Monday, May 30, 2016

Mother-Daughter Book Camp by Heather Vogel Frederick, 2016

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Spend one last summer with the Mother-Daughter Book Club at camp in this bittersweet conclusion to Heather Vogel Frederick’s beloved and bestselling series.
After so many summers together, Emma, Jess, Megan, Becca, and Cassidy are reunited for one final hurrah before they go their separate ways. The plan is to spend their summer as counselors at Camp Lovejoy in a scenic, remote corner of New Hampshire, but things get off to a rocky start when their young charges are stricken with a severe case of homesickness. Hopefully, a little bit of bibliotherapy will do the trick, as the girls bring their longstanding book club to camp.

(336 pages)

I've been a long-time fan of Heather Vogel Frederick's Mother-Daughter Book Club series, ever since I read the first book ages ago. The cool thing about this series is that I've literally grown with the characters - it seems like every time I read a new book, I'm the same age as the characters in it. Now the girls are one step ahead of me, going to camp the summer before they go off to college while I'm still a year off from graduating, but it still felt strangely like deja-vu watching them deal with the pending transition from high school to college.

Besides that, though, I have to say that this series has officially lost its magic for me. I couldn't care less about the romantic dramas of all those different characters - and the only couple I did like, Emma and Stewart, broke up before the book begins - so those sections were pretty eye-roll-inducing for me. I did like watching the girls interact with their campers, though. I only wish my experiences at summer camp were nearly as heart-warming. As a camper, I mainly remember being horribly sick with stomach-aches all week and being stuffed full of Tylenol; as a JC, I remember spending a week trudging kids to the nurse and being hit on by some of the campers I was supposed to be mentoring. The thing of novels, my experiences at camp are not.

I'm really sad that the new books in this series don't charm me as much as the older ones did. Maybe there are too many characters to care about; maybe I'm just over caring about high school relationship drama; maybe having Emma lose all of her appeal for me (sorry, but she seriously chose a college she doesn't like far away from home because she was upset about breaking up with her boyfriend?). It could have been a combination of all those factors, but the exact cause doesn't matter - the gold is gone for me. I don't know if it's gone for everyone - give it a try if you still love the series - but I think I am officially done with the Mother-Daughter Book Club books. If Frederick starts spongeing for money and comes out with another one (a "College Years" spin-off, perhaps), I very much doubt I'll pick it up. You might enjoy Mother-Daughter Book Camp more than I did, though. If you read it, definitely share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken, 1964

Click to view
on Goodreads 
Simon, the foundling from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, arrives in London to meet an old friend and pursue the study of painting. Instead he finds himself unwittingly in the middle of a wicked crew's fiendish caper to overthrow the good King James and the Duke and Duchess of Battersea. With the help of his friend Sophie and the resourceful waif Dido, Simon narrowly escapes a series of madcap close calls and dangerous run-ins. In a time and place where villains do nothing halfway, Simon is faced with wild wolves, poisoned pies, kidnapping, and a wrecked ship. This is a cleverly contrived tale of intrigue and misadventure.
(240 pages)

I've loved Joan Aiken's Wolves chronicles for almost as long as I can remember. I literally harassed my parents into getting a library card for a whole different library system than our usual one just because I desperately wanted to re-read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and our system didn't have it. That will always be one of my favorite childhood books - I can't even remember the first time I read it! When I found out, at about age ten, that there was an entire series that spun off of Wolves, I was thrilled. This is the first book that comes after it, and it was when I finished Black Hearts in Battersea that I knew I was absolutely in love with Aiken's books. One can be a fluke, right? But after two (and later three, and then four, and then five, and . . . well, you get the picture) you know it has to be love.

Re-reading it for the umpteenth time, I have to admit that the book doesn't hold quite as much charm for me as it used to. Perhaps I've grown older, or perhaps some of the excitement lies in the sudden realizations that come with the plot twists. Perhaps knowing so much about Dido's future adventures makes her childishness in this book feel rather stilted. I don't know, but while I still enjoyed the read I was sad to realize I couldn't get as into it as I used to. That really doesn't have much to do with you, though, because I guarantee as a newcomer to the book you'll be utterly enchanted.

I can't say much about the book itself for fear of spoiling what really is a delightful read, but all I can say is that few writers are as captivatingly escapist the way Aiken is. Her characters are always simultaneously realistic and idealistic - leading lives that are both perilous and charmed - and the plots that surround them are always ridiculous but just plausible enough to remain grounded (even when they aren't literally - just wait until you get to the part about the air balloon!).

I truly hope you give the entire Wolves Chronicles a go, and that you begin with either this or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I can't recommend Joan Aiken's books enough.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Dead Wake by Erik Larson, 2016

Click to view
on Goodreads 
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.
Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history. 

(430 pages)

I've just read three disturbing historical novels in the past three days, and I am most definitely reeling right now. It started with Laurie Halse Anderson's Fever, a historical fiction novel about a plague of yellow fever in Philadelphia; then I re-read Margaret Peterson Haddix's devastating Uprising, which is all about three fictional girls (two of whom die gruesome deaths by the end) and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. And now there's Dead Wake, which is the most devastating of all because it both focuses on such a huge calamity (two thousand dead!) and describes in painfully exquisite detail the deaths of actual people.

I just . . . ugh. I can't believe I went through a Titanic obsession a few years ago. How could I derive any sort of enjoyment from analyzing the horrible, traumatic deaths of so many people? Somehow with this book - which I thought I'd enjoy because I used to like studying the Titanic - I see now the true horror of these maritime disasters in a way that I never did with the Titanic. The macabre picture Larson paints is just too sick for words, and I really don't even want to think about it.

This is a review, though, so I can't just stop there. I'm going to move away from the actual disaster, which takes place in just the final third of the work, and talk about the book as a whole.

Before now, I would have said that only two nonfiction books stuck completely with the facts and still read like fictional novels. One of these is Candace Fleming's The Family Romanov, a vivid depiction of the last Romanovs drawn from a variety of firsthand accounts and intimate photos; the other is Walter Lord's classic account of the sinking of the Titanic, titled A Night to Remember. Both of these books are amazing, and are the first titles I suggest whenever people ask me for titles on either of those topics. Now I must add Dead Wake to this list, because it is the most stunningly intimate and up-front look you're ever going to get at the Lusitania disaster. You read about the passengers themselves, of course, but you also get to read a little bit about the politics at play behind the scenes; about the British government decoders who knew the general whereabouts of German submarines near the Lusitania but mysteriously neglected to warn anyone; about the rules Germans had for their submarine captains (basically "shoot whatever ships you want, and we'll track your success by measuring how many tons you sink); about Schwieger, the "kind-hearted" submarine captain who once rescued a dog from a ship's wreckage but saved none of the Lusitania passengers.

I can't speak for Larson's historical accuracy, because this is the first book I've ever read about the sinking of the Lusitania. I usually don't read about man-made disasters, because it upsets me so much to see the pain we inflict on each other. Having read many historical nonfiction books in the past, though, this certainly reads like an excellently-researched book - it seems that Larson has done a lot of legwork, and it's obvious from the four-page bibliography (and 25-page Notes section!) that he did a very thorough job with his sources; it didn't all just come straight off of Wikipedia. In the author's note in the back, Larson even talks about how he was very careful to trace every historical claim back to its origins to make sure he used only facts in his account and not just commonly-repeated lies. I for one am more than satisfied, and only the true history buffs are possibly going to be able to poke holes in Larson's interpretation of the event.

At the end of the day, though, forget the squabbles over minor historical details - I'm just left gaping in shock at how terribly cruel humans can be to each other. I shudder at the descriptions that aren't leaving my head any time soon, at the pictures of small children's corpses that I saw when I idiotically typed "Lusitania victims" into Google Images (hint: don't do that). Dead Wake is a stunningly evocative book, and I'm warning you now: only read it if you have the stomach for a front-row look at such a terrible tragedy.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Pug List by Alison Hodgson, 2016

Click to view
on Goodreads 
In the fire’s aftermath of insurance battles royal, rebuilding plans, parenting in the face of life’s hard questions and a scorching case of post-traumatic stress, now is absolutely theworst possible time to adopt a dog. But to Alison’s seven-year-old daughter, Eden, it’s the perfect time—and The Relentless Campaign begins.
Until one day Alison peeks inside Eden’s diary—dubbed “The Pug List”—and realizes in one fell swoop that her girl’s heart is on the line, and resistance is futile (“The pugs make me happy FOREVER.”).
Enter “Outrageous” Oliver, and the hilarity, healing, and irresistible hope that follows.

(208 pages)

My mom read this and thought it was boring. I can kind of see where she's coming from - the description of their search for a pug definitely could have been more compact - but I still disagree.

I mean, can you imagine how horrible it would be to have your house burn to the ground? You say "yeah, that would be horrible," but in the back of your head you think that it's a pretty small disaster in the grand scheme of things - at least no one in Hodgson's family died, right?

But think about it. Every CD you own, every book, every photo and purse and item of clothing and piece of furniture. All of it is gone, and you'll never get it back. Ever.

I'm going to go off to college next year. In many ways, as a homeschooler, I'll be at a disadvantage when it comes to adjusting to college life. In another very real way, however, I'll have an advantage. Why? Because I've moved house seven times in my short life. My identity, my home, isn't any one set of four walls, and I won't be one of those kids who go through the shock of moving for the very first time. No, I'll have my books and my quilt and my dresser knick-knacks and my Taylor Swift collage - and I'll be home. It takes very little to make me feel at home, because my physical sense of belonging is tied to objects instead of to a building.

All that to say, I can't imagine how horrible it would be to me if our house burned down. I would move into a different residence, of course - but then I wouldn't have my belongings to make me feel at home, and I would be miserable. That's why, while I was reading The Pug List, my heart constricted. I can't imagine the horror of losing every single thing I ever owned. I don't think I could take it as well as the Hodgons did; I'd become obsessed with replacing every single item I'd lost, and then I'd be tortured about the things I would never be able to get back, and I'd cry myself to sleep over all of the memories tied to the things lost in the fire. I'm not even joking, I would literally break down over just the thought of, say, that random keychain my grandfather gave me ten years ago which shows up underfoot every six months. I'd think about how I could never see that little heart keychain again, and I - well, I just wouldn't be able to handle it.

So I guess you can see why I was so fascinated with watching the Hodgsons dealing with and moving past the fire. If the very thought of losing my stuff is so upsetting to me, how did they do it? How did they get through the trauma of watching their life disappear? That's the question that will lure readers in and keep them. It's certainly what hooked me, and I think I learned the answer: you push through because there's nothing else you can do. You have no choice but to roll with the punches.

I just hope I'll never have to roll with a punch as big as losing everything I own.

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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Once Was a Time by Leila Sales, 2016

Click to view
on Goodreads 
In the war-ravaged England of 1940, Charlotte Bromley is sure of only one thing: Kitty McLaughlin is her best friend in the whole world. But when Charlotte's scientist father makes an astonishing discovery that the Germans will covet for themselves, Charlotte is faced with an impossible choice between danger and safety. Should she remain with her friend or journey to another time and place? Her split-second decision has huge consequences, and when she finds herself alone in the world, unsure of Kitty's fate, she knows that somehow, some way, she must find her way back to her friend. Written in the spirit of classic time-travel tales, this book is an imaginative and heartfelt tribute to the unbreakable ties of friendship.
(272 pages)

I'm still reeling, taking in all of the thoughts and experiences I had while reading Once Was a Time. 

I initially wanted to read it because it has time travel in it, but I soon realized that this is far more than just your average "time travel book." Lottie isn't an adventurer; she's just a ten-year-old girl from WWII-era England who ran through a portal to escape danger and suddenly found herself in Wisconsin in 2013. Watching her find her way through our world, watching her discover everything that's been invented in the last seventy years, was fascinating. At times, I even forgot that she had come to my own time; everything was so foreign and frightening to her that I found myself just as scared as Lottie, just as disconcerted by the cavalier 21st-century attitudes that I'm normally used to.

I love watching Lottie struggle to adapt to her new persona of "Charlotte the foster kid," and to bluff her way through life as a completely normal 21st-century kid. You can see how she almost loses control of herself, how she throws away everything that made her her in her attempt to fit in and be welcomed by those around her. She compromises so much to fit in (both when it comes to keeping her life a secret, and to being popular at school), and I really loved watching her come to the realization that she is still in control of her own life even though she's not living the life she'd expected when she was little.

I can't say too much more without spoiling the book, but before I end the review I will say that this book is not completely perfect. I appreciated how well Sales drove home the reality of what it would be like to be forced into such a situation, but I would have preferred to spend even more time watching Lottie go through the transition. As it is, we watch her for a little while and then speed forward to a few years later. Then, near the end, there's another "days turned to months, months to years" segue and we skip forward again in time. I would have liked a longer book that really delved into describing those periods of times, instead of just skipping over them.

All in all, though, I'm so glad I got the chance to read this engaging and thought-provoking book about what it would really be like to travel forward in time. I'm definitely adding it to my favorites list! What are your favorite time travel books? Let me know in the comments below!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this novel from the publisher through a LibraryThing giveaway.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

That's Not Hay in my Hair by Juliette Turner, 2016

Click to view
 on Goodreads 
New York City life had crammed sidewalks, gasoline-filled puddles, and angry taxi drivers, but Juliette enjoyed the towering sky-scrapers, the half-block walk to school, and the restaurant smells wafting into her bedroom. She had never cared for a horse, let alone a long-horn, when her mother announced their imminent move to a 300 acre ranch in Texas, where they would be caring for three horses, five dogs, twenty-five longhorns, and a cat … all by themselves.
Juliette couldn’t help feeling excited, even though she’d have to climb a hill to get a bar of cell-phone service. Soon she was running from bats and snakes, rescuing a calf from a twenty-foot ditch, medicating ponies, and having adventures so crazy it’s hard to believe they’re for real—but it all happened exactly how it’s written.
Get ready for side-splitting laughs, heart-wrenching tears, and surprising life lessons learned down on the farm and shared by fourteen-year-old Juliette Turner.

(240 pages)

When I found out that this was written by a seventeen-year-old, I got it just on principle - as a seventeen-year-old girl who used to dream of writing novels, I thought it would be great to read one by a girl my own age.

Now that I have, I can honestly say that I can understand the advantage in waiting to write a novel until you're an adult. At the very least, I would say that a book by any underaged author really needs to get a lot of extra editing attention from the publisher - something that, I would guess, did not happen here. The diction throughout the novel is rather clunky (though it's truly atrocious at the beginning - if you do decide to read this book, know that it stops reading like something you'd read on Wattpad after the first two chapters!). With the rest of the book the issues mainly revolve around plot - or, actually, around the lack thereof. We get a lot of scenes, a lot of characters, thrown in that never show up again and don't really seem to lead anywhere. Yeah, I get that this is more of a memoir than a straight novel; I get that in real life sometimes random people pop in and out of our lives. But if Juliette had found a way to add more consistency in characters and a more substantial plot, the book as a whole could have been so much greater.

I mean, she's working with a lot of quality material. Who doesn't like a story about a city girl adjusting to farm life, or about the day-to-day struggles of life on a ranch? I went into the book expecting great things, and I still think that Juliette - who shows signs of being a good writer - could have tapped more into the charm of the basic scenario than she did. Plus, the ending literally had me in tears. I can't talk about it without spoiling it for you, but . . . well, let's just say that I would never make it on a ranch. I'd melt in a big sad drippy puddle the first time something like that happened.

I'll be honest: I truly didn't hate this book. At first I thought I would, especially when I was ploughing through those first two chapters. I very seriously even considered quitting the novel altogether and writing a DNF review, but I decided to push through and wound up enjoying the rest. There were still times when the prose was a little clunky, or the characters (like the spoiled rich girl at school, and Juliette's very uptight and anxious grandmother) seemed a little one-dimensional, but it wasn't so overwhelming that I couldn't enjoy the stories Juliette had to tell. And sure, on one page she's a clueless city slicker and on the next she's a tried-and-true rancher. Maybe there are a few too many random unimportant details (like the names of every single one of their twenty-six longhorns!), and maybe Juliette spends a little too much time driving home what a wonderful, kind, innocent person she is. But those are all things I can deal with, and mistakes that I probably only recognize so clearly because they remind me of ones I've made them myself. I'm sure they'll go away, though, as she continues to polish her skills by writing more books. And honestly, I applaud her for putting in all the time and effort to write, polish, and publish a book at just my age - while also being an honor student, a dancer, a singer, and rancher. I truly envy her stamina!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers program.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb, 2016

Click to view
on Goodreads 
In How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb—economist and former partner at consulting powerhouse McKinsey—shows us how to use recent findings from behavioral economics, psychology and neuroscience to transform our approach to everyday working life. Her science-based techniques have boosted workplace performance and enjoyment for people in hundreds of organizations. Here, Webb shows us how to build these powerful tools into our own daily routines, to give us more control over the quality of our days.
The book is arranged around seven practices that are central to having a good day: setting the right priorities, making productive use of our time, having effective conversations, doing our very best work, achieving great personal impact, being resilient to setbacks, and sustaining our energy. Throughout, Webb teaches us how to be at our best even under pressure, and equips us to handle common challenges such as co-worker conflicts and difficult deadlines.
Filled with real stories of people who have used the Webb’s insights to improve their working lives, and drawing on cutting-edge ideas from the latest research in behavioral science, How to Have a Good Day is the book people wanted to read when they finished Blink and Thinking Fast and Slow, and were looking for practical ways to apply what they had learned to their own lives and careers.

(368 pages)

I'm not exactly sure how I thought I'd be a good person to read this book.

I mean, it's geared toward adults struggling as they face the daily grind of their office jobs. I'm a seventeen-year-old homeschooled high school student who sees an average of three people (excluding my family) a weekday - none of whom are actually my age. I'm not exactly drowning in office politics! But I liked the description of "science-based techniques" that could "transform our approach to everyday working life," and there weren't any other books in the program that I desperately wanted, so I requested How to Have a Good Day.

And it took me almost two full months to get through. For a girl who can read a 350-page novel in two and a half hours, this is really pathetic. What happened? Well . . . I got bored. Like, really bored. Her advice is actually really insightful, and there were parts that I could apply to myself, but so much of the content didn't apply to me that I had a hard time getting through it. I wound up leaving it by my bed and reading a chapter right before I went to sleep, when I was ready to start slowing myself down. Then today I finished the last third of the book all in one sitting, because I wanted to just get it done once and for all.

But honestly, it's not even that bad of a book. It's good, it really is! Webb's advice is thought-provoking, and I loved how she backed up all of her points with solid scientific evidence from legitimate studies. It was also cool to see how she combined studies and phenomena I've encountered over the years to explain human behavior. My favorites were when she explained how we make choices at the margin (an AP Micro topic), and when she talked about how the REM phase of sleep is the most restful and helpful phase for rebooting our brains. It was really cool to read a book that was so clearly not one of those quack science advice books. As the daughter of a real scientist, I can't stand those! This one, though, is full of hard data that really makes her points extremely valid and believable (though of course I can't totally vouch for them since I can't put them to the test).

Anyway, I'm sorry if I'm not much help in deciding whether to get this book. It made for an interesting and engagingly-written book, and I really will try to work on knowing myself and following her advice for moderating my interactions with others, but I'm not really the best judge of her techniques. As soon as I'm done writing this review, though, I'm planning on handing the book off to my father - he only recently began working in industry and is still adjusting to life in a bureaucracy, so he's pretty much the ideal target for this book. If I can actually get him to read it, I'll be sure to let you know whether he thinks it helps him! In the meantime, let me know in the comments below what your go-to tactic is for getting through a hard day.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher through the Blogging for Books program.