thomson, 2017

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On a wild Scottish island, a tragedy washes up on the storm-beaten shore: the bodies of a whale and a man. Fraser, desperate for adventure, and Hayley, visiting from Texas, become tangled in the mystery.

But Fraser's younger brother Dunny is distraught by the discovery. He hasn't spoken in years, and lately he's been acting more strangely than ever.

Together, the three meet a man living in the abandoned caves nearby. They start to wonder if he might lie at the center of something darker than they had previously thought. For the whispering sea conceals a terrible secret, and to discover the truth, one of them must learn to listen...

(320 pages)

Washed Ashore showed up unsolicited on my doorstep one day. I picked it up, shrugged, and read it with basically no expectations about the story (except that there would probably be a whale involved).

Now that I think about it, it's good that I didn't read the description too closely because it basically has nothing to do with the actual story. I mean, the bare-bones idea of the bodies washed ashore and Fraser, Hayley, and Dunny's presence in the story is right, but I'm still not sure who the synopsis is talking about what it says that "one of them must learn to listen." I have inklings, but no firm idea.

Anyway, moving on. What did I think of the book? I thought it was pretty good. I think it's awesome that it's set in Scotland and written by a guy who lives in Glasgow, because I'm actually moving to Scotland in a few months to attend college in (the essentially small fishing town of) St. Andrews, Scotland. My copy of Washed Ashore actually came before I'd made my final decision to go there, and then I read it soon after the decision was made. That's a pretty cool coincidence! I like getting a peek at what life is like on the small Scottish isles, definitely. Though I have to say that I struggled to connect with Hayley at first–I just couldn't believe that there was no part of her that could stop moping about leaving home long enough to look around and appreciate the fact that she was living among the natives on a beautiful little island in gorgeous-freaking-Scotland! Honestly, travel is simply wasted on some people. The only time she ever seems to acknowledge the "other-ness" of Scotland, besides one time when she notices that the shoreline looks kind of nice, is when she's referring to Fraser as "the Scottish boy." This phrase is thrown around almost constantly throughout the book, and from context I think it's basically supposed to have the same connotations as "the boy next door" (i.e. "the boy we've put a special label on and who will eventually be a love interest for the female protagonist"). Meh. Both of these phrases really don't tell us anything about the boy in question, so I don't really like them.

Anyway, the romance plotline is actually handled quite well and I enjoyed watching how all the characters interacted with each other. My favorite character may have been Dunny (who is autistic, though the way Thomson chose to incorporate that into the plot was . . . interesting), just because he seems really sweet and Hayley and Fraser aren't all that nice to or understanding with him. I also felt for Hayley, who is struggling big-time with her parents' separation and upcoming divorce (after her father left them for another woman), and I'm rather horrified about what her mother almost does while on rebound. I liked Fraser least of the three main characters, just because he has the most advantages–knowing everything/everyone on the island, unlike Hayley, and being able to communicate with other people in a way that Dunny can't–and yet is still such a jerk at times to both of them. He's especially thoughtless with Dunny, which is hard to see. Fraser does grow on me, though.

As for the plot itself, I can't discuss much without spoilers. There are some interesting themes explored, that's for sure. I can't say that I love the way everything ends up–it's a little too mystical for my tastes–but I suppose that could just be part of the Scottish culture. There are some interesting ethical dilemmas brought up in connection with immigration and the like, which really got me thinking. I can't go much into this here, so I suppose I'll just say that I don't blame immigrants for fleeing hopeless situations but I also think countries should have the right to decide who they admit into their borders.

Anyway, though, Washed Ashore was a pleasant book that I enjoyed reading but which didn't blow my socks off. It would make a perfect summer read for any of you still looking for something to pass the time with in the next few weeks.

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited, complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Maggie Bright by Tracy Groot, 2017

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"England, 1940." Clare Childs knew life would change when she unexpectedly inherited the "Maggie Bright"--a noble fifty-two-foot yacht. In fact, she's counting on it. But the boat harbors secrets. When a stranger arrives, searching for documents hidden onboard, Clare is pulled into a Scotland Yard investigation that could shed light on Hitler's darkest schemes and prompt America to action. Across the Channel, Hitler's "Blitzkrieg" has the entire British army in retreat with little hope for rescue at the shallow beaches of Dunkirk. With time running out, Churchill recruits civilian watercraft to help. Hitler is attacking from land, air, and sea, and any boat that goes might not return. Yet Clare knows "Maggie Bright" must answer the call--piloted by an American who has refused to join the war effort until now and a detective with a very personal motive for exposing the truth.The fate of the war hinges on this rescue. While two men join the desperate fight, a nation prays for a miracle.
(360 pages)

Oof. The Maggie Bright book deals with a lot of heavy topics. I mean, WWII isn't known for being a light or happy period in human history, but sometimes books set during that period focus on the homefront and on happier parts of the story. I don't think I'd ever read a book with such a focus on the beaches of Dunkirk. I also hadn't read a book that painted such a bleak picture of the war effort before America joined in. There are some snide comments made throughout the book about isolationist Americans, because even through the end of the book America has not decided to join the war yet. It's fascinating to read a book set in the thick of WWII before the tide had turned and our triumph was ensured. It's also really scary to see how close the Nazis came to winning everything.

The book takes a surprisingly dark angle on the Nazis as well. I mean, we all know that they were awful–that's not up for debate, of course–but a lot of book that are set more on the homefront don't really focus much on the enemy powers as much more than potential bombers. We get an intimate, horrible look into the atrocious acts committed by the Nazis throughout the book. I won't go too much into the circumstances because those would be spoilers, but suffice it to say that the main characters talk about the Nazi T4 program.

Anyway, moving on to the book as entertainment rather than just as history. I liked it, I did, but I have to say that my main appreciation for the book comes from its historical insights rather than from the characters. Murray is definitely my favorite, and then Jamie and then probably Clare, but there were so many characters that things got rather confusing by the end. Everyone also had a chronic over-sharing problem: perfect strangers would walk up to each other, exchange some pleasantries, and then spill huge secrets to each other. The worst offenders were the two Scotland Yard agents who literally introduced themselves to Clare, invited her to coffee, and then told her big state secrets known only by a few (as well as a plethora of little personal details they surely should have been trained not to reveal to a complete stranger). Along the same vein as this ever-so-convenient openness, there's a dreadful case of insta-love in the book as well. Within the case of a single week and just a few encounters, Clare and a man she just met fall completely in love with each other. It's rather painful to watch.

Also, there's a whole side-plot with Clare's colorful family history, but we never even get to meet her oppresive uncle or learn anything important about her parents or watch her properly process something else she stumbles across over the course of the book. I would have really liked to see more in this area, because I liked what we got.

But really, though, I devoured The Maggie Bright because it's about a fascinating, and little-known, period of WWII. I lapped up the historical details and the new perspective on both the war as a whole and America's role in it, and I read anxiously to see what would happen to my favorite characters on every fresh page because I knew that so many real soldiers faced similar situations to theirs. It's a gripping story, even if parts are rather contrived, and I am glad I had the opportunity to read it.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 26, 2017

How To Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick, 2017

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What do you want to be when you grow up? It's a familiar question we're all asked as kids. While seemingly harmless, the question has unintended consequences. It can make you feel like you need to choose one job, one passion, one thing to be about. Guess what? You don't.

Having a lot of different interests, projects and curiosities doesn't make you a "jack-of-all-trades, master of none." Your endless curiosity doesn't mean you are broken or flaky. What you are is a multipotentialite: someone with many interests and creative pursuits. And that is actually your biggest strength.

How to Be Everything helps you channel your diverse passions and skills to work for you. Based on her popular TED talk, "Why some of us don't have one true calling", Emilie Wapnick flips the script on conventional career advice. Instead of suggesting that you specialize, choose a niche or accumulate 10,000 hours of practice in a single area, Wapnick provides a practical framework for building a sustainable life around ALL of your passions.
You'll discover:
• Why your multipotentiality is your biggest strength, especially in today's uncertain job market.
• How to make a living and structure your work if you have many skills and interests.
• How to focus on multiple projects and make progress on all of them.
• How to handle common insecurities such as the fear of not being the best, the guilt associated with losing interest in something you used to love and the challenge of explaining "what you do" to others.

Not fitting neatly into a box can be a beautiful thing. How to Be Everything teaches you how to design a life, at any age and stage of your career, that allows you to be fully you, and find the kind of work you'll love.
(240 pages)

I've always had a huge variety of interests. I had a terrible time deciding what major to pursue in college next year because there were so many careers I wanted to try: publicity, computer science, economics, accounting, and history were all subjects that I seriously considered majoring in at one point or another. I struggled with the idea of shutting doors on my future, of choosing one path and eliminating my chance to pursuing the rest of them. I eventually wound up choosing to double major in computer science and economics, which are two of my favorite subjects and ensure I will have a wide variety of appealing career paths to choose from down the road.

I say all this to provide some insight into my background approaching How To Be Everything. I have never considered myself to be a "straight arrow" person, which means that by Wapnick's definition of the word I must be a "multipotentialite" (a person with multiple passions and potential pursuits). The book is designed to introduce its readers to this term, a convenient label to put on those of us who have more than one interest, and then to offer different strategy ideas for incorporating diverse interests or even total career switches into one's working life. While I do like Wapnick's advice about following your passions (while always still keeping one eye on the finances!), I'm not sure I agree with her idea that some portion of the population are multipotentialites, that they are a misunderstood and often oppressed bunch, and that they must basically "come out of the closet" about the fact that they are a multipotentialite and try to fight against restricting social norms that seek to make them have only one interest their entire life.

Why do I not agree with this? Because I've never met anyone who wasn't a multipotentialite. If there's truly someone with only one interest out there, who never gets sick of their job or passionate about a side hobby or occasionally daydream about hopping careers, then they are the minority in this world. Honestly, I think most people pursue what Wapnick calls the "Einstein Approach," which is basically just having a good enough job and doing things that interest them in their free time. Gobs of people also follow the "Group Hug Approach," pursuing a career that encapsulates most of their greatest interests. I, to be perfectly honest, will probably do both of those: I'll have a "group hug" job that combines my love of tech and economics, and then I'll spend my free time reading and doing art projects and other things my job doesn't offer. This won't make me any sort of strange person or outlier–it's really a pretty normal path! The outliers are truly the ones who follow Wapnick's other models: the "Slash Approach," which is basically when you have a few different rewarding jobs simultaneously, and the "Phoenix Approach," which is when you pursue one career to an expert level and then start over in a new one. These subsets of Wapnick's "multipotentialites" are really the more rare ones, and these are the people who would find that the world isn't really designed for their eclectic career path. I suppose it's good that they are encouraged to pursue what really fascinates them, but I do hope they give things a full try before getting discouraged and moving on (and if they only have one year left in their PhD program, then for heaven's sake they should finish it!!).

All in all, though, this was a pretty interesting self-help book that was very different from any other one I've ever read. It was quite engaging and easy to read, unlike most books of the genre that I have to drag myself through, and I honestly liked thinking about Wapnick's tips even if I didn't agree with all of her points. If you think this book is interesting, by all means do give it a try!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in order to participate in a TLC book tour.