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Speed Reviews

26 Jan

The Thorn BirdsThe Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough – 3.5/5

Genre:  Historical Fiction

This book is considered a reader’s classic.  It’s a saga-style novel that spans the early 1900s through the late 1960s and follows the Cleary family through their lives and the owners of a sheep farm in the back country of Australia.  I was completely enthralled with the story through the first half but then it lost some luster for me.  .  I knew the basics of this story from the bit of the 1980s miniseries I remember watching, and I was highly anticipating the love story aspect.  In the end, though, I didn’t ‘feel’ as deeply for the main characters and their love for each other as I expected to.  I really did think the author is extremely talented.  The description of the Australian landscape and the characters was superb.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – 4/ 5

Genre:  General Fiction

This story is about a high-school girl who loses her favorite uncle, and friend, to AIDS.  She deals with this loss in her own way, and learns a lot about life and loss through her mourning.  I wish I had the talent to write-up a book’s description in a way that actually makes people want to read the book, but alas, I don’t possess that quality.  You’ll just have to trust me that it’s good because my descriptions are atrocious.  Anyway, the main character, June, was so weird in a good way and that made me really love her and reading this book.  The story is sad, but powerful, and ends on the brightest note possible.

The White Queen (Cousins' War Series #1)

The White Queen (Cousins War #1) by Philippa Gregory- 3/ 5

Genre:  Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction, and I love Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl, among many others) but I did not love this book.  Coupled with the fact that I had a hard time keeping the characters straight – everyone’s names are Elizabeth, Edward, George, or Henry- it had waaayy to little romance and waaayyy too much war commentary.  It would be 3 or so pages describing the positions of the troops and the details of the battle, which was boring for me.  I also wasn’t as in love with the characters of this ‘War of the Roses’ time period as I was in times past.  Lastly, there was a mystical element to this story –  that Elizabeth Woodville (the White Queen)  was a descendant of a Greek water goddess and there were certain events that she controlled by directing the ‘water’.  It was kind of weird.   That said, England, before 1700, and I’m in anyways, so it was worth it for me to read.

Dark Places

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – 5/5

Genre:  Mystery/Thriller

Ah, the coveted 5 out of 5 rating.  I. Loved. This. Book.  More so than this author’s more popular novel, “Gone Girl”.  I loved this so much for 3 main reasons:  1) The main character was super weird but likeable.  That’s my favorite kind!  I love multidimensional, flawed yet familiar main characters.  2) The mystery kept me guessing until the end.  I’ll admit I’m a good guesser and I’m always a touch disappointed when one of my guesses is right.  It wasn’t in this case!  3) the writing was excellent!  Told from multiple characters’ perspectives revealing the plot without confusing the reader.  Flynn is a near-genius in my opinion! Loved it, Loved it, Loved it!!

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn – 4.5/5

Genre:  Mystery/Thriller

See my opinion on this author above.  This book was similar to Dark Places, in that the character was super off the wall which I loved.  It followed the same format as Dark Places which I loved too.  The only realize I had to rate it a bit lower than Dark Places is because I guessed the mystery early on.


The Fault in Our Stars (B&N Exclusive Edition)

The Fault in our Stars by John Green – 4/5

Genre:  General Fiction

This book is about a teenage girl dying from lung cancer.  She meets and falls in love with a boy who’s lost a leg to cancer and while they are in remission, they know their time is limited.  They have this normal yet abnormal relationship.  She’s a great character – snarky and sassy.  Her outlook on ‘the time she has left’ is so realistic yet optimistic – it’s hard to explain. The book is not nearly as sad as I thought it would be.    I liked it!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple- 3/5

Genre:  General Fiction

All right, this book is all over the place.  Best seller lists, best 2012 book lists, my book club pick, my other book club’s favorite book of 2012, etc. etc.  This book is about a girl and her family living in Seattle.  They are not normal, all with their own weird off-putting quirks.  The story is told primarily through emails and letters between characters, with some first person accounting by the daughter, Bee.  In my opinion, that style made the story seem more comical than I think was intended.  It just seemed forced.  Like I don’t think people write 10 page long emails complete with re-capped conversations.  Not sure why this was done.  Also, I didn’t get a good sense of any of the characters.  I mean they described them plenty, but since it was all through emails from them or about them from others, it was a bit disjointed and hard for me to get in their heads.  Lastly, it seemed to be all over the place – Microsoft, Galer Street, the house stuff, Antarctica, the cruise, Straight Gate – it was just so much!  On the other hand, the storyline moved very quickly and it wasn’t hard to finish the book.  And it was somewhat entertaining in spite of some of its shortcomings.

Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

29 Jan

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionMy rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Louie Zamperini’s life is nearly unbelievable!  The WWII backdrop is fascinating.  I believe everyone should read this to get a real sense of America and Americans during WWII. 

This was the first non-fiction book I picked up since Devil in the White City.  If you recall my review of Devil, you’ll remember that I really struggled with the tediousness of the historical detail.   I was a bit nervous that this book would be the same way in honestly in some ways it was.  But as I always say, life is about expectations, right?  Since I was prepared to have to digest a bit of history with my story, it was much less painful for me to do so.

This book is about Louis Zamperini, Olympic gold medalist turned Air Force enlisted turned lost at sea turned POW turned religious nut turned old guy.  It’s really unbelievable the twist and turns of this guy’s story. 

I liked this book for two reasons.  First, Louis Zamperini’s story really is fascinating as is the overall time period and culture during World War II.  Secondly, I learned more about WWII  from this book than I have from any other source in my entire life.  I will spare you the details of my conversation about this with my husband, but the gist of it is that I am positive I was never taught WWII history in school, I never watch the history channel, and I don’t like war movies.  So my opinion is that I am lucky I knew ANYTHING about WWII.

Learning about WWII was not only just a good thing to have done, but it has a special place in my heart.  My grandfather was a machine gunner in Italy during World War II.  Not only did he survive, but he went on to raise a wonderful family and is still very much alive at 87!  The wonderful bonus is that he is a master storyteller who loves to talk about his experiences in the war.  He does this, ironically, in a completely light and rated G kind of way by focusing on the cooperation, camaraderie, and deep relationships he built with the men he shared this surreal experience with. 

This book makes an excellent Book Club read.  It is chock full of people and situations to discuss.

Book Review: The Other by Thomas Tryon

17 Dec

The OtherMy Rating 4 out of 5 stars

I heard about this book from my sister-in-law who was describing this as being one of the scariest books she’d ever read.  She said she read it in like the 6th grade.  After some searching (no eBook, no library copy and it is out of print) I was able to find a paperback copy on Amazon, which the seller claimed to be in Good-Used condition.  I’d argue that rating since the spine split the second I opened it to the first page.  But whatever.  So here’s the deal with this book.  It was written in 1971 by an actor named Tom Tryon.  He was in a bunch of stuff in the 1950s and 60s.  This book was made into a movie by the same name (not to be confused with The Others with Nicole Kidman in it – it’s not the same).  It scared the bejesus out of everyone who read it or saw the movie. 

So knowing that, would you expect it to be 1) good writing (the author was an actor for goodness sakes) or 2) scary (by today’s standards)?  Perhaps not, but you would be sorely mistaken on both fronts.  The writing is very unique, but Tyron most certainly had talent.  He described the environment and moved the story along so well, it was so believeable.  And it was creepy (the grown-up kind, not the tween kind)…so creepy that it was still creepy to read in 2011, exactly 40 years after the book was written.  How many things that were scary then are just as scary now?  Right, The Omen, maybe.  And everyone’s heard of that.  I think this book is grossly underrated and the author’s style is superb.  If you are interested in borrowing it from me, you’ll have to stand in line (and bring some masking tape).  Thanks to a great SIL for helping me discover this gem!


Book Review: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

14 Dec

The Paris WifeMy Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

This book is about the life of Hadley Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife.  If you know anything about Ernest Hemingway, you know that he was a famously troubled and eccentric writer in the 1920s.  So it’s obvious that his wife would have a great story to tell.   

But relationships are always more complex from the inside looking out.  Hadley had good breeding and education with lots of promise.  On one hand it was hard to believe that she ended up so in love and willing to bend to the wills of Ernest’s craziness.  But at the same time, knowing the mutual love and respect they had for each other and the happy times they shared, it becomes believable that she would try to hold on to their marriage and endure his ‘dark’ periods.

I thought Hadley’s character would annoy me, since I was banking on her being a helpless coward who didn’t have the strength or confidence to get herself out of a destructive relationship.  But she was much stronger in many ways and their relationship was so more complicated than one would ever know from the outside looking in.  I thought this was one of the most believable relationships I’ve ever read about.  Kudos to the author on that.  Add in the era (1920s) and the locale (Paris) and it makes for a very cozy and thoughtful read.

Book Review: The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

26 May

The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo: Book CoverReview 4 out of 5 stars

This is a kid’s fairy tale that centers on persistence and hope.  It reminded me that wishing is still okay to do sometimes! 

I envision this book being made into a  movie, kind of like The Tale of Despereaux.  This is partly because I knew this author, Kate DiCamillo, also wrote Despereaux and partly because it just screams to be made into one of those artsy Sundance movies.  Imagery plays a large role in this book too, although here the scene is a made-up town called Baltese that seems to be kind of like Russia to me.  There are a lot of contrasts between coldness and warmth, light and dark.    

The book is simple yet complex, making it a perfect ‘inspiration book’ for all ages.  There are a lot of angles and nuances to impress the reader personally.  For me, as I mentioned, it reminded me that wishing for something isn’t always ‘impractical’ or ‘useless’.  Hope is a positive emotion that gives people the strength and support to survive or least be a little happier.

Book Review: Faithful Place by Tana French

25 Jan

Faithful PlaceRating:  4 out of 5 stars

About the Book

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was nineteen, growing up poor in Dublin’s inner city, and living crammed into a small flat with his family on Faithful Place. But he had his sights set on a lot more. He and Rosie Daly were all ready to run away to London together, get married, get good jobs, break away from factory work and poverty and their old lives.

But on the winter night when they were supposed to leave, Rosie didn’t show. Frank took it for granted that she’d dumped him-probably because of his alcoholic father, nutcase mother, and generally dysfunctional family. He never went home again.

Neither did Rosie. Everyone thought she had gone to England on her own and was over there living a shiny new life. Then, twenty-two years later, Rosie’s suitcase shows up behind a fireplace in a derelict house on Faithful Place, and Frank is going home whether he likes it or not.

Getting sucked in is a lot easier than getting out again. Frank finds himself straight back in the dark tangle of relationships he left behind. The cops working the case want him out of the way, in case loyalty to his family and community makes him a liability. Faithful Place wants him out because he’s a detective now, and the Place has never liked cops. Frank just wants to find out what happened to Rosie Daly and he’s willing to do whatever it takes, to himself or anyone else, to get the job done.


My Review

Faithful Place is actually the third book in a ‘series’ by Tana French.  The first book is called In The Woods and the second book is called The Likeness.  I write ‘series’ because while they are related, you don’t have to read them in order.  Minor characters in one book becomes the focus of the next book.  I read In the Woods sometime last year and liked it okay, but I have not read The Likeness.  After reading Faithful Place, however, you can bet that The Likeness is on my list!

I read this book during a record cold weekend here in my hometown.  It was the perfect choice.  This book describes what I (and many others) call a ‘cozy read’.  It’s pretty self-explanatory – it’s a book that makes you feel cozy, that is best read when being cozy!

I loved this book for a couple major reasons.  First and foremost, I thought the writing was brilliant – the characters are very intricately developed. The main character especially, was so multi-dimensional, ‘layered’, and very realistic.  Also, no words were wasted – each sentence carried meaning and weight, and furthered the development of the characters and story.  And there were many subtleties in the writing…here’s a passage that illustrates this well:

The bass player broke a string to prove he was serious, and while he was changing it Rosie and I went up to the bar for more wine.
“That stuff’s poxy,” Rosie told the barman, fanning herself with her top.
“I know, yeah.  I think they make it out of Benylin.  Leave it in the airing cupboard for a few weeks and away you go.”  The barman liked us.
“Poxier than usual, even.  You got a bad batch.  Have you nothing decent, have you not?”
“This does the job, doesn’t it?  Otherwise, ditch the boyfriend, wait till we close up and I’ll take you somewhere better.”
I said, “Will I give you a smack myself, or will I just leave it to your mot?” The barman’s girlfriend had a Mohawk and sleeve tattoos.  We got on with her, too.
“You do it.  She’s harder than you are.”  He winked at us and headed off to get my change.
Rosie said, “I’ve a bit of news.”
She sounded serious.  I forgot all about the barman and started frantically trying to add up dates in my head.  “Yeah?  What?”
“There’s someone retiring off the line at Guinness’s, next month.  My da says he’s been talking me up every change he gets and if I want the job, it’s mine.”

Did you catch all that?  Two parts stick out…the reference to the bass player breaking a string “to prove he was serious” and the main character “…frantically trying to add dates up in my head.”   I had to read this novel slowly to ensure I didn’t miss any of these – they really add to the overall story and the main character.  Because of the Irish dialect, this was a bit tedious, but I adore it so much it was a treat for me.

Secondly, the setting and time period has a special place in my heart and made it much more personal to read.  This story takes place in modern-day Dublin, Ireland which I have visited.  Reading this book made me remember that trip, which was nice.  Much of the book is Frank reflecting on his life growing up in the 1980s in an area called Faithful Place outside of Dublin.  My father-in-law grew up in Dublin and is close in age to Frank’s parents.   While I don’t think that my father-in-law is anything like Frank’s dad specifically, I can certainly see how they could be in the same generation.  Reading about the Mackey history gave me a glimpse into my own family’s history too.  And he talks just like that!  Additionally, my own grandparents came from Italy to America when they were in their teens.  And while their ‘old country’ is different,  I can see similarities between Frank’s dad and my Italian grandfather as well.  There is this very to the point, black and white, like gruff exterior that I saw in James Mackey that reminded me of my grandfather.  That mentality manifests itself into things like criticizing as a way of controlling situations, not being overly indulgent with the compliments, and not liking doctors (?).  Don’t get me wrong, I love my grandfather, but I didn’t always know what he was thinking or why he thought a certain way.  So some of the struggles I saw Frank have relating to his parents seemed familiar to me and reading about it was a source of comfort.

The only negative I see with this book is the plot – plausible but predictable.  I figured it out on page 169, which made reading the rest of the 400 page book obviously less suspenseful.  If the plot had been a bit fresher I would have rated this higher for sure.

Bottom Line: This is a great cozy read!  It is intelligently written with many subtleties, and realistic characters in an interesting setting.  While the plot is somewhat predictable, how it unfolds and your investment in the characters will keep you interested.

PS – If you are wondering when I will finish The Passage (which has been listed as the book I’m currently reading, even though I keep publishing reviews about other books), I actually AM reading it.  It’s slow going, but I’m reading about 20 pages a day.  I’m on page 253 and things are starting to pick up.  It’s 900 some pages!

Book Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

8 Jan

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver: Book CoverRating:  4 out of 5 stars

Wow.  The concept for this book was very unique and I thought it was really well executed.  

Here’s the gist:  Samantha Kingston is a popular senior in high school.  She goes to a party on a cold, rainy Friday night and it turns out to be her last – she gets into a car accident on they way home.  Then she wakes up to  her alarm and it’s the same day all over again.  And again and again. 

This book is young adult – in some ways it was a teensy bit predictable for a reader like me (so old, so wise).  Samantha is 18 and in high school and she has what my mom calls the “insulation of youth”.   But at the same time, while I knew what to expect, reading about Samantha experiencing being given a second chance to relive her last day was still very emotional and interesting to me.  I see reviews for this book that say things like “This book changed my life” and “A whole new outlook” and I don’t think I’d go that far, but it did make me do a gut check on how I’m living my life, treating people and myself.   And I found myself surprised at how many things can be altered in one short day just by what seems to be an innocuous change in a timeline or circumstance.

I think what I admire most about this novel though is that the author is around my age, yet she captured the essence of the high school girl spirit to a tee.  The importance of silly things, the selfishness, the shallow relationships – these are all vaguely familiar to me, yet so far removed from my personality at this point that I would never be able to develop a character like she did.  I may have to pull this book out again when my daughter’s  a teenager to refresh my memory about what it’s like to be a teenage girl.  Which in the case of this book includes drinking, smoking and sex.  Greeeeaaattt.    

Read it.  It’s an easy read and you won’t be bored.  And you might smile a little more or look harder for opportunities to be a good human being which makes it worth it.

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

11 Aug

 Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Who will like it best:  Women 20+

Words to describe it:   Satisfying, Enlightening, Touching

Will I add it to my personal library?  Yes, for lending

Will I read it again someday? No

The Help has been on the Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list for 70 weeks and will be available in paperback in January 2011.  Filming of the movie version of this book began this summer and it is scheduled for release in summer 2011.

I read this book several months ago but given its popularity I thought it would be good to add it to my reviews. Because it has been a while I’m going to keep this short and sweet since I have forgotten some details. 


This book focuses on the lives of 3 women living in Mississippi in 1962.  One is Skeeter, a recent college graduate back home on her parents’ plantation, Aibileen, a black maid working for a wealthy white family, and Minny, who is Aibileen’s best friend and also a maid.  The story is about how the three of them work together to shine a light on racism in a very risky way.

 My Review

This book is fun to read and it gives the reader an intimate view into these women’s lives (both black and white) during the 1960’s in the South, which is a distinctive and interesting topic.  There are funny parts and sad parts, but the book is overall very uplifting even though the subject matter is somewhat sensitive.  Upon reflecting on this book I thought things got a little carried away at the end, but while I was reading it I was caught up in the story and believed in these women and the conclusion.  I think women in particular will  identify with the risky and line-crossing situations these characters find themselves in.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard

25 Jul

Rating 4 out of 5 stars

Who will like it best: Women 20+

Words to describe it: Realistic, Touching, Mysterious

Will I add it to my personal library? No

Will I read it again someday? No

This is a good, solidly written book!  It is a relatively easy read (I finished it in 4 nights) and would make a good airplane selection.  It would also work well after reading something with a very serious or heavy subject matter.

This novel takes place in a small farming town in Kansas where a shocking double-murder rocks the town and leaves a little 3 year old girl, Jodi, parentless.  All during the years as Jodi grows up the questions surrounding her parents death continue to plague her. When the man accused of their murder is released from prison, she undersands why everyone tells her to stay away but is still somehow drawn to seeing him.

The characters in this story are very realistic – I say that because they are all written to show strengths and weaknesses.  My favorite character in this book is the matriarch, Annabelle, because while she is well loved and respected in her family and in the community, she has weaknesses as a mother and wife too.  For example, she has trouble communicating with her daughter, Belle, and when they talk she tries desperately to come up with ways to appease her and bridge the gap so her daughter will let her in.  This is common aspect to many mother/daughter relationships so I appreciated that this aspect was added in the story too.

I also like how the details of the story were revealed to the reader – it leaves the reader guessing about the whole story.  The only aspect of this novel I question is the ending – it seemed a little rushed.  I cannot think of a better way to have written it, but I would have preferred something a little more complex that was unwoven a little more slowly. I should note that although this is filed by B & N as dramatic fiction I am also classifying it as a mystery.

I plan to add another of this author’s books to my reading list.  She is very descriptive but not overly so – I would describe her writing as ‘clean’, which is what makes this novel so perfect for light reading.

Leaving The World by Douglas Kennedy

21 Jul

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

I heard about this author in People magazine with the caption “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of”.  Douglas Kennedy is from England and is extremely popular there.  He is known to be the ‘British John Grisham’, although I didn’t really see any similarities at ALL in their genre or writing style.   Maybe it’s meant to mean only in popularity?  I actually sort of see that as an insult.

In any case, this headline intrigued me and while Kennedy has 6 novels, I chose Leaving the World because its plot seemed the most interesting.    Also, this novel is set in the U.S. and I was curious to understand how well he could write about the details of a culture in which he is not immersed (I read later that he did live in NYC until he was a teen, which I suppose contributed to his ability to do this). And, for the record, it did use some British phrases and lingo at times – I actually like that and am glad it wasn’t removed for the US publication.  I’m glad it was left as the author wrote it.

This book is about a woman who goes to Harvard as an English major, graduates, enters adulthood and deals with several very (and I mean VERY) emotional events which seem to come one right after the other.  I don’t always like when plots consist of seemingly unfathomable events that happen in succession like rapid fire, but Kennedy somehow made it realistic for me.  Additionally, the main character, Jane, is extremely well developed (some of the best I’ve ever read).  Her dimensions unfold slowly and naturally, much like it would be if you were actually able to hear someone’s thoughts.  It would take a while of listening to really understand all of the layers.  And just when you think you get them, they surprise you.

In addition to the character definition, I also see in this novel something I rarely see – character evolution.  Jane, actually evolves as she gets life’s lessons under her belt.  The reader can see evidence of her reacting differently than would be expected if the event had occurred earlier in her life.  She is barely recognizable at the end of this novel and you can see how the differences in her personality are a direct result of her journey.

I identified with Jane on several levels, and found her to be one of the most raw and realistic characters I’ve encountered.  Additionally, while this novel is just general fiction, I found it suspenseful in my own way, waiting to see how Jane dealt with what was thrown at her.  It also surprisingly tugged at my heartstrings as a woman, wife, and mother.

I recommend this book for focused, detailed reading.  It’s raw and serious and requires full attention.  And the payoff is well worth it!