Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Lost Property Office

Author: James R Hannibal
Genre: Fantasy, Middle School, Steampunk 
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 400
Series: #1 in the Section 13 series
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
First Published: November 8, 2016
First Line: "A pair of rather large, blue-green beetles buzzed north over the River Thames, weaving back and forth over the water's surface in that haphazard pattern that beetles fly."

Book Description from GoodReadsJames R. Hannibal presents a thrilling adventure through history, complete with mysteries, secret items, codes, and a touch of magic in this stunning middle grade debut.

Thirteen-year-old Jack Buckles is great at finding things. Not just a missing glove or the other sock, but things normal people have long given up on ever seeing again. If only he could find his father, who has disappeared in London without a trace.

But Jack’s father was not who he claimed to be. It turns out that he was a member of a secret society of detectives that has served the crown for centuries—and membership into the Lost Property Office is Jack’s inheritance.

Now the only way Jack will ever see his father again is if he finds what the nefarious Clockmaker is after: the Ember, which holds a secret that has been kept since the Great Fire of London. Will Jack be able to find the Ember and save his father, or will his talent for finding things fall short?

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: I chose to read this book because it sounded pretty cool.  I liked the mystery and magical aspects and, honestly, the distinctive square shape of the book with its beautiful cover featuring a blue-green beetle caught my eye as well.

This is a middle school read that is a combination of steam punk, historical fiction, fantasy and DaVinci Code type adventure.  There are robotic scarabs, hidden passages, cool machines, the inclusion of some real historical events (namely The Great Fire of London in 1666) and even some magical elements.  It's got a lot going on and I was intrigued.

It has an interesting premise with Jack finding out he has special powers which he must use to locate a mysterious artifact to find his missing father.  This is the first book in a new series so there is a lot of world building going on but unfortunately it also gave the book quite a convoluted feel, especially in the first half of the book. 

My feeling on this book can be summed up by 'meh'.  I liked some parts but it was missing that special something. I spent the first third of the book trying to grasp the ideas of 'sparking' and 'tracking' (I sort of kind of got it but it was more complicated than I think it had to be). The middle third dragged and the last third, especially the last 60 pages or so, was where the action ramped up a notch.  

My 'meh' feeling also stems from the fact that it was too light on character development.  Sure, there's some good banter between Jack and Gwen but we really don't get to know them (and hardly see Sadie, Jack's sister, at all).  The nefarious Clockmaker wasn't featured much and came off as a moustache twisting baddie caricature.  

I think with a less complicated plot and more time spent on character development I could have really sunk my teeth into this book.  I'm hoping that now that readers have a good idea about this unique world the future books in this series will address the characters more because, while this is a good start, this could be a fantastic series for middle school readers.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Yes Please

Author: Amy Poehler
Genre: Autobiography, Humour
Type: e-audiobook
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Harper Audio
First Published: October 28, 2014
First Line: "At this very moment I'm trying to write this preface in the dark while my oldest boy, Archie, sleeps next to me."

Book Description from GoodReadsDo you want to get to know the woman we first came to love on Comedy Central's Upright Citizens Brigade? Do you want to spend some time with the lady who made you howl with laughter on Saturday Night Live, and in movies like Baby Mama, Blades of Glory, and They Came Together? Do you find yourself daydreaming about hanging out with the actor behind the brilliant Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation? Did you wish you were in the audience at the last two Golden Globes ceremonies, so you could bask in the hilarity of Amy's one-liners?

If your answer to these questions is "Yes Please!" then you are in luck. In her first book, one of our most beloved funny folk delivers a smart, pointed, and ultimately inspirational read. Full of the comedic skill that makes us all love Amy, Yes Please is a rich and varied collection of stories, lists, poetry (Plastic Surgery Haiku, to be specific), photographs, mantras and advice. With chapters like "Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend," "Plain Girl Versus the Demon" and "The Robots Will Kill Us All" Yes Please will make you think as much as it will make you laugh. Honest, personal, real, and righteous, Yes Please is full of words to live by.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

My Review: This was not my first time picking up this book.  I had taken out the hardcover copy at the library many months ago but couldn't get through the first chapter where Poehler discusses over and over how hard it is to write a book.  After a few pages of this 'poor me' attitude (as if someone forced her to write it) I gave up.  It just wasn't in the cards that day.

I recently decided to give it another shot but this time I took out the e-audiobook version with Poehler herself reading the book to me.  I love her quirky, fun attitude and it definitely comes through in the audio version. She also invites several famous faces to add little bits to her story including Carol Burnett, Sir Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner and Seth Meyers.  These additions added that Hollywood panache and some fun ... well, except for Meyers whose reading came off as extremely stiff and awkward which I hadn't expected from a SNL alumni. Even her mom and dad who read some parts felt more relaxed that poor Meyers.

It's hard to put this book into a specific category.  It's not quite a memoir, nor is a comedic laugh out loud book (although there were certainly parts where I did laugh out loud to the shock of people walking by me as I listened).  It's somewhere in the middle with the surprising theme of self-help coming to the forefront. I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise since Poehler is quite involved in her organization Smart Girls which encourages girls to change the world by just being themselves.  

My feelings for this book wavered all over the place.  As expected, this book has its funny parts and you get a sense of Amy's personality off-screen (which is quite similar to on-screen).  Poehler ranges from the funny, goofy friend to a quiet sage who gives some great advice.  But it has a very scattered feel to it as it jumps around from various topics and times in her life.  And, sometimes, as with SNL, the focus on some topics went on for too long and became awkward - this included her conversation with Meyers which went from kind of funny to 'I guess you had to be there', to awkward and finally 'ok, wrap it up!'

Poehler keeps her personal life close to the vest which, on one hand, I can understand but on the other, when I'm reading a memoir of sorts I kind of wanted to know more about her family life etc. If you're looking for info on her marriage and subsequent divorce from Will Arnett you won't get it here and even her anecdotes about life on the SNL set and Parks and Recreation are brief.

Overall, I admit to being a little underwhelmed by this book. It had its great moments but they seemed far and few between.  It's not a comedic book per se but much more of a look at life lessons she's learned, her rise to fame and some pretty great advice for getting through the sticky stuff of life.  Poehler is down-to-earth, genuine and is a funny gal who you can see yourself hanging around with. So, Ames, call me, 'kay? 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Six of Crows

Author: Leigh Bardugo
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: #1 in the Six of Crows series
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 462
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
First Published: September 29, 2015
First Line: "Joost had two problems: the moon and his mustache."

Book Description from GoodReadsKetterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone...

A convict with a thirst for revenge
A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager
A runaway with a privileged past
A spy known as the Wraith
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz's crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

My Review: I wasn't sure that I wanted to start a new fantasy series from Bardugo after I had a lackluster feeling for the first book in her Grisha series, Shadow and Bone. I was in the vast minority with my rating of that book but after teenage co-workers loved this book so much I decided to give her another shot. I'm glad that I did.

This book started off strong and I loved the premise of a heist and a gaggle of misfits.  Both this series and the previous Grisha series are set within the same fantasy world and, according to other readers, have some overlap between them.  But this is a solid stand-alone novel so you do not need to read the Grisha series before picking this one up.

This book has a lot going for it. There's suspense, action, some great banter between the characters and even some romance.  While it did feel like the author was trying to do a little too many romantic pairings of her characters I liked that the romance played more in the background and didn't feel like it outweighed the other aspects like the heist itself. 

What struck me about this book is that it is such an ensemble piece and has a great group dynamic. Many of the characters take up the reigns of the story giving readers an up close and personal look at each of them.  We learn some of their back stories and see their diverse personalities - hilarious Jesper, intense, sometimes hard to like yet brilliant mastermind Kaz, quirky Wylan, the strong yet silent type, Inej ... and a few more.  They were each so different yet their personalities complimented each other well. It would be hard to choose one favourite so I'll say that Inej, Jesper and Nina were my favs and leave it at that.  The book focuses on several different issues - from loss, to abandonment, to enslavement and deeply held discrimination these characters Six of Crows will have you feeling all the feels - the good and the bad. And I loved that.  

All in all, this was a really good book.  I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of Crooked Kingdom, the second book in this new YA fantasy series. 

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

A Gathering of Shadows

Author: V.E Schwab
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 512
Series: #2 in the Shades of Magic series
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Tor Books
First Published: February 23, 2016
First Line: "Delilah Bard had a way of finding trouble."

Book Description from GoodReadsIt has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell's possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland's dying body through the rift – back into Black London.

Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games – an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries – a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

My Review:  This past summer I read the first book in this series and I was immediately intrigued with the premise of four different London's existing at the same time, each with varying amounts of magic.

Unfortunately, this book second book in the series didn't live up to the first book and I think it could have been down-sized considerably.  The main issue I had was that not a lot happened.  Much page time was devoted to the build-up to this big, multinational magical competition (think Tri-Wizard Tournament from HP).  And yet the actual competition was lackluster and didn't happen until much closer to the end.  Other than this tournament not a lot else goes on and the larger story arcs, which I loved from the first book, weren't addressed to the extent that I had hoped.

The issues were compounded by the fact that the characters didn't seem to develop any further than they had in the first book and their personalities, while familiar felt muted (except for Lila's arrogance which ran rampant throughout).  But I did enjoy the addition of Emery Alucard.  He has some mystery, can handle Lila and has a healthy dose of sass.  But the animosity between him and another character, while explained, seemed much too weak of a reason for the intense and long held feelings between them.

Then there were issues with the plot that didn't make sense to me. Why would Lila, a Grey Londoner with no magical training, suddenly decide to cheat her way into a magical competition where the other competitors are people with magical ability and who have been training for many years?  She's arrogant and puts herself in increasingly dangerous situations and based on that alone readers are supposed to believe she has a chance to win the competition? Um, no. 

Overall, this was just an okay addition to the series.  Even though not a lot happened it remarkably kept my interest enough that I finished it. So why the three star rating when it feels like I've kind of dumped on this book?  Schwab is quite a talented writer, the story started off strong (mainly with Lila's story line and the introduction of Alucard) and I continue to love her premise of the four Londons. I also loved the addition of Rhy's romance.  Unfortunately, this book suffered a severe bout of Second Book Syndrome and felt like it was merely a set up for the third book in the series.  It had action, various romances and a good cliffhanger but I wish some of that energy had been used earlier on. I'm hoping that the author will pull out all the stops for the final book.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Dill Pickle Cheeseball

The Cheese Ball.  The ultimately easy party food.

Think about it.  

It's just a bunch of mushed up cheese, some spices and voila!  You have a delicious appetizer that will become one of your go-to items on an appetizer tray.

Our family is all about the cheese ball.  In fact, my sister Jennifer (who is well known for her dill pickle cheeseball - which this recipe is based from) makes multiple balls at a time because one of her 12-year-old twin boys could, can and has eaten his own weight in cheese ball.  Ok, I maybe not his weight but let's just say that you don't get in between this boy and his mama's cheese ball!

Last weekend I had some of my gals over to watch the DVD Bad Moms, drink some wine and eat some nibblies.  Each of us had already watched the movie in theatres so we could throw out spoilers with abandon.  And yes, the movie is still hil-arious.  Rude and crude but hilarious.

As host, I want to always feed people so I made up a tray of meat, cheese, crackers, olives etc.  On said tray was this Dill Pickle Cheese Ball and I think it went over well.  My gal, Lee-Anne asked for the recipe so I decided if my friends liked it, it was good enough to post here on the blog.

Appetizer items pictured above: Clockwise from top left - Dill Pickle Cheese Ball, Gherkins, Goat Cheese Spread with Fresh Herbs and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Brie with Homemade Red Pepper Jelly, Green olives stuffed with garlic cloves, Fantino & Modello Salametti Parmesan

Note: The Salametti is da bomb!!  17-year-old Boy 1 will inhale half of this salami on his own.  It's pricey but so delish.  It's salami wrapped in Parm!! *bliss*

The cheese ball is an easy appetizer (which would be great for the impending US Thanksgiving) that you can whip up ahead of time and even freeze for later cheese ball emergencies.  Easy, impressive and a crowd pleaser.  You can't get better than that.

Dill Pickle Cheeseball
Yield: 2 medium-sized cheese balls or 1 large cheese ball

8oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup diced dill pickles
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
A pinch of cayenne (optional)
2 tsp pickle juice
1 1/2 - 2 cups old (or medium) Cheddar cheese, grated
1 large garlic clove, minced

Garnish - dried dill, fresh parsley, finely diced pecans/walnuts ... (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients except garnish.  Mix well.

Divide in half and place each half onto its own piece of plastic wrap (or just put the whole thing on a piece of wrap and make one ball).  Wrap each mound into a ball shape and put in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight.

Before serving, unwrap cheese ball(s).  If you decide to garnish, either sprinkle dill over top or roll in diced pecans/walnuts or fresh parsley, pushing the nuts into the sides of the ball as you go.

If you don't need the second ball, you can keep it wrapped in the plastic wrap and place it in a medium freezer bag.  Partially close the freezer bag then, with a straw, suck out as much air from the bag as you can.  Seal up the freezer bag, label clearly with title and date and freeze for up to 3 months.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Review & Book Giveaway - The Survivor's Guide to Family Happiness

Author: Maddie Dawson
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Women's Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback ARC
Source: TLC Book Tours
Publisher: Lake Union
First Published: October 25, 2016
First Line: "So he was really, really leaving, like his parents had told him he had to, and even though she already knew he wouldn't stand up to them, she had held out the tiniest bit of hope that something would happen and there would be a reprieve."

Book Description from GoodReadsThree women, three lives, and one chance to become a family…whether they want to or not.

Newly orphaned, recently divorced, and semi-adrift, Nina Popkin is on a search for her birth mother. She’s spent her life looking into strangers’ faces, fantasizing they’re related to her, and now, at thirty-five, she’s ready for answers.

Meanwhile, the last thing Lindy McIntyre wants is someone like Nina bursting into her life, announcing that they’re sisters and campaigning to track down their mother. She’s too busy with her successful salon, three children, beautiful home, and…oh yes, some pesky little anxiety attacks.

But Nina is determined to reassemble her birth family. Her search turns up Phoebe Mullen, a guarded, hard-talking woman convinced she has nothing to offer. Gradually sharing stories and secrets, the three women make for a messy, unpredictable family that looks nothing like Nina pictured…but may be exactly what she needs. Nina’s moving, ridiculous, tragic, and transcendent journey becomes a love story proving that real family has nothing to do with DNA.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

My Review: This book explores family and all it's various forms and variations.  From the relationship between mothers and daughters, parents and their kids to siblings.  Add in the complicated feelings surrounding adoption and this book has a lot going on.

The story is told via the different perspectives of three women - Nina, Phoebe and Lindy - who are each eccentric in their own rights but while they are connected by blood they have been separated by a decision made several decades before.  These women have different life experiences and want different things out of their relationships with each other. I think their varied reactions to the adoption gives the reader a well-rounded look at the issue of adoption but I feel that one point of view was missing - the perspective of Lindy's adoptive mom. Readers get a glimpse, but a deeper, heart-felt look into how she felt seeing her daughter connect with her birth mom would have been touching and added another layer to the adoption issue.

The book focuses mainly on Nina who has a desperate need for family after the loss of her adoptive mother.  She's almost obsessive in her need to connect with people who are 'hers'. I will admit that I didn't always like Nina with her erratic and desperately needy behaviour.  Honestly, sometimes I wanted to shake some sense into her - especially when she becomes a doormat to her new 'family'.  She is a woman who wants to belong at any cost and she loses herself a little in the process but thankfully she goes through a metamorphosis which I enjoyed witnessing.  She's a positive person who imagines the best in situations (even if those dreams are unrealistic) and I suppose the cynic in me clashed a bit with her character.  

Readers also get a very different look at adoption through the eyes of Lindy, Nina's newly found sister as well as Phoebe, the mother who gave them up for adoption over 30 years before.  I really clicked with Lindy's story line and wish that she was given more page time.  Reader's get a look into Lindy's hectic life and what she does to compensate for her lack of control but I would have liked to have known more about her - what was it like growing up in a large family, how did things progress with her relationship with her adoptive mother, did she still feel the obsessive need to count things? 

The book started off strong with these varied characters and the mystery surrounding the reason for the adoption and my emotions ran the gamut with this book.  I enjoyed getting into the nitty-gritty of these complicated family relationships.  I liked that Nina's romantic life wasn't as easy road and how my emotions relating to that relationship went all over the place - from 'awwww, that's sweet' to 'dump him, now!' to a realistic, yet satisfying ending.  But other times I felt the energy lagged and I didn't quite like or want to know more about Nina. And then the author picks up the pace in the last third of the book and ends with a wonderful epilogue that brings things full circle and wonderfully imperfect. This is why I'm sitting here struggling with my rating.

Dawson's writing is strong, occasionally witty and has a very heart-felt feel to it.  Her characters were complicated and even though I didn't like many of the choices one of them made (Nina, I'm looking at you) I still felt they were accurately drawn and believable.  

I enjoyed this book for what it is - a look at familial relationships in all their (occasionally) messy and wonderful stuff.  Relationships - familial, parental and romantic - are hard, hectic and hopefully wonderful things.  

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing me with a complimentary paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Now it's time for one of my followers to win a copy of The Survivor's Guide to Family Happiness!!  Sorry, this giveaway is only open to Canadian and US residents.  Good luck!

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Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Borrowed Wings

Author: Ruthie Morgan
Genre: Romance, Contemporary Fiction
Type: e-book
Series: #2 in the Skylark series
Source: Author
PublisherLucky Arbuckle Publishing
First Published: August 4, 2016
First Line: "I was drawn to him."

Book Description from GoodReadsHow do you start again when your world has been torn in two? How do you move on when disaster follows like a shadow? Billie Skylark is trying, and Jack Kelly would like to know. 

Following the conclusion of Skylark; Billie must find her way forward and Jack must find his way back. 

In a world changed by fate and loss, the community of St. Cloud strives to find solace in love, friendship and new life. As Billie struggles out from the confines of Evan’s shadow, Jack fights to avoid the truth. But the future they try to build is threatened by the arrival of Jack’s brother Raife, whose presence forces open the Pandora’s box of Jack’s past. While Billie faces life alone, Jack must deal with the repercussions of death.

The small community are buffeted by St. Cloud storms, and life mirrors the islands dramatic weather. Dan finds himself helpless; forced to hurt those he loves most, Sadie has a secret that threatens her future with Jed, and Virginia faces a truth that turns her world upside down.

Borrowed Wings is the highly anticipated conclusion to Ruthie Morgan’s award winning debut novel, Skylark.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

My Review: I do so love a book with a whole bunch of drama and characters that leap off the page! With her new book Borrowed Wings, author Ruthie Morgan continues the engaging story she began in her first book, Skylark. When I read Skylark earlier last year, Morgan blew me away with her characters, story, humour and emotion.  So, it's no surprise that I jumped at the chance to read the sequel. 

This second book is very much an ensemble piece.  While the first book focused on the tumultuous relationship of Billie and Evan, this time around Morgan broadens her scope and allows the secondary characters from Skylark to take up the reigns. The story is told in a linear style but the multiple points of view give the reader better insight into the lives and struggles of various residents of St Cloud.  

Billie, the main character in Skylark, continues to tell her story in Borrowed Wings but I liked that she isn't always front and centre.  Her story is told in the first person so readers get to see how she's faring after returning to St Cloud and facing the memories that await her.  I liked witnessing her transformation from the darkness of loss and struggling to get her life back on track to figuring out who she is without her recently deceased husband. 

St Cloud is a small, tropical island community where everyone knows everyone ... or do they?  I enjoyed getting to know these secondary characters better and witnessing their joy and camaraderie and sharing in their heartbreak and tears. This book plays out like a big, emotional family drama complete with loss, redemption, love and a renewed sense of hope for the future.  People who enjoy ensemble casts, be it in TV (like Parenthood or This Is Us) or in books (like Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache series) will enjoy this series where secondary characters are given time to shine and bring their unique issues to the forefront.  

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book there were a couple of things that niggled at me. First, while I had a recollection about the bond that Billie shared with Jack in the first book, I felt that their connection in this book was assumed rather than shown. I wanted to see and remember why they had such a close relationship.  Also, I found it difficult at times to keep track of some of the characters.  There's a lot going on with multiple characters/relationships within several story lines. I ended up making a little cheat sheet to help me remember who was dating/married to whom, careers etc since it had been over a year since I had read the first book.  I didn't need the sheet for long but in the beginning, it was very helpful. 

Morgan is a beautifully descriptive writer who brings her readers into the heart of this small community, its residents and their own personal self journeys. She doesn't shy away from big topics or Kleenex worthy scenes such as: loss, life after loss, dealing with aging parents and sibling discord. Morgan balances these heavier topics by weaving her wicked sense of humour into her characters and their camaraderie which gives readers a clear sense of community on this small island. 

While Skylark was about the complexities of relationships with a nod to the darker aspects of love Borrowed Wings brings the story full circle and has a more redemptive, hopeful feel to it. This book is about the strength of friends and family - in all its varied forms - and finding one's way to fulfillment and happiness.

Note: I highly recommend reading Skylark first to understand the depth of Billie's feelings and loss as well as the relationships between the residents of St Cloud.

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to author Ruthie Morgan for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of her book in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

They Left Us Everything: A Memoir

Author: Plum Johnson
Genre: Memoir, Canadian
Type: Paperback
Pages: 288
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Penguin Canada
First Published: March 18, 2014
First Line: "The night before I turned sixty-three, I'm looking in the mirror, pulling my sagging jawline up to my ears, listening to voicemail on speakerphone."

Book Description from GoodReadsAfter almost twenty years of caring for elderly parents—first for their senile father,and then for their cantankerous ninety-three-year-old mother—author Plum Johnson and her three younger brothers experience conflicted feelings of grief and relief when their mother, the surviving parent, dies. 

Now they must empty and sell the beloved family home, which hasn't been de-cluttered in more than half a century. Twenty-three rooms bulge with history, antiques, and oxygen tanks. Plum remembers her loving but difficult parents who could not have been more different: the British father, a handsome, disciplined patriarch who nonetheless could not control his opinionated,extroverted Southern-belle wife who loved tennis and gin gimlets. The task consumes her, becoming more rewarding than she ever imagined.

Items from childhood trigger memories of her eccentric family growing up in a small town on the shores of Lake Ontario in the 1950's and 60's. But unearthing new facts about her parents helps her reconcile those relationships with a more accepting perspective about who they were and what they valued.

They Left Us Everything is a funny, touching memoir about the importance of preserving family history to make sense of the past and nurturing family bonds to safeguard the future.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

My Review: I went into this book thinking it would be an emotional journey of an adult daughter and her experience as the caregiver to her ailing, elderly parents.  Johnson writes well and helped me gained insight into the struggles of baby boomers who face caring for elderly parents, sometimes for decades. She also highlights the relationship between mother and daughter which can sometimes teeter-totter between loving and tempestuous. 

Unfortunately, I didn't feel quite the emotional impact which so many other readers raved about.  While Johnson shares some touching moments I felt the story got bogged down in the details as she goes through her parents' house and all of the items they accumulated over the years. It became more about cataloging family relics and dividing them up between the siblings. While these descriptions of furniture, pictures etc would be interesting to those within the family I can't say that I felt the same way.  Among these family relics stories about family lineage were thrown in here and there to give the reader a better understanding of Johnson's family's history.  With the focus on family keepsakes I lost interest around the half way mark and had to force myself to finish the book.  

What I did like about this book is Johnson's descriptive writing. She brought her neighbourhood in Oakville, Ontario and the house she grew up in to life with vivid descriptions.  She also doesn't hold back her honest, and sometimes hard to read, recollections of being raised by parents with very different parenting styles.  It felt like Johnson began to romanticize her parents after their death (which is bound to happen) but I couldn't shake the images of Johnson's childhood with a mother who came off as narcissistic and a father who was uptight about rules and doled out physical punishment for his children's 'own good'.

I found this book just an 'okay' read and wavered between giving it a 2.5 and a 3 star rating. I'm somewhere in the 'an okay read but not one I'd recommend' realm so I've upped it to 3 stars.  While I felt the book was well written and the author brings some interesting issues to the table regarding the care and loss of elderly parents, overall I found this book quite dry, disjointed in its telling and, unfortunately, I struggled to finish it.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Return to the Secret Garden

Author: Holly Webb
Genre: Children's, Historical Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
First Published: November 1, 2016
First Line: "The children marched down the street in a crocodile, and only one of them looked back."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe only friend Emmie Hatton has ever had at the Craven Home for Orphaned Children is Lucy, the little black kitten that visits her on the fire escape every day. But when the children of Craven Home are evacuated out of London because of the war, heartbroken Emmie is forced to leave sweet Lucy behind. The children are sent to Misselthwaite Manor, a countryside mansion full of countless dusty rooms and a kind, if busy, staff. Emmie even finds a gruff gardener and an inquisitive little robin that just might become new friends.

And soon, in the cold, candle-lit nights at Misselthwaite, Emmie starts discovering the secrets of the house-a boy crying at night, a diary written by a girl named Mary, and a very secret, special garden...

Return to the world of The Secret Garden with this enchanting new tale that will delight fans of the original story and new readers alike!

My Rating: 3/5 stars

My Review: I want to preface this review by saying that the original classic novel, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is my all-time favourite childhood book.  That meant that going into this newer version I had reservations and anticipation in equal measure.

Webb undertakes a huge responsibility to readers who loved the original as she continues the story of the garden and its next generation of admirers.  I enjoyed how Webb incorporated Emmie's story within the backdrop of WWII which was such a tumultuous and dangerous time when many children were sent out of London to the safer countryside to wait out the war.

While this book feels like it's written for a slightly younger audience than the original I think that the author captured some of the magic from the classic by including many of the original characters.  Readers who haven't read the original will still be able to enjoy this book because of old diaries that are incorporated into the story line which help reveal the back story for new readers and remind fans who have previously read the original.  

Webb has written a nice story with a hearty nod to the original.  But part of me wishes that she had added more of her own twists to make it stand apart more from Hodgson Burnett's version. I think it followed too closely to the original.

While this was a good read there were a few things that fell a little short for me: First, while Emmie was a good main character (who loves her wee cat almost to distraction of the reader) she lacked the sass and heart of Mary Lennox. Second, this book didn't have the eerie suspense that made the original so memorable.  I think Webb tried to add suspense by not revealing the true identities of some of the characters (namely Mr. and Mrs. Craven and the dower gardener - whose dialect was oddly conveyed on paper) until much farther into the story.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a hard code to crack for fans of the classic and I don't know if readers who hadn't read the original will necessarily make the connections easily.

In the end, I think young tweens (9-11 years) will enjoy this book. For fans of the classic it's a nice look at what could have happened to the original characters and while I didn't find this book quite as enchanting as the original it was an enjoyable and easy read featuring a truly memorable garden.

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

Thursday, 3 November 2016


Author: Alice Hoffman
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Canada
First Published: November 1, 2016
First Line: "In February, when the snow comes down hard, little globes of light are left along Route 110, on the side of the road that slopes off when the driver least expects it."

Book Description from GoodReadsFrom the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate.

Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt.

What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.

Here is a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last. For anyone who’s ever been a hurt teenager, for every mother of a daughter who has lost her way, Faithful is a road map.

Alice Hoffman’s “trademark alchemy” (USA TODAY) and her ability to write about the “delicate balance between the everyday world and the extraordinary” (WBUR) make this an unforgettable story. With beautifully crafted prose, Alice Hoffman spins hope from heartbreak in this profoundly moving novel.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

My Review:  This book is about the decade long downward spiral and self-redemption of a seventeen-year-old girl as she tries to come to terms with her grief and her guilt in the accident which put her best friend in a coma. 

This is the first book that I've read by Alice Hoffman.  It started off strong and had me quite engrossed in Shelby's descent into blame, grief and self-hatred.  This teen is hurting so fiercely; her grief is raw and she doesn't feel like she has many people in her corner.  Nor does she feel like she deserves anyone or any future.

I found the first third of the book quite interesting but after awhile it seemed like a lot of the same self-hatred, blame game and Shelby pushing people way.  The book itself is about Shelby's coming of age/redemption but it didn't feel like it had a strong sense of direction.  Instead, the plot meandered along until the pieces started to fall together for Shelby, in her personal and professional lives.

One of the aspects that kept me reading was the mystery surrounding who was sending Shelby secret notes which engaged her in a way that the people around her couldn't.  This mystery was quite compelling but its resolution was a little lackluster and I wasn't a fan of how things ended.  It felt too contrived and easy.

A big part of my feelings for the book stem from Shelby and my lack of connection to her.  She was a hard character to like.  I felt for her situation and her grief but she was very cynical, dark and so focused on self-loathing and intent on living a horrible life.  She's a hot mess for a lot of the book and believes that she deserves a horrible existence as penance for the accident she believes she's responsible for.  Even when the powers that be, including her friends, boyfriend(s), her attachment to animals and sudden scholastic ability, propel her to a better life she still feels undeserved. Hoffman writes the story in the third person and I think that by doing this she loses the chance for her readers to get inside Shelby's head and witness the grief through Shelby's eyes.

Overall, this was just an okay read for me.  It's a book about tragedy, loss, grief, blame and the complex relationships that we sometimes have, especially those between mother and daughter.  It's also a coming of age story with Shelby experiencing a lot of bumps along the way as she learns that she deserves love and a full life.

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

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Witches of New York

Author: Ami McKay
Genre: Historical Fiction (USA)
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 528
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Knopf Canada
First Published: October 25, 2016
First Line: "In the dusky haze of evening a ruddy-cheeked newsboy strode along Fifth Avenue proclaiming the future."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe beloved, bestselling author of The Birth House and The Virgin Cure is back with her most beguiling novel yet, luring us deep inside the lives of a trio of remarkable young women navigating the glitz and grotesqueries of Gilded-Age New York by any means possible, including witchcraft... 

The year is 1880. Two hundred years after the trials in Salem, Adelaide Thom ('Moth' from The Virgin Cure) has left her life in the sideshow to open a tea shop with another young woman who feels it's finally safe enough to describe herself as a witch: a former medical student and "gardien de sorts" (keeper of spells), Eleanor St. Clair. Together they cater to Manhattan's high society ladies, specializing in cures, palmistry and potions--and in guarding the secrets of their clients. 

All is well until one bright September afternoon, when an enchanting young woman named Beatrice Dunn arrives at their door seeking employment. Beatrice soon becomes indispensable as Eleanor's apprentice, but her new life with the witches is marred by strange occurrences. She sees things no one else can see. She hears voices no one else can hear. Objects appear out of thin air, as if gifts from the dead. Has she been touched by magic or is she simply losing her mind? 

Eleanor wants to tread lightly and respect the magic manifest in the girl, but Adelaide sees a business opportunity. Working with Dr. Quinn Brody, a talented alienist, she submits Beatrice to a series of tests to see if she truly can talk to spirits. Amidst the witches' tug-of-war over what's best for her, Beatrice disappears, leaving them to wonder whether it was by choice or by force. 

As Adelaide and Eleanor begin the desperate search for Beatrice, they're confronted by accusations and spectres from their own pasts. In a time when women were corseted, confined and committed for merely speaking their minds, were any of them safe?

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

My Review:  What do magic, mystics, suffragists, female oppression and Cleopatra's Needle all have in common?  They're a mixed bag of topics but they're all important parts of The Witches of New York.

McKay's story focuses around three women who just happen to be witches - Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St Clair own a tea shop which is a front for their real services for women which include tarot card reading, palmistry, herbal medicines, contraception etc.  Beatrice Dunn is a teenager who comes to New York and becomes an apprentice at the tea shop.

My favourite part of this book was the vivid description of the era.  This book oozes with the atmosphere of the time so readers will have no trouble imagining New York in the 1880's. I thought that the inclusion of Cleopatra's Needle, as it was being brought to Central Park, was an interesting way to bring a real historical element to the book.  

This era was male dominated and while magic and mysticism was quite prevalent within all walks of life there were still many who held independent women, such as Eleanor and Adelaide, with contempt and suspicion. I enjoyed that these three witches weren't portrayed as devil worshipers but strong women trying to lead normal lives ... with a touch of magic.  Getting a peek into Eleanor's family grimoire was interesting and I liked how these three women used their magical abilities to help and empower others.

The book started off quite strong with the characters quite varied and the addition of Beatrice and her, as yet unknown, abilities had me intrigued.  You may think it odd but my favourite character was Perdu, Eleanor's raven.  He was the most interesting character to me but sadly the mystery surrounding him is one of the loose ends that isn't dealt within this book which was disheartening. 

I found this to be quite a slow-paced book with a rather straightforward plot.  While it does have some suspense that builds, the conclusion is quite predictable.  There are a few 'baddies' thrown in to spice things up, like a jealous husband and Francis Townsend, a sadistic, religious zealot.  Both of these men bring some much needed energy to the book but I can't help but feel that these bad guys were portrayed as the clich├ęd villains. I wish this suspense could have been used more throughout instead of just at the end.

What McKay does give her readers is a strikingly vivid picture of life in 1880's NYC.  I enjoyed the addition of ghosts, mystics and magic as well as seeing how these strong, independent women handled being seen as threatening to the male-dominated culture.  But with the slow pace and the predictable ending I liked this book, I just didn't' love it.  In the end, this was a wonderfully atmospheric novel that puts female friendship, love and witchcraft in the forefront.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Knopf Canada for providing me with a paper copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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