If I Stay by Gayle Forman

if i stayPublished by Speak, 2009 ****

One moment shattered Mia’s world and her tragedy is unfathomable. She witnesses the death of loved ones and her own trauma from outside of her body, but it’s presented in a way that doesn’t seem unbelievable. In this capacity, she is able to reflect on her life and relationships while struggling to comprehend her losses. I appreciated her voice, her vulnerability, and her honesty. She is portrayed as an authentic teen with all of the insecurities and uncertainties that come with the territory. Mia’s passion for the cello is admirable and I enjoyed the way music was depicted as a way for people to connect. I liked her hipster parents and felt the deep connection she had with her family. As for her boyfriend Adam, the deep and powerful love that I’m sure the author meant to convey did not resonate with me. I enjoyed her story but certainly don’t envy her situation or the future she will have to endure.

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The Greatest Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer

greatest stories never toldPublished by Harper, 2003 ***

I am a geek for all things trivia, and a book promising “100 tales from history to astonish, bewilder and stupefy” sponsored by The History Channel seemed fun. This includes inventions, sports, wars, people, discoveries, everything under the sun. Honestly, though, I was a bit underwhelmed. Each historical tidbit fills two facing pages and includes illustrations and photos. But I felt that some stories could have been elaborated on to make them more interesting. Others could have been left out completely to allow for some really great historical anecdotes to shine. Yes, I learned a few new and peculiar things like the origin of the QWERTY keyboard on the first typewriter, but there were so many other topics addressed that I wanted to know MORE about. It’s a nice little book that would make a good gift for history buffs (I originally bought it for my grandfather), but as a whole, it wasn’t engrossing.

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The Summer of Long Knives by Jim Snowden

summer of long knivesPublished by Booktrope Editions, July 2013  ****

A killer is on the loose in Munich and Kommisar Rolf Wundt is tasked with finding the culprit. Of course in 1936 Germany, plenty of people are being murdered and going missing, but the victims are young women of ideal German stock. When the hierarchy of the police structure becomes more complex with the interference of the SS, Rolf finds it difficult to do his job properly.

This is a very cerebral novel, and for a good part of the book not much happens other than witnessing Rolf’s mental process as he occasionally comes across a lead. It’s really more about the psychological state of the nation than the murders themselves. Framing innocent Jews satisfies the authorities more than finding the actual perpetrator. As the country descends into madness, there is less dedication to justice.

Rolf’s character is raw and vulnerable, but smart and cautious. He is compelled by his sense of duty despite his desire to escape Germany. As Rolf becomes more embroiled in the case, he struggles with his loyalties and his conscience.

This is not a light or easy read. The prose is rather dense, as there are so many complexities to consider in the case and in Rolf’s life. But it is well written with very clever uses of language, dialogue, and imagery. There are great literary and historical references (including the killer from The Devil in the White City). The somewhat plodding narrative is well worth it for the escalation of the conclusion.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.

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Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer

five days leftPublished by Putnam Adult, September 2014 ****

What would you do if you only had five days left with your loved one(s)? In Scott’s case, it’s with the boy he has fostered for the last year. For Mara, it’s everyone in her life, as she’s decided to kill herself before the effects of Huntington’s Disease have ravaged her beyond recognition.

Scott’s story is endearing because he has so much love to give to his foster son Curtis. But Curtis’s mom is about to be released from prison to resume custody, and Scott struggles to say goodbye. His compassion is at odds with his wife’s pragmatism and there is a lot of conflict between them when it comes to Curtis. Then tragedy strikes and they are forced to decide how it will affect their future. Scott’s determination to fight for Curtis is inspiring.

Mara’s situation is much more heartbreaking. After her diagnosis, she decides that when the degenerative neurological disease becomes too much to bear and before she completely loses her control of her faculties, she’s going to take her own life. As devastating as her condition is, I didn’t really like her as a character. I understand her frustrations with her own limitations, but she is stubborn, selfish, and self-centered. Yes I felt sorry for her, but I wasn’t entirely sympathetic enough to grieve for her. She’s ambitions, but her standards for perfection are too high. Mara only cares that she’ll be a burden and embarrassment to her husband and daughter, so she decides to end things on her own terms.

The author ties together their two stories through an on-line support group for foster and adoptive parents, and I thought it was done well. There were some really heart-wrenching scenes that would have a more emotional reader in tears. The driving questions of What Will Happen to Curtis and Will Mara Go Through With It kept me engaged.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program

I was inspired to pick this book because of Relentless Reader Jen’s awesome gif-centric review.  My agonizing gif would be:

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A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin

map of betrayalPublished by Pantheon, November 2014 ****

This book did two things very well: it offered insight into the political climate of China in the latter half of the 20th Century and a glimpse into the immigrant experience. But Gary Shang is no ordinary Chinese immigrant. Recruited as a translator by the CIA, he is sending America’s secrets back to his homeland. Despite having a family in China, a wife and child in America, and a mistress, he finds himself isolated as he protects his true identity. He manages to gain the trust of his government colleagues and the respect of high-ranking Chinese officials, but his double life is a lonely one. He is not allowed to return to China, having never met his children there. But he is not truly an American, though he learns to appreciate the privileged life it offers.

Decades after his death, Gary’s American daughter Lillian is seeking the truth about Gary’s role as a Chinese spy. She rediscovers the family he left behind and comes to terms with the decisions he made. Gary’s predicament gave me a better understanding of American-Sino relations and I appreciated how Gary attempted to justify his love for both countries in helping them exist on friendly terms. Jin’s prose is straightforward and matter-of-fact, but at times poetic when relating certain sentiments and describing particular sensations (it certainly left me with a craving for Chinese food). I always enjoy how he presents different Chinese perspectives and the challenge of learning to fit in.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program.

Other books by Ha Jin:

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Bookish Thoughts

  • The Hubs and I are watching all 8 of the Harry Potter films in sequential order and it is ever so much fun (we only have the last film yet to watch).  We were originally inspired by these (1) hilarious (2) posts (3) on Buzz Feed (4).
  • The Hubs has started book 5 in the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva.  I’ve only read books 1 & 2 so far.  Unacceptable.  But at least he’s reading!
  • I already have my stack picked out for Dewey’s Readathon in October (stay tuned!).
  • Bestie Rach and I will be bantering If I Stay in a few weeks. Yay!
  • You all know how much I love all things Tudors.  Yesterday I bought tickets to the opera Anna Bolena.  How awesome does this sound?

Anne Boleyn may be Queen of England, but she doesn’t stand a chance. Henry VIII wants her gone — with Jane Seymour taking her place on the throne and in his bed. And Henry’s minions do the dirty work, finding “proof” of Anne’s infidelities.

Donizetti exploits all of the glories of the human voice in this bel canto gem and trailblazes with a theatricality that hadn’t been seen in opera before. Listen to vocal fireworks and watch one of opera’s most gripping confrontations: the Queen rages when she finally discovers that Jane is her arch rival, and Jane is haunted by guilt — desperate to marry the King, yet knowing that she’s the reason he’ll send Anne to the scaffold.

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Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

gutenberg's apprenticePublished by Harper, September 2014 ****

This is certainly an ambitious book, though not nearly as ambitious as Gutenberg’s Bible. When Peter’s father tells him, “I’ve met a most amazing man,” his life is forever changed. He becomes Gutenberg’s right hand man, moving from apprentice to foreman, even making his own improvements to the printing process. This book certainly conveys what an enormous undertaking it was to print the Bible. The casting and carving of individual letters, perfecting spacing, proofing drafts, making revisions… It was such a labor intensive process to refine their craft. A dozen men working day and night made meager progress because of the sheer volume. Not to mention the vast resources (and therefore funding) needed beyond men for labor: ore, ink, paper, vellum, food, fire, light, etc. Then there is the price of secrecy. Something so revolutionary had to be kept secret until the 180 copies were printed and ready to market. Add to that the public’s fear and awe of something that produces writing so uniformly; this great machine that creates pages in minutes, when it would take scribes months to do the same.

The only thing that detracted from the overall luxury of the prose and the narrative was the politics surrounding the city of Mainz. The lengthy descriptions of chapters, guilds, financials, corrupt clergy, et al was somewhat tedious and difficult to grasp. Regardless, it was a well-told story with great history. I liked Peter as a character, I sympathized with how his loyalty was tested, and I admired his passion for his vocation. This is a novel for lovers of the printed word and is a fitting tribute to the legacy of Gutenberg and his innovation.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.

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