Monday, November 27, 2017

Crossing the Line by Bibi Belford, 2017

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Billy’s family has fallen on hard times, what with his da hospitalized after the war and his ma barely scraping by. But it’s no hardship for him when there’s not enough money to pay the tuition for Nativity of Our Lord, the private Catholic school everyone in his neighborhood attends. Billy’s not big on education.

When he transfers to James Ward, a Chicago public school, he finds out there’s a big difference at public school: the kids aren’t all Irish—in fact, they aren’t even all white. It isn’t long before Billy’s found a new best friend in Foster, another fifth grader who also doesn’t have any money, loves baseball, and just happens to be black.

Billy is pretty sure skin color doesn’t matter. Not when he and Foster are just horsing around, playing baseball, working on the docks of the canal, and building a raft at their secret hideout on Bridgeport’s Bubbly Creek. But in the Red Summer of 1919, it does matter.

Whew. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up Crossing the Line: I thought it was going to be a rather run-of-the-mill middle-grade novel about some kids who learn to be friends across color lines and defend their choices to the outside world (along the lines of Kristin Levine's The Lions of Little Rock). I suppose it did feature those topics, but there's so much more going on in Crossing the Line than just "crossing social boundaries."

The main character Billy learns some very hard truths over the course of the book. Truths like that some of his friends and family are racist. And that in 1919, with not enough money or jobs to go around, racism can rear its head in terrible, gruesome ways. He learns to walk a thin line, staying pleasant to his racist white friends and keeping distant from his black friends in public but spending all of his free time playing in the woods with his best friend Foster (who is black) and Foster's two older brothers. He hates hiding his friendship with the black boys, feels like a coward for pretending not to know them in public, but he grows to realize over time that by being "selfish" and protecting himself he's actually protecting them from all sorts of terrible things at the hands of the racists.

Belford has said that she decided to write Crossing the Line after gradually becoming aware of her own white privilege, and I definitely see that influence in the book. Billy is forced throughout the story to notice and despise all the ways, little and big, that the color of his skin grant him access to both places and freedoms that Foster isn't allowed. He goes from being nearly oblivious to the inequalities in his world to seeing them everywhere, and he struggles with feeling guilty and trying to find ways to help Foster and his brothers that don't put them in even more danger.

Billy's struggle to recognize, internalize, and prevent the evils of racism is the biggest focus of the book, but there are many other themes tied into the story that make it even more meaningful and thought-provoking. There are no absolutes in this book, no pure good guys and very few total bad guys. Billy's racist best friend Tommy seems like a monster when he's talking about "the blacks who steal our jobs," but he also comes from a deeply troubled, abusive home and has still been a wonderful friend to Billy in some of his most vulnerable moments (including when his da returned with debilitating shell-shock from WWI). Billy's da himself was a wonderful man on the race issue, teaching his children to respect people of all races, but he was also quite sexist: he didn't think his oldest daughter needed to go to high school because all a woman needed to know was how to cook and keep house. And don't even get me started on the policeman, the secretive Russian lodger, Billy's put-upon older sister Mary, and the myriad other side characters who are each drawn with their own nuanced personalities.

Honestly, I absolutely loved Crossing the Line. It's gritty and real and honest in a way that's still okay for younger readers. But that same grittiness and realness and honesty forces me to put a qualification on my recommendation of it: beware giving this book to the gentle children you know, because I promise it will upset (and possibly traumatize) them. There's a scene involving a puppy getting hit with a glass bottle that's not described in detail, but which could also be very upsetting for animal lovers. But once a kid is old enough, this is a book that they need to read. Honestly, I would say that this is a book that everyone needs to read at some point or another. It's definitely far and away one of the best books I've read this year–and that's really saying something.

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Frost by M.P. Kozlowsky, 2016

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Being human is her greatest strength.

Sixteen-year-old Frost understands why she’s spent her entire life in an abandoned apartment building. The ruined streets below are hunting grounds for rogue robots and Eaters.

She understands why she’s never met a human besides her father. She even understands why he forbids her to look for medicine for her dying pet. But the thing is, it’s not her real father giving the orders…

It’s his memories.

Before he died, Frost’s father uploaded his consciousness into their robot servant. But the technology malfunctioned, and now her father fades in and out. So when Frost learns that there might be medicine on the other side of the ravaged city, she embarks on a dangerous journey to save the one living creature she loves.

With only a robot as a companion, Frost must face terrors of all sorts, from outrunning the vicious Eaters…to talking to the first boy she’s ever set eyes on. But can a girl who’s only seen the world through books and dusty windows survive on her own? Or will her first journey from home be her last?
(352 pages)

When I was not far into Frost, I described it as a steampunk novel to my younger sister. When she asked me what steampunk was, I told her it's a genre of fiction that usually has a lot of advanced tech and clockwork motifs, a fair number of robots, a fantasy-esque scenario that's explained with sciency stuff rather than magic, lots of dystopian situations with oppressive bad guys, and stories that grapple with what it means to truly be human (and whether a robot "with a human-like consciousness" is still inferior to a living, breathing human being)

I legit started laughing halfway through Frost because it had every single one of those elements in it. I've only read about three steampunk novels counting Frost, but I must really have a deeper insight into the genre than I expected. Since it follows so many of my expectations, as you might guess, the book isn't exactly the most original book I've ever read; it sticks with the usual tale of robots gone bad, humanity oppressed, a quest to find the legendary human colony, etc. I'm a little sketchy on the details of why the humans all went nuts when Frost was a baby, because it seems like most of the dangers are human-inflicted rather than related to the robots, but it's definitely the humans' fault now that things aren't improving. Things get pretty gory at some points, with mentions of people eating their own bodies in order to stay alive (which is both really gross and highly unrealistic) and of the brutal treatment slaves receive under the dictator who offers asylum to the humans. They're not described in extreme detail, but Frost definitely is not for the faint of heart.

Honestly, though, I'm not sure I agree with Frost's decision to put herself and the people around her in danger over and over again in order to save the life of a pet that was already like eight years old. It's absolutely horrible when pets are dying, I should know that more than anyone right now, but I don't know that the solution is really to throw yourself and everyone you know into mortal peril in the slim hopes of finding something that would help it recover. It seems like throughout the book characters are unable and unwilling to deal with the finality of death; they're constantly either avoiding it, daring it, or cheating it (by way of uploading their brain to a robot). Death is awful and horrible, yes, but I don't think that trapping a soul inside a metal body is really a good long-term alternative. It cheapens the tragedy of a human body's death and decay when you can just install a copy of their brain in a robot and keep right on going. Their consciousness may still be alive in another form, but that original human being is still dead. And that is still a tragedy.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the whole issue. I liked Frost more than I thought I would, enjoyed foraying into a genre that I don't usually read, but I wasn't blown away by it. If you like steampunk, or you're interested in getting into it, then Frost might well be a good place to start–or at least I think so. Keep in mind that I've only ever read three steampunk's novels when you take my recommendation under consideration.

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Out of Tune by Norah McClintock, 2017

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When Alicia, a talented violinist at Riley Donovan's high school, is found bludgeoned to death in a field on the outskirts of town, suspicion immediately falls on Carrie, the teen's musical rival. But Riley isn't convinced of Carrie's guilt, and even though her police-officer aunt tells her to stay out of it, Riley goes searching for the truth. Did Carrie really kill Alicia in a fit of jealous rage, or is there another explanation for Alicia's death?
(122 pages)

This is a nice little murder mystery.

I know that sounds weird–"nice" and "murder mystery" aren't paired very often. But the truth is that Out of Tune is just the sort of novel I needed: a pure mystery, with a violent crime but no gory/explicit content. The basic scenario (a high school student enlisted to investigate the murder of a female fellow student who appears to be a "golden child") at first reminded me a lot of the much-gorier Running Girl by Simon Mason, but Out of Tune is frankly a little more my speed in the violence department. It's like an Agatha Christie murder mystery: the story starts with the crime, and then follows the main character as she tracks down the clues. We get a description of the crime scene in one of the beginning chapters but not much more than that. Actually, now that I think about some of Agatha Christie's book, this is probably actually a step down from those even.

I feel like so many of the murder mysteries I've read lately focused more on character drama (most of which didn't even wind up being relevant to the investigation), so I really appreciated how focused Out of Tune was. McClintock never forgets that she's writing a murder mystery, not a small-town drama. Granted, that does come at the expense of getting to know some of the side characters very well–a feat that's made doubly hard because you're expected to already know a bunch of the characters from the earlier books in the "Riley Donavan" series–but I personally didn't really mind focusing on the clues rather than on the characters pursuing them.
The reason I love Agatha Christie's novels is because she so perfectly blends interesting characters with fascinating crime investigations. While I've yet to find a murder mystery that does both of these areas as masterfully as she does, I'm finding that I much prefer the ones that err on the side of the crime investigations. This is the case of Out of Tune, which wound up being a perfectly satisfying who-dunnit with a logical, yet suprising, reveal–and a protagonist I still know little about. And I am perfectly okay with that.

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Hand Book by Miryam Z. Wahrman, 2016

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Handwashing, as part of basic hygiene, is a no-brainer. Whenever there's an outbreak of a contagious disease, we are advised that the first line of defense is proper handwashing. Nonetheless, many people, including healthcare workers, ignore this advice and routinely fail to wash their hands. Those who neglect to follow proper handwashing protocols put us at risk for serious disease--and even death.

In this well-researched book, Wahrman discusses the microbes that live among us, both benign and malevolent. She looks at how ancient cultures dealt with disease and hygiene and how scientific developments led to the germ theory, which laid the foundation for modern hygiene. She investigates hand hygiene in clinical settings, where lapses by medical professionals can lead to serious, even deadly, complications. She explains how microbes found on environmental surfaces can transmit disease and offers strategies to decrease transmission from person to person. The book's final chapter explores initiatives for grappling with ever more complex microbial issues, such as drug resistance and the dangers of residing in an interconnected world, and presents practical advice for hand hygiene and reducing infection. 

With chapters that conclude with handy reference lists, The Hand Book serves as a road map to safer hands and better hygiene and health. It is essential reading for the general public, healthcare professionals, educators, parents, community leaders, and politicians.
(248 pages)

This was one of the first books I ever won through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. I was new to LibraryThing at the time, and slightly too trigger-happy about clicking "request" for books that I'd normally never pick up. When I got the email saying I'd actually won a copy of The Hand Book, I was shocked–what was I going to do with a book about hand sanitization?! I thought it was going to be one of those pseudo-science books, full of "solutions" to germs that involved, I don't know, drinking special tea or something. I wound up just shoving the book on my shelf and planning to get to it "someday." Since I'm trying to review all the books I've gotten for review this summer before heading off to college, that day has finally come.

And honestly,  The Hand Book is way more legit than I was expecting. Wahrman is actually a real scientist who has done detailed experiments into the spread and dangers of germs. Her advice is thorough and practical, designed to make you think about the disgusting germs you come into contact with on a regular basis and to help you make some small changes to decrease the chances of contracting  an illness. That's interesting enough, but what I really liked were Wahrman's discussions of hand hygiene in hospitals, restaurants, and third-world countries. It's really disgusting to read about all the mistakes and deaths that occur every year because of carelessness in the first two institutions, but also quite interesting to learn about all the creative (and surprisingly effective) ways people in poor countries have developed to cleanse themselves without water.

I'll be honest, I didn't carefully read every page of The Hand Book; I was in a skimming sort of mood when I sat myself down to finally read it. But I enjoyed it way more than I'd ever thought I would–it was far more interesting, engaging, relevant, and well-researched than I'd expected. I can't say it was a page-turner, because this sort of material simply can't be, but it was as close to that as a book about hand hygiene can get. It also temporarily turned me into a germaphobe, so that's new.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Promising Life by Emily Arnold McCully, 2017

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For as long as he can remember, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau has been told that a promising future lies ahead of him. After all, his mother is the great Sacagawea, who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition of discovery. And thanks to his mother, Baptiste's life changes forever when Captain Clark offers him an education in the bustling new city of St. Louis.

There, his mother charges him to "learn everything" - reading, writing, languages, mathematics. His life becomes a whirl of new experiences: lessons, duels, dances, elections. He makes friends and undertakes unexpected journeys to far-off places.

But he also witnesses the injustices Clark, as a US agent for Indian Affairs, forces upon the Osage, the Arikara, the Mandan, and so many others. He sees the effect of what some call "progress" on the land and on the people who have lived there for generations. And he must choose what path he will take and what place he will have in a rapidly changing society.

(304 pages)

When a copy of A Promising Life showed up on my doorstep a few weeks ago, I was intrigued by the idea of reading a book about Sacagawea's son set during a time period I knew very little about.

It wasn't much like what I was expecting, since Sacagawea disappears from the story almost immediately and the 300-page book covers a huge span of time from Baptiste's childhood to when he's about 25-30 years old. I did learn some valuable new things about history, like the fact that Sacagawea was actually the slave of a Frenchman (who was also Baptiste's father) and that the real-life Jean Baptiste Charbonneau lived an absolutely fascinating–and very international!–life.

Unfortunately, I can't say I really loved the book. I never got a good handle on the characters because it felt like there were just too many people and events going on. I also don't feel like there's a good rising action, climax, falling action, etc., because the author essentially just took all the historical facts known about Baptiste and filled in the gaps with her own ideas. Real life doesn't often fall into easy plot organization, does it?

Anyway, I feel like A Promising Life is a very educational book but it just wasn't quite my cup of tea. It felt a bit mature at times (especially when Baptiste fathers a baby in a one-night stand–though details are given!). It also introduced me to a lot of fascinating historical characters, though, so I'm still happy to have 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, November 10, 2017

League of American Traitors by Matthew Landis, 2017

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When seventeen year-old Jasper is approached at the funeral of his deadbeat father by a man claiming to be an associate of his deceased parents, he’s thrust into a world of secrets tied to America’s history—and he’s right at the heart of it.

First, Jasper finds out he is the sole surviving descendant of Benedict Arnold, the most notorious traitor in American history. Then he learns that his father’s death was no accident. Jasper is at the center of a war that has been going on for centuries, in which the descendants of the heroes and traitors of the American Revolution still duel to the death for the sake of their honor.

His only hope to escape his dangerous fate on his eighteenth birthday? Take up the research his father was pursuing at the time of his death, to clear Arnold’s name.

Whisked off to a boarding school populated by other descendants of notorious American traitors, it’s a race to discover the truth. But if Jasper doesn’t find a way to uncover the evidence his father was hunting for, he may end up paying for the sins of his forefathers with his own life.

Like a mash-up of
National Treasure and Hamilton, Matthew Landis’s debut spins the what-ifs of American history into a heart-pounding thriller steeped in conspiracy, clue hunting, and danger.
(256 pages)

Okay, let me start by getting rid of the elephant in the room: Hamilton. I have actually never seen Hamilton (or listened to its full soundtrack), but I know enough about the musical to hazard a pretty good guess that League of American Traitors is nothing like it. Sure, the book's got some mentions of Revolutionary War-era historical figures, but they're definitely not the focus of the book. Instead, League of American Traitors is basically a modern-day adventure/spy novel trying hard to capture some of the vibe of National Treasure while really reminding me of a rather watered-down nonmagical Harry Potter.

I'm sorry, was that overly negative? I don't mean to be, but I'm having a hard time swallowing my disappointment. I was really excited for League of American Traitors, I thought it would be thrilling and realistic and educational at the same time. It may have been education at parts (when the author wasn't, you know, making stuff up to serve the plot), and thrilling occasionally, but I just couldn't get past all the unrealistic and ridiculous stuff that the book expected me to accept. My biggest issue with the plot is the whole premise: a league of the descendants of "good guys" from history decided to hunt down every single descendant of the "bad guys" of American history and force them to participate in one duel. If they win, they're left in peace; if they lose, they're dead; if they flee, they spend the rest of their life on the run.

You know what my biggest problem with this premise is? The idea that people who are descended from famous figures from 300 years ago care so much about some ancient grudge that they're willing to make all of their children participate in duels to the death. That just wouldn't happen. Also, why is everyone so hung up on the past, anyway? We are not our ancestors. We are not responsible for what they did in the past. If you trace my family tree far enough back, I've got some bad people back there, too. But I don't define myself by the choices made by my distant ancestors hundreds of years ago, and I don't see why the people in the book do either!

The other issue I have with the book is the fact that it takes all of history at face value. All the historical figures are sorted into either the "good guy" or the "bad guy" category with no room for nuance. Jasper does bemoan this at one point, when he questions why Benedict Arnold is remembered only for his betrayal and not for any of the amazing battles he won for the cause before then, but I would have liked to take things a step further: why does everyone assume that the "good guys" were good? Why is fighting against Britain inherently better than remaining a Loyalist? Is it just because we won the Revolutionary War, so history was written by the victors? I for one would have probably been a Loyalist, if we're being perfectly honest–I just don't really think our excuses for breaking off from Britain were as great as everyone thought. And some of the classifications seemed very arbitrary, like the fact that Thomas Paine (author of the extremely patriotic Common Sense) was classified as a traitor for a pamphlet he wrote after the war that the patriots didn't agree with, or that one "traitor" ancestor was a slave who fled his patriot owners and fought for the British because he was promised freedom afterword. I think it's frankly horrible that this poor man was branded a "traitor" to some cause he really couldn't care less about and his descendants were forced to participate in this gruesome tradition of deadly duels. And setting all this aside, I think it's ridiculous that all of these people who pride themselves on being descended from the people who fought for American freedoms (only for white male landowners at the beginning, but still) are completely disrespecting those same freedoms to force people into duels against their will.

Honestly, though, I should stop and talk about the positives. I did like some of the side characters, though Jasper seemed like a very bland character without much personality of his own–and I completely disagree with an immoral choice that he made during the climax. I would say that the book could be good for younger kids who love spy stories and history, but it's got some pretty terrible languge (including several instances of the f-word), so I don't want to recommend it to anyone who's not ready for that. Basically, if you've read my semi-ranting review and still think you'd like to read the book, and you don't mind some bad language, then go ahead and give League of American Traitors a try. Maybe you can find something in it that I couldn't.

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Roadfood, 10th edition by Jane & Michael Stern, 2017

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First published in 1977, the original Roadfood became an instant classic. James Beard said, "This is a book that you should carry with you, no matter where you are going in these United States. It's a treasure house of information."

Now this indispensable guide is back, in an even bigger and better edition, covering 500 of the country's best local eateries from Maine to California. With more than 250 completely new listings and thorough updates of old favorites, the new 
Roadfood offers an extended tour of the most affordable, most enjoyable dining options along America's highways and back roads.

Filled with enticing alternatives for chain-weary-travelers,
Roadfood provides descriptions of and directions to (complete with regional maps) the best lobster shacks on the East Coast; the ultimate barbecue joints down South; the most indulgent steak houses in the Midwest; and dozens of top-notch diners, hotdog stands, ice-cream parlors, and uniquely regional finds in between. Each entry delves into the folkways of a restaurant's locale as well as the dining experience itself, and each is written in the Sterns' entertaining and colorful style. A cornucopia for road warriors and armchair epicures alike, Roadfood is a road map to some of the tastiest treasures in the United States.
(480 pages)

I will be the first to admit that I'm not a foodie–at all. You're probably wondering why I agreed to review Roadfood, then. The truth is that I just liked the idea of a guidebook to travel food, and I wanted to see if it would really help my family pick where to eat while we travel.

The truth is that it probably wouldn't. This is mostly because I come from a family of not-foodies, and there are six of us so we have to work really hard at keeping bathroom/eating/resting breaks at a minimum if we ever want to get anywhere, and so we basically always just pick our lunch destination from the billboards by the highway (and they're almost always either McDonald's, Wendy's, or Burger King, because those are the restaurants with a drive-through). I don't see myself truly being able to convince my parents to drive out of their way to enjoy a particularly succulent sit-down diner, because they get antsy if we drive more than two miles away from the highway on a rest stop.

That said, I do think this book offers a valuable service: it lists yummy restaurants sorted by state, with detailed descriptions of a few dishes and the service/atmosphere, so it makes choosing a restaurant once we've reached our destination much more intriguing. Put another way: I wouldn't drive out of my way to eat at Tedd Drewe's (which famously sells the best ice cream in the world) in St. Louis, because those St. Louis highways are murder and I'd lose way too much time for reaching my final destination, but of course I would make a point to visit it if I were there a couple of days. And, you know, already within a 20 to 30 minute radius of one of their locations.

To be fair, though, I grew up on Tedd Drewe's ice cream. If I didn't already know what it tasted like, and I was a real foodie, maybe I would go hours out of my way to try it. And maybe now I'm just making myself hungry for ice cream. I'm going to stop talking about Tedd Drewe's now.

Anyway, I can't vouch much for the accuracy of the listings, but the basic format of the book is that the entries are sorted by state (which are sorted by region, not alphabetically); if you want a short list of just the restaurant names, without details, there's one in the back of the book with page numbers for looking up the details. Every entry includes the name of the restaurant and its address, its website and phone number if it has those, hours of operation, and a price-range estimate. Beneath that, there's a description of the restaurant's food and service and atmosphere, as well as tips about how crowded it can get and the like.

The cynical part of me says that most of this information is probably available online, and that books can very quickly get outdated (and, in fact, one of the restaurants it lists in Indianapolis is already out of business!), but the other part of me says that it can be really nice to have a tangible book for looking up interesting and unique places to eat. Roadfood can serve as a good jumping-off point for restaurant hunting, anyway. And who knows what rare gems it might point us to?!

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Innocent Heroes by Sigmund Brouwer, 2017

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A unique celebration of the important role animals play in war, and an insightful look at the taking of Vimy Ridge from the perspective of 3 men in a Canadian platoon.

Never before have the stories of animal war heroes been collected in such a special way. This book consists of eight connected fictional stories about a Canadian platoon in WW1. The Storming Normans have help from some very memorable animals: we meet a dog who warns soldiers in the trench of a gas attack, a donkey whose stubbornness saves the day, a cat who saves soldiers from rat bites, and many more. Each story is followed by nonfiction sections that tell the true story of these animals from around the world and of the Canadian soldiers who took Vimy Ridge. Through the friendship that grows between three of these soldiers in particular, we get a close-up look at life in the trenches, the taking of Vimy Ridge, the bonds between soldiers and their animals and what it meant to be Canadian in WW1.

(208 pages)

This was an interesting blend of fiction and truth, interspersing a made-up, animal-centric storyline about men in a Canadian platoon during WWI with real facts about the animals featured in the different chapters.

On one hand, I really loved learning about all those different animals from WWI–and the Canadian platoon they were with, since I barely even knew before now that Canada participated in WWI! But then at times I felt like the way it was done, switching between chapters of fictional stories and then nonfictional explanations, made the narrative feel really disjointed. I kept forgetting who the various people were for quite a long time because I didn't read about them for so long in between chapters.

Also, and I suppose this is just an interesting cultural perspective, there is a lot of emphasis put on the supposed superiority of Canadian military tactics (basically, the generals see their soldiers as equals and give them room to interpret assignments as they wish) over the much more top-down American and British structures. While it does sound like the Canadian system is the one I would like to be in, I really don't know enough about military tactics to know which is ideal; I do, however, know from reading the book that Brouwer is definitely heavily in favor of Canada. And it's actually really interesting to read about WWI and military tactics from such a different angle than I usually do. I mean, let's be honest, there's really not much material out there about the Canadian perspective on most of the big wars.

Basically, it's a good book with a lot of interesting details that gets bogged down at times by the alternating format it's written in. I still liked it, though, and I suspect a lot of other people–especially kids with a passion for army history–will too, If you read it, please be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments section down below!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from a LibraryThing Early Reviewer giveaway.