Friday, November 30, 2018

Holiday/Exam Break

Hello, everyone! I hope your December has been pleasant. I am heading into the exam period once again, so I will most likely not be posting reviews in December. Once I get home I will write lots of reviews over the holiday, though, so look forward to many more reviews in January. Have a wonderful holiday, everyone!

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Land of Neverendings by Kate Saunders, 2017

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When Emily's sister Holly dies, she is surprised to find that she misses her toy bear, Bluey, almost as much as Holly. Bluey was Holly's constant companion, and Emily used to make up stories about him and his escapades in the magical (and very silly) world of Smockeroon to entertain her. And the only person who seems to understand Emily's grief is Ruth, her kindly next-door neighbour.

But then very strange things start to happen. Emily dreams of talking toys visiting her bedroom, telling her that they have come from Smockeroon, and have a message for her from Bluey. A terrible black toad, who stinks of sadness, begins to stalk Ruth's house. And when a parade of penguins wearing plastic moustaches marches through their kitchen - well, Emily has to begin to wonder whether this is all a dream after all. But why are the toys here, and what could Bluey possibly be trying to tell her?

This stunning novel will tickle your funny bones as much as it pulls on your heartstrings, and is a true classic in the making.

(317 pages)

Last month I took two trips in a week and spent a lot of time in airports. I ran out of TV to watch about an hour before one of my flights, so I ducked into Waterstones and picked out The Land of Neverendings.

It was the perfect airplane book: an interesting and innovative scenario, a relatively easy read accessible even to kids, and a story that is surprisingly deep.

I really love this story idea. It's full of different kinds of grief, from Emily's raw horror after the death of her sister to her neighbor Ruth's lingering sorrow many years after her son's death. We see how Emily struggles to get through the days and holidays after Holly's death. There is also a focus on friendship, as Emily makes new friends and struggles to relate to old ones. The toys which are coming to life are the driving force behind the shifting relationships.

The toys themselves are adorable. I love watching them interact with each other and with the humans, and learning about the goofy world they live in. The idea that our toys really do inhabit the worlds we imagine for them is amazing, such a great concept.  I also really enjoyed seeing Emily's relationship with Ruth, as they bond across the generations over their shared grief and their experiences observing and interacting with the toys which come to life.

All in all, this was a great read that I'm very glad I picked up. Sometimes it's nice to grab something out of the blue and rediscover the charm of reading.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Murder at the Flamingo by Rachel McMillan, 2018

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“Maybe it was time to land straight in the middle of the adventure…”

Hamish DeLuca has spent most of his life trying to hide the anxiety that appears at the most inopportune times -- including during his first real court case as a new lawyer. Determined to rise above his father’s expectations, Hamish runs away to Boston where his cousin, Luca Valari, is opening a fashionable nightclub in Scollay Square. When he meets his cousin's “right hand man” Reggie, Hamish wonders if his dreams for a more normal life might be at hand.

Regina “Reggie” Van Buren, heir to a New Haven fortune, has fled fine china, small talk, and the man her parents expect her to marry. Determined to make a life as the self-sufficient city girl she’s seen in her favorite Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn pictures, Reggie runs away to Boston, where she finds an easy secretarial job with the suave Luca Valari. But as she and Hamish work together in Luca’s glittering world, they discover a darker side to the smashing Flamingo night club.

When a corpse is discovered at the Flamingo, Reggie and Hamish quickly learn there is a vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots in 1937 Boston—and that there’s an underworld that feeds on them both. As Hamish is forced to choose between his conscience and loyalty to his beloved cousin, the unlikely sleuthing duo work to expose a murder before the darkness destroys everything they’ve worked to build.

(343 pages)

I've always been a huge fan of mystery novels, most especially murder mysteries, so I very rarely turn down the chance to review one. Murder at the Flamingo has the added bonus of being set in the 1930s. I am also a sucker for historical fiction, especially those set in the 20s, and I was excited to read a "glamorous" book set in the 30s since books during that time usually focus on the poor people during the Great Depression. I love getting new perspectives on a time period.

As a historical novel, it completely lives up to its synopsis. McMillan gets the atmosphere just right, it really felt like it was set during the same time period as, say, The Great Gatsby. There are glamorous parties, eager and energetic (and possibly wrapped up in something illegal) young men, men who hold all the power behind the scenes, ditzy gold-diggers hanging on their arms . . . the works. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the characters in the story.

The mystery, on the other hand, was nothing special. It's really more of a plot device to move the characters around and give Hamish and Reggie a reason to pry into the underbelly of the beast. I was never too invested in who the murderer was, and in fact the murder doesn't even take place until fairly far into the book. I didn't mind that much, though, because I was enjoying what is, essentially, a character-driven (rather than plot-driven) book.

I suppose I should talk about the main characters, Hamish and Reggie. They were both good, well-drawn people. I liked them both a lot, though I'm positive I would never meet either of them on the street. They both had interesting families and backstories, and their relationship is well done.

Really, with a few tweaks to the ending, this would have been a very nice standalone novel. Instead, however, I'm afraid the ending left me pretty frustrated. For one thing, the romance situation is just ridiculous. I'm frustrated to see how long that will go on. And the idea that they will go on to solve other crimes (as this is indeed, I discovered by Googling it, the first in a murder mystery series) sounds plausible at first glance but becomes much more questionable when I think about how much this book really wasn't focused on the murder. I would much rather read a series organically following their lives in Boston, with their ties to the seedy underbelly springing up to create problems once in a while, then the way McMillan has chosen to do it.

That said, I will of course be looking for the sequel and I may discover that I really like this approach after all. I'm trying to keep an open mind, after all. But anyway, suffice it to say that I enjoyed Murder at the Flamingo and I recommend it if you're interested in it as well.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

That's Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger, 2018

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It's been three years since the Virgil County High School Massacre. Three years since my best friend, Sarah, was killed in a bathroom stall during the mass shooting. Everyone knows Sarah's story--that she died proclaiming her faith.

But it's not true.

I know because I was with her when she died. I didn't say anything then, and people got hurt because of it. Now Sarah's parents are publishing a book about her, so this might be my last chance to set the record straight . . . but I'm not the only survivor with a story to tell about what did--and didn't--happen that day.

Except Sarah's martyrdom is important to a lot of people, people who don't take kindly to what I'm trying to do. And the more I learn, the less certain I am about what's right. I don't know what will be worse: the guilt of staying silent or the consequences of speaking up . . .

(329 pages)

When this book first showed up on my doorstep, I was hesitant to crack it open.

I myself have not survived a shooting, but I lived in Baltimore for five years and I know people, or people who know people, who have been on the scene of school shootings, mall shootings, club shootings, and even the Boston marathon bombing. I don't see this sort of horrific ordeal as something that should be fictionalized and turned into entertainment, whether it's trying to make some sort of point or not. There are enough real stories out there about real victims and real survivors that it didn't seem like this book served any purpose except to drain emphasis away from those stories.

After reading it, I do appreciate its significance. Keplinger can explore the nuances of truth in the aftermath of a tragedy, and the distortions that reality can be put through in order for people to find a "meaningful story" buried in the horror, without hacking at the legacy of a real victim or forcing survivors to reopen old wounds or even defend their testimonies to a hord of truth-seeking readers.

By making up her own tragedy, and "knowing" what really happened, Keplinger can focus on her characters and on showing how the truth becomes distorted in the aftermath of a horrible event. It's a fascinating idea because, really, there are no bad guys in this book–the real bad guy, the murderer, is gone. His name is not even in the book because it is not about him. Instead we see that even the people who have twisted the truth the most did not do it maliciously. The truth was distorted in their minds because they latched on to a story they thought was true, that they needed to be true, and they refused to let it go.

This is a powerful and moving book, but it does get bogged down sometimes by some of the things Keplinger chooses to include. There's a fairly lengthy plotline about a survivor whose cousin was killed which I think got a bit too much time. I have to include a content warning because there are a couple characters who are lesbian or asexual, and also possibly some foul language (I'm afraid my copy is back home and I can't double check). Plus obviously a trigger warning: it gets fairly detailed during the flashbacks to the shooting, so don't read the book if that's going to be too hard for you.

It's a rough read, but if you don't mind the content then I think it's a pretty good one. I wasn't really satisfied with the ending, but with this sort of book that's sort of the point. There is no happy ending tied up in a bow after something so horrific has happened.

How do you feel about books that deal with such painful topics? I'm still on the fence about them, even though I appreciated this one.

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

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Light So Lovely by Sarah Arthur, 2018

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Bestselling and beloved author Madeleine L'Engle, Newbery winner for A Wrinkle in Time, was known the world round for her imaginative spirit and stories. She was also known to spark controversy - too Christian for some, too unorthodox for others. Somewhere in the middle was a complex woman whose embrace of paradox has much to say to a new generation of readers today.

A Light So Lovely paints a vivid portrait of this enigmatic icon's spiritual legacy, starting with her inner world and expanding into fresh reflections of her writing for readers today. Listen in on intimate interviews with L'Engle's literary contemporaries such as Philip Yancey and Luci Shaw, L'Engle's granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, and influential fans such as Makoto Fujimura, Nikki Grimes, and Sarah Bessey, as they reveal new layers to the woman behind the stories we know and love. A vibrant, imaginative read, this book pulls back the curtain to illuminate L'Engle's creative journey, her persevering faith, and the inspiring, often unexpected ways these two forces converged.

For anyone earnestly searching the space between sacred and secular, miracle and science, faith and art, comeand find a kindred spirit and trusted guide in Madeleine - the Mrs Whatsit to our Meg Murry - as she sparks our imagination anew.

(224 pages)

When I was young and tearing through every children's book I could find in the house, I stumbled across my mother's childhood copies of Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet. I picked up A Wrinkle in Time with absolutely no preconceived ideaas about it . . . and I absolutely loved it.

There's something so grabbing about the way those books take reality and flip it inside out, challenging our ideas of how the universe works. It's been many, many years since I last reread any of the books, but there are so many things I still remember so vividly from them.

One thing I do not vividly remember? Any references to God or Christianity, or any indication that L'Engle was a Christian. I mean, it seems obvious reading A Light So Lovely, but as a little girl reading the books I just found them to be interesting and exciting with no more religious subtext than any of the other books I was reading at the time (though I also didn't notice the symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia until someone pointed out to me that Aslan is Jesus, so take this with a certain grain of salt). It doesn't surprise me at all that some Christians denounced the series as being too new-agey, and in fact my mom was just as surprised as I was that L'Engle was some big Christian writer. She thought the books were just science fiction.

Anyway, all this buildup is to say that I found the discussion of L'Engle's life and faith in A Light So Lovely very interesting. I suppose it adds something to the series, though I admit I was just as happy when the books were just fun adventures without all this subtext. A Light So Lovely makes a lot of interesting points about L'Engle's faith and life, though I have to say that it's fairly disjointed and feels almost disorganized at times. It's organized into topical chapters like "Truth and Story" and "Religion and Art," each of which bring in lots of quotes from different people. But they often jump around in the timeline, so it's quite confusing. And I honestly don't really care that much about Madeleine L'Engle herself, so reading a bunch of quotes and conversations with other people I've never even heard of talking about her was not exactly exhilarating.

Above all, I think I would have much rather read a straight-up biography of her life than this slightly meandering discussion of her perspectives on religion and her habit of basically only seeing/remembering things in a way that fit her narrative. My mom tried to read it and stopped halfway through, similarly stating that she'd rather have just read a biography.

The book does include so many great quotes from L'Engle herself, though, so I'm going to end this review with a couple of my favorites:
"If it's bad art, it's bad religion, no matter how pious the subject."
Like it or not, we either add to the darkness of indifference and out-and-out evil which surround us or we light a candle to see by." 
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Maiden Voyage by Sarah Jane, 2018

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Isabella is shocked when her parents book her passage on the incredible Titanic and inform her that she'll be sailing by herself. She is given an envelope and told the contents will explain everything, but she is forbidden from opening it until the boat reaches the U.S.

Lucille is worried over her mother's poor health, and her father is always distracted, never around. Left to her own devices, Lucille discovers some dangerous secrets that could tear her family apart.

Abby is desperate. She's all her little brother has in the world, and her only hope is start a new life in New York. But the only way to do that is to smuggle her little brother aboard the Titanic and hope they can last the week without him getting caught.

Three girls, three different classes on the ship, yet their pasts and futures are more intertwined than they know--and their lives are about to be forever changed over the course of the Titanic's maiden voyage. That is, if they don't all drown in secrets first.
(256 pages)

I think at this point most regular readers of this blog know that I used to be obsessed with the Titanic.

The Titanic Museum in Belfast
By "used to be" I mean "not-so-secretly still am." Over winter break, I travelled (basically pilgrimaged) to Belfast, Northern Ireland to check out their Titanic museum on the ground where it was constructed.

I have to be perfectly honest and say that it's been a fair while since I actually read Maiden Voyage (I snapped it up as soon as I got it, but haven't neeed to review it for quite a while), and I don't have my copy here in college so I can't thumb back through it. I've actually forgotten a fair bit of the story, which I suppose in itself says something about the book.

Anyway, this is the third fictional novel I've reviewed on here set on board the Titanic. Of those, I do know that it's definitely my favorite. I actually cared about the characters and their stories, and I found the representation of the atmosphere onboard the Titanic in all three classes to be pretty authentic. I liked that there were a couple different storylines going on, and I found all of them to be pretty interesting (if quite melodramatic at times, even before they hit the iceberg).

My main complaint is that I kept getting the girls confused, especially Isabella and Lucille. It's strange, because their names are nothing alike, but I think they were just such generic names of similar "poshness" (and let's be honest, Isabella actually sounds more highbrow than Lucille does) that I couldn't keep track of which name went to which character. I had to stop and recalibrate a few times while reading, but other than that it wasn't really a huge problem. Just a nuisance.

Anyway, Maiden Voyage is a nice read both as a "chick-flick" type drama novel and as a pretty authentic historical fiction set onboard the Titanic. I quite enjoyed it, and I hope you do, too.

Comment below and tell us what really nerdy place you would travel to visit!

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

Friday, November 9, 2018

From You To Me by K.A. Holt, 2018

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Amelia Peabody lives in a small town where nothing changes. And that's just fine by her. After losing her big sister, Clara, a few years ago, Amelia can't handle any more change. But when she starts eighth grade, she accidentally receives a letter that Clara had written to herself. In it, there's a list of things she'd wanted to do before the end of middle school and never finished, like get on the softball team and throw an awesome birthday party on the lake.

Amelia wonders if it's a sign from Clara. Maybe if she completed the list, her heart would stop hurting so much, and she could go back to being her old self. But as she makes her way through, Amelia finds that there's no going back, only forward. And she realizes she'll have to put her own spin on Clara's list to grow and change in the ways she needs to.

K. A. Holt's beautiful new novel is about grieving and growing up, and the ripples loss creates for a girl, a family, and a community.
(208 pages)

I'm not exactly sure how it happened, but I read a lot of books about death and grief this summer. Whereas both Planet Grief and Speechless tackle the aftermath of death through a setting which forces the characters to deal with their feelings (a group counselling session and a wake, respectively), From You To Me shows Amelia's struggles to cope with her overwhelming grief long after the dust has settled and the rest of the world has moved on.

It's a sad angle, and I thought Holt's representation of Amelia's grief was well done (though I'm lucky enough not to have first-hand experience in this field). However, at times I got really frustrated with Amelia. Her best friend really is a wonderful friend, putting up with way more crap than I would probably have been able to handle in her shoes. Amelia's parents are less great, but that's to be expected since they're coping with their own grief. I did kind of hate how hard her father was pushing to get his wife and daughter to come back to the lake with him (in their shoes, I don't think I'd ever go near large bodies of water ever again!).

I liked the book, but somehow it didn't hit me quite as well as the other two grief books I've read this summer. I don't know why exactly that is, but I suspect part of it is because I got pretty frustrated with Amelia at times, and perhaps partly because as a Christian I was a little uncomfortable about Amelia's thoughts on the afterlife. On the whole, though, it's a pretty good book.

If you're on a kick looking for stories about girls coping with the death of their older sister, I recommend Riding the Flume by Patricia Curtis Pfitch. That's been one of my favorite books for over a decade!

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Speechless by Adam P. Schmitt, 2018

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How do you give a eulogy when you can't think of one good thing to say? A poignant, funny, and candid look at grief, family secrets, difficult people, and learning to look behind the facade.

As if being stuffed into last year's dress pants at his cousin's wake weren't uncomfortable enough, thirteen-year-old Jimmy has just learned from his mother that he has to say a few words at the funeral the next day. Why him? What could he possibly say about his cousin, who ruined everything they did? He can't recall one birthday party, family gathering, or school event with Patrick that didn't result in injury or destruction. As Jimmy attempts to navigate the odd social norms of the wake, he draws on humor, heartfelt concern, and a good deal of angst while racking his brain and his memory for a decent and meaningful memory to share. But it's not until faced with a microphone that the realization finally hits him: it's not the words that are spoken that matter the most, but those that are truly heard.

(304 pages)

You'd think a book set at a young boy's wake would be way too morbid to be entertaining.

Somehow, Speechless isn't. It's sad, of course, but Schmitt straddles that line between sorrowful and funny very carefully. Little details, like Jimmy's aunt who is an "expert wake-goer" and Jimmy's ongoing struggles with the dress pants he's outgrown, add a morbid sort of humor to the present-day scenes.

The flashbacks to memories with Patrick start out as comedic interludes as well, but they grow increasingly sadder as the book progresses, painting a picture of Patrick's struggles with what was probably undiagnosed ADHD, or something similar. I got so mad at his parents, because they did such an awful job helping him.

The narrative jumps around a lot, as Jimmy flashes back to all these different memories of Patrick, but since the flashbacks go roughly in order it never becomes too confusing. I thought it was very well done, and by the end of the book I felt like I knew all the members of both Jimmy's and Patrick's families quite well. I got very mad at some of the parents at times (especially Patrick's father and Jimmy's mother!), but it was clear that they were all doing the best that they could and I appreciated that level of realism–no one was ever turned into a stereotype, for good or bad.

Speechless takes material that would normally be overwhelmingly depressing and manages to make it entertaining. It's still sad, of course–Patrick's death was a colossal tragedy. But the tragedy is handled near perfectly, and it's wonderful. Don't read this book if you're dealing with death in your own life, of course, but I think most other readers could definitely get something out of Speechless.

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

Friday, November 2, 2018

Imposters by Scott Westerfield, 2018

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Frey and Rafi are inseparable . . . but very few people have ever seen them together. This is because Frey is Rafi’s double, raised in the shadow’s of their rich father’s fortress. While Rafi has been taught to charm, Frey has been taught to kill. Frey only exists to protect her sister. There is no other part of her life. Frey has never been out in the world on her own – until her father sends her in Rafi’s place to act as collateral for a dangerous deal. Everyone thinks she’s her sister – but Col, the son of a rival leader, is starting to get close enough to tell the difference. As the stakes grow higher and higher, Frey must decide whether she can trust him – or anyone in her life.
(416 pages)

Okay, is this not just the coolest premise ever? I used to desperately wish I were an identical twin because I wanted to trick people by trading places with my sister. In Imposters, this idea is taken to the ultimate extreme and we get to explore the consequences on the "bodyguard" sister's psyche.

Before I go any further, I should mention that though this book is the first Scott Westerfield novel I've ever read, it's actually the fifth book in the Uglies series. I have no idea what might be spoilers for the first four books, so please proceed with caution if you're afraid of spoilers.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I have to say that I find the worldbuilding fascinating. It seems that the main characters in the original Uglies books won some sort of fight against a dystopian government, which was seen as a triumph at the time, but now in Imposters we see how a triumph of good didn't magically fix everyone's problems: men like Frey's father leapt into the power void and molded the leftover society any way they chose. It's cool to see how varied the cities are, depending on what sort of family rules over them.

Frey's story itself is a cool one, as I touched upon in my opening paragraph, and I loved watching her explore the world outside her secluded warrior upbringing. Her relationship with her sister is the most important thing in the world to her, but she is suddenly thrust into a world full of other people to interact with. I wasn't a huge fan of her relationship with Col at first, since it felt kind of forced, but they grew on me over time.

My main gripe with the book is that while it's pretty violent (I definitely wouldn't recommend it for younger or sensitive readers), the plot meanders a bit. There's a fair amount of wandering around, when the characters don't know exactly what's going on. There are also some groups of characters who are presented like I'm already supposed to know about them, but I don't–holdovers from the earlier books, I suppose.

All in all, though, it was a grabbing read that kept me turning the pages. And that ending was killer! I can't wait for the next book now.

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