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Saturday, December 31, 2016

THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND by Katrina Bivald


This book about books is also a romance, but not THAT kind of romance. A whole town conspires and the result is delightful. Many twists and turns, surprises and sorrows make this an entrancing read.
Well-developed characters (one unfortunately dead), a plot that can carry the many characters, a sense of place and time, a tempo just fast enough to keep the reader reading and a clear author’s voice (surprisingly true for a first time author) all combine for a pleasing book. Kudos also must be given to the translator.
Book groups will love this book.  Discussions can concern books, personalities, laws on immigration, marriage, relationships between friends, lovers and family members, translated books and many others.
5 of 5 stars


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A CHAMELEON, A BOY AND A QUEST by J A Myhre

A CHAMELEON, A BOY AND A QUEST   by J A Myhre
This middle grade reader is also a great “read to me” for ages 6 and up.  A somewhat scary quest has our intrepid Boy (Mu) and his not-quite-a-pet Chameleon (Tita), searching for answers to why his relatives treat him so badly.  Along the way they meet many Middle African animals (some friendly, some not), delight in the flowers and plants, are captured by enemy soldiers and rescued by a mountain snow storm. Oh yes, and there is a dog met along the way that is vital to the quest.
Mu learns about friendship, sacrifice, loyalty, forgiveness and family as he completes his quest.
There are some (possibly boring and/or difficult to read for kids) sections where the author includes information about her experience as a medical missionary. These are easily skipped over without affecting the continuity or plot of this charming novel.   
Inquisitive kids will want to know more about the animals and plants Mu encounters. A trip to a zoo or natural history museum may be a good follow up.

4 ½ stars out of 5 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles

NEWS OF THE WORLD  by Paulette Jiles
This is a wise book. The story of an old man who has lost all his worldly possessions in the Civil War and now reads the newspapers to folks who cannot read or have no access to papers and the 10-year-old returning Kiowa captive girl who has now lost two families in heart wrenching circumstances is also a tale of love, hope and the unbreakable human spirit. Told in spare prose, the story is itself spare, and that moves the reader more than more florid words could.
Doris, one of the supporting characters says of Johanna and other returned captives, “our first creation is a turning of the soul…toward the light. To go through another, tears all the making of the first… to bits…they are forever falling.” (pg.56) Good and evil live in this book. Good wins and we are gladdened.
A lovely book that I can highly recommend.

5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

CAUGHT IN THE REVOLUTION by Helen Rappaport

CAUGHT IN THE REVOLUTION   by Helen Rappaport
The lives of the diplomats , journalists, ordinary citizens and foreign expats who lived through 1917 in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), Russia as it fell from Tsarist rule to peasant’s revolt to anarchy to Leninism is told in exacting detail by Rappaport. Her clear and compelling writing makes this journey into disaster and terror real and immediate.  She is able to carry the reader into the unease that slowly begins to develop into the “practically bloodless” and often times polite early revolution and that then descends into chaos and horror as beatings, death, starvation and cold blooded murder escalate.
As well written as it is researched, the book is surprisingly easy to read. The many (nearly 100) pages of notes will fascinate those of a more scholarly bent. I just enjoyed the clear writing and minute by minute detail.  This isn’t a book for everyone, but anyone with an interest in Russia or revolution or world history will appreciate this book.

4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba

LES PARISIENNES  by Anne Sebba
This is a very, very dense scholarly book concerning the women of Paris during WWII.  I ended up reading it as a collection of brief episodes as it was difficult to follow any one person’s activities because of the chronological order of events and the various names used by the women during the course of the war. The “Cast list” was almost useless as women were listed under their family name, or their husband’s name, or their resistance name, etc, but not all of them.
There are many French language phrases and words used throughout the book without translation.
You really need a very good working history of France and WWII to understand the enormity of places and events mentioned in passing, ie, the Hiv d’Vel roundup, Ravensbruck medical experiments, the Comet Line and others.
I would not recommend this book to my book group although I did appreciate the work that went into the writing of the book.
3 of 5 stars

 THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD  by Colson Whitehead
My big problem with this book is: it doesn’t know what it is.  Is it historical fiction? Yes, and no. Is it science fiction? Yes, and no. Is it alternative universe/history? Yes, and no.  I had the uncomfortable feeling all while reading it that I was being played by the author. And that is not a comfortable -- or desirable -- feeling.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD tells the story of Cora, a plantation slave, and her desire for freedom.  In this book, the underground railroad is just that – underground.  Many interlocking tunnels with a variety of engines and baggage/passenger cars traverse this railroad. Apparently no one hears or notices these steam engines or the building of the tunnels.  The slavery portion of the story is purely antebellum south and rings true. The rest of the story – not so much. 
The first half of the book found me wondering why I kept reading. The last half, I just wanted to know how Cora fared in this awkward world. I can’t recommend this book.
2 of 5 stars

Thursday, September 29, 2016

THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET by Tara Sullivan

The Bitter Side of Sweet    by Tara Sullivan
This middle school novel tells the story of three children caught in the cacao industry in the Ivory Coast.  Although hard to read because of the brutal treatment of the children, the book tells a worthwhile story. The three children of the story are two boys mislead to believe they would be working only for a season for wages. Instead they were neither paid nor allowed to leave.  They worked under very harsh primitive conditions. The third child was a girl kidnapped and forced to work the cacao fields because  her mother, a journalist, was exposing the slave-like conditions of the workers.  The story of the children’s eventual escape is both heartbreaking and thrilling.
The afterword offers a way to affect the harvesting of the cacao pods and the mistreatment of the children.
Not recommended for tender hearted , younger children.

5 of 5 stars

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT  by Graham Moore

I love this book. I know NOTHING about electricity….but I understand this book. And I am laughing. That is the essence of a great writer: to help me understand difficult concepts and to entertain me while my brain is engaged. This book has it all:  humor in large part, terror at times, mystery, legal shenanigans, hate, love, ethics (or a lack thereof), subterfuge, science that is understandable  and intrigue. Oh yes, and great writing.

The writing is clear, but still offers illumination to the characters that inhabit the book. Those characters are drawn with great detail and great sympathy both for the character and for truth. Although the novel  takes liberties with the time lines, the places of events and even the presence of the various players, nothing is lost either to enjoyment of the book or the science and inventions depicted. The one remaining mystery is Agnes and she shall remain a mystery until you have finished the book and read the after notes
.
I thought the quotes that start each chapter added to the depth of engagement for the modern reader – a great addition to the book. This will be a good for book groups to discuss.  One question to ponder – How much of a villain was Paul, or was he a villain at all?


5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

THE GIRLS  by Emma Cline
What a sad and depressing book! Inspired by the girls who followed Charles Manson and committed vile crimes for him, this book follows a depressed and lonely girl as she falls under the spell of one of the followers of a cult leader in the 1960’s. Although some of the book is written from the perspective of an older Evie, most of it written as present day in the 60’s.  Evie as a teen is depressed and depressing. Evie as a middle aged failure is even more depressing.  Skip this one! Well written but who needs it.

2 of 5 stars

SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK by Robert Beatty


This delightfully scary middle to upper grade reader has some real family values as well as a likeable heroine and a complimentary cast of clearly drawn characters. The plot is satisfying, easy to follow and challenging to solve. The real Biltmore House and surrounding estate and the Pisgah National Forest are supporting characters. If a visit to Ashville is in the future, this book is a great way to generate interest in the history, fixtures and furnishings of the house. (The horse stable is now a restaurant!)The importance of family, do what is right and defend the helpless are the ethics that Serafina embodies.

5 of 5 

SERAFINA AND THE TWISTED STAFF by Robert Beatty

SERAFINA AND THE TWISTED STAFF  by Robert Beatty
Another delightfully scary middle to upper grade reader from Beatty that continues the story of Serafina.  The evil is back at the Biltmore Estate. Serafina has fled into the woods. A tragedy has caused her ally to doubt her; wolves and other strange creatures are attacking; and there is an evil presence in Biltmore itself. Can Serafina triumph again?

5 of 5 stars

Monday, July 18, 2016

LES PARISIENNES by Anne Sebba

LES PARISIENNES  by Anne Sebba
This is a very, very dense scholarly book concerning the women of Paris during WWII.  I ended up reading it as a collection of brief episodes as it was difficult to follow any one person’s activities because of the chronological order of events and the various names used by the women during the course of the war. The “Cast list” was almost useless as women were listed under their family name, or their husband’s name, or their resistance name, etc, but not all of them.
There are many French language phrases and words used throughout the book without translation.
You really need a very good working history of France and WWII to understand the enormity of places and events mentioned in passing, ie, the Hiv d’Vel roundup, Ravensbruck medical experiments, the Comet Line and others.
I would not recommend this book to my book group although I did appreciate the work that went into the writing of the book.
3 of 5 stars

Note to publisher: I read an advance readers copy. There are many typos and other items needing editing in this edition. It would be very helpful to translate all the French words and phrases within the body of the text (or even in a glossary).

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR   by Helen Simonson
What begins as a lovely and genteel story of discrimination against a “professional” woman in an English village just before World War I, quickly becomes a fascinating tale of honor, class, love, discrimination and village life with all its charm and meanness.  The characters are delightfully and realistically portrayed.  The situations show the class and gender lines in pre-war England.  There is humor and pathos, greed and generosity, refinement and pretentiousness, honor and scandal.  But above all, it is a well written, engrossing story.

5 of 5 stars

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN by Amy Stewart

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN  by Amy Stewart
Constance Kopp, the first woman Deputy Sheriff of New Jersey, is the heroine of this novel.  Constance was a real person as are her sisters and the other law enforcement persons. The personalities of each is clearly defined. The story moves slowly, but is interesting with the detailed descriptions of life in 1914 in small towns, large cities and the family farm.  The narrative is enhanced by the newspaper articles (real ones) that are interspersed throughout. 
Altogether an engaging novel about an intriguing woman and her refreshingly novel family even with a fairly slow start.

4 of 5 stars

Monday, June 27, 2016

WHAT THE LADY WANTS by Renee Rosen

WHAT THE LADY WANTS  by Renee Rosen
Marshall Field is not the main character , but he,  his iconic store and his love affair with socialite Delia Spencer are the reason and impetus for the book.   Opening with the Chicago Fire of 1871 that sets in motion the rebuilding of the city and meeting of Delia and Marshall, the novel continues through both of their marriages, the building and rebuilding of Marshall Field and Company and concludes with Delia’s death in 1937.
Lovers of the social leaders, business leaders, fashions and homes of the rich and famous during the Gilded Age will love this richly detailed book.  Rosen has done her research well and turned it into a fascinating portrayal of the Potters, Palmers, Fields, Pullmans and others of influence in Chicago society, the great department stores and the World’s Fair of 1893. The scandalous romance of Delia (married to Arthur Caton) and Field (married to Nannie Douglas Scott) serves as the basis for the “plot” of the book.

4 of 5 stars 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF IVAN ISAENKO by Scott Stambach

THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF IVAN ISAENKO  by Scott Stambach
Did I enjoy this book? Hmmm, not so much. Was it compelling reading? Oh yes, absolutely!

Ivan is a teenage boy in a grotesquely deformed body, the result of radiation from a malfunctioning Russian nuclear plant.  His mind, however, functions perfectly. Trapped in a deformed body in a rundown hospital, Ivan entertains himself by being as obnoxious as possible until he meets Polina, a recently orphaned teenage  girl suffering from a rapidly advancing cancer.

We watch as Ivan and Polina react to each other, their suffocating community and their medical conditions in an unforgiving tale of self-worth, alienation, wonder, love, frustration, ineptness, caring, hope and resignation.

This is a tale that will stay with you, disturb you and,, perhaps, challenge you to change things.

5 of 5 stars

Saturday, June 25, 2016

ARROWOOD by Laura McHugh

ARROWOOD  by Laura McHugh
Arrowood is a gothic thriller that starts slowly with mounting eeriness as the main character, Arden Arrowood, is slowly revealed along with the tragedies in her life. Her twin sisters disappeared while she, only 8 years old, was supposed to be watching them. Arden has scars, both physical and mental, from this and other traumas in her past life.
Arrowood, the house, has been in her family for generations, but has stood empty since shortly after the twins disappeared. Arden returns to Arrowood twenty years later when her grandfather bequeaths her the long empty house. The tension mounts as her back story is revealed and various characters from her past, along with an amateur detective who is fascinated by the unsolved mystery of the twin’s disappearance, are introduced.
McHugh is a gifted writer who maintains a firm grip on a story that could easily become maudlin. Instead the eeriness and growing unease builds to a crescendo. The characters are slowly developed into rich, fully portrayed persons embodied in a horrifying story.

5 of 5 stars

Monday, May 30, 2016

MANITOU CANYON by William Kent Krueger

MANITOU CANYON  by William Kent Krueger
When John Harris disappears on a fishing trip with his grandchildren, the two siblings do not give him up for lost.  The granddaughter convinces Cork O’Connor to help her find him in the Boundary Waters. A man is killed and Cork and the granddaughter are kidnapped.  The rest of the book details their experience in the wilderness as winter sets in and Cork’s daughter’s wedding comes ever closer.  
A good writer tells an intriguing story of betrayal, greed, love, family and friendship in this tale of the First Nations and looming ecological disaster.

4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS by Bryn Greenwood

ALL THE ULGY AND WONDERFUL THINGS   by Bryn Greenwood
The Ugly – Strung out, abusive, uncaring parents who also deal drugs and engage in “open” marriage among other things: relatives who are too eager to condemn and not eager to listen: law enforcement that wants to believe the worst: and more.
The Wonderful – sincere friendship: true, faithful love: caring teachers: and more.
Beautifully written with well developed, complex characters and believable, if truly awful situations, Bryn Greenwoods debut book is mesmerizing. Filled with raw language and rawer sex, it still manages to be filled with love and hope.  
This book is not for everyone, but for those willing to read with an open mind, the love story of Wavy and Kellen follows them from Wavy’s eighth year through her college graduation. This is an unusual book that will find it way to book groups eager to be challenged and willing to discuss drugs, law enforcement, child endangerment, felons, desperation, murder, family relationships, perseverance and hope.

5 of 5 stars with reservations for sex, violence and strong language

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

MURDER IN COTTAGE 6 by Diane Harman

MURDER IN COTTAGE 6   by Diane Harman

               Two stars is probably generous. The conversations were awkward and unrealistic as was the entire story. The book was composed of very contrived situations that would never happen in real life. There is potential for a short story with a good editor and a little research. If you stuck somewhere and this is your option, this is passable.

2 of 5 stars

Saturday, April 9, 2016

THE WEEKENDERS by Mary Kay Andrews

THE WEEKENDERS  by Mary Kay Andrews

The plot is tissue paper thin. You have met all of the characters before. BUT – the plot hangs together, the characters are likeable, there is no “bad language,” the sex isn’t raunchy, it is well written and there is sufficient humor and pathos to make an enjoyable read. 

For the genre, this author knows how to entertain and does it well. Altogether this is a fun book that doesn’t insult the intelligence of readers who will read and then look forward to MKA”s next book.

4 of 5 stars

Saturday, March 26, 2016

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead

 THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD  by Colson Whitehead
My big problem with this book is: it doesn’t know what it is.  Is it historical fiction? Yes, and no. Is it science fiction? Yes, and no. Is it alternative universe/history? Yes, and no.  I had the uncomfortable feeling all while reading it that I was being played by the author. And that is not a comfortable -- or desirable -- feeling.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD tells the story of Cora, a plantation slave, and her desire for freedom.  In this book, the underground railroad is just that – underground.  Many interlocking tunnels with a variety of engines and baggage/passenger cars traverse this railroad. Apparently no one hears or notices these steam engines or the building of the tunnels.  The slavery portion of the story is purely antebellum south and rings true. The rest of the story – not so much. 
The first half of the book found me wondering why I kept reading. The last half, I just wanted to know how Cora fared in this awkward world. I can’t recommend this book.
2 of 5 stars

Monday, March 14, 2016

THE FORGOTTEN ROOM by Lincoln Child



THE FORGOTTEN ROOM  by Lincoln Child
Here you have it – an exciting thriller with no profanity, no hot and heavy sex and little violence. Well, there is some violence – several murders, a grisly suicide (or maybe not a suicide), a crazy person or two, a secret room with diabolical machines and, of course, the hapless scholar cum detective. 
The characters are decently drawn, the plot is clear, the tension is heart stopping.  It is easy to see why Child is a bestselling author.  If you like mysteries that slowly draw you in and then amp up the tension, this is the book for you.  One of the best of the genre.
5 of 5 stars

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

SISTER OF MINE by Sabra Waldfogel



SISTER OF MINE  by Sabra Waldfogel
Although this novel takes place during the years of the Civil War, it is more a novel of two sisters  – one white, one black --  and how they learn to not just tolerate, but love each other. Adelaide is the white daughter of the largest plantation owner in their small town.  Rachel is her half-sister, born of her father’s liaison with one of his slaves.  Rachel serves as her sister’s maid. 
The novel backtracks to cover the earlier life of the family. In flashbacks, the family dynamics, Adelaide’s family’s Jewishness, Adelaide’s social punishment for a broken engagement, her later marriage and the repercussions of failing to love her husband are explored.  The Civil War serves to bring the plot to its conclusion.
The novel explores Jews in the South, marriage in wealthy families, the plight of slaves, abolition and slave owners, social conventions in antebellum Southern states, and the dynamics of slaves bearing the master’s children. 
The characters are well drawn and act and speak in reasonable terms. Good research has been done.  The plot is creative and interesting.
4 of 5 stars 

Friday, February 26, 2016

ASHES OF FIERY WEATHER by Kathleen Donoghoe



ASHES OF FIERY WEATHER  by Kathleen Donohoe
This novel of firemen and their families was hard to read. Not because many of the fireman died, but because the novel was constantly jumping from past to present then back to a different time in the past then back to present – all in the same chapter.  The writing is clear and even lyrical in places but the book jumped from character to character so often I was constantly turning back to the family diagram to see who and what time period the story had suddenly shifted to. 
After I finished the book, it felt as though there were so many stories there wasn’t one story.  Each of the various stories felt incomplete in some way.  Perhaps a winnowing of the characters and more depth for fewer would have felt more “finished. I enjoyed many of the mini-stories and liked most of the characters, but all in all, I was disappointed in the book.
3 of 5 stars

Saturday, February 13, 2016

SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys



SALT TO THE SEA  by Ruta Sepetys
Although a young adult novel, this tale of the end of World War II and the refugee ship Wilhelm Gustloff will also appeal to all who like historical fiction.  Sepetys knows her subject well and is able to clearly voice each of the teens fleeing the fall of Germany. Each of the four teens tells their own story in alternating chapters, but the result is a devastatingly clear tale of desperation.
A nurse, a possible spy, a pregnant girl, a sailor aboard the doomed ship --  each adds their part as the story races to its conclusion. Sepetys is an excellent writer of atmosphere and character who is able to maintain tension throughout the novel.
Teens will love this book as will their elders. This would be a good book for a mother-daughter book group or any group interested in World War II and historical fiction.
5 of 5 stars