Wednesday, December 31, 2014

* Top Ten (2014)

Top Ten Books of Past Years:

Choosing my top ten books this year was a lot harder than I thought it would be!  This was the first year that I didn't automatically go right to my list of five-stared books.  I had twelve on my list, so that put me at two over as it was.  Looking back, I realized that just because I had rated a book as five stars didn't mean that it was worthy of making my top ten list!  Some of my 4 and 4 1/2 stars were really unique and interesting and I just had to add them to the list.

This year was busy for me - as usual.  I got engaged in February, married in August, and my husband and we are currently a little over a month away from our daughter being born!  Lots of big life changing events and I have a feeling my reading is about to have some picture-book additions in the near future :)

Combine all that with working and grad school and I wasn't able to find as much time to read as usual.  However, I did manage to read some really great books in the past twelve months!  I also continued to listen to audio books quite a bit on the way to and from work and at work as well.  I've become a lot more picky with them - some books are just so much better when actually read!  I started listening to audio books by a number of authors that I have enjoyed in the past - Jodi Picoult, Kristin Hannah, and Chris Bohjalian to name a few.  I've started to use audio books as reading that I want to get through, but don't necessarily need to be 100% focused on.

This year, I read and listened to 56 books.  You can checkout my complete list on my goodreads page.  I almost made my goal of 60 books - maybe next year!

#10: The Kingmaker's Daughter (Philippa Gregory)

This is the fourth book in Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War trilogy.  In this novel, the story of the women of England's royalty before the Tutors is continued with Anne and Isabel Neville - daughters of the 'Kingmaker' and key components his ambitious goal to capture the throne for his family.  In traditional Philippa Gregory style, she captures all of the history and romance of 14th century England.

#9: The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien)

This isn't normally the type of book I usually read, but it has been sitting on my bookshelf for years and I finally got a chance to read it once my husband mentioned that it was one of the only books he has ever read and liked.  Told through many different, but connecting stories this very well-written and powerful collection shows the impact of the Vietnam was on several young men.

#8: Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)

This extremely unique and complex novels tells the story of a young women named Ursula who is born again and again into the same life during the span of the first and second world wars.  I wasn't sure I 'got' everything that this book had to offer, but it was a beautiful story.  More than anything else, this novel is about life and ow it is effected by the everyday choices that we make.

#7: The Smart One (Jennifer Close)

Much like Jennifer Close's first novel, this book seemed to catch me at just the right time and focused on three sisters and their struggles as they 'transition' to adulthood.  The book was funny, charming, and realistic and the author has an amazing knack for perfectly capturing those not-so-perfect but inevitable times.

#6: The Bookman's Tale (Charlie Lovett)

I am so glad that I came across this wonderful book by a new author that focused on so many great aspects - books, libraries, booksellers, romance, and Shakespeare.  It was charming and quirky and unbelievably sad and is the perfect book for book lovers and readers alike.  I preferred the parts of the book written in the past, but I loved the overall writing style and different storylines that were woven together.  I also loved the 'book preservation' scenes that captured the beauty of the book world perfectly.

This book was brilliant.  It is was the ultimate book for book lovers and I couldn't put it down!  It's about finding "the right book, at exactly the right time" and creating a world where print and technology can exist side by side.  Not only was it fascinating, but super fun to read.  I just loved it.  Robin Sloan got this one right.  

#4: The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)

I am so glad that I finally got to read this epic historical-fiction novel.  I swept through the 900-plus pages in a little over a week and loved every second of it.  This book had everything that I look for in a great historical fiction novel - lots of history and description, interesting characters, tons of emotion, and enough conflict to keep the story interesting.  I very much enjoyed the storyline, but my favorite part of the novel was the characters.  I was intrigued by each individual story, their relationships to one another, and how they each played a unique part in the building of the cathedral.

#3: The Winter Garden (Kristin Hannah)

I have been a huge fan of Kristen  Hannah (especially with Firefly Lane and Night Road) and was excited that she had ventured in the genre of historical fiction.  I absolutely loved this book!  I am a huge fan of anything World War II and this novel had an unique perspective of the Siege of Leningrad in Russia.  I really enjoyed learning about Anya's story as she told it to her daughters as a fairy tale (which I love) and seeing how it shaped their lives both as children and adults.  Hearing the story told this way made the novel extremely powerful and showed the importance of family and learning to live with the past.  I cried through the entire last hour or so on the way home from work.  This was an amazing book and one that I will remember for a long time!

#2: The Secret Keeper (Kate Morton)

In true Kate Morton fashion, the novel alternates between Laurel's search and her mother's past in war-torn London in the 1940s.  The book was very engaging, the characters were wonderfully developed, and I just loved the description of Laurel's mother and the people of her past.  I thought I had this book figure out so many times, but was pleasantly surprised by the ending.  Everything fit together so well and I was left in awe by the outcome.  I can't wait to get my hands on Morton's next novel!

#1: The Winter Sea (Susanna Kearsley)

I've read a lot of past/present historical fiction novels, and this is by far one of my favorites.  I loved the description and instantly was intrigued by the characters.  I usually have a tendency to like the parts in the past better, but this one was a dead tie.  This novel was extremely well-written and unique.  I knew it was going to be a 5-star from the very beginning and I loved the idea of using the writing of a historical-fiction novel as the contemporary story!  The research process was really interesting and I loved being able to learn more about it as the author did.  All-in-all and excellent book and a great new author to read! 

Monday, December 29, 2014

* Christmas List Books for 2013

Christmas List Books of Past Years:

Books that I got for Christmas this year:

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
Nefertiti by Michelle Moran
The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
The Smart One by Jennifer Close
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Sunday, December 28, 2014

* Christmas List Books for 2014

Christmas List Books of of Past Years:

This Year's List:

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Goodnight June by Sarah Jio

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

"Having faith in God did not mean sitting back and doing nothing.  It meant believing you would find success if you did your best honestly and energetically."

"Nevertheless, the book gave Jack a feeling he had never had before, that the past was like a story, in which one thing led to another, and the world was not a boundless mystery, but a finite thing that could be comprehended."

My historical fiction book for LIS 642 - Reading Interests of Adults

The Pillars of the Earth is an historical fiction novel centered around the building of a Gothic cathedral in twelfth-century England.  The epic story spans over five decades and intertwines the lives of several main characters.  The book begins when Tom Builder and his family come across Kingsbridge Priory with Ellen and her son Jack while looking for work as a builder after his wife passes away.  They seek refuge for the night, but when the church burns down, Philip Prior offers Tom the position of master builder to rebuild the cathedral.  Nearby, the son of a lord, William Hamleigh is rejected an offer of marriage by Aliana, the daughter of the Earl of Shiring.  William’s family seeks revenge by proving Aliana’s father is a traitor to the new King Stephen and takes over their land.  Left penniless, Aliana and her brother Richard end up in Kingsbridge trying to rebuild their lives.  As the cathedral is build, the lives of each of the characters become more and more connected and new characters are introduced. Kingbridge begins to grow and prosper each year, but is faced with constant barriers due to the ambition of William against the people of Kingbridge and the Priory.  

This book has been on my “to-read” list for a number of years but, at 974 pages, I haven’t gotten a chance to get around to reading it until now.  Historical fiction has always been my favorite genre to read.  When selecting a book from this genre, I found that I had read all of the “must-reads” listed except The Pillars of the Earth, so I decide to give it a try.  It took me a little while to get into, but once I got through the first couple hundred pages, I became obsessed with the story and couldn’t put it down!  Luckily, the fall semester was ending and I had a lot of time to read.  This book had everything that I look for in a great historical fiction novel - lots of history and description, interesting characters, tons of emotion, and enough conflict to keep the story interesting.  I loved the description of twelfth-century live (which I haven’t read too much about) and liked learning about the details of building a large cathedral and living in a priory.  I very much enjoyed the storyline, but my favorite part of the novel was the characters.  I was intrigued by each individual story, their relationships to one another, and how they each played a unique part in the building of the cathedral.  I couldn’t wait keep reading to find out what would happen to everyone in the story and kept rooting for them to find their own “happy endings.”  The Pillars of the Earth is one of the best books I have read in a long time and one that I will want to come back to again and again - granted that I have the time!

This book was #4 on my top ten list of 2014.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Day After Night by Anita Diamant (audio)

"Sometimes luck was just another word for creation, which was as relentless as destruction."

This novel covers the post-World War II experience of four young girls.  Their lives shattered after the Holocaust, Shayndel, Leonie, Tedi, and Zorah struggle to find new lives for themselves in a holding camp for illegal immigrants in Israel.  Each women deals with their loses and memories in different ways and come together as a support system.

I first read Anita Diamant many years ago when I read The Red Tent.  I believe I was around 14 at the time and it was one of earlier attempts at reading historical fiction.  Today it remains one of my favorite books.  Day After Night was no comparison, but I did enjoy reading it.  I read a lot of Holocaust historical fiction, and this one gave the unique perspective of what happened to people directly after the events of the war.  Usually novels end in 1944-1945 or shortly after or flash back between the past and the present.  Day After Night had really unique characters that processed their past in different ways.  It was interesting to see the direct effects that the war had on them.  I did get a little confused sometimes with all of the story lines, but listening to the audio at work might have had some effect on that as well!

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

★★★ 1/2
"In the darkness of a thousand withered souls, it was Er Lang's hand that I sought, and his voice that I longed to hear.  Perhaps it is selfish of me, but an uncertain future with him, in all its laughter and quarrels, is better than being left behind."

 Li Lan, the daughter of a bankrupt family, receives word that she has been offered a proposal to be a ghost bride for the heir of the Wealthy Lim family.  The marriage would guarantee Li Lan and her family a respectable future, but she would have to be the wife of the dead son.  As Li Lan considers the options, she gets to know the Lim family and discovers their secrets.  During the night, she is visited by the son's ghost and during the day, she begins to fall in love with Tian Bai, the new heir of the family.  After a tragic accident, Li Lan finds herself trapped between this world and the next and struggles to survive before she is stuck as a ghost forever.

I have mixed feelings about this book.  I really enjoyed the beginning.  I loved the description of Malaya and it's traditions of marriage and family life.  The author made the scenery and time period so real, I could picture myself right in the books.  I thought that Li Lan's situation was really unique and couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen.  Toward the middle of book, I got a little restless.  Li Lan travels to the spirit world and I felt like this part of the book dragged on a lot.  It was interesting at first, but I kept wanting to get back to Li Lan's life in Malaya.  The ending was good, but the build up felt a little flat for me.  All in all an interesting read though.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

★★★ 1/2 
"It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it.  In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life.  You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin.  That brought you down to earth.  That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin."

I normally don't read too many mysteries, but this one has been sitting on my shelf for awhile.  This one was entertaining, but didn't have that "wow" factor for me.  I did enjoyed the character of Mma Ramotswe and her "small town" lifestyle in Africa though.  There were a lot of funny moments and interesting secondary characters as well.  It was a good audio book to listen to - not too much plot line to keep track of!  I also really enjoyed the authors book La's Orchestra Saves the World that I read a few years ago.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult (audio)

★★★ 1/2
"In the space between yes and no, there's a lifetime.  It's the difference between the path you walk and the one you leave behind; it's the gap between who you thought you could be and who you really are; it's the legroom for the lives you'll tell yourself in the future."

I must be reading too many Jodi Picoult books because I guessed the ending on this one...again.  Maybe it's just that I've been going back and reading her older books lately?  I don't know, but I'm use to having me completely surprised by the last few pages!

This one was good, but nothing special.  Years after June Nealon's husband and young daughter are killed in a tragic murder, she is faced with a tough decision.  Her daughter, Claire, needs a heart transplant and she doesn't have much time left.  Suddenly, she gets a phone call that Shay Bourne, the man that was charged for the murder of her family, wanted to donate his heart to Claire after he is put to death for the crime.  June is left with many questions about forgiveness, redemption, and what cost she is willing to pay for the her daughter's life.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult (audio)

"Every life has a soundtrack."

After one miscarriage too many, Max and Zoe's marriage of nine years is over.  After the divorce, Max struggles with alcoholism and goes to live with his brother, Reed, and sister-in-law, Libby.  He takes a turn for the worst and then becomes involved in their church.Zoe spends her time focusing on her career as a music therapist.  While working with a troubled teen at a high school, Zoe strikes up a close friendship with Vanessa, the school guidance counselor.  Their friendship slowly turns into a romantic one and the Zoe beings a new chapter in her life.  After Zoe and Vanessa are married, they decide they want to have a baby.  Struggling to have a child with Max, there are still three frozen embryos left from the fertility treatments.  Since Zoe can no longer have children, Vanessa plans to use the embryos to have their.  There is just one problem - Max has to sign off at the clinic and his new religious beliefs do not support Zoe's life style and raising a child in a save-sex marriage.

This novel brought up a lot of different issues.  The main ones, of course, was gay rights and what constitutes as a good family.  Max is forced to make hard decisions about the future of his unborn children.  There are also a lot of questions about what is considered to be a child, what rights the children have, and who gets to decide those rights.  

All in all, I enjoyed the book.  It was really interesting to see the different perspectives from each character.  I felt that the author was a little too "black-and-white" though.  I felt that there was too much focus on religion being a bad thing.  Just because someone is religious, doesn't automatically mean they are against gay rights.  Is it wishfully thinking that both can exist?  Maybe, but I felt that some of Max's story was a little far fetched and focused on the wrong aspects.  Throughout the book, I kept trying to form an opinion, but I ultimately decided that I couldn't really form one without considering all of the options.  And that just lead me to ask more questions.  I guess that's what a good book does - force you to ask more questions.  

Also, the book included a soundtrack of music that was played through the novel.  All of the songs were written specifically for the book.  Since Zoe was a music therapist and music was a big part of her life, this worked perfectly!  I'm glad that I listened to the audio book - otherwise I might have missed a lot of the songs. 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult (audio)

★★★★ 1/2
"History isn't about the dates and places and wars.  It's about the people who fill the spaces between them."

Sage Singer is a loaner in her small town - which is why working the late night shift at a bakery is the perfect job for her.  She loves her job, but has been a in a bit of a rut lately.  Both of her parents have recently died, she hardly talks to her sisters, her boyfriend is married, and her only real friend is her boss.  One day at the bakery, she strikes up a unique friendship with an elderly man named Josef.  Josef is seen as legend in the town - teaching German at the high school and coaching baseball - and frequently comes to the bakery with his dog.  Sage and Josef begin spending a lot of time together, but one day Josef asks her to help him die.  Sage is shocked at the request and Josef confesses that he was a Nazi during World War II.  Unknown to Josef (or so she thinks), Sage also has a link to the holocaust.  Her grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz.  As Sage struggles to make a decision, she also learns the story of her grandmother.  She is left with many questions about family, forgiveness, and acceptance.

I really enjoyed this book!  I've been wanting to read this for awhile - being a Jodi Picoult fan and having read lots of holocaust/World War II novels.  This book was a little different from her usual.  I had the ending pretty much figured out (which usually doesn't happen) towards the middle of the book, but I kept second guessing myself.  I liked Sage's story, but what really kept me going was the story of Minka, Sage's grandmother, and her experiences during the war.  For awhile, I almost forgot that Minka was just one part of the novel.  I also loved her writing of a fairy tale that ultimately saved her live in the camps.  It was really unique and has so many connects to her life.  This novel brought up a lot of questions about what was right and wrong and if someone can ever truly be forgiven for their past.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Bookman's Tale by Charlie Lovett

"What he wanted was to find that world-within-the-world where he could be himself by himself."

" 'That must be something to discover a book that nobody's ever heard of or everybody thought was lost.'
'It's every bibliophile's dream,' said Francis, and Peter knew in a second that it was his own."

Let me start off by saying that I kind of have a thing for the whole "book-about-books" concept.  I love books, and reading, and libraries - so ultimately reading about any of those things usually catches my attention.  This one was no exception.  It was the last of the seven books I got for Christmas last year.  I've been so busy I haven't had a chance to put up the official list, but it should be up in the next few days or so.  I've been reading/listening to a lot of average books lately and it was a wonderful surprise to find a book that I couldn't put down.  Luckily, I was working at the volleyball gym this weekend and my husband was up north hunting, so I was literally able to spend most of the last few days reading :)

This book had so many wonderful aspects - books, libraries, booksellers, romance, and Shakespeare.  I loved the writing style and the different story lines that were woven together.  This novel was ultimately three stories in one:

1.) In the year 1995 is a young man named Peter Byerly.  Nine months after the death of his wife, he is struggling to pick up the pieces of his life.  When I first started the novel, I assumed his was much older than he was.  He is essentially an "old soul," reflecting on his quiet life with his wife and working in the English countryside as an antique bookseller - I was surprised to learn how young he was!  When Peter receives a call about a estate sale of old manuscripts, he is thrown into following a mysterious and dangerous book trail beginning with the time of Shakespeare.  He also meets a women named Liz whom he tries not to like, but just might end up falling for.

2.) Woven into Peter's journey is the story of him and his wife, Amanda.  Both quiet and lovers of books, the two meet in college at the library where Peter works.  I loved there love story.  It was simple and beautiful and cute and romantic and tragic.  It made me cry - a lot.  I kept hoping the ending would turn out differently, but of course it didn't.  And I kept wanting to read more about them.

3.) The third story is one of an old book - a very old book that was Shakespeare used as the material for his play A Midsummer Night's Dream.  This was the same book that Peter was investigating.  This story traced the book throughout history and readers discovered how it ended up at an old home near Peter.  I found it particularly interesting to read about Shakespeare's time and how stories were passed down through different sources.

Another aspects of this novel that I found to be really intriguing was that off book repair and book preservation.  As a college student, Peter first finds himself working for the library's circulation department.  After he approaches one of the workers in special collections about repairing and old book that he knows Amanda will use, he spends the rest of his college years - and career - learning about and repairing old books.  I do basic book repair as part of my job at the Andersen Library at UW-Whitewater and it was really interesting to read about book preservation - especially the process of rebinding books.  And, of course, I loved all of the library jargon! 

All-in-all this was a great book!  I was debating on if I should give it 4 1/2 or 5 starts.  The story line of Peter and Liz trying to solve the mystery of the old book was a little farfetched.  It seemed a little too much like the Da Vinci Code - which I liked, but I didn't always feel that it fit in with the rest of the story.  I have, however, decided to give it 5 stars - simply because of all the "book-ness" of the novel and for the fact that I couldn't put it down.  And because of how much I loved Peter and Amanda's story.  Highly recommended for anyone who loves books and libraries!

This book was #6 on my top ten list of 2014.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Midwives by Chis Bohjalian (audio/abridged)

★★ 1/2
"Everything about [chance] scares the bejesus out of so many people; it's the this thing they try to avoid at all costs.

Eh, another so-so book by Chris Bohjalian.  I keep waiting to find another one of his books that I enjoyed as much as the The Sandcastle Girls, but it hasn't happened yet.  This is the last of his books that I've listened to on audio books - either at work or on my hourly commute each way.

This book focuses on the controversial issue of midwives in the early 1980s.  Sibyl Danforth has been a practicing midwive for years.  She has been a well-respected member of the community until a snowy night when a birth becomes dangerous.  Unable to take the mother to the hospital, Sibyl makes the rash decision to perform a Cesarean section on her patient after she appears to have died.  The baby is saved, but what happens next is a tremendous guilt mixed with a huge legal debate - did Sibyl make the right choice or was she the one who was responsible for the death of the mother.

The story is told from the point of view of Connie - Sibyl's fourteen-year-old daughter.  This gives readers a unique perspective of what her mother was going through during the trial and her emotions along the way.  She author brings up aspects of how doctors felt about midwives during the time period and the process of the legal system (I've somehow managed to read a lot of legal books lately...).  It was decent to read, but nothing that stood out too much for me.  I did read the abridged version though, so I might not have been getting all of the details of the story.  Midwifery proved to be an interesting debate and it would be interesting to look into how it is viewed differently today.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Fly Away by Kristin Hannah (audio)

"You will always miss her.  There will be days - even years from now - when the missing will be so sharp it will take your breath away.  But there will be good days, too, months and years of them.  In one way or another you'll be searching for her all your life."

Kristin Hannah is one of my favorite authors and I am currently going through many of her audio books.  This novel continues the story of Kate's family and best friend, Tully, after Kate dies of breast cancer the the book Firefly Lane. Deal with the lose of their wife/mother/daughter/and friend, each character must put the pieces of their life back together.  

This book was ok, but not one of my favorite of Kristin Hannah.  I enjoyed hearing about what happened to the characters after Firefly Lane ended.  Overall, it was a little to sappy for me - I don't usually to well with authors over talking emotions.  The novel began with Tully in a car accident a few years after the death of Kate and proceeded with several different back story lines of each of the main characters.  If often felt like a mix of a Lifetime movie and Charles Dickenson's A Christmas Carol.  I was interested in what had happened to everyone in the story, but I felt that there were too many "ghost of Christmas past" aspects.  It sometimes hard to tell whose back story we were hearing and many of the events were repeated several times.  

I think my favorite part of the book was the story of Tully and her mother Dorothy.  Tully was raised by her grandmother and hardly knew her mother growing up.  In this novel, we get to see Dorothy's tragic young adulthood and what events lead her to keep her distance from her daughter.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult (audio)

"This is what I like about photographs.  They're proof that once, even if just for a heartbeat, everything was perfect."

 After a tragic car accident, Cara's father suffers from a brain injury.  Cara is forced to make the decision on ending her father's life with her brother Edward, who has been away for the past six years after a fight with their father.  As they discuss their option, a web of family secrets are unraveled.

I enjoyed this book a lot.  I loved Jodi Picoult's style of having multiple narrators and tackling tough subjects.  Each voice in the novel provides the reader with a unique aspect of the situation. This book focused primarily on family and the quality of life.  It also had a lot of animal aspects in it due to the fact that Cara's father was a zoologist and studied wolves for most of his adult life.  He was vary detailed in his study of wolf behavior and it was really interesting to learn about his story while his family was dealing with his injuries in the present.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

"There are times when our victories have a cost that we did not foresee, when winning brings us loss."

Nicola Marter was born with a unique gift that allows her to see a glimpse of the past when she touches an object - a gift that she has tried her whole life to keep a secret.  When she is approached by a women looking to sell an object known as the firebird, Nicola is convinced to jump into the past and find out the truth.  Here, she discovers a young girl named Anna and the mystery takes on a life of it's own.  Nicola travels to Scotland and then to Russia to discover Anna's story and involvement with the Jacobites and the Russian court.  She also finds her self on an adventure of her own that will test the limits of her powers and how far she is willing to go to reveal the truth.

I'm so glad that I discovered Susanna Kearsley a few months ago with The Winter Sea!  This novel continues with many of the similar characters.  It also follows a similar pattern of unique gifts and a sort-of time travel to the past.  I didn't find it quite as compelling as the first, but it was still very enjoyable.  I love Kearsley's writing style and unique storytelling!  She has a wonderful ability to weave together stories that are interlocked together and I can't wait to read more.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian (audio)

"Sara knew that behind its locked front door no home was routine.  Not the house of her childhood, not the apartment of her husband's, not the world they were building together with Willow and Patrick.  All households had their mysteries, their particular forms of dysfunction."

While on the annual summer trip to his mother's, Spencer McCullough is shot is accidentally shot in the shoulder by his twelve-year-old daughter, Charlotte.  What unfolds is a more complex story then anyone first thought.  And thrown in, are even more complex issues of animal rights.

Eh, I didn't really enjoy this book at all.  I didn't like any of the characters, and frankly, all of the animal rights and lawsuits aspects just annoyed me to no end.  Luckily I listened to it as an audio book, so it at least did help pass the time at work.  I now officially have a love/hate relationship with Chris Bohjalian.  I absolutely LOVED The Sandcastle GirlsThe Light in Ruins was really good too and The Night Strangers and Skeletons at the Feast weren't bad either.  But his more "contemporary" novels I can hardly get through.  Many it's the fact that I tend to enjoy historical fiction and care more about a story, but they almost seem to be written by different authors.  That's the big thing I missed in this book - there wasn't a really climax (at least not that I cared enough about) and then ending just seemed very insignificant.  I want to read another "Sandcastle Girls!" We'll see how "Midwives" turns out - the last of my Chris Bohjalian audiobooks.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

★★★★ 1/2
"He said: 'You don't understand.  We never thought that we were being used to conquer people.  Not at all: we thought the opposite. We were told that we were freeing those people. That is what they said - that we were going to set those people free form their bad kings or their evil customers or some such thing. We believed it because they believed it to. It took us a long time to understand that in their eyes freedom exists wherever they rule."
I expected this novel to be a love story - a "star-crossed lovers" love story that spans multiple generations and where the character's love triumphs against all odds.  This is not what it was.  I kept trying to see it, but it wasn't there.  And the more that I tried to make it into a love story, the more I realized that it wasn't what the book was about.  I kept hoping that things about finally go well for the characters, but they usually didn't.  Most of the time, the wrong characters were in the wrong place at the wrong time and things went horribly wrong.  But in the end, bits and pieces of good things came out of these wrong things.  And in response, new lives and new opportunities were created.  This novel was about family and betrayal and sorrow - lots of sorrow - and also about how the lives of a young man and a young women come together to shape something completely unexpected. 

The story begins in Burma with a young boy named Rajkumar.  Through random circumstances, he meets a girl named Dolly who is serving in the court of the Brumese Queen when their empire begins to fall.  The two go their separate ways, but Rajkumar never forgot Dolly.  Years later, he goes in search of her.  As the years pass, their lives are intertwined with their children, their families, and the political chaos of the world around them.  The story continues to pick up new characters until the reader is left with a web of people intertwined by family connections and chance meetings.  In the end, we are left with Jaya, Rajkumar and Dolly's daughter who travels back to Burma in search of her missing family.

This book was wonderful.  I loved the characters and the story and history.  I knew next to nothing about the political history of Burma, and India and Malaya, so it was a bit of a challenge to keep up with it all.  I loved the complexity of the characters most of all.  As individuals, they didn't really stand out.  Like most people, they were just average people living average lives - many of them ending in tragedy due to the struggles of the time - but, together they created something more.  The only thing I struggled with while reading this book was keeping track of the characters and their complex relationships to one another.  I think this many have been easier for me if I had read the book instead of listened to the audio version - hearing the Indian names were a little overwhelming sometimes!  And best of all, this book was different.  It wasn't what I expected - or what I wanted at times - but it was exactly the type of story that I grew to love and enjoy and appreciate it for what it was.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian (audio)

★★ 1/2
"A term came to her that they used on occasion at the shelter: the double bind...They used the expression in much the same way that they would use a term like catch-22."

 After 26-year-old Laurel is attacked while riding her bicycle, she begins to withdraw into her photography and working at a homeless shelter.  She meets Bobbie Crocker and, when he suddenly dies, gets swept into a mystery involving a box of photographs that may lead to secrets about his past.  While looking for clues to Bobbie life, she realizes that there maybe connections to her own secrets as well.

This book didn't really do much for me.  I enjoyed the writing, but the story was just so-so.  I guess I have a harder time connecting to modern-day characters.  One of the few things that kept me going in the novel was the references to characters from F. Scott Fitgerald's "The Great Gatsby."  I really liked how the author was able to use these references in a way that flowed so well together.  It made me forget that the characters were from a book and not the past!


Friday, September 5, 2014

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian (audio)

"She didn't care so much whether the world would ever forgive her people; but she did hope that someday, somehow, she would forgive herself."

I came across the book as I was going though the Chris Bohjalian audio books.  I read A LOT of World War II/Holocaust historical fiction, and I was surprised that I hadn't really heard of this one before.  I wouldn't say it was one of the best books I've ever read, but I did enjoy it.  

It's the beginning of 1945 and World War II is finally coming to an end.  Left in chaos, a group of Germans begin a journey to reach the allied forces near the Rhine.  The group includes Anna - a privileged daughter and her lover, Callum - a Scottish prisoner of war and Manfred - a Jew posing as a Nazi soldier after escaping Auschwitz.  Travelers also include Anna's mother and younger brother.  As the head away from the only home they have ever known, they begin to comprehend the horrors of the war as they fight to survive.

This novel painted an interesting perspective of World War II - that of a story of the German refugees.  War is never simple.  There is no "good" and "bad."  It's easy to classify the German Nazis as the "bad guys," but it's not that easy.  Many of the things that happened to aristocrats like Anna and her companions were similar to what the Nazis did to there enemies as well.  A lot of the detail about the horrors of World War II did not come out until the end of the war, and a high percentage of Germans didn't even know they were going on until years later.  The author did a wonderful job of capturing the time period and what the characters were going though.  A very powerful novel.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian (audio)

"Believe no one.  Trust no one.  Assume all of our stories are suspect."

I've been on a Chris Bohjalian fix lately with audio books.  This one is filled with complex characters, heart wrenching situations, unique relationships.  

The book begins after Alice Hayward and her husband are found dead one night in their house.  Alice is thought to be killed by her husband, who then supposedly kills himself.  The story is told from the point-of-view of three different characters: Drew - the town's minister, Katie - Alice's teenage daughter, and Heather - an author of angel books who also survived the murder/suicide of her parents. As the investigation of the deaths continue, each of the characters begins to suspect that they might have got them wrong.

This book was a decent audio book, but it wasn't really the type of book that I love and just have to finish.  I didn't figure out the ending to the last couple chapters, so that was good - but, I just found myself not caring enough about the characters.    

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

"Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to talk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences. I was a child, which meant that I knew a dozen different ways of getting out of our property and into the land, ways that would not involve walking down our drive."

When a middle-aged man returned to his childhood home he begins to remember an odd time in his past - when he met a girl named Lettie and he was thrown into a world of darkness and mystery.  This lovely little book was weird and different and wonderful.  I always fine myself amazing at how Neil Gaiman is able to write about things so far out there that I have trouble relating to.  This one was definitely outside of the box!


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan (Audio)

"I, not anyone else can travel that road for you.  You must travel it by yourself.  It is not far.  It is within reach.  Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.  Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and on land."

Goodreads Summary: Moving between the dazzling world of courtesans in turn of the century Shanghai, a remote Chinese mountain village, and the rough-hewn streets of nineteenth-century San Francisco, Amy Tan's sweeping new novel maps the lives of three generations of women connected by blood and history-and the mystery of an evocative painting known as "The Valley of Amazement."

Violet is one of the most celebrated courtesans in Shanghai, a beautiful and intelligent woman who has honed her ability to become any man's fantasy since her start as a "Virgin Courtesan" at the age of twelve. Half-Chinese and half-American, she moves effortlessly between the East and the West. But her talents belie her private struggle to understand who she really is and her search for a home in the world. Abandoned by her mother, Lucia, and uncertain of her father's identity, Violet's quest to truly love and be loved will set her on a path fraught with danger and complexity-and the loss of her own daughter.
Lucia, a willful and wild American woman who was once herself the proprietress of Shanghai's most exclusive courtesan house, nurses her own secret wounds, which she first sustained when, as a teenager, she fell in love with a Chinese painter and followed him from San Francisco to Shanghai. Her search for penance and redemption will bring her to a startling reunion with Flora, Violet's daughter, and will shatter all that Violet believed she knew about her mother.
Spanning fifty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement is a deeply moving narrative of family secrets, the legacy of trauma, and the profound connections between mothers and daughters, that returns readers to the compelling territory Amy Tan so expertly mapped in The Joy Luck Club. With her characteristic wisdom, grace, and humor, she conjures a story of the inheritance of love, its mysteries and senses, its illusions and truths.

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I liked many aspects of this novel.  It was well-written, compelling to read, and covered a unique period of history in China.  At the center of the story are mother-daughter relationships.  Each of the three women in the story struggle to make a life for themselves is troubling circumstances in both Shanghai, China and the United States.  I was also very interested in the Courtesan houses where many girls were left with little choice in alternatives to earning a living.  I had always imagined these as places of prostitution, but Tan described a different live style with elaborate rules, customs, and many situations where suitors built strong relationships with the girls.  After so many hardships, I kept hoping that the characters would find better lives for themselves.  Even though the ending was not perfect, I was happy that it ended on a positive note!  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

"Fortune's wheel takes you very high and then throws you very low, and there is nothing you can do but face the turn of it with courage.

Cousins' War #1 - The Lady of the Rivers
Cousins' War #2 - The White Queen
Cousins' War #3 - The Red Queen
Cousins' War #4 - The Kingmaker's Daughter

This is the fifth book in Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series.  I enjoyed it a lot, but not quiet as much as some of the others in the series.

After Elizabeth of York's lover (and uncle) Richard III is killed in battle, Henry VII takes the thrown and Elizabeth as his new wife and queen.  This union is meant to reunite the houses of York, Lancaster, and Tutor and put an end at last to the Cousins' War.  King Henry soon learns that his throne is still not save and struggles against those who are faithful to the Yorks.  When a young man claims to Elizabeth's lost brother Richard (one of the princes in the tower), she is forced to chose between her family and her husband.

It was really interesting to see the story go full circle in learning about different perspectives of women involved in the Cousins' War.  Caught in between the old family and the new, Elizabeth struggles to support both her husband and mother's family.  I was surprised at how many times the York's tried to claim the throne and how easily it could be lost.  Woven into the story was Elizabeth's fear that the curse that her and her mother placed on those who murdered her brother's will come back to haunt her own family.  One of my favorite parts of the book was the introduction of Elizabeth and Henry's children who would play an even bigger part in England's history - Arthur, Margaret, Queen of Scots, and the boy who would one day grow up to be Henry VIII.

And now to wait until September 9th when the sixth and final book, The King's Curse, is released!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stella Bain by Anite Shreve (audio)

"He will be her one-room cottage, her oasis."

I didn't really like this book - at all.  The only other book I've read by Anita Shreve is Resistance - which I enjoyed, but this one was hard to get through.  Thank goodness it was short and an audio book, otherwise I don't know if I would have finished it.

 The story seemed interesting: American women suffers shell shock in World War I while volunteering as a nurse and end up in London.  Her memory gone, she struggles to find out who she really is.  After many months she realizes that she has two children in America and returns to fight for custody from her husband.  It seemed a little far-fetched and it drove me crazy that she ran off to the war without telling her children or even writing to them.  Eh. Plus she ends up "falling in love" with the man who takes care of her in London after his wife dies in child- birth. Eh again.

Monday, July 28, 2014

China Dolls by Lisa See (audio)

 ★ 1/2
"When fortune comes, do not enjoy all of it; when advantage comes, do not take all of it."

This is the second book I've read by Lisa See - the first one being Snow Flower and the Secret Fan back in August of 2011.  

The novel tells the story of three "China Dolls" - Ruby, Helen, and Grace who find themselves auditioning to be showgirls in 1938 San Francisco.  All three girls are from very different background and have their own secrets and reasons for leaving their family lives to pursue show business.  I really liked the story and how each of the girls acted with each other and the situations.  I was expecting it to be a "best friends forever" type story - and it sort of was - but there were many ups and downs through the friendships and many acts of betrayal that they each had to overcome.  I also enjoyed that the story was set during World War II.  It was really interesting to see how the girls reacted and how their lives were changed by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the war.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Home Front by Kristin Hannah (audio)

"I know about forgiving people and loving them anyways, even after they hurt you." 

Twelve years into their marriage, Michael and Jolene are struggling to make their marriage work for themselves and their two girls - Betsy (12) and Lulu (4).  With Michael being a lawyer and Jolene having been in the army and later the national guard since the graduated high school, the two have very different career.  That never seemed a problem - until now when all they can see our their differences.  When Jolene is called to active duty in Iraq, the family struggles with their mother being away and bringing the family back together.  

I really enjoyed this book.  Like the author states the interview after the audio book, they're are not many contemporary books written about women going to war.  The book seemed very well researched and provided a unique look at what "going to war" is like for Americans today - especially women.  It was a very interesting topic for me to read about and, as usual, Kristin Hannah creates horrific circumstances and barriers that the characters must overcome.  I also enjoyed some of the side characters (Michael's mother Mila and Lulu) that added humor to the story and were able to provide a slight distraction from the intensity of the novel. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry (audio)

★ 1/2
"There is lace in every living thing: the bare branches of winter, the patterns of clouds, the surface of water as it ripples in the breeze...Even a wild dog's matted fur shoes a lacy pattern if you look at it closely enough."

Towner Whitney comes from a long line of Salem women that can read the future in lace.  Last time she read lace, it went horribly wrong and she vowed never to read lace again.  After many years of living away from her family, Towner returned to Salem when her Great Aunt Eva disappears.  As Towner begins to discover the truth, we learn more about her past and that her story may not be as it seems.

I really wanted to like this book, but I just didn't get it at time.  I liked the idea, but it was hard to tell what was going on and I found the main character annoying at time.  I really liked the "lace reader" and Salem aspects, but I guess I was expecting a bit more history.  I almost gave up on the book, but when the author started explaining Towner's past through a fictional story she had written, it caught my attention again.  This part was beautifully written and was very engaging.  I almost wish that the rest of the book had been written this way, but it wasn't.  The ending was good and interesting (I didn't see it coming), but not enough to make the book worth while for me.