Saturday, 21 July 2018

Sharp Objects

Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Suspense
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 393
Source: Publisher

Publisher: Broadway Books

First Published: 2006
First Line: "My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly."

Book Description from GoodReads

WICKED above her hipbone, GIRL across her heart 

Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker's troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille's first assignment from the second-rate daily paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls.

NASTY on her kneecap, BABYDOLL on her leg

Since she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family's Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory.

HARMFUL on her wrist, WHORE on her ankle

As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims--a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.

With its taut, crafted writing, Sharp Objects is addictive, haunting, and unforgettable.

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Dark. Eerie. Traumatic. That about sums up Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn which is a disturbing, yet fascinating read about a dysfunctional family and the murder of two young girls in a small town.

In the past, the only book I'd read by Gillian Flynn was her mega-hit Gone, Girl and I'll be honest … I wasn't a big fan. But I'm so glad I don't hold bookish grudges because this was a great read!

In Sharp Objects, Flynn doesn't shy away from some meaty issues: psychological trauma, family dysfunction, abuse and a boat load of other sensitive issues. And it works. Readers are pulled into Camille's family and witness how their destructive dynamic continues to tie them together and understand why Camille's upbringing took such a toll on her mental health. Readers will feel hard pressed to look away from the destruction within this unique family and fans of Amy Engle's The Roanoke Girls will notice a similar feel since both books deal with a family scared by a dark history.

The only issue that brought my rating down was the ending. It felt too quick and glossed over issues I wanted more closure on. Otherwise, this is an engrossing read about dysfunction, with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. While this book isn't for the faint of heart, it is a captivating read and has put Flynn back on my bookish radar. I cannot wait to see the miniseries staring Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Gunners

Author: Rebecca Kauffman
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 261
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Counterpoint
First Published: March 20, 2018
First Line: "Mikey Callahan discovered something about himself when he was six years old."

Book Description from GoodReadsAchieving bold emotional complexity, The Gunners explores just how much one moment, one decision, or one person can change us Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called "mesmerizing," "powerful," and "gorgeous," by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with "The Gunners," his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally's death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: The Gunners is a story about six inseparable childhood friends who name their group after the surname on the mailbox of the dilapidated old house where they hang out. This group - Mikey, Sally, Alice, Sam, Jimmy and Lynn - did everything together until they were sixteen years old and Sally inexplicably left their group, fracturing it beyond repair.

Years later, they come together for Sally's funeral. Through different points of view, in two different eras, Kauffman shows the ups and downs involved in growing up within a tight knit group of friends. These relationships were wonderful, complicated and helped them weather the challenges of growing up.

This is a story about complex family dynamics and the effects of long-held secrets, but the main focus is on friendship and how, if you're lucky, the friends you make growing up will continue to have a special place in your life. These are the people who have seen you through tears, helped you weather family squabbles, stood by you after that horrific perm of Grade 6 and everything in between. As this story progresses, secrets are revealed, confessions are made and the bond, made decades before, remains one of the things that continues to hold them together. 

This is a feel-good kind of story that focuses on the influence life-long friendships can have on who we become as adults. If you're lucky enough to still be in touch with childhood friends, this book will have you reaching out for your 'oldie but goodie' friends and taking a trip down memory lane. 

Note: This review is dedicated to my very own Gunners: Beth, Nicole, Kris, Drew, Chris, Larissa, Barb, Kelly, Tracey …. I'm so very lucky to still have you in my life (and thankful that you don't have any pictures from the 'perm that shall not be named'). xo

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos and Other Tales From the Wild Side of Wildlife

Author: Lucy Cooke
Genre: Non-Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Basic Books
First Published: April 17, 2018
First Line: "How can sloths exist when they're such losers?"

Book Description from GoodReadsMary Roach meets Bill Bryson in this "surefire summer winner" (Janet Maslin, New York Times), an uproarious tour of the basest instincts and biggest mysteries of the animal world

Humans have gone to the Moon and discovered the Higgs boson, but when it comes to understanding animals, we've still got a long way to go. Whether we're seeing a viral video of romping baby pandas or a picture of penguins "holding hands," it's hard for us not to project our own values--innocence, fidelity, temperance, hard work--onto animals. So you've probably never considered if moose get drunk, penguins cheat on their mates, or worker ants lay about. They do--and that's just for starters. In The Truth About Animals, Lucy Cooke takes us on a worldwide journey to meet everyone from a Colombian hippo castrator to a Chinese panda porn peddler, all to lay bare the secret--and often hilarious--habits of the animal kingdom. Charming and at times downright weird, this modern bestiary is perfect for anyone who has ever suspected that virtue might be unnatural.

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: The truth about animals is that they're fascinating and most humans don't have more than a basic understanding of the creatures we share this planet with. Using her wicked sense of humour, Oxford educated zoologist, Lucy Cooke debunks myths about some of the animal kingdom's most misunderstood residents and shows the ludicrous and sometimes barbaric lengths humans have gone to in order to better understand animals. 

Think you know a lot about the sex lives of penguins, the antibacterial qualities of vulture poo or the just how well-endowed bats are? Well, think again, my friend!  

Cooke brings readers into the private lives of thirteen animals and shows just how misguided (and often downright wrong) we've been about animals over the centuries. While the research side got a little heavy in places, overall, she successfully balances the information (both ancient texts and more modern beliefs) with a healthy dose of humour and it is clear that she truly loves and respects the beasties she studies. 

This is an informative read but it's also peppered with truly hilarious anecdotes that will have readers giggling out loud. You can't NOT laugh about myths involving beavers pelting hunters with 'unique' missiles, chimpanzee farts, or be in awe of hippo suntan lotion or shocked by the special ingredient in some vanilla extract! (Yikes!)  But I know my husband was thankful when I finally finished this book because after reading each chapter I'd regale him with funny tidbits about sloths, moose (my fav!!), pandas, eels etc. The man can only take so much of my giggle-filled updates of all things animal, apparently.

Human arrogance, rampant anthropomorphism and ignorance has proven to be detrimental and downright lethal to many animal species. From hippos to pandas, to hyenas and the slooooowww moving sloth, Cooke's knowledge, respect and love for animals is evident and hopefully readers will become more informed about the unique and fascinating creatures in this bestiary so that we can better appreciate and understand them before it's too late. 

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Blood of Fire

Author: Marlow York
Genre: Fantasy
Type: e-book
Source: Reedsy
Publisher: Independently Published
First Published: January 8, 2018
First Line: "I was in the orchard, picking apples with the other Harvesters when it happened."

Book Description from GoodReads: Seventeen-year-old Valieri Fiero must flee for her life when her peaceful farming village is destroyed by the City, her clan’s powerful yet mysterious rulers. Haunted by the deaths of her parents and her older sister’s disappearance, Valieri must learn to survive on her own when she is captured by the Grakkir, a forest-dwelling Warrior race with rumored abilities to control god-like beasts.

The more time she spends in their world, built upon a foundation of strength and honor, the more lies she discovers about her own world and the City she once revered. But a fiery secret runs through her veins. Will she be able to harness this power and find her sister, or will the City stand in her way?

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the author via Reedsy in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: This is an impressive debut fantasy novel that will immediately engage readers with its well-paced plot, interesting array of characters and intense action scenes.

It's a good binge-worthy read that will immerse readers into York's fantasy world - a world that has enough similarities to our own to make new-to-fantasy readers not feel like they're totally out of their element, but gives ardent fantasy fans a little something new too. Readers will soon notice that the characters are different bunch and I was surprised when I found myself warming to a character that I never even remotely wished good will before -- Saven, I'm looking at you and your brethren.  

The other secondary characters, animal and human, are well-fleshed out and add to the overall plot but it's Valieri who will engage and impress readers as the main character. She has the right balance of uncertainty and drive as she learns to persevere after great loss and begins to see the world through different eyes. It's through Valieri that York addresses bigger issues involving society, the abuse of power and subjugation of others. These issues are woven into the larger plot and give the story a solid framework making this more than just a simple YA fantasy read.

The only thing that lowered my rating was the sometimes excessive self talk that Valieri would have in her own head or with Saven. The 'you can do it, just believe in yourself' inner dialogue felt long-winded when I just wanted to get back to the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The gorgeous cover art will pull readers in initially, but it's the well-paced, engaging plot and characters that will keep them glued to the pages. Fans of series like Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games or Joelle Charbonneau's The Testing, should enjoy this new fantasy series that brings teens, with much to lose, into the forefront of a world wrought with danger and uncertainty. The tension is kept high but it is the well-paced plot, unique and well-developed characters that will have readers eager for the next book to come out as soon as possible. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

An Ocean of Minutes

Author: Thea Lim
Genre: Dystopian
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Touchstone Books (Simon & Schuster)
First Published: June 26, 2018

Book Description from GoodReadsAmerica is in the grip of a deadly flu. When Frank gets sick, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him. She agrees to a radical plan—time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded labourer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.

But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured.

My Rating: 3/5 stars (a good read)

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Review: I was intrigued by the unique premise of An Ocean of Minutes and by the publisher's comparison with The Time Traveler's Wife and Station Eleven. A dystopian tale, little time travel and a love story that asks, "can true love stand the test of time?" Yes please!

Buuuuut, the similarities between the three books is weak.  Yes, there's a flu pandemic (Station Eleven) and yes there's time travel (Time Traveler's Wife) but that's where the connections end. I wanted to feel more energy, heartache, passion and the danger of a new world.

I found myself slowly becoming invested in the book with its descriptions of the post-apocalyptic world and needing to see how things would pan out for the couple. But I had issues with Polly and Frank.  I didn't feel the love between them. A little dysfunctional codependence, sure. But a sweeping romance to stand the test of time? Nope. I wanted to crawl inside their relationship to understand what they were giving up, but the reader is kept at arms' length with Polly, Frank and the secondary characters. As a main character, Polly is rather dull, emotionless and quickly goes from initially trying to find Frank in her new world, to half-hearted attempts to find him to apathy which was more than a little frustrating. 

While it wasn't all rainbows and unicorns for me this time out, there were parts I enjoyed and found this to be an easy read.  Lim has a fantastic premise and I applaud her for how she incorporated issues of immigration, migration and class structure into her story.  But with more romance, a stronger dystopian vibe and more connection to the characters I would have given this book a higher rating.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Her Pretty Face

Author: Robyn Harding
Genre: Suspense, Canadian
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
First Published: July 10, 2018
First Line: "Phoenix - Courtney Carey, 15, left her parents' home in the Phoenix suburb of Tolleson on the evening of February 23 to meet friends, and has not been seen since."

Book Description from GoodReadsFrances Metcalfe is struggling to stay afloat.

A stay-at-home mom whose troubled son is her full-time job, she thought that the day he got accepted into the elite Forrester Academy would be the day she started living her life. Overweight, insecure, and lonely, she is desperate to fit into Forrester’s world. But after a disturbing incident at the school leads the other children and their families to ostracize the Metcalfes, she feels more alone than ever before.

Until she meets Kate Randolph.

Kate is everything Frances is not: beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and confident. And for some reason, she’s not interested in being friends with any of the other Forrester moms—only Frances. As the two bond over their disdain of the Forrester snobs and the fierce love they have for their sons, a startling secret threatens to tear them apart…because one of these women is not who she seems. Her real name is Amber Kunick. And she’s a murderer.

In her masterful follow-up to The Party, Robyn Harding spins a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal, asking the question: Can people ever change? And even if they can, is it possible to forgive the past?

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 2.5 stars (an okay read)

My Review: Her Pretty Face is a domestic thriller that deals with deceit, hidden pasts and whether people with heinous pasts can truly change. The book focuses on the lives of two suburban moms whose lives start to unravel as their pasts come back to haunt them. 

This was a quieter, fairly predictable read that I wouldn't consider an edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story is told via alternating points of view as well as flashbacks involving an old murder.  While there is no mention that the plot is based on a real-life crime, Canadians will easily recognize the striking similarities between a highly publicized, violent crimes that happened here in Ontario in the early 1990's. The book follows this notorious crime so much that the suspense suffered for those of us who still remember the details of Canada's notorious serial killers.

Overall, this was an okay, lighter read but could have been so much more with added twists, more complex characters and a stronger ending. While I don't consider it a thriller, it is an interesting look at whether a person can truly change after committing a horrendous crime.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Dutch Wife

Author: Ellen Keith
Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII)
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 336
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Patrick Crean Editions
First Published: April 24, 2018
First Line: "The infant in the baby carriage opened her eyes and saw that I was not her mother."

Book Description from GoodReadsAmsterdam, May 1943. As the tulips bloom and the Nazis tighten their grip across the city, the last signs of Dutch resistance are being swept away. Marijke de Graaf and her husband are arrested and deported to different concentration camps in Germany. Marijke is given a terrible choice: to suffer a slow death in the labour camp or—for a chance at survival—to join the camp brothel.

On the other side of the barbed wire, SS officer Karl Müller arrives at the camp hoping to live up to his father’s expectations of wartime glory. But faced with a brutal routine of overseeing executions and punishments, he longs for an escape. When he encounters the newly arrived Marijke, this meeting changes their lives forever.

Woven into the narrative across space and time is Luciano Wagner’s ordeal in 1977 Buenos Aires, during the heat of the Argentine Dirty War. In his struggle to endure military captivity, he searches for ways to resist from a prison cell he may never leave.

From the Netherlands to Germany to Argentina, The Dutch Wife braids together the stories of three individuals who share a dark secret and are entangled in two of the most oppressive reigns of terror in modern history. This is a novel about the blurred lines between love and lust, abuse and resistance, and right and wrong, as well as the capacity for ordinary people to persevere and do the unthinkable in extraordinary circumstances.

My Rating: 2.5 stars (aka 'just ok')

My Review: The Dutch Wife is a Historical Fiction novel that tells the story of three people during WWII in dual story lines. The reader is privy to the points of view of Marijke de Graaf, a Dutch prisoner in the Buchenwald concentration camp and SS officer Karl Muller whose job it is to run the camp. The other story line, decades later, follows a young man named Luciano Wagner in Buenos Aires.

I'm all for dual story lines in books. I like getting a better look into different characters but the story lines weren't balanced well here. Luciano's POV felt so different and vague compared to the other two that I struggled to stay interested. Readers are kept in the dark (much like Luciano himself) about how Luciano fits into the main story line and it was frustrating being strung along for so much of the book. When the answers are finally given, it's late in the story and the connection wasn't much of a surprise. 

As a big reader of WWII fiction, I always welcome learning more about it. Keith taught me about aspects of life within the concentration camp that I hadn't known before, specifically for non-Jewish women. But I wanted more depth, stronger character development and more backstory, especially for Marijke. Why was she involved in the Resistance?  And I could have done without the romance angle which felt sudden, more than a little icky and I didn't feel I was given enough reasons to get behind it. With these issues and the abrupt ending leaving readers with unanswered questions, I thought The Dutch Wife was an okay, lighter Historical Fiction read, but not a book I'd be encouraging everyone to pick up. 

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Charlie and Frog

Author: Karen Kane
Genre: Middle School, Mystery
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
First Published: April 10, 2018
First Line: "Charlie's grandparents forgot he was in the room, which is how he ended up watching Vince Vinelli's Worst Criminals Ever!, wrapped in a blanket, terrified yet unable to look away."

Book Description from GoodReadsCharlie Tickler has been unceremoniously dumped with his sedentary, tv-obsessed grandparents in the village of Castle-on-the-Hudson while his parents are off to South Africa to save giant golden moles. Castle-on-the-Hudson may not have cell phone or internet service, but it does have murder, intrigue, and a School for the Deaf. Lonely and bored, Charlie decides to visit the library, where he meets an elderly woman who looks frightened as she tries to tell him something. But Charlie doesn't understand, and when the woman disappears, he searches for an answer.

The answer comes by way of Frog-a local girl who is deaf. Frog reveals the woman's desperate message to Charlie: dead. Charlie has no idea what this could mean, but Frog jumps at the chance to solve a real life mystery, just like her favorite fictional detective character, Dorrie McCann.

Now, Charlie must learn American Sign Language to keep up with quick-witted Frog. He soon discovers new ways to communicate while also forging a lasting friendship with the incomparable Frog.

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Charlie and Frog is an entertaining book that features a great friendship between two plucky kids who try to solve a mystery. There are some good twists, nefarious baddies and quirky humour throughout but it's the unique characters and setting, as well as the inclusion of ASL (American Sign Language) and Deaf culture, that makes this book stand out from the rest.

As a former Sign Language Interpreter myself, I was eager to read a book featuring a Deaf main character. The author, who is also an ASL/English Interpreter, impressively incorporates aspects of Deaf culture, language and Deaf pride within the story. For readers who are eager to get their 'hands in the air', the beginning of each chapter features an ASL sign that is prominent in the following chapter, and the chapter titles are written in both English and fingerspelled. 

The story follows Charlie, a boy who has had a lonely life with oddball parents and extremely sedentary grandparents, all of whom are inept at raising kids and don't pay him enough attention. When Charlie sees Aggie, a Deaf woman who appears to be in trouble, she signs something to him and then promptly disappears. Suddenly, a couple of suspicious men are asking about Aggie's whereabouts, so Charlie enlists the help of Francine (aka 'Frog'), a Deaf girl about his own age, for help deciphering the sign Aggie used.

Charlie and Frog is a fun and entertaining story that features a mystery that will keep readers guessing, an engaging friendship and some Deaf culture and ASL t'boot.  The book gives hearing readers a better idea of what it means to be Deaf and also features a heartwarming message: 'good people do good things'.  This would be a great pick for Middle School readers.

Monday, 25 June 2018

The Game of Hope

Author: Sandra Gulland
Genre: Historical Fiction, Teen
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Viking Books (Penguin Random House Canada)
First Published: June 26, 2018
First Line: "I saw a man approaching."

Book Description from GoodReadsFor Napoleon's stepdaughter, nothing is simple - especially love.

Paris, 1798. Hortense de Beauharnais is engrossed in her studies at a boarding school for aristocratic girls, most of whom have suffered tragic losses during the tumultuous days of the French Revolution. She loves to play and compose music, read and paint, and daydream about Christophe, her brother's dashing fellow officer. But Hortense is not an ordinary girl. Her beautiful, charming mother, Josephine, has married Napoleon Bonaparte, soon to become the most powerful man in France, but viewed by Hortense at the outset as a coarse, unworthy successor to her elegant father, who was guillotined during the Terror.

Where will Hortense's future lie? it may not be in her power to decide.

Inspired by Hortense's real-life autobiography with charming glimpses of life long ago, this is the story of a girl destined by fate to play a role she didn't choose.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: The Game of Hope is a historical fiction novel for Teens that focuses on the life of Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon Bonaparte's 15-year-old stepdaughter. The story is set in 1798 in France, not long after the horrors during the Reign of Terror.

This was a quiet, slowly paced book that focuses on Hortense's life. It's a coming-of-age story of a girl struggling to deal with the after effects of The Terror and her unique family life, while still dealing with the normal struggles of teenage girls of that era.
The Game of Hope had an interesting focus and premise and readers should enjoy getting to see a different side to Napoleon as a family man as he rises to power. But I was hoping for more historical detail. Readers learn about the history from the sidelines and only through Hortense' point of view as she goes about her daily life. Gulland provides a broad sense of post-Revolution France, but I had to draw on previous books (namely Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran) for a clearer picture of the devastation and horror of the time. Without a clearer picture of the era outside of Hortense' small world, I don't know if teens will truly grasp how horrific the Terror was for French citizens.

This is a good introduction of French history for teen girls featuring a protagonist their own age who lived a unique life as part of the Boneparte family and continues to deal with the after effects of the French Revolution.

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 
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