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Review
3 Stars
Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron
Running the Rift - Naomi Benaron

Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Jean Patrick Nkuba is a Rwandan boy who loves the sensation of running and dreams of one day becoming an Olympic track medalist in the Atlanta Games. Jean's love of running is initiated by his older brother, Roger. While Roger ran as part of his training for the local football team, Jean ran with him; initially for the sake of companionship, but soon it became clear that Jean Patrick had a true gift for speed. 

 

After Jean Patrick's father, a local teacher, is murdered, Jean's mother feels unprotected. There is much to fear, as this Tutsi family tries their best to survive in an increasingly Hutu world. The family (Jean Patrick, his mother and sibilings) move in with Jean Patrick's aunt and uncle, hoping to find safety in numbers. 

 

When an Olympic track runner visits Jean Patrick's school, an inspired Jean redoubles his motivation to make his goal. Soon enough, he's earned a running scholarship to a nearby boarding school, but once there is told he should try out for football as there's little to no real future in pursuing running. Undeterred, Jean Patrick sticks to his dream. As he grows up, there's still threat to his life for being Tutsi -- at one point he even has his foot broken and face badly beaten in a scuffle -- but that dream of those multi-colored rings just never entirely dies out. Not even when brother Roger reveals he's decided to join the Rebels, a sort of "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality behind the decision, inspired by the murder of his fiance and her family.

 

As time passes, it becomes more and more evident to Jean Patrick that regardless of the love he has for his family, he must strive for a bigger and better future than what his hometown has to offer. He feels driven to be a voice of hope and inspiration for his country. Jean's coach offers him an opportunity to attend the National University of Rwanda, but under the guise of being a card carrying Hutu student. Tempted by the opportunity but concerned at what acceptance will mean for his family, Jean Patrick nervously hashes it out with his uncle. Much to Jean's surprise, his uncle is super supportive, telling him that if it opens doors for him down the road he should definitely go for it. 

 

During his college years, Jean meets a young Hutu woman, Bea, who teaches him that even the Hutu people have much to fear, that everyone could use a good hero, a nice heartwarming story in these times. The more time Jean Patrick spends around Bea, the more he seems to draw strength from her quiet, steady support of him and his dreams.

 

With a twinge of guilt, Jean Patrick realized he had not given a thought to his family. His mind was too much taken up by a woman with a pagne of planets and suns and the scent of sweet tea

on her skin.

 

 

As the political climate in Rwanda escalates -- politicians getting caught up in shady deals to protect US oil rights on foreign soil, mostly -- Jean Patrick finally gets the call he's been waiting for but at the price of having to once again make a tough choice. Countries that once offered support to Rwanda are now backing away, stating that unless the country shows more progress in honoring human rights, they will pull their endorsements / financial support. As a sort of damage control to the situation, Jean Patrick is asked to run in the games as a Tutsi, the Rwandan government's way of saying, "See? No hard feelings, right?!"

 

 

Through Jean Patrick's journey, this novel quietly has the reader consider, how far would you be willing to go to achieve your dreams? What would you be willing to risk? Could you stare down death? Risk the respect or even the lives of family? How badly do you want that dream? It also illustrates that on the way to accomplishing those dreams and goals, sometimes the most unlikely candidates will be in your corner to help carry you over the toughest hills. 

 

"I will tell you a secret. Sometimes it is all I can do to go from one footstep to the next, but for each such moment, I make myself remember how it feels to win."

~ track medalist Telesphore Dusabe giving a pep talk

to young Jean Patrick

 

It's a tough but important story to take in. The reader is pulled into Jean's reality of riots, protests, lynchings, murders, and government corruption. In one such instance of corruption I particularly liked the line of one character saying,"You're asking a lion to investigate a calf-killing." The American characters are not portrayed in the best light, which was a tough pill to swallow as the reader, being that I am NOT like the stereotypical loud, uneducated, foot-in-mouth variety worked into this novel, but I do know that kind of American most definitely exists and sadly gets overseas to embarrass the rest of us, so until the day I can get over there and start fixing the misconceptions, I just have to grin and bear it I guess. I still say there are important lessons to be found in Jean Patrick's journey and it was a trip I was happy to take this Olympic season. :-)

Review
3 Stars
Review | Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky by Chris Greenhalgh
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Chris Greenhalgh

Coco Chanel and Composer Igor Stravinsky.
Their love affair inspired their art.
Their art defined an era.

In 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the young couturiere Coco Chanel witnesses the birth of a musical revolution- one that, like her designs, rips down the artifice of the old regime and ushers in something profoundly modern. Seven years later, she invites Stravinsky and his family, now exiled from their Russian homeland, for a summer at her villa, and the powerful charge between them ignites into a deep love affair. As Stravinsky enjoys a new burst of creativity and Chanel brings forth her own revolutionary creation-the perfume Chanel No. 5-their love threatens to overtake work, family and life.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

First off, just have to say I wish the title was something more enticing. Even just shortening it to Coco & Igor would have been cool. Just seems like having nothing but their full names makes it kinda feel like a high school essay. That's just my two cents. Movin' on...

 

Greenhalgh's novel is a fictional take on the relationship between iconic French clothing designer Coco Chanel and the (married) composer Igor Stravinksy. Coco Chanel, in this story, is a young woman who seems to catch the eye of nearly every man in town. Deciding to attend one of Stravinsky's concerts one night, Coco is instantly, deeply moved by his music. She is briefly introduced to him but after that night doesn't see him again for another 7 years. The storyline takes some time to explain what goes on in these lives separately before they are to be reunited. Igor's story mainly focuses on him, along with his wife and children, being driven out of their home in Russia after the assassination of the ruling Romanov family. The Stravinskys retreat to a cramped apartment in Brittany, France and try to set up a new life there, though Igor's missus isn't really feeling the new surroundings. Her discomfort and unhappiness slowly starts to drive a wedge between them. Igor, frustrated with the tense home life, craves finding happiness again... somehow. Home life becomes even more strained when his wife develops a life-threatening illness, throwing her even further into depression. 

 

Igor, being an established composer by this point, is invited to a dinner party in Paris where Miss Chanel just happens to be another guest. The reunion is a little rocky, she initially finds him to be short, balding, with bad teeth and, as she says in the story, "an air of trying too hard to appear bohemian" but later realizes "his dandyism is an act... It masks a deep sense of insecurity and a profound sense of loss. Loss of state and selfhood. The man is clinging on, she thinks." Her curiosity about him reengaged, their friendship grows over the coming months, becoming something of a flirtation even though Coco never really got over the death of her love, Arthur "Boy" Capel. 

 

I found it a little laughable in this story that the character of Coco talks about how she likes Igor but doesn't love that he's still married. Additionally, Coco is plagued by a reputation of men categorizing her as "not being the kind of girl you marry", so is often dissatisfied with having to settle for being side piece. But her friends are pretty much like "ehhh, go for it anyway", their reasoning being that there's a shortage of men after World War I so one should grab what she can get... LOL, great friends there.

 

As far as the romance between Igor & Coco portrayed here, it was just okay for me. Honestly, their banter got on my nerves at times and Igor often struck me as seriously needing to find his backbone in so many of the situations. What kept my interest more was the little side stories of Coco's life, the fictionalized portrayals of bits of Chanel's life that I've read in bios. Her romances with not only Capel but also Etienne Balsan (this novel opens with Chanel as an elderly woman on the last day of her life, looking back on on the most memorable moments of years past). There's also mention of a 5 year affair with Churchill's bestie (one of them anyway), Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster. 

 

My favorite sections were the descriptions of Chanel in her own little world when she was designing, the moments she was most proud of. She reminisces about designing costumes for Hollywood, notably Tonight or Never with Gloria Swanson and Last Year at Marienbad with Alain Resnais.

 

just one of the looks Chanel created for 

Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never

 

one of the Chanel designed looks in Last Year At Marienbad (1961)

It's been said that much of the fashion in this film directly

inspired the look of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 

 

 

My favorite part in the story, though it was a very minor portion, was the description of Chanel working up to the design of her iconic scent, Chanel No. 5. I cracked up at the line "better than the stench of resin from an orchestra pit". Well, that does sound like a nice selling point! Slap that on the label! X-D

 

They regard her, these women, with disapproval, without quite knowing why. It's not as if she's more decorative. Quite the opposite. If anything, the cut of her clothes is austere. The simplicity of her gown, its restrained elegance, makes them seem almost gaudy by comparison. And her silhouette is intimidatingly slim. It is this quality of understatement, this nonchalance de luxe, they find disrespectful. The impression she gives is that she's not even trying. It seems so effortless, they feel undermined. 

 

To Coco, conscious of the disdainful glances she's attracting, these others seem ridiculous in their plumes and feathers, their taffeta gowns and heavy velvet dresses. If they want to look like chocolate boxes, that's their affair, she reasons.  As for her, she prefers to look like a woman.

 

So yeah, as a stand-alone historical fiction, IMO it's not bad but not great. I think my attention would be better retained with just sticking with Chanel biographies. If you've read anything about the real woman herself, you can't deny she got a lot of living in while she was on this big blue rock! 

 

I saw the movie adaptation of this some years ago but have forgotten a lot of it. I'll be doing a re-watch shortly and will tag an update on here with some of my thoughts on the film. 

 

*****************

Update after film re-watch: 

 

The movie, released in 2009 and directed by Jan Kounen, is presented in French with English subtitles. Coco Chanel is played by French actress Anna Mouglalis while composer Igor Stravinsky is played by Danish actor Madds Mikkelsen.

 

The adaptation is nicely done, but it does take some patience on the part of the viewer. It opens with what in the book would've been Chanel attending her first Stravinsky concert but while the book leaves pretty much as "attended a concert, had a nice time, we should do it again sometime", the film decided to pull out a weird interpretive dance scene... one that ran over 15 mins with almost no dialogue! 

 

Now, if you can get through that (maybe fast forward through that bit if it's not your thing), the movie gets really good and stays pretty true to the novel for the most part. I didn't love how the director chose to do the ending, but otherwise I thought the film nailed the time period, the feel of Chanel's world, all of that. When you watch this film, you can't deny the Frenchness of it! 

 

I enjoyed how they were also able to incorporate actual World War 1 footage into some of the scenes and would highly recommend viewers watch the behind the scenes documentary offered on the DVD. Very cool info and stories there, and the actor who played Stravinsky, while I was impressed his seriousness to approaching the role of Stravinsky, also had quite the sense of humor!

 

Also worth watching, the short film (under 20 mins):  Once Upon A Time by Karl Lagerfeld, starring Keira Knightly as a young CoCo Chanel. I'm actually not a huge fan of Lagerfeld myself, but I did think this film was beautifully shot. 

Review
4.5 Stars
Counted With The Stars (Out Of Egypt #1) by Connilyn Cossette
Counted With the Stars (Out From Egypt) - Connilyn Cossette

Sold into slavery by her father and forsaken by the man she was supposed to marry, young Egyptian Kiya must serve a mistress who takes pleasure in her humiliation. When terrifying plagues strike Egypt, Kiya is in the middle of it all. To save her older brother and escape the bonds of slavery, Kiya flees with the Hebrews during the Great Exodus. She finds herself utterly dependent on a fearsome God she's only just beginning to learn about, and in love with a man who despises her people. With everything she's ever known swept away, will Kiya turn back toward Egypt or surrender her life and her future to Yahweh?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Many of us are pretty familiar with the biblical stories of plagues that rained down upon the people of Egypt (we're talking BC days) -- locusts, frogs, rivers with water that turned to blood. livestock and crops decimated, Egyptians overcome with boils! Author Connilyn Cossette takes those familiar tales and infuses them with some relatability for her readers. 

 

Our story opens in 1448 BC where we are introduced to Kiya, the privileged daughter of Jofare, a successful ship merchant / trader. At least he was successful for a time. Shortly after the reader meets Kiya, doing some frivolous shopping in the marketplace, she is urgently summoned home. Once there, she enters her father's office to find him with his back turned to her, his business partner, Shefu, also in the room. After some hesitation, the news is broken to Kiya that she has been sold into slavery to Shefu to pay off the debt of a massive loan Shefu gave Jofare. Tragically, five of Jofare's ships were sunk, the loss sinking his business in turn. Selling Kiya to Shefu was the only way to spare Jofare's wife and son. So Kiya is forced to relinquish all aspects of the life she knew and take up the clothes and position of servant to Shefu's cold-hearted wife, Tekurah. 

 

 

Through lowered lashes, I surveyed the room for people I knew -- and there were many. Old business partners, friends, even some distant relatives of my mother and father were in attendance. None looked my way. Either they refused to acknowledge a common slave, or they mercifully ignored my existence as they reveled in the privileges that I was now denied. 

 

I was at Tekurah's mercy because of such decadence -- the food, the dresses, the jewels. My father had always hosted the most extravagant of parties, our villa packed with people arrayed in their finest. And when the time came to repay his debts, he sold my freedom, not his own. Though I'd once delighted in the parties, the wigs, the cosmetics, the gold and silver, now the abundance made me ill. All the vapid people who had once filled my world, seemed to hang on my every word, now refused to meet my eye.... I dug my nails deeper and deeper into my palms. Cowards.

 

The novel spends some chapters giving the reader a feel for what life for a slave in that time might have been like -- being a breath away from all the riches in the world, yet unable to partake except to tidy up the mess the entitled might leave behind. If a slave was lucky, there might be some scraps to partake of, but no promises. Cossette is quite adept at bringing Kiya's new world to life: the sound of sandals down the hall, early mornings gathering water at the river, standing in the shadows of banquets, observing. Insane attention to detail in the early parts of this novel, almost to the point of distraction. I started off enjoying it but then found myself wondering when we'd get to the meat of the story. Stick with it readers! Those early chapters are largely world-building set up. The pay-off comes when Kiya survives all the various plagues.

 

The Egyptians blame the Hebrews, who appear virtually untouched by all that has befallen Egypt, for bringing this blight on their nation. A decree is announced that the firstborn son of every family will be murdered. The Hebrew people, encouraged by their leader Moses, decide to trek across the desert in hopes of reaching a place they can start new lives as "the chosen people". Kiya, who also appears untouched though she's Egyptian, is freed by Shefu when he feels the end is near. After reuniting with her mother and brother, Jumo, Kiya begins her journey across the desert with her new Hebrew friend (and former fellow slave) Shira, along with Shira's family and other members of the Hebrew community. Kiya is not driven by any religious conviction though; she simply wants to save the life of Jumo. Not only is he a first born son, but he is also physically and mentally handicapped. 

 

The journey across the desert is long and arduous. Not only do the Hebrews fear being found and attacked by the Pharoah's men but they must also struggle through various wild animal predators, violent thunderstorms (which often cause raging floods whenever the travelers are around a wadi), food or water shortages. No one knows where they are going exactly, only that they feel compelled to follow a bluish-purple cloudy beam of light that lights the sky day and night. Kiya even calls the beam "blue fire".

 

 

We were imprisoned by our escape route. Pharaoh behind us; the threat of flood all around.

 

 

During the months of travel, Kiya gets more acquainted with two men, specifically -- Eben, Shira's older brother, and Sayaad, a fellow Egyptian who later joins the traveling party. The acquaintance between Kiya and Eben is a strained one at first, as Eben lays the blame for his father's death at the feet of ALL Egyptians. Still, he develops a bond with Jumo and cannot deny his interest in Kiya, much as it confuses him. When he sees her getting close with Sayaad, Eben tries to warn Kiya that Sayaad is not entirely the good guy he seems. Sayaad tries to win Kiya over with his big plans to sneak them back into Egypt but one fateful night reveals his true motive. 

 

Not only does this novel feature stunning world building, but the reader is also taken in by the topsy-turvy way about the characters. Nothing and no one is what they seem! While this can be frustrating at times for a reader, when you feel duped for falling in like with "one of the bad ones", it makes the ride so much more fun! It's impressive how much life Cossette breathes into stories you've likely heard a million times in Sunday school. She also incorporates touching themes -- the idea of loving one's family regardless of the strife they bring to your life; the beauty of children with spirits unaffected by bias or prejudice; learning that the softest hearts can lie under the most stern faces. It was also nice to see Kiya struggle with her ideas of faith and a higher power, her working through those feelings that because she's not getting the answers she wants then it must mean she is unacknowledged and unimportant to that higher being. But then of course she learns the lesson that the right answer is not always one in the same with the wanted answer. 

 

This series is perfect for fans of biblical fiction with epic scope. Even if you don't normally do this genre but like evocative environments, try this one out! 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Bethany House Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

Review
4 Stars
A Magician Among The Spirits by Harry Houdini
A Magician among the Spirits (Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge) Reissue edition by Houdini, Harry (2011) Paperback - Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini and his exposure of the fraud spiritualist, spirit photography, spirit slate writing, ectoplasm, clairvoyance, and other quakery and cons perpetrated on the gullible, by the likes of the Boston Medium Margery, the Davenport Brothers, Annie Eva Fay, the Fox Sisters, Daniel Dunglas Home, Eusapia Pallandino, and other con artists of their ilk.The whole country got excited by Houdini's campaign against faking spiritualists. He careened through the country, offering money for spirit contacts he couldn't duplicate by admitted magical chicanery. It was a heyday not only for Houdini but for the spirit-callers and there was an equally famous protagonist who thought the spirits could indeed be contacted, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A photo at the front records a meeting between Houdini and Doyle and Houdini gives Doyle his own chapter. There's an earlier chapter on Daniel Dunglas Home, the English engineer of spectacular paranormal effects. Houdini raises hell with spiritualists who were giving their (usually paying) clients a vision of heavens to come, and shares the methods used to practice "fake" and sensational spiritualism. Houdini was nothing if not unrelenting. As a taste of things to come, he ends his introduction with the words: "Up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains."

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

After reading the nonfiction work The Witch of Lime Street by David Jafer, I was curious to know more about that story, particularly the details behind the strain in the friendship between magician Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was surprised to discover that they were even friends, let alone had a bit of a falling out over the topic of Spiritualism! Recently I came across a copy of A Magician Among The Spirits, written by Houdini himself in which he not only gives his own version of what went down between him and Doyle but also how Houdini came to be such a force in bringing down the Spiritualism movement as a whole. 

 

As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should have ever been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime. 

 

Houdini is quick to affirm that he most definitely believed in a higher power and an afterlife. His issue was with the lengths supposed mediums went to dupe grieving people into believing that their loved ones were trying to reach them. Houdini admits that if he could have found anything, anything at all, that would've struck him as irrefutably paranormal then he would've enthusiastically become the movement's greatest supporter / advocate. In this book, originally published in 1924, Houdini discusses the project he carried out, spending the year of 1919 sitting in on over 100 seances, hoping for anything definitely otherworldly. Instead, he says, he realized he was able to explain virtually everything he saw in terms of distraction and slight of hand tricks magicians employ all the time. It infuriated him that these so-called spiritual mediums were making quite comfortable livings off the grief of people desperate for any connection with their lost loved ones. 

 

Houdini points out that the popularity of Spiritualism cannot be dismissed as just something uneducated suckers fell into. In fact, quite a few of the era's great scientific and literary minds fell prey to the hope that these mediums could put them in contact with friends and family who had passed over. Houidini says he himself had arrangements with 14 different people, including his wife and his personal secretary, to give the agreed upon sign (handshake or code word) if any of them should pass. Fourteen people and not one of them (of the ones that had passed away by then, that is,) came through any of the 100+ seances Houdini attended. Houdini also points to his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, clearly a man of great intellect but swayed by the deaths of a son, brother and brother-in-law during WW1, making him desperate for contact.  There's also the story of poet couple Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning -- Elizabeth initially became quite taken with the movement, but after one particularly off reading came away feeling very much duped and dismayed.

 

" I heard of your remarkable feat in Bristol. My dear chap, why do you go around the world seeking a demonstration of the occult when you are giving one all the time? "

 

~ from a letter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Harry Houdini

 

Houdini also notes that it was also highly suspect how these mediums often lived the lives of celebrities, winning themselves the patronage of members of society's elite. They would be draped in the finest clothes and jewels, put up in lavish residences, enjoying the benefits of a nicely padded bank account. If the day came that their popularity was showing signs of waning, these mediums would often quietly announce their retirement before the truth behind their act was sniffed out. In the instances where mediums were taken to court on charges of fraud, oftentimes there would be only light penalties put upon them even when it was PROVEN they had duped clients out of money. 

 

In the end, Houdini chalks the whole thing up to largely being a case of what he calls mal-observation. In essence, it's not that people are kidding themselves necessarily, or willfully in denial. Houdini is saying "I believe you believe what you saw, but what you saw is not what you think." Clients of these mediums were just not versed enough in carnival-like showmanship to recognize telltale signs of trickery. They can't explain it, so they see no other explanation other than paranormal. One pretty funny example he gives is a reprint of an article someone wrote about one of his performances, claiming that Houdini couldn't possibly be human to pull off the feats he did. After the article, Houdini responds with a verbal "this is what was really going on" peek behind the curtain of his shows. 

 

While I didn't always fully agree with Houdini's personal thoughts on the topic, this was one highly fascinating read. I think it is important to keep in mind the time in which he was writing this, take into account that he's saying that in his time he had yet to see anything he could not explain. These are the days before EVP, spirit voice box technology, all that stuff that we commonly see paranormal investigators use now. I honestly do believe there are things we (or at least I, I guess I should say lol) have experienced that don't easily have scientific explanation. Then again, I (like Houdini) remain skeptical of 99% of the professed psychic mediums out there today. 

 

One thing I did particularly like about this book were all the photographs of Houdini with the mediums and other Spiritualists he got to know during this project. He also includes interesting diagrams where he lays out the "okay, this is how the medium did that" behind such things as spirit knockings, rappings, slate writings, etc that were commonplace in seances of the time. Some sections, such as some of the stuff on slate writing, rappings, and spiritual photography, did run a bit long for me but there are so many other worthwhile historical tidbits Houdini offers up that I would definitely recommend this to any fans of paranormal or even sideshow history. 

 

 

 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
2 Stars
The Eye Of The Lion by Lael Tucker Wertenbaker
The Eye of the Lion; a Novel Based on the Life of Mata Hari - lael wertenbaker

"Of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McCleod --- Mata Hari --- three facts are known and not disputed: she was born, she danced, she died. Otherwise truth is obscured by fancy to make her heroine of a 20th century legend, her name accepted as a synonym for the glamorous spy and femme fatale. Today it takes a skilled novelist with a deep knowledge of the times to recreate Mata Hari and justify her elusive immortality. Lael Tucker Wertenbaker gives back her reality and human meaning. To weave the threads of passion, betrayal, obloquy and terror into a full-bodied, sweeping story, compassionately told and tragic, she uses three narrators. The first, Gerschy Zelle, was born in Leeuwarden, Holland, and grows up there. She might have been as prosy as her neighbors, but fate involves the artless girl in drama, high doom, and often savage farce. The second narrator is Louis Lasbogue, Parisian dilettante, fascinated by Gerschy, whose radiance has survived all that life has done to her. Together they create Mata Hari, who dances to the Hindu god of war, delighting audiences in Paris, Monte Carlo, Vienna and Berlin. Franz van Weel, the third narrator, is a Dutch officer and diplomat who entangles Mata Hari in a web of intrigue. The insouciant years end in the inferno of the great war and she is its victim. Louis and Franz must stand by as witnesses on October 15, 1917, when Mata Hari, their "creation", is shot at dawn."

~ from dustjacket of 1964 Hardcover edition

 

 

 

 

First let me start with a sidenote... is it not crazy difficult to look at this title and not instantly think of the song "Eye of the Tiger"?! No? Just me? Okay, moving on... :-)

 

As the description above says, this story rotates between three narrators, the first being Mata Hari herself, on the eve of her execution by firing squad. These opening moments introduce the reader to Mata Hari just hours before she is about to leave this world, her mind filled with memories of her life... how it came to this moment when you, as the reader, come in. Once Mata Hari leaves the mortal plane, her story is picked up by the alternating voices of two important men from her life. Their testimonies are largely fictional, obviously, as this is a novel based on the real person, but they still give the reader a sense of what the woman might have been like. Mata Hari is one of those historical figures that one is largely forced to speculate on, since so little solid fact is known of her... actually kind of perfect for a historical fiction novelist! 

 

"Mata Hari" (her stage name when she danced) was actually born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (later McCleod when she married) in Holland to a father who sold hats for a living. In his shop he had a map of Holland and Belgium on the wall, the area shaped somewhat like a lion. Margaretha's father would tell her that she was born in "the eye of the lion." Margaretha's father was Dutch while her mother was Javanese, lending believability to the exotic mystique of "Mata Hari". That stage name by the way -- author Wertenbaker imagines a scene during Margaretha's boarding school days when her friend Marie might have given her inspiration for the name:

 

"You've such a sharp eye, I herewith baptize you --- Mata Hari -- Eye of the Morning, the Sun, the Yellow Eye, Eye of the Lion. There!" Marie dumped a glass of water over my head.

 

"That's lovely!" I shook my wet head. "Mata Hari I am." I hugged her and the gesture was full of love and gratitude.... So I became "Mata" or "Mata Hari" to everyone except the teachers, who scolded me for becoming less studious. I learned to make a mirror of my eyes to hide my inattention while I thought fresh, new, warm thoughts. My examinations betrayed me and I might have flunked out in the spring except for my grades in French and German. And because Dr. Veth, who taught Dutch history, gave me a undeserved A. 

 

"Pasha's got a pash for Mata," Marie declared.

 

"I'm not his type," I remonstrated. "He likes pretties and smalls. I'm big and ugly."

 

"No, you're not," said another girl. "You're just odd-looking."

 

"Mysterious," contributed a third.

 

My head lifted from my turtleshell and I began to feel attractive.

 

 

 

I've read such ideas in other books about Mata Hari, but it never fails to impress me about her legend. She was known as perhaps one of the quintessential femme fatales in history, yet in actuality it was said that she wasn't extraordinarily pretty (usually more often described with a vague "unique looking") and when it came to dance, she had no technical skill. Her famous veil dance was basically just a mash-up of moves she made up herself to make it look like she was a professional. The training might not have been there, but her enthusiasm and focus sold each performance enough to sell it to virtually any spectator! 

 

With this novel, Wertenbaker does a decent job in crafting the myth of Mata Hari back into someone the reader could imagine as a living, breathing person. The author does well crafting mystery and confusion around Mata Hari's involvement in spy work. Did she honestly know what she was getting into or did she innocently stumble into a world of intrigue she didn't know how to backpedal out of? It's left up to the reader to decide for themself. I'm still not entirely sure what I think. 

 

My trouble with this novel is that while it opened strong, the further I got into it the drier the writing seemed to get. I loved the portions in Mata Hari's own voice and the scenes that imagine her early girlhood. I also enjoyed the travel scenes with her husband and felt for her when she suffered the loss of a child. But a large chunk of the novel after that just got really slow. Intriguing topic but this novel does suffer a bit from a stiff, dated writing style. There was a nice scene near the end though where there was a reunion with an old friend... that was a touching moment... and I did like where the novel closed. But yeah, that dry bit that took up a good 60% of the book or so killed a lot of the interest for me. 

 

___________

 

Note on the author: Born in 1909, Lael Tucker Wertenbaker was a foreign war correspondent for TIME magazine in the 1930s through to the 1950s, prior to becoming a novelist. Through her work overseas, her and her husband met and befriended author Ernest Hemingway. She also wrote articles for magazines Fortune, Life, and US News & World Report as well as a few program scripts for CBS.

 

Wertenbaker went on to write a memoir, Death of a Man, in which she talks about helping her husband with his assisted suicide in 1955 after his terminal colon cancer diagnosis. A stage play was later made of this memoir, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia DeHavilland. Wertenbaker herself died of lung cancer in 1997 at the age of 87.

 

In researching Wertenbaker's life, I stumbled upon this interesting clip where she is being interviewed by none other than Orson Welles! Pretty funny that this interview was filmed back in the 1950s and even then they were discussing the dangers of children having too much access to technology :-P

Review
5 Stars
Bad Girls by Jan Stradling
Bad Girls - Jan Stradling

The most powerful, shocking, amazing, thrilling & dangerous women of all time. Breathtaking, at times inspiring and always riveting, this book takes the reader into the lives and times of 32 of history's most ruthless and ambitious women.

~from back cover

 

 

 

This lovely little history book, decked out in french flapped-goodness, gives readers a little glimpse into the lives of 32 women throughout history who, in one way or another, have been deemed infamous "bad girls". Stradling covers the classic tales such as those of Elizabeth Bathory, Madame Mao, Mary I, Messalina, Typhoid Mary ... but she also throws in a few lesser well-known names such as the pirate Shi Xianggu, New Zealand's cross-dressing conwoman Amy Bock, Phoolan Devi or Leila Khaled. Not all the women here have tales that are clear-cut evil, some are more a matter of making poor choices based on circumstances, or some were just consumed by a desperate need for attention and respect. Then again, some are most definitely, mind-boggling disturbing. Makes one shake their head in disbelief, but also makes for fun reading! Just some of the topics covered:

 

* Boudica --- Celtic warrior queen who was beaten, left widowed and forced to watch her daughters being raped... can't blame a mama for snapping a bit, right?

 

* Mary I aka "Bloody Mary" -- first daughter of Henry VIII, mostly ignored and desperate for attention... so she went to desperate lengths to get what she wanted...

 

* Empress Catherine of Russia -- stuck with an incompetent, insensitive dolt for a husband. Compelled her to snag his throne for herself, sometimes by whatever means necessary, "for the good of the country"

 

* Belle Starr -- known as a female Jesse James, married twice to two different outlaw men, got arrested with 2nd husband. Both sentenced to 1 year but both out by 9 months. She also had a tendency to choose Cherokee men for lovers; even if the relationship went bust, she was always desperate to keep a portion of their lands for herself.

 

* Imelda Marcos -- First Lady of the Philippines, attitude similar to that of Marie Antoinette, believed she was "giving the poor something nice to look at" while ignoring the fact that she and her husband were running the country's finances into the ground.

 

 

There were a couple stories in here that I didn't know much about but after reading about them here I am definitely curious to know more! I couldn't believe the story about Roman Empress Messalina and the prostitute Scylla allegedly bedding 25 men in one night! Dang, ladies!

 

There was also the story about Ranavalona, who started as a servant to the king of Madagascar. Ranavalona's father once tipped off the king to rumor of an assassination attempt. As a thank you, the king adopted Ranavalona, had her richly educated and trained in court life. When she reached the age of 22, the king had her married off to his favorite son. The son had 12 wives but Ranavalona was immediately bumped to #1 position. When her husband came to power, Ranavalona turned out to be quite the traditionalist, ordering the execution of anyone who was for Westernized ideas or Christianity. She ended up wiping out 1/3 of Madagascar's population! 

 

I found this book most helpful with the information it provided about Mata Hari, as I was reading a number of books about her and appreciated the supplemental info this particular one offered up. It talks of how, as a child growing up in the Netherlands (when she went by her birthname Margaretha Zelle), she had a naturally olive complexion and dark eyes in a land of blonde-haired, blue-eyed folks. Her father called her "an orchid among the buttercups". Sadly, her beloved father later abandoned the family. Once grown, she tried to attend college for a teaching degree but after taking up with the college director she was forced to leave. Scandalous! :-P She later met Captain Rudolph MacLeod (or Mcleod, depending on what book you read about her), 40 years old to her 18.

 

After they marry and she becomes pregnant, she discovers her man is an alcoholic but reasons that as a military wife she does get traveling perks, so she decides to stick it out. Through her travels she reaches the land of Java and immediately becomes enamored... so starts the first tricklings of the legendary "Mata Hari". Strangely though, while she was living there, both children fell victim to poisonings. Her daughter survived, her son did not. After the family moves back to Europe, Margaretha suffers beatings from her husband. She applies for and is granted a divorce and awarded custody of her daughter. Sadly, her ex refuses to pay child support so Margaretha is forced to leave her daughter with him until she can come back rich. It's shortly after this custody battle that she gets the inspiration to take up life as a dancer, officially taking the stage name Mata Hari or "Eye of the Dawn" in Malay language.  She tours Europe for 10 years as a dancer / striptease artist, making that money but depressed because her lifestyle is not suitable to have her small daughter around. But she can't give up the life because the money is good and she loves the fame. 

 

By the start of World War 1, she is nearly 40 years old. It's harder for her body to keep up with the dancing so she decides to become a courtesan to high class clientele, one such being a high ranking German official. This liaison is rumored to be her start in the spy game. Mata Hari later gets an offer from the French govt. to spy for them, which she accepts, but she is later caught by MI5 in England (who believe she's still working for the Germans). She tries to schmooze her way out of trouble by attempting to seduce another German official but he seems to see through it right away, giving her false info which gets her in trouble yet again when she passes it on. 

 

Mata Hari ends up being executed in 1917 but in 1999 her case was reopened and MI5 decided there wasn't enough evidence to warrant a death penalty (lotta good it did her at that point!).

 

This history book is great fun for new and established history buffs alike. If you're just now getting an appreciation for history books, this is a perfect book for beginners since the sections are short and are written in an engaging and easy to understand style. Not overwhelming yet enough to peak one's curiosity to read even more on these ladies. Longtime history buffs (like myself) can also have fun with this as you are reminded of stories you may have forgotten over the years. The book also features a ton of gorgeous photos and illustrations throughout. 

 

 

 

Review
2.5 Stars
More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss
More Than It Hurts You: A Novel - Darin Strauss

Josh Goldin's happy yet unexamined existence is shattered one morning when his wife, Dori, rushes their eight-month- old son to the emergency room in severe distress. Dr. Darlene Stokes, an African-American physician and single mother, suspects Munchausen by proxy, a rarely diagnosed and controversial phenomenon where a mother intentionally harms her baby. As each of them is forced to confront a reality that has become a nightmare, Darlene, Dori, and Josh are pushed to their breaking points. Darin Strauss's extraordinary novel is set in a world turned upside down-where doctors try to save babies from their parents, police use the law to tear families apart, and the people you think you know best end up surprising you the most.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Dori Goldin is at home with her infant son, Zack, when the baby starts spewing blood and vomit. She rushes him to the nearest emergency room where the child is immediately thrown into a number of tests to try to discover the source of his illness. Meanwhile, Dori's tv advertising executive husband, Josh, gets word of his son's condition and immediately rushes from work to meet his wife at the hospital. Once there, he finds himself startled to discover that Zack's attending physician is Dr. Darlene Stokes, head of the pediatrics unit. She also happens to be black. Weirdly, Josh immediately starts to fear that Dr. Stokes will assume Josh is racist and take it out on his son during his testing and treatment, but Josh tries to assure himself that because Dori is of Turkish blood, no one could call him racist. Even worse, Josh follows up this line of thinking with a comment to his wife later that evening, when he admits that he "didn't trust a thing about that doctor's looks."

 

While at the hospital, Zack's vitals takes a sudden nosedive. He starts to code. ER staff is able to stabilize him again but the incident sets up the story for all the drama that's about to unfold. While looking into Zack's short medical history thus far, Dr. Stokes starts to suspect Dori Goldin of having Munchhausen by Proxy, a controversial medical condition in which a mother is suspected of intentionally injuring -- whether through physical abuse or internal (ie. intentionally poisoning, but not enough to kill) her child and then presenting the injuries as just mysteriously cropping up. Sometimes this is for the sake of seeking attention, other times the reasoning is more difficult to determine. But once Dr. Stokes vocalizes her concerns with other colleagues, a media and legal firestorm ensues. The hospital fears being held liable for Zack coding while Dori Goldin is outwardly outraged over what she perceives as a kind of defamation of character. Inwardly though, the Goldins fear the hospital coming after them as unfit parents.

 

A news story breaks that tries to discredit Dr. Stokes' diagnosis. This story latches onto the fact that while in college, Dr. Stokes was involved in a campus group that some could possibly perceive as an anti-white / Black Power kind of party. They also harp on the fact that she was raised fatherless (her father was incarcerated during those childhood years) as well as being once married to a Jewish white man who ended up leaving her. Of course the story leaves out a lot of pertinent details, instead being swayed to vilify Dr. Stokes, but when she tries to talk out her reasoning behind the diagnosis with a colleague, Dr. Weiss (who was actually the doctor on call the night Zack coded), Stokes is surprised to find Weiss skeptical. Weiss points out that most doctors are hesitant to even mutter the words Munchausen by Proxy simply because there's not enough definitive research out there to back up their suspicions. Weiss himself admits to being unsure if he believes it to be an actual disorder or just an unfortunate misreading of patients. Stokes starts to doubt herself somewhat, wondering if maybe she did misread Dori Goldin, even though Stokes reminds herself that she has seen the condition listed in the DSM under "pathology". Still, she can't help but ask herself if she did indeed miss something crucial? Is the hospital actually at fault on this one?

 

Strauss' novel definitely brings up a subject to ponder on, but I question how well it was done. In some ways this story felt deeply complex and detailed, but in other ways it had a feel of being all over the place. I periodically felt myself wondering if Strauss struggled to decide what story he wanted to tell, because there's more than one major one here -- outside of the drama around the MBP diagnosis, More Than It Hurts You also gets into the struggles surrounding race inequality and how absentee parents during a child's pivotal years can affect that child's personality and sense of who they are right up into adulthood. While all valid and interesting topics for dramatic fiction, I didn't feel like they were always seamlessly woven together here. Dr. Stokes' struggle with racial prejudice was well done and actually did mesh well with the MBP storyline, but I thought the portions with her being reacquainted with her father ran on a bit long, maybe could have been quick interludes, rather than whole large chunks of chapters dedicated to such a small part of the overall plot. 

 

While the MBP storyline was the major reason my curiosity begged me to pick this book up (that and I had read and liked Strauss' novel Chang & Eng), I felt like Strauss struggled to stay on topic when it came to this portion of the novel. The words Munchhausen by Proxy, though hinted at, are not officially said until about 140 pages into this 400 page novel. The suspense around Dori Goldin (you know, the whole "did she or didn't she?") could've been built up so much more. But after a few brief mentions of MBP at that 140pg mark, the story doesn't really focus a spotlight of suspicion on her until another 40+ pages. In the novel's entirety, there are actually only a small handful of scenes that give the reader a glimpse into what might be going on in the Goldin home, which I found pretty frustrating.

 

As for the Goldins themselves, I personally found them incredibly unlikeable, MBP story aside. Dori comes off as sometimes overly dramatic, very hyper, bull-in-a-china-shop reaction to relatively low key situations (ie, just someone calmly talking / stating facts). Josh seems a little intimidated by his wife when she gets like this, but he's not without fault either. While Dori has moments where she gets upset and goes off on manic, homophobic / racist sounding tirades, the reader is given insight into some pretty disturbing self-realizations of Josh's .... such as him admitting that he actually did not love his son until weeks after the birth ... or how if his son ends up dying, that he "could get over it." 

 

I won't put all the blame on the Goldins though. Honestly, I think Dr. Stokes was about the only character in this whole thing that I DID like... unless you count baby Zack, but since he doesn't actually have any lines... Anyway, this one ended up not being as much of a winner for me as I was hoping. If you're looking to get into Strauss' work, my recommendation would be to start with his historical fiction novel Chang and Eng

 

Review
4 Stars
The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis
The Misadventures of Maude March - Audrey Couloumbis

Eleven-year-old Sallie March is a whip-smart tomboy and voracious reader of Western adventure novels. When she and her sister Maude escape their self-serving guardians for the wilds of the frontier, they begin an adventure the likes of which Sallie has only read about. This time however, the "wanted woman" isn't a dime-novel villian, it's Sallie's very own sister! What follows is not the lies the papers printed, but the honest-to-goodness truth of how two sisters went from being orphans to being outlaws—and lived to tell the tale!

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Sallie March, our narrator, is an 11 year old tomboy living in what we know think of as "the Old West days". Her parents are both dead, victims of yellow fever, so she and her teen sister, Maude, have since been living with their matronly aunt, Ruthie. While running errands with Ruthie one day, the girls become innocent, victimized bystanders in a shootout. Aunt Ruthie is killed instantly by a stray bullet. {I loved that on that fateful day, Aunt Ruthie, having quite the day already, speaks the unfortunate line: "Some days it isn't even a good idea to get out of bed."}

 

Now really orphaned, the girls spend some time living under the roof of Reverend Peasley and his wife. Stifled by too many rules and Mrs. Peasley's tendency to overwork Maude and her sister for selfish gain, Maude reaches the end of her rope. The last straw is when Mrs. Peasley tries to push Maude into a marriage with a much older man.

 

The March girls decide to make a break for it. Their journey requires them to pose as boys as to not arouse suspicion (you know, two young ladies traveling alone, can't be up to any good...) but hope their travels will soon take them to a new town where they can start over. It's no easy road though. Because Maude sorta borrows a couple of the Peasley's horses to aid her getaway, she gets labeled a wanted horse thief. Through a few other misunderstandings, she also wracks up the charges of bank robber and murderer and boom! -- the March girls are suddenly starring in one of Sallie's beloved dime novels! Every time they get their hands on a newspaper, Maude's legend seems to grow! But it's not just the stains on their reputations they're fighting. Additionally, these sisters face up against blizzards, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, food shortages, finding themselves having to evade police, even being taken hostage by REAL criminals!

 

What starts as a sort of comedy of errors grows into a heartwarming story of sisterhood and taking care of family, no matter what. This story is full of honest chuckles, especially from the wit of young Sallie March, who has sass for days!

 

Ben Chaplin broke some snow going around the cabin, huffing and puffing as he told us he dreaded a winter that snowed him in as early as December. "I don't mind being snowed in, but there's still January and February still ahead of us. By then I start talking to myself."

 

"My aunt Ruthie used to talk to herself all the time," I said. "So long as she thought no one was around to hear."

 

"What did she talk about?" Ben Chaplin asked.

 

"The shortcomings of other people, mostly," I said. It surprised me that he found this funny.

 

For readers who are fans of novels which include maps, this book features a pretty adorable one! Definitely recommend this fast, fun adventure for any and all lovers of Western comedy!

 

If you end up enjoying this book as much as I did, the adventures continue in Maude March On The Run! 

 

Note To Parents: Though this novel is geared toward middle-grade readers, there is some mild violence to be aware of: some scenes mention a toe being shot off and one character being stabbed through the hand. The criminals in this book are of a bumbling, comical sort though, so even the more violent scenes are lightened with humor. Still, heads up on that in case you want to monitor what your child is reading and prefer to do a pre-read yourself. 

Review
3 Stars
The Babel Conspiracy by Sylvia Bambola
The Babel Conspiracy - Sylvia Bambola

Two women engineers struggle to develop the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft amid ever intensifying global terrorism and muddled personal lives. Trisha Callahan has an abiding faith in God, and “those roots of middy blouses and pleated skirts, prayer books and incense-filled churches went deep.” This faith is tested when she finds herself in love with a married man. Audra Shields sees herself as a modern Lady Chatterley, “liberated but not forsaking breeding, intellect, or femininity.” When she becomes involved with a dangerous stranger, she begins to question her lifestyle. Both women try sorting out their personal problems while racing the clock to finish a project fraught with sabotage and murder. And who’s behind it all? When the Department of Homeland Security and the Mossad finally figure it out, the answer surprises everyone.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Trisha Callahan and Audra Shields are two female engineers employed by Patterson Aviation. Their current project is to develop the world's first nuclear powered aircraft, work that could not be more aptly timed as the world falls victim to chaos fueled by ever-growing threats of global terrorism. In this novel, the United States has been almost entirely taken over by multiple Islamic extremist groups, the largest one going so far as to address the US as now being ISA or the Islamic State of America. In this world, the US is still technically governed by a president, President Thaddeus Baker, but our president in this story seems to have become little more than a political figurehead. In fact, those who vocally oppose the political changes taking over the US, citizens deemed "subversives", suspect that President Baker is actually working with the extremists for his own personal gains. But now Baker's term is coming to a close, meaning it's time for the election of a new president -- will the US win a candidate who can fight back against the extremists and get our country back on track or will the citizens be stuck with yet another four years of a sycophantic puppet to ISA leaders?

 

Trisha and Audra work to keep their focus on this vitally important technology. It occurs to them that if they can get the nuclear technology to work on the plane, there are actually numerous other applications that could greatly benefit from this project, namely their plans to develop nuclear power from the use of seawater, potentially allowing the US to no longer dependent on foreign oil. Once word of this technology starts to leak to outside ears, Trisha and Audra quickly find not only their work but their lives threatened. There's evidence of sabotage to the building site and people tied to the project start turning up dead under mysterious circumstances. 

 

While all this is going on, there's also a secondary story that unfolds with Joshua Chapman. Joshua is an Israeli Jew with dual citizenship and the brother of Daniel, one of Trisha's best friends. He also happens to be a member of the Mossad, a Middle Eastern intelligence agency (a sort of Secret Service, you might say) quietly trying to assist members of the US government wanting to bring down the terrorist groups. He poses as a computer security specialist with the company Global Icon and is hired by Cassy, the niece of presidential candidate Senator Merrill to monitor any technologically based threats sent his way. While working together, Joshua and Cassy uncover some shady information regarding the other major presidential candidate Senator Garby whose dealings with the current president might not be all that much on the up & up. Just as Joshua and Cassy become privy to these details, President Baker comes out and declares the US under a state of martial law while also throwing around a bit of eminent domain. Scary, scary times for our characters! 

 

Bambola definitely gets you thinking with some of these passages!

 

 

It doesn't stop there though, this is one layered plot! While all that business with political murkiness is going on there is an additional side story written around the personal / romantic lives of Trisha and Audra. Trisha is a woman of deep faith and religious convictions, but even so finds herself in love with her married boss, Mike Patterson, now the owner of his father's company, Patterson Aviation. Due to her moral code though, Trisha forces herself to keep silent about her feelings. Meanwhile, Audra is living the complete opposite lifestyle. Audra feels like the world is going into the proverbial toilet, so she's all about living in the moment, having casual, fun hookups with men without developing any strong attachments to anyone. This YOLO type thinking lands her in a number of less than enjoyable circumstances, one such being her dalliance with bar fly Bubba Hanagan. It's her dealings with Bubba that finally wake Audra up and get her thinking that just maybe she DOES want more out of life than what she's been bringing home lately. 

 

 

Author Sylvia Bambola provides the reader with a note on the text before you even get into the novel, notifying you that this book is a bit of an updated, expanded version of her now out of print novel, Vessel of Honor, a story she wrote three years prior to the 9/11 attacks. Though she is upfront with that information, she is also quick to point out that it's not a straight up repackaging, but more like she used the previous novel as a starting point for some other plot ideas she wanted to work into a story... just so happens the ideas that came to her more recently worked in nicely with that older work.

 

I never read Vessel of Honor, so I can't give you a comparison here. I will say that I did enjoy this story and could appreciate the amount of work that went into making this such a layered, complex work. I found myself impressed at how well the little details of the plot were laid out, how all the characters seemed to have these faint connections to one another, the kind that would almost go unnoticed but if the connection wasn't there the story as a whole would lose some of its impact in the pivotal moments. One example being how Mike's wife, Renee, gets involved in campaigning for Senator Garby... or even how Joshua, the brother of Trisha's friend Daniel, ends up playing such an important role in protecting her down the road. In the grand scheme of things, their connections / interactions to more major characters is quite small, but their contributions to the story prove to be essential by novel's end. That's some serious writer skill right there!

 

That being said, in all honesty it was not my favorite of Bambola's works to date. What was lacking for me was what I've come to love from her other books, her seemingly effortless ability to make characters come alive. What's stood out to me as a reader is her way of getting through to this admittedly maybe slightly jaded reader. I go through A TON of books each year, I read some great stuff but let's be real, there's a mountain of mediocre out there. I sometimes go through stretches where I read several books that, while well written, I realize didn't profoundly move me. Bambola's books have given me that sensation of deeply caring that I so missed, but I don't know what happened with this one. It falls under that category of definitely being well-written but I didn't really fall in love with any one character here. The closest I could maybe say was reading the closing of Audra's story. I was saddened at how her exit plays out, and though Bambola provides an afterword explaining why she gave Audra the ending she did, I still didn't love it. 

 

Note To Readers: Sylvia Bambola is an author of Christian Fiction. While I've noted in past reviews that much of her historical fiction (of what I've personally read anyway) is pretty light on the religious aspect and thus friendly to readers of any and all faiths, be aware that this one is much heavier on the Christian themes. Just wanted to make note of that for any readers who prefer to steer away from that. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: BookCrash.com and Heritage Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

Review
3 Stars
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe - George Eliot

A gentle linen weaver named Silas Marner is wrongly accused of theft actually committed by his best friend. Exiling himself to the rustic village of Raveloe, he becomes a lonely recluse. Ultimately, Marner finds spiritual rebirth through his unselfish love of an abandoned child who mysteriously appears one day in his isolated cottage.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Silas Marner, weaver by trade, is living in the community of Lantern Yard when he finds himself wrongly accused of a crime. Prior to the crime, he had a quiet role in the neighborhood. The neighbors might have found him a bit socially repellant, maybe a little unattractive and generally weird, but as a whole most people still found something in him to admire, such as his devout faith and strong work ethic. Many just shrugged and figured he was made a tad quirky for a reason.

 

Even though he is cleared of any actual charges, he can't escape the still-judging eyes of his neighbors. The relentless gossip eventually ends up ruining his life in Lantern Yard, even causing his fiance to break off their engagement. Fed up with it all, Silas makes the decision to pack up the ol' loom and relocate to the town of Raveloe. 

 

Silas spends the next 15 years in Raveloe dedicating himself to his work. The neighbors see little of him except for when he steps out to gather water each day. Sure, Silas's life develops a sort of monotony to it, pretty much just spending all day at his loom, counting his coins and stashing them away before bed each night, but he finds a certain amount of comfort in the predictability. That predictability is shattered one night when Silas' hidden savings are stolen. The subsequent investigation uncovers ties that lead back to the wealthiest family in Raveloe, some of the members of that family secretly having quite the financial issues. 

 

Silas himself goes years without resolution but makes peace with the loss, in large part due to the arrival of a small child, whose mother died outside one winter night, not far from Silas's residence. The child happened to wander into his home and once he hears the little girl is left without parents to claim her, he takes her in as his own. This unexpected fatherhood gives Silas a daily lesson in what truly matters in a life. 

 

I've seen a number of reviews where people talk about how they were assigned this in school but remembered hating it so in fairness they were compelled to do a re-read in adulthood. As for me, I do remember this one being on assigned reading list for one of my classes in school but *sssh* this Honors kid never read it! I know, I know! And it's one of the shorter classics out there! But, well, I guess I had better things going on at the time. Like naps and TRL marathons. I don't know. But it's all been rectified now and my vote is it's a solid 3 star classic for me. Wasn't gawd-awful, but also not a jaw-dropper. 

 

I liked the themes Eliot brought up in the story -- mainly the idea of valuing people and life experiences over material posessions -- but in the end I was craving a little more conflict to drive those points home. Silas struck me as the kind of guy that was too quick to let life beat him down. Where was his fight, his backbone? He just seemed to be this Eeyore kind of spirit that went about assuming that it was his lot in life for most days to generally suck. I did start to cheer for him though once the story got around to talking about what a dedicated father he became to Eppie. I admit, I am a sucker for stories about great dads :-)

 

Speaking of Eppie, it was tough to read that whole scene with that guy coming in saying he "had rights to" Eppie, how he "owns her". Talking about the girl like she wasn't even present, right there in front of him. That is one thing about classics that is sometimes tough to bear, those characters trying to keep others in their place -- "I own you" "you owe me" -- makes me so thankful to live in a time when it's ever so much easier to make one's voice heard. There are still limitations, but not nearly to the extent they used to be!

 

I was also amused at Eliot having the character Godfrey actually converse with his anxiety as if it were another person in the room. Eliot even capitalizes it as Anxiety, and I cracked up at the line, "Anxiety went on... refusing to be silenced even by much drinking." Being a sufferer of anxiety myself, I could appreciate the tinge of dark humor there ;-)

 

The writing can be a little stiff at times, the plot a bit plodding here and there, and Eliot seems to like to end each chapter on a bit of a moral lesson. Not uncommon for her era. A decent classic but if you're brand spanking new to trying the genre, this one might not be the one to win you over to picking up future oldies. If you're just out to tackle as many classics as possible in your reading life, this is a quick one to get off the TBR that has a sweet (but somewhat sad) story to boot. Also, if you'd like a little extra help understanding the plot, this book was giving a modern (at the time, anyway) retelling in the Steve Martin film A Simple Twist Of Fate

 

----------------

 

Note on the author: George Eliot was born Mary Ann (or sometimes listed as Marian) Evans in the winter of 1819. She was the daughter of a respected mill owner / estate manager and spent much of her childhood reading constantly. She taught herself several languages, publishing her first book -- a translation of The Life Of Jesus by German theologian David Friedrich Strauss -- by the age of 22. She didn't begin novel writing until the age of 37. Though women of her era were known to publish under their real names, she chose to publish under the pseudonym George Eliot to escape the stigma that female authors were only capable of writing fluff works.

Review
4 Stars
Party Of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs - Dave  Holmes

From former MTV VJ Dave Holmes, the hilarious memoir of a perpetual outsider fumbling towards self-acceptance, with the music of the '80s, '90s, and today as his soundtrack. Dave Holmes has spent his life on the periphery, nose pressed hopefully against the glass, wanting just one thing: to get inside. Growing up, he was the artsy son in the sporty family. At his all-boys high school and Catholic college, he was the closeted gay kid surrounded by crush-worthy straight guys. And in his twenties, in the middle of a disastrous career in advertising, he accidentally became an MTV VJ overnight when he finished second, naturally, in the Wanna Be a VJ contest, opening the door to fame, fortune, and celebrity—you know, almost. In Party of One, Holmes tells the hilariously painful and painfully hilarious tales—in the vein of Rob Sheffield, Andy Cohen, and Paul Feig—of an outsider desperate to get in, of a misfit constantly changing shape, of a music geek who finally learns to accept himself. Structured around a mix of hits and deep cuts from the last four decades—from Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" and En Vogue's "Free Your Mind" to LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” and Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better”—and punctuated with interludes like "So You've Had Your Heart Broken in the 1990s: A Playlist" and “Notes on (Jesse) Camp,” this book is for anyone who's ever felt like a square peg, especially those who have found their place in the world around a band, an album, or a song. It's a laugh-out-loud funny, deeply nostalgic story about never fitting in, never giving up, and letting good music guide the way.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Dave Holmes, for the unfamiliar reader, is a writer / comedian / on-air talent who now works for Esquire.com (as well as hosting podcasts on Sirius) but is most recognized for his time as a MTV VJ in the early 2000s. Party of One is a brief, humorous memoir that looks at the life path that unexpectedly guided him to such a job. Holmes starts with a look back on his early childhood in Boston, MA, growing up the gay, artsy child of big-time sports enthusiast (not to mention heavy-duty Catholic) parents. While his siblings took up their parents' love of outdoor activities, Holmes embraced a love of music (in fact, the layout for this book was in part inspired by Holmes' love of mixtapes), fashion, and networking prior to the days of social media. 

 

The bands coming out of Boston sounded the way a sweater feels. They were autumn in aural form. I had The Lemonheads, The Blake Babies, Juliana Hatfield and Buffalo Tom on a constant loop in my Volkswagon Jetta.

 

Holmes' college years take him to New York City -- telling the taxi driver his first day in town, "I'm new here, take me someplace gay and awesome!" -- where he works as a sub-par waiter in a few restaurants for a bit, but later landing positions at advertising / PR firms. He keeps at it a few years, acknowledging that the money's not bad for what he does (even if he actually hates his job). Not surprisingly, he eventually hits his enthusiasm wall and decides a career change is in order. In comes news about the position up for grabs at MTV, albeit a position he finds he will have to compete for via MTV's Wanna Be A VJ contest. Winner gets the job. At this point in the memoir, Holmes shares that to this day, at least once a day, someone asks him about that contest. STILL. If you're a fan of the old days of MTV, you may remember when Holmes came in second to Jesse Camp. Disappointing, Holmes admits, but he quickly points out that even being runner up ended up being enough to get his foot in the door with MTV, still ending up on air though maybe through a more circuitous route. 

 

Enough of small places where everyone knows one another, enough of homogeneity. I was going to move to the biggest, greatest city in the world: I was starting over in New York City. I had enthusiasm, a poor understanding of how the world worked, a 2.4 GPA, and no job skills. I couldn't fail... I began looking for apartments right away. My perception of New York apartments and their size came mostly from Janet Jackson's "Pleasure Principle" video and Big: I envisioned massive, untreated warehouse spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed pipes. The heavy-doored elevator would open right into my place. I'd wait a tasteful few months before getting a trampoline.

 

If you're like I was going into this, eager to get into some 90s music nostalgia, Holmes does provide but let me give you a heads up that that's not actually the focus of his story here. In fact, he doesn't even start to discuss his days at MTV -- starting at age 27 -- until Chapter 12, which is nearly 150 pages into this 274 page book. While he does use music and pop culture references to illustrate his emotions / mindset during the various points of his life, the main focus ends up being his coming out story. Not the specific moment necessarily, but more the journey that led him to being comfortable about being "out". And he's clear to show the reader that it was, in fact, quite the journey -- starting from early childhood (we're talking single digit years) where he freaked his mom out by freely saying he thought a boy in the neighborhood was cute to the realization that MTV was not as openly friendly to the LGBTQ community as they liked to present themselves as being. It seemed like they only wanted homosexuality to be mentioned up to a point, before Holmes would sometimes be told one way or another that he was being "too gay" and shots would be cut and reshot with him instructed to act "more straight". So, much of the book talks about the years long process that took him through all that and the songs that helped him get through the worst moments. 

 

My feelings, quite frankly, were that I was tired of being scared. I wanted to be out. I wanted to be a beacon to other kids on campus, who I believed existed, who were searching for the same things. I wanted people to see that I was out and social and accepted and happy and that they could be too. I wanted them to find the inspiration to be brave and to live life as their truest self. Also, I wanted to have sex with dudes. 

 

I got some big laughs from Holmes' dating stories. He talks about the experience of having his first major heartbreak and trying to musically soothe the pain (or throw salt in the wound, depending on how you look at it) through repetitive listenings of "I Said I Love You (But I Lied)" by Michael Bolton and Lisa Loeb's "Stay". He also gets into how he realized that the majority of his dates / boyfriends could be broken down into basically four types of guys (and he gives you a run-down on the characteristics of each of these types). Gay or straight, I think readers will easily find something here to laugh and nod at because seriously, we've all been there at some point, right? :-) Holmes also shares the music he turned to to get him through some bad trips (notably "Hold On" by Wilson Phillips) during his brief experimentation with ecstasy and cocaine. 

 

I like that I grew up uncomfortable. It gave me fuel that powered me through a very weird life. It made me want to succeed, it made me want to work hard, and it got me to where I always wanted to be. But it's not for everyone. 

 

 

While the book may have not entirely gone the direction I was thinking it would when I started reading, this was still one fun nostalgia trip, sometimes hilarious, sometimes bittersweet. Holmes gives shout-outs to many musical mile markers in my own life, along the way sharing riotous behind-the-scenes style stories about some of those musicians. I was also impressed and moved by how honest he was in sharing his struggles with surviving homophobic-based bullying. Holmes gives readers a tale full of inspiration, one that echoes the sentiment of so many in this day and age: You do you. And do it proudly. Be brave. Be fearless. Be unapologetically you. Admirably, Holmes manages to convey this message without it turning into a complete schmaltzy cringefest. He honors his own message and just presents himself upfront, unfiltered, with maybe just a dash of self-deprecation. I can respect that. 

 

Also gotta give the man thanks for reminding me of so many great songs I haven't listened to in ages that I immediately closed the book to go hop on Youtube & reminisce in a wave of 90s goodness. Thanks, Dave!

 

So here they are, stories of the blessed and stupid life of a kid on the margins, and the music that moved it forward, in book form, which I figured I should hurry up and do before we start passing down our histories via emojis and GIFs of Rue McClanahan...That last chapter aside, I am determined not to write a showbiz tell-all, mostly because there's not much to tell; if there were crazy cocaine sex parties when I was at MTV, I was not invited. But something has to get excerpted on PopSugar if we're going to make this book work, so, you know, here. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: BloggingForBooks.com and Crown Archetype Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
2 Stars
The Things We Knew by Catherine West
The Things We Knew - Catherine West

After her mother’s death twelve years ago, Lynette Carlisle watched her close-knit family unravel. One by one, her four older siblings left their Nantucket home and never returned. All seem to blame their father for their mother’s death, but nobody will talk about that tragic day. And Lynette’s memory only speaks through nightmares. Then Nicholas Cooper returns to Nantucket, bringing the past with him. Once Lynette’s adolescent crush, Nick knows more about her mother’s death than he lets on. The truth could tear apart his own family—and destroy his fragile friendship with Lynette, the woman he no longer thinks of as a kid sister. As their father’s failing health and financial concerns bring the Carlisle siblings home, secrets surface that will either restore their shattered relationships or separate the siblings forever. But pulling up anchor on the past propels them into the perfect storm, powerful enough to make them question their faith, their willingness to forgive, and the very truth of all the things they thought they knew.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Lynette Carlisle was just a young girl when she lost her mother under tragic circumstances. Her older siblings blamed their father and one by one were quick to grow up and move out of Wyldewood, the family estate in Nantucket, MA. As for Lynette, roughly 12 years have passed and she still has virtually no recollection of the events of that night, save for one vague memory of hiding in a closet while sirens wailed in the distance. That, and years of nightmares that terrify her but still tell her nothing.

 

All of Lynette's siblings have moved out and moved on to their own adult lives now, yet Lynette, now an adult herself, has remained in the family home to care for her father whose mental faculties and finances are rapidly dwindling. Wyldewood is a huge house to upkeep, and even with the combination of her father's pension, her income from her daycare assistant job and selling some of her artwork here and there for a bit extra, they're still barely making ends meet. Lynette gradually finds herself having to consider putting the family home up for sale and her father in a assisted living facility. There's a certain sad humor in the fact that while Lynette struggles to remember her past, the past progressively becomes nearly the only thing her father can clearly recall! 

 

To complicate her emotions even more, Lynette discovers her childhood crush, Nicholas Cooper, has moved back to town. The estranged best friend of Lynette's brother, Gray, Nicholas has returned to Nantucket to help run his father's bank (even though the relationship between them is strained, to say the least). Nicholas was like a surrogate brother to Lynette for much of her childhood, but the last time she saw him was on her 19th birthday, when they shared a kiss ... and then he moved out of town & her life right after. Now working at the local bank, he becomes a financial advisor to her on the matter of Wyldewood but unbeknownst to Lynette, Nicholas knows exactly what happened the night her mother died. The problem is, if he reveals what he knows he risks not only tarnishing the reputation of his own family but also the romantic connection steadily growing between him and Lynette. Lucky for him though, the time for revelations gets delayed thanks to Lynette's focus on getting all her siblings back home to discuss the future of Wyldewood. Bringing everyone together soon reveals the necessity for each person to face the skeletons of their past head-on, if anyone is to have any sort of chance at sustained emotional health & peace. 

 

 

This novel had an attractive environment going for it, taking place on the island of Nantucket, but really I thought the whole coastal vibe could've been played up more than it was. I didn't feel much that seemed quintessential Nantucket specifically, just characters wandering the beach or going to a local diner to eat bowls of chowder. Literally could've been ANY coastal town. 

 

I also found the characters and the plot itself to be pretty flat. Virtually no surprises for me plot wise. The dialogue was very bland and often it felt a little too scripted for my taste. Rather than being immersed in this town, I felt like I was more a distant observer watching a boring play where everyone recited their lines just so and then curtly exited stage left. When there were scenes of drama it was so overblown that it felt like the book equivalent of a soap opera. It has all the classic earmarks of soaps -- drug addiction, marital affairs, babies out of wedlock, even a wealthy businessman trying to pull off a shady real estate deal. Just mentally insert some swelling instrumentals around those scene breaks and you got yourself a heavily moralistic soap suitable for any of the inspirational / religious cable networks. The book even has a ready-to-go soap title! 

 

It boggled my mind that characters could lose their minds over discovering one character's stint in rehab -- their behavior along the lines of "It's like we don't even KNOW you!" -- yet Lynette is awful quick to excuse a guy confessing he knowingly let a RAPE happen!

(show spoiler)

 

Note that this is just my personal experience with this book. There's a mountain of 4 and 5 star reviews for this one all over Goodreads & Amazon, so I'd say that if the plot intrigues you then grab a copy and try it for yourself. It just happened to miss the mark with this particular reviewer. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

Review
3.5 Stars
Way Home by Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Gregory Rogers
Way Home - Libby Hathorn, Gregory Rogers

It's night and the dark is filled with strange sounds as Shane makes his way home. On a fence he finds a stray cat that at first growls and spits at him. But Shane talks and strokes the kitten to calmness, and decides to take the 'Spitfire, Kitten Number One,' home with him. No gang of boys, or avenue of dense traffic, or fierce dog can stop Shane carrying his new found friend to the place he calls home. Greg Rogers' sensitive use of charcoal and pastel create Shane and his cat in splendid city-at-night time scenes.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

I wasn't quite sure what to rate this book, but in the end I think I'd give it a 3.5. The story itself is a solid 3. The story is decent enough, as far as the writing goes, and I do think the book is a good conversation opener for introducing young readers to tough topics such as homelessness. I think it's good that this story gets readers thinking about all the homeless children still in our country today (having previously been on staff at a homeless shelter myself, I can vouch that this is still very much a relevant issue).

 

My trouble with this one is that the storytelling aspect does sway a bit to the simplistic side, making more uninteresting than I was expecting. I think there's enough here to mildly peak a child's curiosity and they may be taken in and entertained by the story of the cat but I can't see it as one a child would request to come back to again and again.

I give an extra 1/2 star for the artwork. It is impressively detailed but at the same time... a wee bit creepy for young children I would say! Darker and stranger than I had anticipated.

 

____

 

* This book was awarded the Library Association Kate Greenaway Medal, a UK literary award given to books with exemplary work in illustrations. The award's namesake, Kate Greenaway, was a 19th century British children's book illustrator herself. The cool thing about this medal, aside from bragging rights of course, is that the recipient gets a gold medal and £500 (currently, roughly around $646 in US currency) worth of books donated to the library of their (the recipient's) choice! :-)

Review
4 Stars
Being Henry David by Cal Armistead
Being Henry David - Cal Armistead

Seventeen-year-old "Hank" has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything --who he is, where he came from, why he's running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David-or "Hank" and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of--Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead's remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

A teen boy wakes up in Penn Station with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he came to be at the station. The only possible clue to his identity is a worn copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau lying next to him when he awakes. Not long after coming to, mystery boy meets two homeless youths, Jack and Nessa, who give him some company while he tries to get his bearings. Not knowing what other moniker to give himself, and inspired by the copy of Walden he continues to keep with him, our narrator at first decides to go by Henry David but then shortens it to "Hank". 

 

Unfortunately for Hank, his new association with Jack unexpectedly gets him involved in a soured drug deal. Jack, Nessa and Hank realize they all need to split up for their own safety and survival. Hank's choice is to travel to Concord, Massachusetts, the location of the Walden Pond that inspired Thoreau's most famous work. Hank starts to suspect his memories are frozen because of something horrible he might have done, so while he half hopes to have his memory return, he also toys with the idea of just starting all over in Concord with a new identity altogether. 

 

As long as I have life, there is hope I can live better. 

 

It wasn't too long ago that I read Thoreau's Walden, so I was curious to see how a sort of YA mystery / thriller might be written around a piece of naturalist classic literature. For a debut novel, I found this to be an impressive entrance for Cal Armistead (threw me to later find out the author is female, I initially just assumed Cal was short for Calvin or something). There are quite a few mystery-thriller type stories starting amnesia patients on the market these days, and while this one doesn't always offer up the most tense plot -- there was a part there in the middle that got a little slow for me -- it made for a fun time reading how Hank put the pieces of his history together, little by little. As the memories trickle in, the people Hank interacts with -- whether it be his street friends Jack & Nessa; the HS janitor in Concord, Sophie; high school student Hailey; or the Harley-riding research librarian, Michael -- each one in their roles plays an important part in unlocking Hank's mind. 

 

I especially liked the almost father-like bond Hank develops with Michael. My one big gripe with the story is that the way Hank interacts with Hailey sometimes struck me as sounding much more middle-grade or jr high rather than someone in their late teens, on the cusp of adulthood, as Hank is described as being. 

 

So while the tension level of the plot might be more of the ebb & flow variety rather than more steady, the novel's end was definitely satisfying for me and, I thought, stayed true to the spirit of Thoreau, at least in terms of his writings. I found myself once again wanting to get out in my local woods! 

 

 

Review
2.5 Stars
The Opposite of Love by Sarah Lynn Scheerger
The Opposite of Love - Sarah Lynn Scheerger

Rose is the wild girl nobody really knows. Chase is haunted by his past. Both are self-proclaimed "disappointments," attracted to each other enough to let down their defenses. When Rose's strict adoptive parents forbid the relationship it only makes things more intense. But Chase can't hide from his own personal demons, and Rose has secrets of her own. After they're wrenched apart, a cryptic email arrives in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, beginning a desperate pursuit and a look back over their tumultuous romance. Will they find each other before the night is over, or will they be torn apart forever?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Rose doesn't have many memories of her biological mother other than that last moment when a very young Rose witnessed the woman being arrested and hauled off for something. She always figured she would see her mother again soon, but after a short stint in the foster care system Rose is taken in the Parsimmons, or Mr and Mrs P. as Rose calls them. Now years later, Rose is a teen testing their patience on a daily basis. The Parsimmons are an older couple, very strict and conservative in their beliefs and parenting methods. So much so that with each infraction of the rules Rose has more and more freedoms taken away from her until she is basically under extreme house arrest, only being allowed to attend school and an after-school job without Mrs. P's supervision. Rose finds ways around the restrictions though and it's not long before she's befriended & soon dating troubled teen boy Chase. 

 

Chase has his own family struggles, what with his mother trying to rebuild her life with him and his younger sister after leaving an abusive marriage. But now said abusive father is trying to work his way back into Chase's life. Chase also struggles with his mother's questionable taste in equally disappointing new boyfriends. It takes all the teen's strength and mental focus to protect his baby sister while also keeping his own temper in check.

 

When Chase and Rose get together, it's not always smooth sailing between them but they do find comfort in sharing similar miseries. This budding relationship is put to the test though when Mrs. P discovers what's going on between them and puts Rose on an even stricter lockdown, one that silences Rose for 8 months straight, until Rose is finally compelled to send a cryptic message to Chase and her best friends that mysteriously reads, "I'm writing to say goodbye... please don't hate me for doing this..." Not knowing what to think, Rose's friends frantically search all over town trying to find her, scared to discover what she has in mind / what she meant exactly by that message. 

 

I hate to say it, but this was one of those books where the back cover blurb seemed to contain more mystery than the whole rest of the book. This is the second of Scheerger's books I've read and I'm not sure what it is exactly, but something about her writing style is just not quite hitting the mark with me. I get pulled in by the plot synopses because they sound like they'll be a bit thriller-ish, but the execution just falls flat. Both of the novels that I read were under 300 pages but it just felt like I had to really push myself to finish them. 

 

What irked me about this one in particular was the pointlessly heavy-handed profanity right from page one. It's constant and it's just crammed in there in awkward places in the dialogue. A trend I see in YA books that I just do not understand. Sure, teens like to curse, as do a lot of adults, but it's got to feel natural! Don't just shove it in there to try to spice up an otherwise slow, uneventful plot!

 

Also, what was with the persistent referencing to Chase's bulky size? Just say he's got a stocky build once when introducing him and I got it. But nope, instead I have to be reminded every other chapter or so of him being "a teddy bear on steroids", "his polar bear bulk", "he's not fat huge, just so totally solid". Ugh. 

 

Can't say I was Team Rose either. I could understand some of her anger and emotional distress over feeling some abandonment from her birth mom, and yeah, maybe Mrs. P did go a little extreme with the discipline at times, but I didn't see where the Parsimmons' behavior would warrant Rose's extreme hate of them. Like Mrs P pointed out: they spent money they didn't always have to get her nice clothes and the best medical care, they tried to stock up on certain foods they'd noticed she liked... heck, even Mr P. goes out and buys her a laptop even after they ground her. She takes it as them trying to buy her off but doesn't really go out of her way to explain her viewpoint, maybe tell them something along the lines of "hey, maybe we could go out and do something as a family." Nope, she prefers to take whatever they give her in the way of food, shelter, and niceties but continue to seethe at them from afar. Even her friends at times try to tell her, "maybe it's a little bit you!"

 

I liked the character of Chase individually -- him trying to be a good brother to his sister, give her a good male example and such -- but him with Rose didn't do anything for me and it bugged me that she was always calling him "idiot", "moron", etc and he never called her out on it, instead swooning over his "exotic Indian princess". 

 

I grew to like Mr. P. I wish there could have been more character growth written in for him before the story ended. Near the end of the story there he seemed like he really wanted to make things right with Rose. 

 

I gave Scheerger two attempts close together and they both fell kinda flat for me. Not sure I'll be in any big rush to check out any more of her stuff for awhile. 

Review
3 Stars
Promise Me Something by Sara Kocek
Promise Me Something - Sara Kocek

As if starting high school weren't bad enough, Reyna Fey has to do so at a new school without her best friends. Reyna's plan is to keep her head down, help her father recover from the car accident that almost took his life, and maybe even make some friends. And then Olive Barton notices her. Olive is not exactly the kind of new friend Reyna has in mind. The boys make fun of her, the girls want to fight her, and Olive seems to welcome the challenge. There's something about Olive that Reyna can't help but like. But when Reyna learns Olive's secret, she must decide whether it's better to be good friends with an outcast or fake friends with the popular kids. . . .before she loses Olive forever.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Thanks to a zoning change in her town, Reyna Fey is forced to transfer from her beloved Ridgeway High where all her friends are, to the town's other, less popular high school, Belltown High. While her old buds only increase in popularity at Ridgeway, Reyna is now odd new girl at Belltown... at least until Olive Barton forcefully introduces herself. Olive is pretty low on the social totem pole, thanks to her somewhat abrasive way with people. After that first introduction, Reyna describes Olive as "blunt, headstrong, and unapologetically honest". Yet no matter how annoying Reyna might find Olive on a surface level, there's something deeper there to the odd girl that peaks Reyna's curiosity, so a tenuous friendship develops.

 

...It was nice to know she would never lie to me. Whereas I told a hundred lies every day, lies like I feel fine and I don't mind

 

 

 

Over the course of some months, Olive shares more and more secrets with Reyna. That sense of trust between them slowly starts to teach Reyna what true friendship is meant to be like, something she realizes she doesn't quite have with her old acquaintances back at Ridgeway. Reyna starts to see that while Belltown might not be the "cool" school to be in, the students there develop a level of strength not seen at Ridgeway because of what they are put through. For some, the biggest challenge is surviving a homophobic teacher who unabashedly gay-bashes any student he chooses, with seemingly no fear of job dismissal!

 

Reyna sees another instance of administration gone wrong during a Halloween parade at school where Olive is called out & disciplined for dressing as the man from the "American Gothic" painting. She's wielding a fake pitchfork so she's considered "armed" at school, yet nothing is done about the popular girl who decides to do "sexy cheerleader" with all her teen bits half hanging out. With the unpopular kids feeling like they're fighting a losing battle, there's a good deal of teen depression woven into the plot. It's not heavy-handed though, just enough to have plenty of readers out there nodding in relatable remembrances of their own experiences. 

 

Every heart on this planet holds a tiny bit of hate, like a bead of mercury, beautiful and dangerous. They were out to own mine.... Gretchen laughed, prompting Olive to give her the finger... Gretchen and I shared a look; then I felt my mouth open -- quick and lethal, with a mind of its own. "Lesbo," I said. Gretchen laughed again, louder than before. It didn't matter that lesbo was a word I hadn't heard anyone use since fifth grade. That wasn't the point. You didn't have to be funny to make Gretchen laugh. You just felt on the safe side when she did.... There was only one thing stopping me from turning into a complete monster, and that thing was Levi. 

(show spoiler)

 

Just when Reyna feels like she might be getting her footing in these new surroundings, Olive chooses the night of Reyna's first date / kiss to disappear, later leading everyone to suspect she had the intention of ending her life. The few clues the reader gets to Olive's inner thoughts are from short IM (instant messaging) conversations she has with a mystery person on the other end (the other person's identity is revealed a few IM's in, I just don't want to throw in unnecessary spoilers here). These IM's appear just before the start of each chapter. 

 

an excerpt from one of the IM messages... I couldn't help but have a dark laugh (given the heavy conversation) at the term "melodrama poisoning".. pretty sure I've been exposed to that a time or two!

 

 

 

The other major lesson Reyna learns from her time at Belltown is that EVERYONE, down to the most popular kid you know, has their own secrets they're trying to keep from surfacing. Working from that idea, Kocek does a nice job of illustrating a realistic high school experience, full of messy emotions that give the characters a sense of "humanness" about them. 

 

There were no posters on the walls, no books or magazines on the bookshelves, no stuffed animals on the bed -- no trace of Olive whatsoever. There was only one book on her bedside table: Anna Karenina.

 

Olive walked over to the bedside table and picked up her book. "Tolstoy says that all happy families are alike ... and yet every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Doesn't that suck?"

 

"Why?"

 

"Life is lonely enough already!" Olive burst out. "You shouldn't have to worry about being the only freak in the world with your particular problems."

 

"You're not the only freak with your particular problems," I said to Olive. "Someone out there is going through it too. Trust me."

 

I liked the themes this novel addressed and the honesty of the characters. There were moments where I honestly felt a little pity for Reyna but there was also something to her overall personality that I found slightly off-putting... though I couldn't quite place my finger on what it was exactly. I was also surprised at how long it seemed to take me to work through this short book. Not sure if that was because of the subject matter, the emotional ride around the themes, or due to the slower points in the plot, but yeah, just in general I didn't find myself flying through this one. But I did enjoy the ride.

 

Taking all that into consideration, I struggled with what kind of rating I would personally give this book. I normally keep it simple, either full stars or half stars. This is the first time I honestly felt like this was right around a 3.25... little bit better than a 3, not quite a 3.5 for me. I know the rating system is completely arbitrary and based on the personal emotional experience of each reader, but there you have it. That's what I have to leave this one with ... a 3.25. 

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