Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Royal Bastards

Author: Andrew Shvarts
Genre: Teen, Fantasy
Type: e-book
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
First Published: May 30, 2017
First Line: "Princess Lyriana came to Castle Waverly two months after I turned sixteen."

Book Description from GoodReadsBeing a bastard blows. Tilla would know. Her father, Lord Kent of the Western Province, loved her as a child, but cast her aside as soon as he had trueborn children.

At sixteen, Tilla spends her days exploring long-forgotten tunnels beneath the castle with her stablehand half brother, Jax, and her nights drinking with the servants, passing out on Jax’s floor while her castle bedroom collects dust. Tilla secretly longs to sit by her father’s side, resplendent in a sparkling gown, enjoying feasts with the rest of the family. Instead, she sits with the other bastards, like Miles of House Hampstedt, an awkward scholar who’s been in love with Tilla since they were children.

Then, at a feast honoring the visiting princess Lyriana, the royal shocks everyone by choosing to sit at the Bastards’ Table. Before she knows it, Tilla is leading the sheltered princess on a late-night escapade. Along with Jax, Miles, and fellow bastard Zell, a Zitochi warrior from the north, they stumble upon a crime they were never meant to witness.

Rebellion is brewing in the west, and a brutal coup leaves Lyriana’s uncle, the Royal Archmagus, dead—with Lyriana next on the list. The group flees for their lives, relentlessly pursued by murderous mercenaries; their own parents have put a price on their heads to prevent the king and his powerful Royal Mages from discovering their treachery.

The bastards band together, realizing they alone have the power to prevent a civil war that will tear their kingdom apart—if they can warn the king in time. And if they can survive the journey . . .

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: This book is full of adventure, betrayal, sword fighting, magic and some mayhem thrown in for good measure. And yet my feelings about this book are all over the place. 

On the one hand, I loved its mystery, energy and intense fight scenes. The characters are a downtrodden, motley bunch who you want to root for as they struggle to find their place in a world that is tumbling down around them. 

But Tilla and her misfits lacked depth and much of their connection was based on telling the reader instead of showing. I wish these relationships (and some plot aspects) were given more page time to develop. Some of the relationships flipped quickly from 'I can't stand her' to 'She's my bestest friend!' and I needed more to go on to make that leap. The same could be said for the romantic angle which was obvious from the beginning but, unfortunately, lacked substance (and could have been omitted, in my opinion).

I also struggled with the language for two reasons. First, it ranged in maturity from a middle-schooler in the beginning to teen speak (swearing and sexual language) later on. I also wasn't a fan of the inclusion of contemporary language. This is a Game of Thrones-type fantasy setting (mythical creatures, magic, sword fighting ...) and the inclusion of lines like 'we realized just how screwed we were' or 'it pissed me off something awful' didn't gel with the setting and felt distracting.

I liked this book but can't say I loved it. It's a good, fantasy adventure read but similar to many others in the genre. There's murder, betrayals, political upheavals, battles for power and insta-romance but no big surprises. Overall, this is a solid, lighter fantasy read for teens. 

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Disney-Hyperion for providing me with an e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The New Farm

Author: Brent Preston
Genre: Non-Fiction, Canadian
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 368
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Random House Canada
First Published: May 2, 2017
First Line: "All happy chickens are alike; each unhappy chicken is unhappy in its own way."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe inspiring and sometimes hilarious story of a family that quit the rat race and left the city to live out their ideals on an organic farm, and ended up building a model for a new kind of agriculture. When Brent Preston, his wife, Gillian, and their two young children left Toronto ten years ago, they arrived on an empty plot of land with no machinery, no money and not much of a clue. Through a decade of grinding toil, they built a real organic farm, one that is profitable, sustainable, and their family's sole source of income. Along the way they earned the respect and loyalty of some of the best chefs in North America, and created a farm that is a leading light in the good food movement.

Told with humour and heart in Preston's unflinchingly honest voice, The New Farm arrives at a time of unprecedented interest in food and farming, with readers keenly aware of the overwhelming environmental, social and moral costs of our industrial food system. The New Farm offers a vision for a hopeful future, a model of agriculture that brings people together around good food, promotes a healthier planet, and celebrates great food and good living."

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: I picked up this book based on a friend's recommendation. I'm not a huge non-fiction reader but I liked that the book is set in my local(ish) area and I was intrigued by this big city couple trying to make their mark on the food industry.

I won't lie, I went into this book humming the theme song from Green Acres but The New Farm is so much more than a story about a couple leaving the big city to start a farm. Preston's writing is engaging and humorous and he isn't afraid to show his missteps or naive notions about what it would take - financially, time-wise or personally - to run a successful, organic farm.

He shares the hard truth about where much of our food comes from, how we can and need to do better for ourselves and our environment and how good quality food should be available for everyone, no matter their socioeconomic standing. Throughout the book he weaves in the social, economic and environmental aspects of the food we eat. He stresses that it's important to know where our food is coming from and how it has been treated from the very beginning and that we need to insist on better food for our health and the sustainability of our food industry and environment.

This book is well paced and you find yourself learning about sustainable farming, the good food movement, immigrant workers in Canada and so many other important issues all within the framework of a humorous and entertaining read. You don't have to have an interest in organic farming or know the difference between a rutabaga and a turnip to enjoy this book. This is a story about a family who wanted to do better and did. The Prestons challenged the food industry, small farming, who has access to organic food and much more.

I have a new understanding of our current food industry and a greater expectation for quality, safe food for my family. I now wander the food store and wonder where and how this head of lettuce or potato was grown. I want better food and plan to take better advantage of the huge farmer's market near me and even inquire about a local Farm Share.  

I'm so happy that I picked up this book. It is inspiring, educational, funny, honest, important and has helped to remove the blinders I've had about the food that I buy. Even though the issue of successful, sustainable organic farming feels like a huge challenge Preston shows that it is possible.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Into The Water

Author: Paula Hawkins
Genre: Suspense
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 388
Source: Publisher
Publisher: DoubleDay Canada

First Published: May 2, 2017
First Line: "Again! Again!"

Book Description from GoodReadsA single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.

Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother's sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she'd never return.

With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.

Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath.

My Rating: 2.5 stars

My Review: This quickly became the must-read book of the Spring so I was excited to get my hands on a copy - especially since I enjoyed Hawkins' previous book, The Girl on the Train.

This book has a stunning cover but, from the beginning, it had a different feel than I expected. The first thing I noticed was that there were MANY points of view - so many that I had a hard time grasping who was who. Things got better once I made a cheat sheet of characters but it's not something that I like to do and I found it frustrating to have to keep referring to it.

If you're going into this book thinking it's the next The Girl on the Train -- don't. It isn't the addictive, twist-filled, fast-paced read that TGOTT was. It's more of a slowly unfolding mystery that is told by many characters - some of whom had very weak connections to the actual mystery. But even with all these 'cooks in the kitchen' the reader doesn't get to know anyone in much depth (nor are any of the characters vying for most likable - they're a dysfunctional, unlikable lot).

While I didn't find this book as compelling or suspenseful as I had expected, it had its moments. The mystery surrounding what happened to these women kept my interest but, unfortunately, the ending was lackluster with no big twist.

What this book does have is a very sinister, eerie vibe and an interesting premise but the convoluted, meandering plot and keeping track of the vast cast of characters diminished my enjoyment of this book. 

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

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Saints For All Occasions

Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback ARC
Pages: 333
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Knopf Publishing

First Published: May 9, 2017
First Line: "In the car on the way to the hospital, Nora remembered how, when Patrick was small, she would wake up suddenly, gripped by some terrible fear -- that he had stopped breathing, or spiked a deadly fever."

Book Description from GoodReadsA sweeping, unforgettable novel from The New York Times best-selling author of Maine, about the hope, sacrifice, and love between two sisters and the secret that drives them apart.

Nora and Theresa Flynn are twenty-one and seventeen when they leave their small village in Ireland and journey to America. 

Nora is the responsible sister; she’s shy and serious and engaged to a man she isn’t sure that she loves. Theresa is gregarious; she is thrilled by their new life in Boston and besotted with the fashionable dresses and dance halls on Dudley Street. But when Theresa ends up pregnant, Nora is forced to come up with a plan—a decision with repercussions they are both far too young to understand. 

Fifty years later, Nora is the matriarch of a big Catholic family with four grown children: John, a successful, if opportunistic, political consultant; Bridget, privately preparing to have a baby with her girlfriend; Brian, at loose ends after a failed baseball career; and Patrick, Nora’s favorite, the beautiful boy who gives her no end of heartache. Estranged from her sister and cut off from the world, Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. Until, after decades of silence, a sudden death forces Nora and Theresa to confront the choices they made so long ago. 

A graceful, supremely moving novel from one of our most beloved writers, Saints for All Occasions explores the fascinating, funny, and sometimes achingly sad ways a secret at the heart of one family both breaks them and binds them together.

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: This family saga spans several decades and follows two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa, who immigrate to the US in the late 1950's. Some of their early choices have severe repercussions which greatly complicate and weaken the strong bond they once had with each other.

The story's focus is on this dysfunctional family which has been unraveling for quite some time. The family members are adept at repressing how they truly feel and hiding deep, sometimes dark, family secrets - sometimes for decades. Besides the family turmoil Sullivan also explores what life was like for Irish immigrants, the horrible treatment of young, unwed mothers at the time and also touches on religion (specifically Catholicism) and its power and influence (good and bad) over people.

This was a slower kind of read that jumps back and forth from the late 1950's to 2009 and has various characters taking up the reins of the story. This helped to give some of the secondary characters more depth but the book mainly centres around Nora - the complicated matriarch who I wanted to hate but couldn't.

The one weakness for me was the ending which was left too ambiguous. After witnessing all of the family dysfunction I felt cheated out of the resolution and reveal.  An epilogue would have given readers more closure.

This is a slow burn kind of read but it held my attention throughout. I love reading about the tangled, sometimes messiness of families - in all their various forms.  This would be the perfect choice for people who enjoy books featuring the complexities of a dysfunctional family.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Knopf Publishing for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

In This Moment

Author: Karma Brown
Genre: Women's Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Canadian
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Harlequin
First Published: May 30, 2017
First Line: "I wake with a start thanks to a loud bang against the window on my side of the bed."

Book Description from GoodReadsBestselling author Karma Brown is back with a morally infused and emotionally riveting exploration of one woman's guilt over an unexpected—yet avoidable—tragedy.

Meg Pepper has a fulfilling career and a happy family. Most days she's able to keep it all together and glide through life. But then, in one unalterable moment, everything changes.

After school pickup one day, she stops her car to wave a teenage boy across the street…just as another car comes hurtling down the road and slams into him. 

Meg can't help but blame herself for her role in this horrific disaster. Full of remorse, she throws herself into helping the boy's family as he rehabs from his injuries. But the more Meg tries to absolve herself, the more she alienates her own family—and the more she finds herself being drawn to the boy's father, Andrew.

Soon Meg's picture-perfect life is unraveling before her eyes. As the painful secrets she's been burying bubble dangerously close to the surface, she will have to decide: Can she forgive herself, or will she risk losing everything she holds dear to her heart?

My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Review: Karma Brown came on my book radar with her previous book The Choices We Make --- a book I really enjoyed.  Brown doesn't shy away from hard issues that waver somewhere in the gray area of right/wrong and blameless/guilty but you know that she'll always give her readers food for thought and topics for book club debates.

While The Choices We Make hit me hard in the tear ducts with it's emotional build-up and ending, In This Moment is different in that its big event happens early on with readers getting a bird's eye view into the aftermath of one fateful decision. It wasn't as emotional of a read as I was expecting but it brings up some timely topics.

I related to the main character, Meg, early on and felt that Brown accurately described her internal dialogue as a mom trying to do the best for her teenage daughter. I can relate in varying degrees to Meg's second guessing her parenting decisions, her need to show everyone she can 'do it all' and Meg's desire to hold her daughter close yet knowing that she must begin letting go. 

The book focuses on the intense, guilty feelings that Meg holds onto from the accident. 
I didn't always agree with Meg's choices but I could see why she made them. My head kept saying it wasn't her really her fault but my heart could understand why she'd hold herself partially responsible, her inability to move on and feeling stuck in the 'what if ...' downward spiral. 

Brown gets to the heart of the issue of long-held secrets, insecurities and doubts. Guilt is a complicated, nasty thing and issues are rarely black and white. That said, there's a lot going on in this book with various relationships and issues - underage drinking, distracted driving, infidelity -- some topics working better than others. It verged on almost too many issues for one book.  

This was another good read by Brown that focuses on the sometimes complicated relationships between parents and children, spouses, friends and how one brief decision can sometimes gravely effect the rest of our lives.  

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Harlequin for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  All opinions are my own.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Emancipation Day

Author: Wayne Grady
Genre: Historical Fiction, Canadian
Type: Paperback
Pages: 336
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: DoubleDay Canada
First Published: July 30, 2013
First Line: "William Henry Lewis, of W.H Lewis & Sons Ltd.,Plasterers, Willie to his wife Will to his brother and friends, the Old Man to his sons, Pop to his daughter, William Henry to his mama who was living in Ypsilanti or Cassopolis, no one was certain where, or even if she was still alive, she'd be in her nineties, and also William Henry to himself, sat regally in his father's ancient barber chair, his hands spread across his knees under the blue pinstriped barber's bib, and watched himself in in the large wall mirror, while his brother, Harlan, shaved his chin."

Book Description from GoodReads: With his curly black hair and his wicked grin, everyone swoons and thinks of Frank Sinatra when Navy musician Jackson Lewis takes the stage. It's World War II, and while stationed in St. John's, Newfoundland, Jack meets the well-heeled Vivian Clift, a local girl who has never stepped off the Rock and longs to see the world. They marry against Vivian's family's wishes--there's something about Jack that they just don't like--and as the war draws to a close, the couple travels to Windsor to meet Jack's family.

But when Vivian meets Jack's mother and brother, everything she thought she knew about her husband gets called into question. They don't live in the dream home Jack depicted, they all look different from one another--different from anyone Vivian has ever seen--and after weeks of waiting to meet Jack's father, he never materializes. 

Steeped in jazz and big-band music, spanning pre- and post-war Windsor-Detroit, St. John's, Newfoundland, and 1950s Toronto, this is an arresting, heartwrenching novel about fathers and sons, love and sacrifice, race relations and a time in our history when the world was on the cusp of momentous change.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: This book explores racial issues in the mid 20th century and one man's struggle to find out who he is within the confines of prejudice - his own and society's. It's a slower read that uses three points of view - Vivian, Jack and William Henry, Jack's father. Each of these POVs helped to tell the story but William Henry was the only character whom I felt I got to know decently. 

I had expected to like this book much more than I did. For a book that deals with emotional and heated issues (self-identity, racism, family dysfunction) the story left me cold. I couldn't buy into Jack and Vivian's love story. Their connection to each other was weak and their interactions were awkward at best. It didn't help that I found Jack to be an unlikable, sullen and aloof guy. He's a jerk much of the time, especially to his wife, who herself came off as a scattered, overly naive, unmemorable character.

I liked that this book was set in Newfoundland (before it was part of Canada) and Windsor, Ontario and will give readers much to think about. My favourite part of the book was the ending. I found myself re-reading it to ensure that I understood what had just happened. Well played, Mr. Grady.  Well played.  

If this book had had stronger character development I would have rated this book higher. Emancipation Day is a book that will spark good discussion but overall it was just an okay read for me.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Woman in Cabin 10

Author: Ruth Ware
Genre: Suspense
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Canada
First Published: January 3, 2017
First Line: "The first inkling that something was wrong was waking in darkness to find the cat pawing at my face."

Book Description from GoodReadsIn this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

With surprising twists and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another taut and intense read.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: I jumped into The Woman in Cabin 10 with only a vague knowledge of Ruth Ware's first mega-hit book, In a Dark, Dark Wood. This book started off strong with quite a suspenseful, fast-paced beginning but as the book progressed it took on a strange quality due to the twist and finished a little lackluster.

What I liked: 
  • the venue that confines the possible suspects to a smaller area - it had a very Agatha Christie vibe and reminded me of the CLUE board game but with a nautical, posh theme.  "It was Professor Plum in the Spa with the cuticle brush!"
  • The nail-biting, suspenseful beginning was a good start and this pace continued until halfway through when my interest started to waver and the plot got a little weird.
  • cool, creepy textured cover 

What I struggled with: 
  • The further into the book I got the more I had to suspend reality and plausibility - especially when it came to the big twist (which happened too early in the book)
  • Then there's Lo - dear me! Add another unreliable narrator to the pile! Lo is a silly, whiny main character and not the sharpest knife in the drawer but she wins hands down as the most intoxicated! For a journalist, she wasn't professional - she interviewed no one, networked with no one and took no notes. I had had enough of her early on especially after the 'mascara scene' which was odd at best (who does that?! Ew!). I couldn't believe that she didn't see the twist, especially for a person whose job is to notice things. I was not a fan of Lo.
  • I liked that a solid reason is given for Lo's anxiety but her constant preoccupation with the safety of a woman she met for all of 1 minute seemed over-the-top ridiculous
  • The scenes towards the end of the book felt tacked on and could have been summed up much faster.
Overall, this is just an okay read. I liked the tension in some scenes and the smaller setting that keeps the characters in one spot but the twist and Lo herself made me lower my rating. 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood

Author: Trevor Noah
Genre: Autobiography
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Spiegel and Grau (Random House Canada)
First Published: November 15, 2016
First Line: "The genius of Apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe compelling, inspiring, and comically sublime story of one man's coming-of-age, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed. 

Trevor Noah's unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents' indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa's tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle. 

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man's relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother: his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The eighteen personal essays collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother's unconventional, unconditional love.

My Rating: 5/5 stars

My Review: When Jon Stewart left The Daily Show I was bereft. I did so love his witty, honest commentary and I had never heard of this 'Trevor Noah' guy who would replace him. But I needn't have worried. Noah quickly became one of my favourite 'tell-it-like-it-is' comedic commentators on current events and I wanted to know more about him.

In his book, through a series of vignettes, Noah shows his readers what life was like for him as a bi-racial child, who never felt like he really fit in, during post-Apartheid South Africa. He shares funny, loving, awkward and negative aspects of his childhood and many of his descriptions of the harsh realities of living in South Africa at that time will hit you like a punch in the gut. He was a self-proclaimed sh*t disturber as a child and teenager and some of his antics made me want to yell "What the heck were you thinking?!?" He definitely liked to stir things up.

“The names of the kids with detention were announced at every assembly, and I was always one of them. Always. Every single day. It was a running joke. The prefect would say, ‘Detentions for today…’ 
and I would stand up automatically. It was like the Oscars and I was Meryl Streep.” 

I respect his brutal honesty and I love, love, LOVED the special, yet often complicated, bond he had with his mother -- the ultra-religious, determined, fierce, rebellious woman who wanted so much more for her son. Though a few of her parenting methods may surprise some, her deep love for her son is indisputable.

She’d say things to me like, “It’s you and me against the world.” I understood even from an 
early age that we weren’t just mother and son. We were a team.”

Growing up I learned about Apartheid in school but I know I only got the bare gist of it. In stark contrast, Noah brings a human side to the economic and social aspects of segregation, hatred and the blatant violation of human rights and basic decency that one group withheld from so many others.

“Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared 
language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’ The architects of 
apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure 
we were separated not just physically but by language as well…The great thing about 
language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people 
that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. 
But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked.” 

"People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing."
This book is filled with wonderfully quotable tidbits (far too many to list here). The only thing I regret about this book is that I couldn't get my hands on a copy of the audiobook. Having Noah read the book to me would have been the icing on the proverbial cake. 

Before reading this book, I was already a fan of Trevor Noah. I enjoyed his honest yet humourous approach to current events (and his dimples didn't hurt either). He's obviously a well-informed and funny guy but, after reading this book, I have a better understanding of where he comes from. Trevor Noah will make you laugh, cry and give you much to think about. The hype surrounding this book is duly given. I highly recommend this book. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Life After Coffee

Author: Virginia Franken
Genre: Women's Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: personal copy
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
First Published: September 13, 2016
First Line: "Bacon."

Book Description from GoodReadsLast week, high-powered coffee buyer Amy O’Hara was trekking through the Ethiopian cloud forest on the verge of a discovery that could save the coffee bean from extinction. This week, she’s unexpectedly fired. 

Suddenly Amy’s days are no longer filled with meetings and upscale tastings, but with put-together PTA moms, puke-ridden playdates and dirty dishes. Her husband has locked himself in the garage in order to write the Great American Screenplay, while both kids are steaming mad at her because she insists on dressing them like normal people and won’t give up sending them to school with healthy lunches. 

It’s becoming clear that Amy may just be the world’s most incompetent mother, and she’s beginning to wonder if the only thing she’s good for is bringing home the bacon. When salvation appears in the form of a movie mogul ex-boyfriend who wants to employ her husband and rekindle their relationship, Amy starts to find she’s sorely tempted. . . .

One thing is certain: whatever happens, she’s going to need a lot more caffeine.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: I'm a coffee lov-ah from way back and was in the mood for a light read. 

Enter Life After Coffee.

My favourite part of this book was the humour. Franken gives readers some great one-liners, and delightful snippets of witty, dry humour.  My favourite kind.  The tone of the book is light even though some bigger issues are broached --- stay-at-home versus working-outside-the-home moms, parenting roles, fidelity, finances ...

While I generally enjoyed Franken's writing style I can't say I liked her characters. They were the weakest part of the book and were an unlikable bunch. They needed more depth and some rather big reality checks since Amy and her husband Peter had a complete disjoint when it came to priorities. Amy is unapproachable to her kids and adults around her and I became increasingly irritated seeing her utter lack of common sense when it came to her kids. She's gone for weeks at a time not entire years.

Peter didn't fare much better. He starts off as this Super parent in the eyes of his kids and fellow parents but when his wife, and sole breadwinner of their household, loses her job he suddenly abandons his kids, become a selfish jerk and focuses only on his screenplay. He's a grown man who has no concept about finances, how to behave professionally and has his head in the clouds (or up a particular orifice) much of the book.

Throughout the book, I felt bad for the two kids, ages 3 and 5, who didn't seem to have one full parent out of the two selfish ones they were given. Sadly, they were a product of their parenting and environment and their language and behaviours felt all over the place in terms of maturity and age-appropriateness.

This is a hard book to rate. It was a quick, light read with some rather witty observations about motherhood and it was interesting to see the behind-the-scenes of the coffee world. I liked the wee twist and enjoyed the ending BUT the characters were one-dimensional and an unlikable lot. If more time was spent giving the characters more depth I would have enjoyed the book so much more. I'm giving this book a generous 3 stars.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

New Boy

Author: Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Series: Hogarth series
Publisher: Penguin Random House Canada
First Published: May 16, 2017
First Line: "Dee noticed him before anyone else."

Book Description from GoodReadsFrom beloved, bestselling historical novelist Tracy Chevalier, whose mega-hit Girl with a Pearl Earring enchanted readers around the world, comes a poignant, unforgettable adaptation of Othello set in the fierce world of pre-adolescent children, where the grown-up forces of love and jealousy, and the hurt of being ostracized, can be as real and as devastating as for any adult.

"O felt her presence behind him like a fire at his back."

Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat's son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day--so he's lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can't stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players--teachers and pupils alike--will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Taking us vividly into the lives and emotions of four eleven-year-olds -- Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant "girlfriend" Mimi --Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: I went into this book with only the faintest gist of the themes and characters in Othello - a play I never studied in high school. New Boy is a modern take on Othello and part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series where various popular authors (from Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood to Gillian Flynn who will be taking on Hamlet soon) give some of Shakespeare's famous plays a modern take.

Several issues are addressed within this shorter story (under 300 pages) - from racism, power struggles, betrayal, revenge, love and weakness. The story is set within one school day at a 1970's local elementary school in suburban Washington, D.C with the main cast of characters being a group of 11-year-olds.

I can't say this book work totally worked for me. It's an easy read but I couldn't buy into the idea that 11-year-olds from the 1970's would speak and behave the way they did or be so overtly sexual. It would have been more believable if the characters were in the last years of high school. The shortened time frame didn't give readers time to believe that the strong feelings between the characters or the amount of tragedy and angst were possible.

What I did like was the small, insular setting and the various issues that were addressed. A lot happens within a short period of time but I was impressed with Chevalier's writing and how the issues were handled - particularly the blatant racism of not only the students but the teachers.

This modern interpretation of Othello is a brief look at hierarchy, racism and power struggles within a modern setting. It is a well-written, dark, emotional read that comes to a disturbing and abrupt ending. While I think people who have read Othello would benefit from it more, it could still be considered a good read for people who want to get the general themes of Othello.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Women in the Castle

Author: Jessica Shattuck
Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII)
Type: ebook
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre (UK)
First Published: May 18, 2017 (UK), March 28, 2017 (Canada)
First Line: "The day of the countess's famous harvest party began with a driving rain that hammered down on all the ancient von Lingenfels castle's sore spots - springing leaks, dampening floors, and turning its yellow facade a slick, beetle-like black."

Book Description from GoodReadsSet at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resistor murdered in the failed July, 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows. 

First, Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and na├»ve Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resistor’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war. 

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges. 

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: I've always been drawn to books set during WWII and after awhile you think you've read it all --  and then The Women in the Castle comes along. Shattuck is a talented storyteller who has woven her plot around the perspective of three widows during the war. These women are very different, not always likable to the reader, but they firmly agree that Hitler's view of Germany is not their own. Their stories are compelling as they try to keep their families safe and fed during the war and later as they struggle with their guilt, grief and forgiveness. 

The story is told via multiple characters and time frames but the plot and writing flows easily. Readers will quickly become invested in these three women as they struggle to pick up the pieces after the assassination attempt on Hitler fails. Times are hard, people are starving, everyone is suspicious of everyone else and yet its during this tumultuous time that an unlikely bond is formed between Marianne, Ania and Benita. Temperaments clash, emotions run high making their new friendships tenuous and when secrets are revealed the women deal with the stress, abuse, deprivations and even collusion in different ways and with varying results. 

The strength of this book is in its storytelling, it's rich characterizations and Shattuck's focus on the rise of Nazism through the eyes of German citizens. Many people wonder how the German people could allow Hitler to take control and commit such atrocities and I think Shattuck opens the door to that discussion. I found the post-war scenes most illuminating as regular citizens struggled with guilt over their complicity, not acknowledging the horrors around them at the time or not resisting enough. War isn't always black and white.  It's scary, confusing and murky at best and while the atrocities committed in the name of Nazism are not condoned, Shattuck shows her readers how regular people could get caught up in the constant rhetoric, deprivation and all-encompassing fear that pervaded Germany at the time.

This is a well-written story shows the strength and resiliency of women during extreme times. I applaud the author's unique and fresh perspective on a very popular genre and era. This book would be an excellent book club selection.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Bonnier Zaffre (UK) for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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