Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Sweetness

Author: Sande Boritz Berger
Genre:  Historical Fiction (WWII)
Type: Advanced Reading Copy (ARC)
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: She Writes Press
First Published: September 23, 2014
First Line: "Like most Friday nights, I wait for Poppa by the parlor window."

Book Description from GoodReadsEarly in The Sweetness, an inquisitive young girl asks her grandmother why she is carrying nothing but a jug of sliced lemons and water when they are forced by the Germans to evacuate their ghetto. "Something sour to remind me of the sweetness," she tells her, setting the theme for what they must remember to survive.

Set during World War II, the novel is the parallel tale of two Jewish girls, cousins, living on separate continents, whose strikingly different lives ultimately converge. Brooklyn-born Mira Kane is the eighteen-year-old daughter of a well-to-do manufacturer of women's knitwear in New York.

Her cousin, eight-year-old Rosha Kaninsky, is the lone survivor of a family in Vilna exterminated by the invading Nazis. But unbeknownst to her American relatives, Rosha did not perish. Desperate to save his only child during a round-up of their ghetto, her father thrusts her into the arms of a Polish Catholic candle maker, who then hides her in a root cellar putting her own family at risk. The headstrong and talented Mira, who dreams of escaping Brooklyn for a career as a fashion designer, finds her ambitions abruptly thwarted when, traumatized at the fate of his European relatives, her father becomes intent on safeguarding his loved ones from threats of a brutal world, and all the family must challenge his unuttered but injurious survivor guilt.

Though the American Kanes endure the experience of the Jews who got out, they reveal how even in the safety of our lives, we are profoundly affected by the dire circumstances of others."

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to She Writes Press and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review:  Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, specifically books dealing with the Holocaust.  Told using two narratives The Sweetness follows the lives of two cousins during WWII: Rosha, an eight year old girl from the Lithuanian city of Vilnius and her teenage cousin Mira who is an upper middle class teenager living a very different life in New York. 

This was a much lighter look at the Holocaust and overall didn't seem to have the energy or the emotion that I was expecting.  This stems from the fact that it mainly focuses on Mira and her life in the USA as she tries to make her way in the fashion business and deal with her day-to-day family issues in the garment business.  The differences between Rosha and Mira's lives were unquestioningly glaring in contrast.  You could sense Mira and her family's fear for their relatives overseas as well as the cost to her aunt's mental health but ultimately it left me feeling like Mira's life was much more superficial than Rosha's loss and daily fears.

While this book did give the reader a view of the Holocaust through the eyes of a privileged Jewish teenager in the US, I can't say it was as emotional or riveting as I was hoping.  I can see it being popular with people who want a lighter read involving WWII and how the war affected a Jewish family on two different continents.

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Friday, September 12, 2014

Kit's Law

Author: Donna Morrissey
Genre: Historical Fiction, Canadian
Type: Paperback
Source: Local Public Library
Pages: 408
Publisher: Penguin Canada
First Published: 1999
First Line: "The walls inside the church in Haire's Hollow were sparkling clean up to the point where the A-shaped ceiling began.'

Book Description from GoodReadsIt is the Fifties in an isolated outport in Newfoundland. Nothing penetrates this antiquated existence, as television, telephones, cars, even roads, elude the villagers and the only visitors are fog-bound fishermen. Here, outside of Haire’s Hollow, lives 14-year old Kit Pitman with her mentally handicapped mother Josie — both women cared for and protected by the indomitable Lizzie, Kit’s grandmother. The three live a life of some hardship, but much love, punctuated by the change of seasons in the isolated gully where they live.

Then a tragic change in their circumstances brings back an old threat — that Josie be sent to an institution and Kit to an orphanage. Advancing this argument is the Reverend Ropson, who from the pulpit decries Josie as the “Gully Tramp.” Defending the women is Doc Hodgson, who brought Kit into the world and knows the secrets of her birth. An uneasy truce is forged, with the Reverend’s son Sid acting as spy and woodcutter, while village women supply food and gossip. Josie delights in Sid’s visits, and Kit grows to love him.

There is another menace in Haire’s Hollow — the notorious rapist and killer known as Shine. When Shine attacks Kit in a drunken rage, it sets off a chain of events that leads to further violence and a terrible revelation. Kit and Sid must decide which laws of God and man apply in their despairing world and how much misery they can bear.

Kit’s Law is a stunning debut written with the stark rawness of character and landscape of the Rock itself. It evokes the lyrical gifts of E. Annie Proulx, the emotional power of Wally Lamb, and the compelling storytelling of Ann-Marie MacDonald. At its centre is the innocence and determination of Kit herself, a young woman who experiences extremes of pain on the way to redemption. As she says: “It is better to sense nothing at all, to move through the world and glimpse it from a distance, then to split God’s gift in half and live in its underside, with no rays of light dispersing the darkness.”

My Review:  The fact that this book is set in a remote Newfoundland village in the 1950's caught my attention since I'm always on the lookout for new (or at least 'new to me') Canadian authors.  I found Morrissey's writing to be very engaging and lyrical as she vividly describes Newfoundland and its culture, unique dialect and small coastal town feel.

But it was an interesting premise regarding Kit's living situation and that kept me reading.  Kit, Josie and Grandma Lizzie's characters were well thought out and felt very believable.  So believable that there were a few times when I got frustrated with what Kit had to deal with on a daily basis with her mom, Josie.  It was a lot to bear for a teen and I could feel her frustration as well as her strong devotion to her family.

There are a fair number of secondary characters as we see what life is like in the small coastal village of Haire's Hollow.  I only wish the reader got to learn more about these unique characters - some of which, if I'm being honest, were just a tad too clichéd for my tastes.  It would have been great if the 'bad guy' had some redeeming quality or have a look into why the resident 'mean girl' is so mean (she reminded me a lot of the spoiled Nelly Oleson from Little House on the Prairie fame, an image I couldn't shake throughout the book).

There was one scene that had me nail biting/on the edge of my seat but unfortunately I saw the major plot twist from a mile away.  Even after I figured it out I was hoping for a red herring but that unfortunately never happened.  It was still a solid read but I would have loved to have had just one more twist.  After the plot twist was revealed the book felt a little jumbled and out of sorts with the ending being the weakest part of the book.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read with a wonderfully eastern Canadian feel to it.  The characters and location added a truly unique spin to the book.  I look forward to reading more from this author.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

That Summer

Author: Lauren Willig
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Local Library
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: June 2014
First Lines: "Someone's left me a house.", said Julia.  "In England."

Book Description from GoodReads2009: When Julia Conley hears that she has inherited a house outside London from an unknown great-aunt, she assumes it’s a joke. She hasn't been back to England since the car crash that killed her mother when she was six, an event she remembers only in her nightmares. But when she arrives at Herne Hill to sort through the house—with the help of her cousin Natasha and sexy antiques dealer Nicholas—bits of memory start coming back. And then she discovers a pre-Raphaelite painting, hidden behind the false back of an old wardrobe, and a window onto the house's shrouded history begins to open...

1849: Imogen Grantham has spent nearly a decade trapped in a loveless marriage to a much older man, Arthur. The one bright spot in her life is her step-daughter, Evie, a high-spirited sixteen year old who is the closest thing to a child Imogen hopes to have. But everything changes when three young painters come to see Arthur's collection of medieval artifacts, including Gavin Thorne, a quiet man with the unsettling ability to read Imogen better than anyone ever has. When Arthur hires Gavin to paint her portrait, none of them can guess what the hands of fate have set in motion. From modern-day England to the early days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Lauren Willig's That Summer takes readers on an un-put-downable journey through a mysterious old house, a hidden love affair, and one woman’s search for the truth about her past—and herself.

My Review: Have you ever finished reading a book and don't have a firm grasp on how you feel about it? You kind of liked it, but kind of didn't. That's where I stand with this book. 

On the surface this book has a lot of things that I enjoy in a book - a Gothic setting in a rather creepy ancestral home, dual narrative in two eras and historical references.  Sounds great, right?  I was expecting this book to be along the lines of the The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton or The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley.  And while it did have similar settings and time frames That Summer didn't have the substance or character development that the other two authors bring to their books of a similar genre.  There's something missing in this book.  I was a decent read but that's it.

I think the mystery started off strong and I was eager to see what family skeletons Julia would unearth in her new abode.  The addition of some extended family with questionable motives was wonderful but it wasn't used to the full extent I was hoping.  The story kept referring to Aunt Regina knowing all kinds of family lore and secrets but her role was very undeveloped and wasn't used to boost the storyline at all which was a shame because I think she could have brought a depth to the story.

I also didn't feel connections to Julia or Imogen and I know that that affected my feelings towards the book.  In the end, I was hoping for a grittier plot, a more substantial treasure hunt and more interesting characters.  This book felt more like Gothic Mystery Light - a hint of mystery but unfortunately not an edge of your seat kind of read. 

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Monday, September 8, 2014

Roasted Cherry Tomato and Balsamic Pasta

This summer (as in past summers) I could easily be known as the Crazy Cherry Tomato Lady. This spring I bought a small cherry tomato plant at my favourite food store and planted it in my wee 10x15' kitchen garden.  I gave it a third of the space and thought that would be enough.

Apparently I don't learn from experience and my inability to judge space and time is still going strong.  This wee plant grew to over six feet tall and just as wide.  I had to help Brad hack off branches so he could mow the lawn beside my raised garden bed and prune it on the other side so it didn't totally shade my green peppers.  Ya, no one can say this girl can't grow tomatoes!

And that's not all!  Apparently there were a 'few' cherry tomatoes from last year that dropped and seeded themselves so not only did I have the tomato plant that looks like it is on steroids but I had no less than 4 other plants growing in amongst my rhubarb, green peppers and herbs and onions.  Wha!?!  With me being the only tomato loving person in our house I had to take drastic measures.  Ya, I put up a call on Facebook to give these little tomato plants good homes and I managed to pawn off a few of them so others can experience the joy of gargantuan growing.

I joke about it but having 2lbs of cherry tomatoes/week has been awesome!  My mother-in-law, parents and I have been inhaling these sweet beauties all summer.  You know that they're tasty when you pop no less than 15 in your mouth as you drive home from work each day! And now that my plant is starting to wither a bit I'm making the most out of its last crop.  I made this dish a couple of days ago for lunch and it was so good I was talking to myself and giving myself kudos (since the dog wasn't offering up any praise).

This is a super simple, not too time consuming, pasta dish that has a sweetness to it from the roasting of the tomatoes and my beloved balsamic.  The touch of fresh rosemary and fresh Parmesan top it off perfectly!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did (and did a couple of days later when I made it for lunch again).

30 cherry tomatoes, cut length-wise in half
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp grapeseed or olive oil
1 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
2 pinches of crushed red pepper flakes
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 spaghetti servings

freshly ground black pepper
fresh Parmesan cheese** or goat cheese

Yield: 2 servings

Preheat oven to 400F.  Line a baking sheet with tin foil and set aside.

Place cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, oil, rosemary, red pepper flakes and garlic into a bowl and toss until tomatoes are coated with oil.

Pour tomato mixture onto the prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes or until tomatoes have wrinkled a bit.  They should look like these little beauties ...

Meanwhile, cook spaghetti according to package instructions.  Drain pasta and toss with a bit of oil (to keep the noodles from sticking to each other).  Pour tomato mixture (it's not a saucy mixture) over the pasta (making sure to get all the yummy liquid from the tomatoes and balsamic) and toss to coat. 

Top with freshly ground black pepper and fresh Parmesan cheese (or small dollops of goat cheese).  Serve immediately.

Note: This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled if need be.

** I've never been a fan of the Parmesan in a can.  Grating real, fresh Parmesan makes a world of difference with any recipe.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Drop Shot

Author: Harlan Coben
Genre: Suspense
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 310
Series: #2 in the Myron Bolitar series
Source: Public Library
Publisher: Delacorte Press
First Published: 1996
First Line: "Cesar Romero," Myron said."

Book Description from GoodReadsValerie Simpson is a young female tennis star with a troubled past whose now on the verge of a comeback and wants Myron as her agent. Myron, who's also got the hottest young male tennis star, Duane Richwood, primed to take his first grand slam tournament, couldn't be happier. That is, until Valerie is murdered in broad daylight at the U.S. Open and Myron's number one client becomes the number one suspect.

Clearing Duane's name should be easy enough. Duane was playing in a match at the time of Valerie's death. But why is his phone number in Valerie's black book when he claims only to have known her in passing? Why was she calling him from a phone booth on the street? The police stop caring once they pin the murder on a man known for having stalked Valerie and seen talking to her moments before the murder. But Myron isn't satisfied. It seems too clean for him.

Myron pries a bit and finds himself prying open the past where six years before, Valerie's fiancee, the son of a senator, was brutally murdered by a juvenile delinquent and a straight-A student was subsequently gunned down on the street in retaliation, his death squandered in bureaucratic files. And everyone from the Senator to the mob want Myron to stop digging.

The truth beneath the truth is not only dangerous, it's deadly. And Myron may be the next victim.

In novels that crackle with wit and suspense, Edgar Award winner Harlan Coben has created one of the most fascinating and complex heroes in suspense fiction--Myron Bolitar--a hotheaded, tenderhearted sports agent who grows more and more engaging and unpredictable with each page-turning appearance.

My Review:  By my quick calculation this is the sixth Harlan Coben book that I've read over the years.  His Myron Bolitar series is by far my favourite from this highly touted author of suspense and what makes this series stand out are the characters, specifically Myron and his cohort, Win and Esperanza, his unique office manager.

Myron is a former professional basketball player whose career was cut short by an injury.  He now runs his own agency representing sports stars and seems to have a penchant for solving crimes too.  If you are not a self-proclaimed sports aficionado (like myself) don't fear, the sports settings and jargon aren't overused.

Admittedly I've read a few books in this series out of order (which I typically don't do) and the one thing that I've noticed is that in Drop Shot Win isn't quite as funny or as dangerous as he is portrayed in future books nor is Esperanza used as much as I would have hoped.  It's these relationships that make this series for me.  The connection between Win and Myron is very unique.  I love the psychopathic personality of Win juxtaposed against 'Moral Myron' who can't bring himself to do the things that he uses Win for.  It's a good (if sometimes creepy) mix that I haven't seen in suspense reads before. 

So far I've read Deal Breaker as well as Promise Me from this series and Promise Me has been my favourite.  By the eighth book (or possibly sooner since I haven't read books 2-7) Coben has his characters more fleshed out and the sardonic humour is at an all-time high which I really enjoyed.  So at least I know that there is character development in the future of the series.

Drop Shot was a solid, slightly predictable, mystery with a decent twist at the end but while this was a quick read I can't help but feel that this wasn't my favourite Coben book in this series

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Eleanor and Park

Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Young Adult, Modern Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Source: Public Library
Pages: 328
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: February 2013
First Line: "XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus."

Book Description from GoodReadsTwo misfits. One extraordinary love.

... Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough...Eleanor.

Park... He knows she'll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There's a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises...Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

My Review: Every so often I enjoy picking up a teen read so when I heard glowing reviews of Eleanor and Park (even from a library co-worker) I was thinking that I was going to get something along the lines of "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green (ie. a touching teen read that requires you to keep Kleenex at the ready).

While this book does focus on first romance it didn't have the emotion I expected nor did I have the connection to the characters that I was hoping to have.  The book follows the day-to-day lives of Eleanor and Park and it pieces together their little moments together as their relationship blossoms.  But I needed a bit more than sharing cassette tapes and rides on the bus to get invested in their lives and I needed the evolution of their relationship to be believable.  And it just wasn't.  Their relationship went from him swearing at her on the bus to them suddenly sharing music and holding hands.  This quickly morphed into them hating being apart on weekends and feeling like they can't breathe when they're apart.  I prefer to see their relationship evolve and these were just too many leaps to be believable. 

I also had a hard time picturing these two together.  Park is a nice guy and I liked being able to see his family life but I can't see what Eleanor brings to the table in their relationship other than a negative attitude.  I get that she has a lot of reasons to be negative but even if the author had given me one little glimmer of what Park saw in Eleanor I think it would have helped me better understand their attraction.

The pace was rather slow and meandering throughout the book as it focuses on the small moments Eleanor and Park share.  There was no big 'wow' moment between them and yet the author still managed to keep me interested (no easy feat).  Unfortunately towards the end, just as the pace and my interest picks up, the story abruptly ends - leaving me feeling like the final chapter was missing.  Literary skid marks.  

I.  Hate.  That.   

This was a hard book to review because while it definitely had things that I didn't like there were some moments that I really loved.  The biggest thing that I liked about this book was how the author brought some rather heavy issues into the forefront.  From bullying, self identity, abusive home lives and poverty there was a lot going on in this book.  I found Eleanor's family situation heartbreaking since she's been dealt a rather crappy lot in life.  While I was hoping to see more character development with Eleanor, at the same time I can see how her home life could contribute to her consistently negative attitude as well as her deep need to feel connected to someone who brings even the smallest iota of positivity into her rather bleak life.

Overall, this book about a couple of misfits held my interest even if it was a bit underwhelming.  While I applaud the author for bringing serious teen topics to the forefront, Eleanor and Park's relationship felt very disjointed and the disappointing ending negatively influenced my enjoyment of the book.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Bellingham Bloodbath

Author: Gregory Harris
Genre: Historical Mystery
Type: Kindle e-book ARC
Source: NetGalley
Series: #2 in the Colin Pendragon mystery series
Publisher: Kensington Books
First Published: August 26, 2014
First Line: "One of Her Majesty's coaches was waiting to whisk us off to Buckingham Palace."

Book Description from GoodReadsAfter a captain in Her Majesty's Guard and his young wife are brutally murdered in their flat, master sleuth Colin Pendragon and his partner Ethan Pruitt are summoned to Buckingham Palace. Major Hampstead demands discretion at all costs to preserve the reputation of the Guard and insists Pendragon participate in the cover-up by misleading the press. In response, Pendragon makes the bold claim that he will solve the case in no more than three days' time or he will oblige the major and compromise himself.

Racing against the clock - and thwarted at every turn by their Scotland Yard nemesis Inspector Emmett Varcoe - Pendragon and Pruitt begin to assemble the clues around the grisly homicide, probing into private lives and uncovering closely guarded secrets. As the minutes tick away, the pressure - and the danger - mounts as Pendragon's integrity is on the line and a cold-blooded killer remains on the streets.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to NetGalley and Kensington Books for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review:  I really enjoyed reading The Arnifour Affair, the first book in this series back in December 2013. So when I saw that Gregory Harris had a second book in this series out I jumped at the chance to read it.  I do love me a Victorian mystery with unique characters.

Unfortunately, I felt that this book suffered a little from the sophomoric blues and I didn't find it nearly as riveting.  Even though there is a definite time crunch for the duo to solve the crimes, it lacked suspense and I really missed the humour between the men and Mrs Behmoth.  She was a breath of fresh air in the first book as she put the men in their place.  And while she was in The Bellingham Bloodbath she was a very tertiary character and I missed her.

By this second book in the series I was hoping to get a deeper look into the characters, their relationships and how they solve the crimes.  I still like how Colin and Ethan's relationship is written in a very casual way since the novelty of the relationship has worn off by the second book.  That said, I was hoping for a better look into their relationship and their pasts. The reader gets a glimpse into Ethan's past but Colin is still very much a mystery.

What I do know about Colin Pendragon is that he continues to have a very strong Sherlock Holmes vibe to him.  He is moody, brooding, self-centred, brilliant and yes, very arrogant.  Without getting a chance to see more of Colin's inner workings I fear that he will begin to be (if not already) just a Sherlock cliché.  I continue to have a weak understanding about how Colin deduces whodunit or even how he feels about situations and people.  Instead his thought processes were replaced with scenes where he was either off pumping iron or doing push-ups while he figured out the mystery.  As a reader, I prefer to see how the sleuth comes to his or her predictions and ultimately solves the case.  In this book the reader is supposed to just assume that Colin knows what he's doing and that didn't sit well with me.

Ethan's character came off as much more of a petty doormat not wanting to disrupt the brilliance that is Colin even though he came up with some great tips on his own.  And their 'spat' seemed petty and didn't endear either of them to me or give me insight into their relationship (if that's what Harris was going for).

As in the first book there are two mysteries that Colin and Ethan are trying to solve.  While there was enough momentum to keep me reading I can't help but feel that the mysteries weren't as dynamic this time around.  And while I did find the overall theme of tolerance to be a good message the character development and suspense weren't as gripping or enlightening as I was hoping. 

With this review it sounds like I didn't like this book but I did.  I guess I was just hoping for more.  In the end I thought that this was a quick and easy read and while I didn't love it as much as The Arnifour Affair it is still a decent follow up.  I'm hoping that in the future books of the series the author will take the time to help the reader understand the enigma that is Colin Pendragon.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lemon Basil Pesto

For my new followers, you'll begin to see that lemon and basil are some of the ingredients that will make appearances quite often here on my blog.  Because I do so luuurve them.  There's just something fresh and amazing about those two flavours and when you combine them?  Blam!  Gastronomical nirvana. 

If you're lucky, your basil plant is doing well this summer.  I'm not in that group of rare people (my plant looks pathetic this year) but I did manage to have a hearty crop last year.  Yup.  This is an old recipe (and pictures) from last year that I've been holding out on.

You'll forgive me when you quickly whip this nut-free pesto up in your kitchens.  I love it over a log of goat cheese but put a bit with some hot pasta and grilled veggies and man-oh-man it is really good!

This pesto (as well as my Sun-Dried Tomato Basil Pesto) don't contain pine nuts.  This is due to severe peanut allergies in our family. Since pine nuts are closely related, and there's a high risk of reaction, we just leave them out. Pesto is amazing but not so amazing that you want to stab someone with an Epi-pen and take a trip to the hospital for a couple of days.  So really, this 'pesto' is more of a 'pistou' (nut-free pesto) but for the sake of clarity I'm calling it a pesto.
This recipe makes a fair bit and in order to have a taste of summer on those dreary winter days (or to help with fresh basil shortages!) I like to freeze this pesto.  You can use ice cube trays or a melon baller and place the balls on a parchment lined cookie sheet.  Freeze for a few hours then place the cubes/balls of pesto into a Ziploc freezer bag and voila!  Garden fresh pesto whenever you want it!
Here's hoping that this hot summer weather stays with us for a bit more.  Maybe it will put some life into my wee basil plant so I can whip up some pesto for this upcoming winter!  Enjoy!
Lemon Basil Pesto
3 cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice (the bottled 'lemon juice' will not do!)
2/3 cup olive or grapeseed oil

Place basil leaves, garlic, Parmesan and lemon juice in a food processor.  Blend while slowly pouring the olive oil into the food processor as it's running.  Process until smooth or the consistency you'd like.

Use immediately, refrigerate for a couple of days or freeze as per the instructions above. 

Uses: over fresh pasta with grilled veggies, over a log of cream or goat cheese to serve with crackers, spread thinly on Panini sandwiches, put inside chicken breasts with brie cheese ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ava and Pip

Author: Carol Weston
Genre: Children's
Type: Kindle e-book ARC
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jaberwocky
First Published: March 2014
First Line: "Dear New Diary, You won't believe what I just found out."

Book Description from GoodReadsAn endearing tween story about friendship, family, identity, and inspiration

Outgoing Ava loves her older sister, Pip, but can't understand why Pip is so reserved and never seems to make friends with others. When Ava uses her writing talents to help her sister overcome her shyness, both girls learn the impact their words and stories can have on the world around them.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Sourcebooks Jaberwocky and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review: I have to admit that I very rarely read (let alone review) children's literature.  I'm not talking about Harry Potter or Percy Jackson but books for younger kids -- tweens and younger.  That age group just hasn't been on my radar as a book reviewer.  But as I try to get my almost eleven year old daughter into reading I thought reading and reviewing a book that looked like it would be her 'cuppa tea' would be a great way to encourage her.  The fact that Missy Moo is an introvert like her dear old ma and one of the main characters, Pip, is also an introvert was icing on the proverbial cake.

Going into this book I was assuming it was going to focus on the younger tween reader, grades 3-5, because the cover is really cute and oh-so-pink.  Ava (the main character and narrator) feels like a subdued Ramona (from Ramona and Beezus fame) which is also why I thought it would be for pre-teen girls.  But it also deals with Pip and the social issues she deals with as an introverted teen so in the end I'm not quite sure what age group this is aimed at. 

While this was a sweet book I have to admit that I wasn't a fan of the much used word games that Ava seemed to play throughout the book, specifically palindromes.  Ava and Pip's quirky parents love word games and their daughters love to look for palindromes in their day to day lives.  It's a cute idea but after more than a handful of palindrome examples I had had enough.  Perhaps they just felt out of place because I cannot imagine my daughter willingly throwing palindromes back and forth with her brothers or friends.  The story seemed to be peppered with them and, honestly I think it took the focus off the plot too much.

The relationships between the characters, specifically Pip and Ava as well as Ava and her mother were touching and felt authentic.  It was great to see how the sisters (and their friend) band together to help Pip with her awkwardness but the introvert in me (especially after recently reading and reviewing a book specifically on introversion) didn't like the fact that Pip's introversion was something negative within Pip that she had to change in order to be successful socially.

Ava and Pip, while being a light read, also deals with many childhood issues including bullying, social groups and even feeling invisible within your own family.  I liked how the author focuses on one lesser known form of bullying.  I'm not even sure if bullying is the right term because it's not the 'in your face' kind of bullying, whether it be physical or verbal, but the bullying that happens by not thinking through our words or actions and hurting someone in the process.  I think that focusing on this kind of behaviour will help kids to think more of what they say and instill some empathy for others.

Overall, this was a cute book that focuses on the relationship between sisters and mothers.  It has a good overall moral message and I'd suggest that this book would be a good fit for older tween girls.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Friday, August 15, 2014

We Are Not Ourselves

Author: Matthew Thomas
Genre: Modern Fiction
Type: Kindle e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
First Published: August 19, 2014
First Line: "His father was watching the line in the water."

Book Description from GoodReadsBorn in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.

When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.

Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.

Through the Learys, novelist Matthew Thomas charts the story of the American Century, particularly the promise of domestic bliss and economic prosperity that captured hearts and minds after WWII. The result is a riveting and affecting work of art; one that reminds us that life is more than a tally of victories and defeats, that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell each other so before the moment slips away.

Epic in scope, heroic in character, masterful in prose, We Are Not Ourselves heralds the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction.

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review: Lately I've been on a search to find a great sweeping saga of a read - one that spans a couple of generations and has a lot of drama.  So when I read the description of this book on NetGalley it seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

This book was described as 'epic in scope' so I suppose I was expecting much more of a intergenerational family saga with lots of energy, familial turmoil, engaging storylines and characters that I could root for.  Unfortunately, this book wasn't what I expected and I had a hard time staying interested.

I admit that certain scenes were touching but overall the book felt excessively long and lagged most of the way.  I think We Are Not Ourselves focuses so much attention on character development and relationships that the plot and energy waned and got bogged down in small, daily life details.

It didn't help that Eileen wasn't a character that I clicked with at all.  She comes off as self-centred and always on the hunt for the 'things' that will make her happy.  She was extremely superficial and I didn't connect with her at all.  I'm still not exactly sure why Eileen's xenophobia was brought into the storyline either.  It didn't seem to give me a better insight into her and made me like her even less than I already did.

Towards the end of this book I was still holding out hope that the author would divulge some big, monumental secret.  Some family skeletons that were going to turn things around and give this book some oomph.  Unfortunately that big reveal never came.  I will say that I found this book, at times, quite touching and emotional due to personal connections that I have with one of the major issues in this book. 

I truly wanted to like this book (and my feelings are in the minority with many other reviewers).  But while I found this book to be well written unfortunately it was just too slow moving and I wasn't fond of the characters or its unrelenting melancholy.

My Rating: 2/5 stars

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