Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review: I Was Anastasia

In 1920, a woman is pulled out of a German canal. Her body is covered in scars and she won't say how she ended up in the water. When she finally breaks her silence, she claims to be the Russian princess Anastasia. The Russians insist that she and her entire family were executed by a firing squad, and many people believe that she is only looking for money and fame. She is dubbed Anna Anderson and a long investigation begins, as everyone tries to uncover the truth: is she the Princess Anastasia?

The story of Anastasia is one that has persisted in our consciousness for many years. There have been movies, books, and even a Broadway musical because we can't resist wondering if one of the Romanovs could have escaped their terrible fate. If you think there's nothing left to this story, think again. Ariel Lawhon throws you right into the action with Anna who confronts the reader, insisting that you have to come to your own conclusion after you hear her story. The action moves in two storylines, as we see Anna in the present navigate the believers who shower her with attention and the detractors who call her a liar. Years earlier, the Princess Anastasia tries to keep up her spirits under house arrest and increasingly dangerous circumstances.

I Was Anastasia is historical fiction at its best, which is exactly what readers have come to expect from Ariel Lawhon. If you know your history, you already know the answer to the question of Anna's identity. But as Anna points out, it almost doesn't matter. We want her to be Anastasia, because we want some hope to have come out of a dark, terrible story. We want Anna to be Anastasia because Ariel Lawhon makes both stories so compelling that we can't help wanting to believe.

I Was Anastasia
By Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday March 2018
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Review: Becoming Madeleine

A Wrinkle In Time is a beloved story for many children. It's a jumping off point for young readers to love books about daring girls, impossible worlds, and traveling through space and time. For me, it was a doorway to the writing of Madeleine L'Engle and I happily tore through the remaining books in the Time Quintet, traveled through the streets of New York with Katherine Forrester, and read her reflections on life and love in The Crosswicks Journals. L'Engle passed away in 2007 and her granddaughters Charlotte and Lena wanted to give her readers a glimpse into the life of their beloved grandmother. They spent years going through her childhood letters and journals to write Becoming Madeleine.

This book is a treasure trove for the L'Engle fan who wants to learn more about their favorite writer. Voiklis and Roy started with their grandmother's earliest memories and wrote about her difficult relationship with her parents and her troubles and triumphs at school. They included photographs, journal entries, and letters from Madeleine. It's fascinating to read words she wrote as a child and young woman and compare them to her voice as an adult writer of fiction and nonfiction.

But I wished there was more of a personal touch to this book. Voiklis and Roy stop the book when A Wrinkle in Time is accepted for publication, which means we don't get to witness L'Engle as a grandmother to the authors. I can certainly understand wanting to keep your memories for yourself, but it feels as if anyone could have compiled her early letters to write this book.

Becoming Madeleine is intended for young readers, so the writing style is clear and simple. While I would have loved a more personal book, this book is a crucial addition to your bookshelves if you love Madeleine L'Engle and want to know about her younger years.

Becoming Madeleine
A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle In Time
By Her Granddaughters
By Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy
Farrar Straus Giroux February 2018
176 pages
From my shelves

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Spring TBR

Here in New Jersey, it seems we will be dealing with snow for the rest of our lives. But I hear that it is actually the first week of spring so all the spring book releases are right around the corner!

I'm linking up at the That Artsy Reader Girl for Top Ten Tuesday to discuss all of the books we can't wait to read this spring.

1) A few years ago, a debut novel about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was a huge hit. We've all been anxiously awaiting another book from Madeline Miller and her book Circe will finally be here in April!

2) Zombies are rising up from the battlefields of the Civil War. Are you ready for any awesome biracial warrior girl to save the day in Dread Nation by Justina Ireland? I am so ready.

3) New Meg Wolitzer! New Meg Wolitzer! The Female Persuasion is out in April.


4) Jonathan Miles is an author who rarely seems to be discussed in literary circles. His newest novel, Anatomy of a Miracle is about a paraplegic who can suddenly walk--is this a miracle or something else?

5) Ramona Ausubel's debut novel No One Is Here Except All of Us completely ruined me. Then she followed it up with an incredible short story collection and a novel that made me care about rich people (I never care about rich people problems!). Now she has a new short story collection called Awayland and I'm ready for her to take all of my money!

6) Full disclosure: I'm reading the ARC of Only Human (Themis Files #3) right now and it's really good. If you haven't read any of the books in this series about giant robots and aliens by Sylvain Nuevel yet, get started now so you can read the last one when it comes out in May.


7) And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O'Connell is the author's look at becoming a mother very early in her life before she really felt like an adult.

8) I found Ruth Hogan's novel The Keeper of Lost Things lovely and charming, so I'm excited to read her next book The Particular Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes.

9) Tom Rachman writes fantastic books (The Imperfectionists, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers) and I will follow him anywhere. In his latest book, The Italian Teacher, it's Rome in the 1950s and the triumphs and passions of artists and their families.

10) It's a great year for new books from authors I love. Jason Mott's The Crossing tells the story of twins who have to survive a world falling apart around them.

What books are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review: Promise

On Palm Sunday in 1936, a tornado touched down in the town of Tupelo, Mississippi. Hundreds are killed, homes and businesses are destroyed, and the town that people have lived in for their entire lives is gone forever. Dovey is outside, wondering when her granddaughter Dreama and great-grandson Promise would return. She is thrown through the air and lands wounded and dazed with no idea if her family is still alive. Across town, 16-year-old Jo McNabb comes to with a piece of glass embedded in her forehead. Her mother is injured, her baby brother is missing, and her father is nowhere to be found. The two families have a bitter and difficult history, but their actions on that devastating day will cross lines and build new relationships.

Minrose Gwin based her novel on a real event. Her grandmother lived through this tornado. It would be impossible for Gwin to show the range of injury and grief inflicted that struck the town, so she focuses on two women who are opposites in every way. One is a poor, black grandmother and the other is a a rich white girl. Dovey is all too familiar with the ways people can inflict pain on each other, while naive Jo is just starting to learn. But both of them are determined to survive, to do what needs to be done, and to fight for their families.

This story deals with some very dark things--rape, racism, natural disasters, and poverty, to name a few. But everything cleans up a bit too neatly--justice will be served to abusive boys and absent parents and closure will be found for our heroines, even among the ruins of their homes. While the photos included within this book show the devastation of this tornado, Promise leaves no doubt that Jo and Dovey will be able to rise from the wreckage and maybe even have a happy ending one day.

By Minroe Gwin
William Morrow February 2018
400 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Friday, March 9, 2018

Spunky Historical Heroines: A Murder in Time, A Spy in the House, and The Widows of Malabar Hill

If you are a reader, you probably enjoy reading historical fiction. We can't seem to resist visiting an Elizabethan castle or imagining ourselves as the brave woman who evacuates her neighbors during a bombing in World War II era London. But reading this kind of book can be frustrating because being a woman in the past was an incredibly different experience than the one we are having in 2018. It's not quite as exciting to read about a woman who dutifully follows the direction of her parents, marries young, and has several children. We like our heroines to have some spunk and pluck, to defy expectations, and take control of their own lives.

But how far is too far in historical fiction? Do we ignore the very real consequences that women faced for defying their fathers or husbands? Do authors purposefully ignore the restrictions that women had on their everyday lives? How much leeway do we give our female protagonists when they act in ways they never could in reality?

In A Murder in Time, FBI Agent Kendra Donovan is suddenly transported back to 1815. She quickly realizes that there is a murderer at work, but has a difficult time explaining how she knows that since forensic investigation isn't used yet. Kendra appears out of nowhere and is accepted in a wealthy household as a lady's maid. She's used to being in charge, so she should get into a fair amount of trouble both as a woman and as someone who is supposed to defer to her wealthier employees. I understand that it rather breaks the narrative if she gets fired from her job for being rude or gets sent to an asylum for knowing things she shouldn't, but it does seem somewhat ridiculous for the men of the house to unanimously decide it is charming for this crazy woman to act the way she does.

        A Murder in Time (Kendra Donovan, #1)     The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)

Similarly, in the first book of The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee, Mary Quinn goes undercover as a lady companion in London in the 1950s. While she is a woman of the Victorian era, she also happens to be a spy collecting evidence about the family she works for and their comapny. She is rude to her employees, she sneaks out when she should be working, and she often acts like a fairly modern woman without thinking about the consequences. Mary does have two safety nets with James, who is also investigating the company, and the knowledge that the all-female agency can pull her out if things get too complicated (after all, they saved her from the gallows once). But she still ignores many of the conventions of her day and we readers don't worry too much about it because she doesn't seem to believe there is any real danger.

The Widows of Malabar Hill, a recent first book in a mystery series, seemed a bit more realistic to me. Perveen Mistry is our protagonist and she is the first female lawyer in India in 1921. Author Sujata Massey was inspired by the real-life women who practiced law around that time period. Perveen is able to solve the mystery, but this case is perhaps specially tailored to her; as a woman, she is able to gain access to the titular widows who are observing a strict period of mourning where they cannot speak to men. But we also see the ways it is difficult for her to navigate the world--she may be a lawyer, but she deals with mostly office work and research while her father argues in court. Perveen is also in situations where she has to decide if it is appropriate for her to go somewhere alone, which would never stop her fellow lawyers from talking to a client or finding answers to their cases.

So where is the line? Can our heroines act courageously with some actual consequences? Who are your favorite spunky historical heroines?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Review: Attend--Forty Soul Stretches Toward God

There are so many devotional books that you can pick off a bookstore shelf. They tend to highlight a specific passage of Scripture and then give you some questions or a page of reflection on the text. But many of them are heavy and require a lot of thought and a lot of time. For those of us who have busy jobs or a loud house full of playing kids, it can be difficult to find time or energy to tackle those kinds of devotions. Laura Davis Werezak proposes an alternative: what if we could connect with God by doing something as simple as opening a window or sending a note to a friend? In Attend, she takes us through forty "soul stretches" to help the busy and the distracted find unexpected ways to encounter God.

Werezak frames her book around Isaiah 30:15 and the concepts of returning. rest, quietness, and trust. She talks about a time in her twenties when she found it hard to connect with God. She prayed, she read the Bible, and she went to church, but she felt like nothing was working. So she focused on the idea of attending, or stretching towards God, and noticing the little things about life and the relationship with the one who created it all.

Attend provides the reader with ideas that are seemingly simple, but there are great rewards from doing each one. Each devotion is a few short pages and it would be a perfect pick for the season of Lent, since it has 40 entries. Werezak writes with gentleness, recognizing that you may be tired and burnt out, and that life can just be downright difficult. She includes stories from her own life and reflections from scientists and theologians to encourage you to keep going, to keep reading, and to keep stretching towards God.

Forty Soul Stretches Toward God
By Laura Davis Werezak
Faithwords February 2017
223 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: A Baker's Year and Becoming Brilliant

Tara Jensen is a baking star on Instagram, where she shows her day-to-day life as the owner of Smoke Signals Bakery in Vermont. A Baker's Year is her first book and it is a hybrid of sorts; we get some basics about baking, some recipes from bread to pies, personal insights, and a look at what life is like at the peak of summer and on the coldest winter days at one of the most beloved bakeries in the Northeast.

I had trouble sticking with A Baker's Year for several reasons. The first has nothing to do with the book itself, but it's difficult to follow a story when portions seem to be missing from an advanced copy or pictures are on random pages without any context. But more than that, I didn't feel like this hybrid approach worked well. The book is very short, so we miss context for a lot of things. Jensen talks about her personal life, but only in the briefest of snippets--it's hard to feel grief over the end of her relationship when we've only read a few pages about them being together. The way she writes about baking is not very accessible for most of us who will never have a wood-fired oven and somehow she manages to run a very popular bakery without ever revealing what it is like to work there every day and interact with other people. Maybe this book works best for fans of Jensen who already know a bit about her and her bakery.

A Baker's Year
Twelve Months of Baking and Living the Simple Life at the Smoke Signals Bakery
By Tara Jensen
St. Martin's Griffin February 2018
208 pages
Read via Netgalley

Have you talked to an elementary school student about their classes lately? I do it every day and it seems like the joy of learning has been left behind, perhaps with three hours of math each day. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsch-Pasek are education researchers and they know what the problem is--our schools are exclusively teaching content without teaching our children how to work together or discern which information is actually important. Becoming Brilliant demonstrates to parents and teachers that our education system is not working and proposes ways that we can help our kids succeed today and in their future careers.

I appreciated a lot of what Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek had to say in this book. I certainly agree that things like critical thinking, creativity, and communication are crucial for our children in school and in their adult lives as people with careers. The authors do a great job of giving specific examples of ways that parents can focus on each skill set, but I wish they had taken a little less time to get there. It doesn't take much to convince parents that their children need to know how to collaborate; greater emphasis on how to build these traits at home and convince school systems to incorporate them would have been great.

Becoming Brilliant
What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children
By Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
APA Life Tools May 2016
344 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, March 2, 2018

Best Books of 2017

I know, I know. It's already the beginning of March. But I'm never going to be one of those people who publishes their "Best Of the Year" lists when there are still three weeks to go in a year. I get a lot of good reading in between Christmas and New Year's, so I'm not going to risk leaving off a great book just because I read it at the end.

As for the gap between the beginning of the year and now? Well...life happens, my friends. So let's settle in and talk about the best books we read last year!

Books Read in 2017: 134
Books Reviewed: 78
First Book of the Year: This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick
Last Book of the Year: Before The Fall by Noah Hawley
Pages Read: 38, 922
Fiction/nonfiction: 101/33
Number of audiobooks: 7
Female authors/male authors: 104/30
Favorite Non-review Posts: Reading and UnderstandingGetting Into An Audiobook, Phryne Fisher on the Page and on the Screen, Thoughts on All Grown Up and Single Protagonists, Graduating to Chapter Books

Favorite Fiction Books

I had read a lot of rave reviews of Amor Towles and his novels Rules of Civility and A Gentlemen in Moscow. I picked up his earlier novel on a whim, and found myself immediately pulled into Katey's world. If you've been around for a while, you know I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's books and this took me right back to the glamour and pain of the Jazz Age. This is not a thriller, but it's hard to put down and Towles makes it all seem effortless.

 There are books that do well because they are published at a fortuitous time and Mohsin Hamid's story of two young refugees looking for safety may be that. But I think Exit West would have succeeded even if the issue of refugee resettlement wasn't so current; Hamid writes beautifully and thoughtfully and I found his characters on my mind long after I had finished reading the book.

My husband likes to tease me about the sheer volume of books I read that are set around WWII. But The Alice Network really stuck with me, in part because it showed just how little time passed between the two World Wars. People had scarcely put their lives back together from the first when the second sent their countries and lives into chaos again. I loved the way that Kate Quinn juxtaposes a naïve, rich girl with a hardened, bitter spy while giving the both of them such depth and humanity. (honorable mention to We Were the Lucky Ones

Oh boy. I'm happy I finished this book in the safety of my own home, where no one saw me weep through the last few chapters. The Names They Gave Us is about a teen girl who is having a crisis of faith and ends up working at a summer camp. I loved the way that Emery Lord wrote teens so well and portrayed the heartbreak and hope of figuring out what you believe and who you can count on in times of crisis.

The Mothers was on so many lists of great books of 2017, and it was entirely deserved. Nadia is trying to find peace after her mother's death, and the idea of motherhood looms large in this story through Nadia's own choices and through the Greek chorus of church mothers and grandmothers who have their own chapters to ruminate on the things they know that the younger generations do not. I'm excited to see what comes next from this debut author.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the kind of book where you have to settle in for the ride--things are revealed to you bit by bit and when everything comes together, it is stunning. Told in multiple narratives, this is the story of a young girl grappling with her father's death while she learns about his past during China's Cultural Revolution.

I'm going to take this opportunity to share my love for both The Bear and the Nightingale and its sequel The Girl in the Tower (hey, I read them both in 2017!). The Winternight books follow Vasya, a young girl living in the countryside. She soon learns that there are both benevolent and malevolent spirits as far away as Moscow and as close as her kitchen hearth, and she has the ability to fight against or alongside them. These books are perfect for winter--if you haven't picked them up yet, do it before spring arrives!

Favorite Nonfiction Books

This book is about the realities of living among the people you want to serve. D.L. Mayfield was ready to be a missionary, until she realized the inherent flaws of a traditional missions assignment. Instead, she started working with refugees who had resettled in her city and Assimilate or Go Home details the things she learns about others and herself as she becomes a part of this community. This book has the potential to completely change the way you think about other people and yourself.

Kory Stamper is hilarious, people. If you are a person who loves words and have always wondered what it would be like to work at a dictionary, this book is for you.  Reading Word by Word will remind you of the joys and troubles of the English language and make you laugh so uproariously that people sitting next to you might be slightly concerned. 

This is a book that is very difficult to describe. At its core, it is Hope Jahren's memoir about being a female scientist and the difficulties she has faced. But more than that, it's about being a person who is observing their own life, who knows how amazing it is that trees can grow so tall and why they do and marvels at the development of a friendship and the unexpected joys of motherhood. I highly recommend listening to this one as an audiobook. My husband thought Jahren's reading was a bit soporific, but I found her voice soothing (at least when I wasn't crying into the dishes I was washing). 

Now it's your turn!  Did you read any of these books? What were your favorite books in 2017?