The Winner’s Trilogy, books 1 & 2

The Winner's Curse (The Winner's Trilogy, #1)The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
AND

The Winner's Crime (The Winner's Trilogy, #2)The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary of The Winner’s Curse (from Goodreads)

As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

Book 2, The Winner’s Crime follows Lady Kestrel and Arin as they continue to decipher if they can trust each other, and if they can trust themselves. Their skills in deceit both help and hurt as they try to uncover a shocking secret affecting both their countries.

My Review

I haven’t been so wrapped up in a series since the Hunger Games. I did not want to put these books down. Only necessities like feeding myself or my children could tear me away. It’s just a good thing that I had the sequel on hand and could start it immediately after finishing book 1. But I have now finished book 2, and book 3 hasn’t been released yet!!! Goodreads shows the expected publication date as March 1st. I HATE waiting.

The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime are part of the Winner’s Trilogy. They are the perfect combination of action, intrigue, romance, and engaging prose. I enjoy the excitement, and fairly “clean” and innocent romances of YA fiction, especially when I am looking to just get lost in a story for awhile, but these books surpassed that basic entertainment value and became enthralling. They have all of the thrill of forbidden love, and palpable chemistry between the main characters; then add to that a unique world, and thought-provoking moral and philosophical situations and you get a captivating story.

The setting for these books is NOT a dystopian future, as is so popular in YA fiction these days. The world is completely a fictional one, but there are similarities to our world’s history, particularly to the days of Roman conquerings and enslavements. It is original and refreshing, and presented and described well. It feels as if it could be real.

But let’s get to what really sets these books apart for me. Never have I read a story with so much deceit, lies, half-truths, conspiracy, and stratagem on the parts of both the “bad guys” and the “good guys.” These are smart characters that have had to learn the ways of war, secrecy, stealth, disguise, in order to survive their world. Now they have to face situations that challenge everything they thought they knew and everything they thought they were committed to. I loved the believability of their reasoning, thought-processes as they were forced to examine themselves and their world. And even as the plot becomes more and more intricate the conclusions of the characters stay completely plausible and consistent within the characters motivations and knowledge.

The Winner’s world is one of “grays.” You see multiple sides to every issue and watch as characters try to do the best they can to make choices they can live with amidst a culture and civilization that makes it impossible for all sides to live the way they want. Even when unpleasant events occur because of the choice of one of the “good guys” you can completely see the logic and reasoning behind that choice and why they are still a “good guy” despite the bad things that happened. Definitely makes me glad I am not in the business of politics, war, or revolutions. Though I hope the leaders in those fields in our world are as careful and considerate with their decisions as the characters in these books.

I enjoyed the writing as well. It’s easy and fast to read, just as I like it when I’m completely caught up in a book, but there is also depth and beauty to the ideas and presentation that goes beyond your average entertainment read. These are not literary classics, by any means. This is simply a YA romance series, but it’s one that I am totally loving.

So, I say, “Well done Marie Rutkoski. Now hurry up and finish the third book!!!!”

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Age Recommendation: The are intricacies in the plot as well as moral implications that make these books for 15 and older in my opinion.

Appropriateness: There is deceit, war, murder, torture, and romance described, but none in gory detail so I wasn’t grossed out or disturbed. These could be interesting book club reads as they would give much to discuss about the choices of the characters, whether they are good or bad, justified or not, and whether you would act the same way. The state of the world also provides great discussion material – how is our world the same and different? How do we avoid the problems they are facing? How have we overcome some of these struggles? Are we heading for more?

Book Recommendations: If you like The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime you should read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, The Books of Bayern Series by Shannon Hale, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, and Graceling by Kristin Cashore

 

An Uncommon Blue

An Uncommon Blue (Colorblind, #1)An Uncommon Blue by R.C. Hancock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

In Télesphore, the glowing color of a person’s palm determines their place in society, and touching hands with another mixes the colors permanently. When sixteen-year-old Bruno accidentally kills a royal soldier, he goes from favored to fugitive. Now Bruno’s only chance at survival is to become someone else. That means a haircut, a change of wardrobe, and most important, getting rid of his once cherished Blue. Now he’s visiting parts of town he never knew existed, and making friends with people he would’ve crossed the street to avoid only weeks ago. At the last minute, Bruno’s parents arrange a deal to clear his name and get his life back. All Bruno has to do is abandon those in the Red slums that look to him as a leader and let an innocent Green boy die in his place.

My Review

The first word that comes to my mind to describe An Uncommon Blue is fast-paced. It starts out with the action and conflict right away and it just keeps moving. I was enthralled at the get-go and I didn’t want to put it down until I had read the last word. This is absolutely a dystopian novel, but the world created in it is unique and fresh; it stands out in the very popular genre.

I appreciated a main character worthy of admiration, one who is trying to do good and make a difference as he faces the harsh realities of his world. However, I did feel there were some holes in his character motivation and development that left me wondering why, exactly, he was so generous and cared so much for the unfortunate people he met. With his privileged upbringing and naivety when it came to the “lower classes” in his society, I would have thought it would have taken him more time to be ok with sacrificing his privilege for the sake of those beneath him. But he was willing to risk his reputation and coming to bodily harm right from the beginning, even for the kid that had pretty much just ruined his life. Just made me wonder how he got to be so caring, especially while it was also clear that his main concern up to that point had been keeping his privileged status and easy life as a star athlete.

This unclarity in character motivation didn’t keep me from devouring every page, however. The writing style is simple, no stand-out prose, but it’s well-done. I wasn’t distracted at all by awkward phrasing or overly flowery description. Easy to read. The rules of the fictional world were conveyed through the story-telling; I appreciated that I didn’t have to get bogged down or interrupted from the story to read long explanations. In fact, the story may have even moved a little too quickly for me. I would have like a little more time spent on introducing the world and its rules, and the people and their motivations. There is a sequel so I hope that more will be explained because there were quite a lot of unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries at the end. I will definitely be getting my hands on the sequel quickly after it is released.

Overall though this is just a fun, fast, interesting, read. If you are looking for a book to get lost in for a few hours, I recommend An Uncommon Blue.

Age Recommendation: I suggest 15 and older. There is some killing and harsh inequalities in the book, and while the description isn’t graphic it could be disturbing to younger readers.

Appropriateness: Clean with great examples of selflessness and kindness. It would be of particular interest to boys. It has great book club discussion material too. The prejudices and inequalities based on the color of a persons’ light in their hand gives an interesting way to talk about the difficulties in our society as well. The sacrifices and rewards of selflessness and kindness would also be fitting topics.

Book Recommendations: If you like An Uncommon Blue you should read The Uglies series by Scott Westerfield, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Eruption by Adrienne Quintana, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, Beyonders series Brandon Mull, and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.

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Everything on a Waffle

Everything on a Waffle (Coal Harbour #1)Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary

When Primrose’s parents both disappear at sea in the middle of a vicious storm, she is forced into a new life which includes a new home, new friends, new conflicts and adventures, new insights, and new recipes. It really does take a village in this case to take care of 11-year old Primrose. Some of the townspeople think they know best, like the snobbish and socially awkward school counselor Miss Honeycut. While others truly are just what Primrose needs to keep her hope alive, like her impulsive Uncle Jack, and Kate Bowzer, the owner of the local restaurant where all the food is served on a waffle. But the true joy in this story is how Primrose and her hope is just what the town, and all of us, need to approach the world and all of its challenges with courage, wit, kindness, fun, and love.

My Review

This is the kind of book I would want to write, but the genius to do so hasn’t hit me yet. I am inspired by the unique and accurate way in which life and people are depicted. I love the vibrant and varied characters and how each of them reveals wisdom to Primrose and to us as readers through both their follies and their successes.

I also love the humor! Parents disappearing at sea and a child wading through the foster system certainly doesn’t seem like the setup for a comedy, but that just makes it all the more impressive when you find yourself smiling all the way through. It’s not a silly humor or irreverent either. It’s a look at the bad things that can come in life through the eyes of a girl who is open to the good in everyone and in everything. But she also calls things like she sees them with the innocence and directness of childhood. She’s wades through major change with youthful adaptability and so perfectly communicates what she learns without ever letting go of the hope and knowledge that anchors her. I loved the recipes that were included as well and how they reveal Primrose’s state of mind. And there is humor and wit found even in the recipes.

Everything on a Waffle makes it into my top 20 list of favorite children’s books for sure.

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Age Recommendation: 10 years and older, though if you had a mature reader 8 years old would probably love it too.  Some of the wit and experience would be better understood at 10, however. And obviously despite it’s children’s book genre I would absolutely recommend it for adults as well.

Appropriateness: I found nothing offensive or questionable at all. There are some traumatic events for sure, but because of the approach to them I don’t think a child would be impacted negatively.  Instead, I think children can learn about hope, attitude, and faith through Primrose’s example. They can also learn how to better understand the adults in their life as well.

This would be a great book club discussion book! Scroll down for a list of discussion questions.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like Everything on a Waffle then you should read A Little Princess and The Secret Garden both by Frances Hodgson Burnett,  Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, Matilda by Roald Dahl, Frindle by Andrew Clements, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli, and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.

Favorite Quotes

“Sometimes you get tempted to make something wonderful even better but in doing so you lose what was so wonderful to begin with.”

“You can be sunk low or as a skunk and still have a joy in your heart. Joy lives like one of those spinning things—a gyroscope in your heart. It doesn’t seem to have any connection to circumstance, good or bad.”

“All my life I had wanted to travel but what I discovered that year was that the things that you find out become the places that you go and sometimes you find them out by being jettisoned off alone and other times it is the people who choose to stand by your side who give you the clues. But the important things that happen to you will happen to you even in the smallest places…”

“The only really interesting thing about someone that makes you want to explore them further is their heart.”

“There’s something about sports. You can be setting fire to cats and burying them in your backyard, but as long as you’re playing team sports, people think you’re okay.”

“I want someone who puts the whole ball of wax at risk. I want the kind of marriage where we would follow each other out into the stormy fatal sea or I’m not marrying at all.”

“You can’t replace one dog with another any more than you can replace one person with another, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t get more dogs and people in your life.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Primrose never doubts that her parents are alive. Did you agree with her throughout the story? Did your opinion change?
  2. Primrose keeps a positive attitude throughout the book even when not so positive things happen.  How does she do it? Why does she do it? Do you think this is wisdom or just naivety?
  3. Which of the adult characters were your favorite? Why? What were their follies? How did they help Primrose?
  4. Miss Honeycut was certainly the least helpful adult to Primrose. How did you feel about her?
  5. Despite Miss Honeycut’s misguided intentions, Primrose seems to keep patience and understanding for her. How does she do this?
  6. Primrose says, “Miss Honeycut didn’t tell anecdotes because she was interesting; she told them because she wasn’t”. Have you ever known someone like that?
  7. Does seeing Miss Honeycut  and the other adults in the story through Primrose’s eyes change your opinion about any of the people you have known in your life?
  8. Was Miss Perfidy “good” or “bad” for Primrose? Do you think they cared about each other?
  9. Do you think Uncle Jack and Kate Bowzer will ever become romantically involved? What evidence did you see to support your opinion?
  10. Have you ever felt changed by traveling to a new place? Have you ever found big changes in even the “smallest places?”
  11. Primrose seems to relate better to the adults in Coal Harbor than to the children her age. Can you relate to that? Is this healthy for her?

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten. The Fault in Our Stars attempts to explore the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

My Review

After all of the praise I had heard and read for The Fault in Our Stars I expected to cry, laugh, and love the characters, and be wrapped up in the story. I expected smart prose and to have some greater insight about life, love, and terminal illness. I was expecting one of those books that you think about for days and ponder on the wisdom, one of those books that you never forget and that you tell everyone they just “have to read it.”

So my expectations were pretty high. Did the book meet them? The short answer – Nope. It wasn’t a horrible book. I gave it 2 stars and actually debated giving it 3, so I even kind of liked it. I settled on 2 stars because while I liked aspects of it, as a whole it left me unfulfilled. The fact that it got so much hype, undeserved hyped in my opinion, probably affected my rating too. If I had just been expecting an average purely entertaining young adult romance book rather than a life-changer it may have made it to 3 stars.

I can kind of understand where the hype comes from for this book. Having the story told from the perspective of a 17 year old with cancer provides the opportunity to give some personal and unique insight into what it is “really” like for those with cancer and for their family and friends.
It’s a kinda cute romance with characters that are kinda funny…. but also kind of annoying and inconsistent.

I did not like all of the swearing. Here are these teenage kids that are definitely more mature than their peers and who appear to be above average intelligence as well. And yet they can’t think of any more intelligent ways to express themselves than through profanities. For me it made their likability take a nose dive. Such harsh language just made them prickly, not people I wanted to open my heart and mind to. At one point the teens are faced with a self-indulgent, crass, and outright rude adult, and they are shocked and offended. I, on the other hand, thought the teenagers’ language throughout the book was just as crude, making them just as unlikable as the rude guy. It made their dialogue inconsistent too. One minute they are quoting Shakespeare and eloquently discussing the meaning of life, and then next minute they can’t think of any better way to express themselves than to use the same swear word they had used a zillion times already. Ugh.

Where the book really failed me though was in trying too hard. Reading blog posts from my friends as they have battled with disease and terminal illness themselves or with family members is WAY more inspiring, sincere, realistic, and impactful than reading the several hundred pages of metaphor and philosophical rambling for which John Green is getting paid insane amounts of money. There are a lot of ponderings and discussions from the characters about the purpose of life and their place in it. They wonder what the best way is in which to live life especially when it’s full of so much suffering for you and those around you? Is it better to live big and die big? To leave a heroic legacy? Or is the quiet life, trying to minimize the damage and pain you cause to others the better legacy? What is required to “matter” in the universe? I would say these are all pretty natural concerns for anyone and especially for those who live with the pain of disease and the knowledge that death is close. But as the title of the book indicates, this book is not really about answering these questions. It’s about showcasing “the fault in our stars,” or in other words, “life isn’t fair.”

It’s true – life isn’t fair, and a story of two kids with cancer falling in love definitely gives an effective situation in which to drive that point home. I have read several reviews of the book that praise how uplifting and inspiring it is to see the characters still choose to live and love despite the unfair fate that they know awaits. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the characters’ actions and choices in the same light.

The book is humorous and the characters are not totally bleak and depressing despite the tragedy they live with. They do have their moments of honest and understandable misery, and also their moments of bravery, selflessness, and of course love. Yet, somehow overall they came across as flat and kind of boring. I never could figure the teenagers out. They were exceptionally wise and yet exceptionally full of attitude. They pondered all kinds of deep “life” questions and yet they never could make commitment to the type of person they wanted to be or the life they wanted to lead. They were uninteresting fence-sitters and the events of the story didn’t bring out any new facets to them or develop their character in any way. The author makes it a point to neither glorify or vilify cancer patients in the book, so I guess it makes sense that the characters are unremarkable. Some reviewers call this portraying the characters as “normal,” but without character development I just call it dull.

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Age Recommendation: 16 and older.  The theme of cancer, the language, and the sexual content is definitely not for young readers.

Appropriateness: There was a very noticeable amount of profanity which deterred from the book.  Teenage characters have sex and while it is not graphic in description it happens.  Sex is discussed a few times by teenagers. The open way in which cancer and death are discussed may be disturbing to some. It also could lead to some interesting discussion in a book club setting about life, death, love, and suffering; pretty much all of the important stuff.

Book Recommendations: Obviously I didn’t love this book, but whether you agreed with me or not I do think you might like these books (or at least find them interesting): The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak, Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath

Rebecca

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

finished this book for the umpteenth time over 4 months ago, and I loved it just as much as every other time that I’ve read it. So you’d think a review would have been easy, but this is a complicated book to talk about without giving too much away. I tried getting my thoughts in order right after finishing it but with moving into a new house about the same time, taking care of 4 kids, and training for a marathon I just ran out of time and brain power for awhile. Now the marathon is over and there seems to be a brief calm in the storm of house and yard projects so I think I might have enough focus for a review. I’m sure the package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Oreos I just finished off will help me focus too.

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

A young and inexperienced lady’s maid is quickly and surprisingly swept of her feet by the wealthy and charming widower, Maxim de Winter. They are married quickly and return to his estate where the new Mrs. de Winter tries to find her place in a way of life she knows nothing about, and where the memory of Max’s first wife seems to overshadow every room, conversation, and event.  Rebecca’s power from beyond the grave haunts the new, timid bride until all hope for the marriage seems lost. But when the past resurfaces assumptions are questioned and hard choices have to be made.

My Review

This time reading Rebecca I noticed much more how little action there really is in the plot and yet I still consider this one of the greatest and suspense books of all time. So I have to ask myself, what is it that rivets me? What really makes it so great?

Well to start the writing is a work of art. Such intelligent and insightful description without being pompous or overdone. On the first page we read, “Nature had come into her own again and little by little in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers.” Describing an overgrown driveway like this gives not only a visual, but also a feeling. Giving nature a persona, making it a character, continues throughout the book. The descriptions truly give nature power and influence in not just the setting but in the events as well. Nature also plays the role of clairvoyant; it provides omens of the events to come, good or bad.

The method of plot development is also very unique. As I said, not that much actually happens in the book. There are a few events that occur, but the true conflict in the story is rooted in something that happened in the characters’ pasts. To reveal that past and to develop how it affects the present there is so much storytelling that happens within the head of the first-person narrator. Her own misconceptions provide the plot base for pretty much the whole first half of the book and then a major revelation and her having to realign her misconceptions is essentially the plot for the second half. That could sound pretty boring – a story happening inside a character’s mind much of the time – but Du Maurier masterfully builds tension through description that makes the pages come alive and characterizations that resurrect ghosts.

Some of the most intriguing characterization comes from the contrast in the narrator and Rebecca. Just their names give insight – the first name of our plain, quiet, unassuming narrator is never given. After she and Max are married she is Mrs. de Winter and we are given no other title with which to identify her. She is the narrator and main character, but the title of the book is “Rebecca.” Rebecca is the name we all know and love, or dread depending on the perspective. Just this little detail in the use of character names reveals so much about the characters themselves as well as the book’s themes.

Ah, and the themes in this book! This is where it becomes difficult to not give too much away. My previous post discussed one theme – choices and consequences and how misconceptions affect both. Mrs. De Winter spends so much time living out “what if’s” in her mind, playing out elaborate scenarios which have such detail that we as readers and the narrator take them to be reality.

The theme that makes this book unique and, so I’ve been told, even controversial in some book clubs, is determining the morality of the character’s actions. Do their motivations matter? Should the choices of others be taken into consideration? Is justice served at the end? Not only do we analyze the character’s choices and the resulting consequences, but we get to ask ourselves how we feel about them. We know what is wrong and right according to law and our conscience. Do the events of this book go against that knowledge? Is your heart reacting differently than you think it should? I have spoken with some who were uncomfortable confronting these kind of “greys” in the moral spectrum, but they are what take this book beyond being just a beautifully written and suspenseful romance and into the realm of a Classic.

Age Recommendation: High School age and older. Definitely for mature readers. I wouldn’t say the writing is difficult to read, but it is more “old-fashioned” and intelligent than your average work of fiction. The themes and events of the book also need a discerning mind.

Appropriateness: I would recommend it for any book club or high school and college English class, but as I said, there are some who have found it more controversial. But that just gives even more material for great discussion! No offensive or off-color language that I remember. No detailed sexual content, just married couple kissing and some reference that indicates a married couple were intimate.

Book Recommendations: If you like Rebecca I recommend Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel both by Daphme Du Maurier. You may also like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte,  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak,  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and Eruption by Adrienne Quintana.

If you have already read the book….

Here some of the ingenious aspects and insights that I loved reading Rebecca this time:

  1. On page 36 The narrator talks about wanting to bottle memory and I could so relate! There are just those perfect moments that you wish you could somehow keep forever just the way they are. How would it be to uncork the memory at some later date and have it to relive all over again? But isn’t that the irony?  Those moments are so perfect because we are completely IN them.  We are present, not worried about the past or future, just there. I can relate to the narrator’s melancholy that comes afterward as well, when you realize you can’t bottle the memory and it will fade. The joy and sadness combined make the moment that much more powerful.
  2. On page 44 the narrator describes how traveling changes you.  You leave something behind whenever you a leave a place while at the same time part of that place comes with you and makes you a different person than you were before.  I love that about traveling.  And I love that reading books can have the same effect.
  3. In Chapter 15 Mrs. De Winter goes to visit Maxim’s grandmother.  She compares the elderly to children. They can both be a hassle and tiring, but we try to be polite anyway. She points out though, that we can remember being children and so can better understand them; maybe that gives us more patience.  We have not been old yet and so may not be able to relate as well. But as Mrs. De Winter thinks about how the grandmother may have been as a young lady, it gives her more sympathy.  My grandmother is declining with alzheimer’s and I could completely relate to the thoughts and feelings expressed.
  4. It’s fascinating how reading the book for the first time you can get caught up in the idea that Maxim must still be in love with Rebecca. The way Mrs. De Winter perceives all the events, descriptions, and interactions sure makes it seem that way.  And Rebecca played her deception well. But when you read it again know the truth there are so many hints and clues to the true nature of Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship.
  5. I have always been amazed at the clear picture of Rebecca that is painted for us and for Mrs. De Winter. She is dead from the start of the book and yet we learn more about her than we do of the narrator.  Of course because she is dead, all we know about Rebecca comes from people’s descriptions of her beauty and talents, and from the things she left behind. Her handwriting, her clothes, her coat, her smell, her habits as described by the staff, and her style still left at Manderley give Rebecca presence and influence even beyond the grave.  However, none of these things reveal her character and so we can be misled just like Mrs. De Winter.

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Blackmoore

BlackmooreBlackmoore by Julianne Donaldson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was in the mood for something on the lighter side when I picked up Blackmoore at the library. I read Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson a few years ago and enjoyed the romance and twists and turns of the story. It was clean but with plenty of passion and the writing was not annoyingly cliche or dumbed-down. In fact it was quite good for this genre. So I had high hopes for Blackmoore.

All of the same positive elements of Edenbrooke were there and I liked the book overall, but there were some aspects that I struggled with. My biggest issue – pacing. The characters were likable and the plot felt unique which is a pretty remarkable feat in the regency/romance genre, but the rate at which the plot was revealed and the conflict resolved was completely skewed. It’s pretty obvious from the start that there is romantic attachment between Kate Worthington and Henry Delafield and it’s also clear that some kind of drama has occurred to keep Kate from being open to her love for Henry. The author has created the suspense in the plot by gradually revealing the secrets behind these impediments. Unfortunately, the timing of the revelations were so frustrating!

For 150 pages we get tiny glimpses into the issues; there was some kind of scandal involving Kate’s sister, her mother is shameful and completely inappropriate in her behavior, and Henry’s mother disapproves of an attachment for these reasons and others that are barely hinted at. We know something major happened to Kate years ago that triggered some major changes in her feelings about herself, her future, and her relationship with Henry. But for 150 pages that’s all we know. We are teased over and over with minuscule references to these major and crucial plot developments, but nothing is actually developed. I guess that’s not completely true – we do get some insight into how Kate and Henry’s relationship has developed, but then we hit a brick wall as soon as we approach any point where the conflict began.

I get that pacing and suspense are desired story elements. I get that revealing details slowly is a good writing technique, but after reading this book I know there is such a thing as too little and too slow. I wasn’t really into the book until about 125 pages in because there were too many secrets and I wasn’t being let in on any of them. It was like being on the outside of an inside joke. Annoying. At one point there is mention that the woodlark is meaningful in Kate and Henry’s relationship, but then that meaning isn’t explained for almost 50 pages. It would have been so much more engaging and less annoying to have just given that explanation at the first reference.

Which leads into the next pacing problem. Once the revelations start at page 149 they come pretty much all at once. After the famine of information through the first half of the book we get 88 pages of flood. There are 7 flashbacks comprising 38 pages. A lot of that could have been revealed in the first half of the book and the plot development would have been more balanced and more engaging. The suspense would have still been there but even more effective. I also wasn’t sold on the whole idea of flashbacks for revealing the information because they all happened at once. If they had been spread more equally throughout the book they would have been more effective and less weird.

Not only was the lack of detail frustrating for me through the first half of the book but it was also a bit confusing. I couldn’t grasp the “vibe” of the book. It was classified as a regency romance so I was expecting romance (obviously) and some drama keeping it from blooming, but without some details surrounding the drama I couldn’t nail down what to expect. There was all this allusion to family drama so I wondered is this going about dysfunctional family? Like ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeanette Wells but in regency times? Then there was all the description of smuggling, haunted moors and estates, and even a naturalist connecting with birding so I thought maybe it was supposed to be channeling more of a ‘Bronte’ vibe. The feel of the book felt incongruous at first without plot details to help.

Once the secretiveness let up things really picked up and I was much more engaged with the characters and engrossed in their developing romance. The writing really is enjoyable for this kind of book. There was some repetitiveness in the name of romantic gestures and observations, but pretty intelligent overall.

I have one more complaint though. After all the time and effort to finally get all of the secrets out, after pages and pages of flashbacks, it ends with a measly half page epilogue. Grrrr! With all of the description of the past and the details about how the relationship began and progressed there should have been more details about the future.

So with all of that in mind I still stay I liked the book. If you are looking for something romantic and light but not so light that it’s a waste of time pick this one up. But maybe pick up Edenbrooke first.

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Age Recommendation: 16 and older. An understanding of regency era culture and social norms definitely helps in understanding the conflict.

Appropriateness: Nothing morally wrong here. No swearing, no sex. It would be a fun book club read. I thought the book club discussion questions in the back were actually quite good as well.

Other Book Recommendations: Of course Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson would be a good choice if you like this one. There are also several books by Sarah M. Eden that you might enjoy. They are a little cheesier, but still fun. I believe her first book is The Kiss of a Stranger. If you are ready to go straight to the source you should give the original Jane Austen books a try.  My favorites are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. I would also recommend Princess Academy and The Goose Girl both by Shannon Hale.

The Magician’s Elephant

The Magician's ElephantThe Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads: When a fortuneteller’s tent appears in the market square of the city of Baltese, orphan Peter Augustus Duchene knows the questions that he needs to ask: Does his sister still live? And if so, how can he find her? The fortuneteller’s mysterious answer (an elephant! An elephant will lead him there!) sets off a chain of events so remarkable, so impossible, that you will hardly dare to believe it’s true. Here is a dreamlike and captivating tale. In this timeless fable, the author evokes largest of themes — hope and belonging, desire and compassion — with the lightness of a magician’s touch.

My Review:

What a pleasant visit I had in the city of Baltese. I met a bright assortment of characters, each looking for the place they were meant to be and the people they were meant to be with, and who were all connected by the magical appearance of an elephant. I read other books by Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn Dixie) years ago and I remember enjoying both of them which is why I wanted to give this one a try. The Magician’s Elephant lives up to the same clever wit, delightful characters, and pleasing prose as DiCamillo’s other books.

This book was a pretty quick, easy, and cute read, totally fitting it’s children’s literature classification, but it has a deeper message about hope, faith, human connection, and achieving the impossible. It read a little like a fable to me and reminded me of the Canterbury Tales, not that I have actually read Chaucer’s work in its entirety, but I do remember what I learned and read of it in a Humanities class. Just as Chaucer assembled a variety of pilgrims to tell their stories, DiCamillo introduces readers to several of the residents of Baltese: the Magician, the Lady, the Soldier, the Policeman, the Orphan, the Nun, the Countess, the Beggar, the Dog, the Servant, the Boy, and of course the Elephant. The chapters alternate between these characters’ points of view and we learn about their strengths and weaknesses, hopes and dreams, and the elements that stand in their way of achieving them. I admire how the author reveals so much about the characters and their stories in so few words. Their unique and endearing quirks make them memorable and entertaining.

Their are some bleak aspects to the plot, but the charming writing portrays an underlying humor and hopefulness in the events. The pages aren’t necessarily action-packed, but desire to reveal the mystery of how all of these individuals will overcome their misfortunes, and how they are all connected made it a page-turner for me. It may not appeal to all readers, but the strong characterization, uplifting themes, and the smart writing left me with happy ponderings and that feeling of contentment that comes from enjoying warm moments with old and new friends.

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Age Recommendation: The actual words are easy and the book is not long, but the themes have some depth to them, so while 3rd graders and some 2nd graders could likely read the book easily enough I think your average 4th grader would comprehend the message more easily.

AppropriatenessNothing to worry about here unless you have a particularly sensitive young reader who might have a hard time with the hardships of orphans and animals.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this book you should read The Tale of Despereaux also by Kate DiCamillo, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, The BFG and pretty much all other books by Roald Dahl.

Topics and Questions for Discussion: This section may contain spoilers so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want anything to be given away stop here.

1. Leo Matienne, the Policeman is described in chapter 3 this way, “Leo Matienne had the soul of a poet and because of this he liked very much to consider questions that had no answers. He liked to ask ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ and ‘Could it possibly be?’ ” Why are these questions “poetic?” Why do they have no answers? How does asking these questions make Leo different from some of the other characters?

My thoughts: Leo’s questions allowed him to consider the impossible and to think through ways to achieve it. It gave him a more hopeful attitude, a new perspective and he was later in the book able to inspire the same thoughts in others.  That is what poetry can do as well which makes him a poet.

2. In chapter 3 Leo Matienne stands at the top of a hill and watches the lamplighters do their work on the street below. This reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Little Prince and the lamplighter that the Little Prince visits. The Little Prince says he thinks the lamplighter is the least absurd of the grownups because his occupation is useful and beautiful. Would Leo agree with the Little Prince? What about his character supports your answer?

My Thoughts: Leo would agree with the Little Prince. He stops at the top of the hill to view the lamplighters at work because it is beautiful which is indicated by the fact that watching the lights spring to life inspire his poetic thoughts about the elephant. In the dark of the city the lamplights must have been a relief just as the Little Prince found comfort in sunsets.

3. Baltese is covered in clouds and darkness and cold, but the real problem with the weather is that it won’t snow. How does the weather relate to the feeling of the characters and the events in the book? How does weather and light or dark affect you?

My  Thoughts: The dark oppressive clouds are full of the potential for snow but it doesn’t come just as the people of the city are full of hope and dreams for their future but unable to fulfill them. The exciting newness of the elephant spark an ember of hope that their dreams may be possible, and as soon as the main characters begin to fulfill their potential the clouds release their oppression and the snow falls. I love how snow changes a world, makes it softer, new, quiet, bright with whiteness, and clean. The snow-covered Baltese held the same hope and possibilities for the people.

4. Sister Marie has no doubt that “all God’s creatures have names.” What is the significance of names in the book? Every major character has one, even the dogs. What is the significance of names in life?

My Thoughts: Names give identity and individuality. They separate us and depending on our behavior can be known for good or bad in the world. They can also indicate our background or ancestry. The character’s names certainly made me think of them from different countries or gave me an indication of their status in society. Knowing a name indicates a connecting with someone or something. Even the elephant’s name was important to her though she couldn’t communicate it. She wanted to be back home where people would be able to call her by name. Once Hans Ickman remembers his dog’s name he is truly able to connect with the feelings from his boyhood and get on board with the seemingly impossible task of sending the elephant back in order to achieve healing for the city.

5. Why is Madame LaVaughn’s presence necessary for the Magician to undo the magic? What does he need from her? What does she need from him? Why do they say the same things to each other each day she visits the prison? Have you ever felt the power of forgiveness either by forgiving yourself or others?

My thoughts: They each want to be seen and recognized. They want validation of their problems and of their worth. They were each asking for something of the other in their repeated conversations, but they weren’t clear and were so focused on what they wanted that they couldn’t see what the other needed. The Magician forgiveness and Madame LaVaughn needed an apology and regret. When the Magician finally let go of the idea that his magic would be his legacy, when he finally forgave himself and communicated his sorrow  Madame LaVaughn could finally see that she mattered to someone and was able to forgive him. they both had a weight lifted.  The Magician could finally perform the magic needed to send the elephant back and Madame LaVaughn could see good in other people again despite her injury.

Sisterhood Everlasting (Sisterhood #5)

I reviewed this book on Goodreads in May 2012 and just this week had someone respond to it. I enjoyed hearing another perspective and then considering what I agreed and disagreed with. So I thought I’d share my original review, the response I received, and my thoughts that it inspired.

Sisterhood Everlasting (Sisterhood, #5)Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I really liked the first book in this series. Thought it was insightful, funny, and emotionally cathartic while being a great teen romance/drama entertaining read. The second book was good. The third had enough redeeming qualities to be ok. Didn’t like the fourth because of the “adult situations” that these teens I had connected with were in and the drama was getting old.

Now there is a fifth. The characters really are adults now, my age, but they are still acting as immature and childish as in the first book. The crisis they are faced with would certainly be a difficult one but wow the drama dragged on and on. just a little communication eventually solved everything and it was hard for me to believe that capable, intelligent, human beings would have taken so long to realize that and then act on it.

Most frustrating was that the same character flaws just keep reappearing to cause all the drama. Supposedly the characters learn so much about themselves in each book. They vow to do better. And then the next book they are making themselves suffer all over again because of the same flaw they supposedly repented of before. Now I admit that my flaws don’t disappear completely after one learning experience. They do rear their ugly heads again, but I believe I handle it better each time and the flaw disappears little by little. Don’t see that in this series. In fact, their responses get worse as it goes on because they get older, the problems are more “adult” but the characters responses stay consistent with 13 year old girls.

And I might add that I don’t write about my constant battle with my flaws and invite people to read it as entertainment. Just too immature for me which i should expect I guess from something that started as a teenage fiction series, but it is frustrating because these are characters that I cared about at one point in time. Totally ruined for me. No respect or care for them after this read. I was interested in reading about the wrap up of their adult lives. If only they could have been portrayed as decent, functioning adults, especially after all the growing I already saw them through in the other books.

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Age Recommendation: Well, I wouldn’t really recommend this book in the series to any age, but the first 3 are better and I think girls 12 and older would enjoy them.

Appropriateness: In books 4 and 5 of the series there are “adult” situations that I thought detracted from my liking the characters.

Other Book Recommendations: I obviously recommend a lot of books over this one including the first book in the series, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It was my favorite of all of them. If you like that one I recommend Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli,  Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved both by Katherine Patterson.

Here is the response I received from Katelyn: 

While I see where you are coming from, and know that each person interprets a book differently (which is the beauty of books and our imaginations), have you thought about what drove the women to respond the way they did? I encountered some similar frustrations as I read, but then I remembered the main premise of the book, which is their sisterhood. Their intensely strong and almost unexplainable bond was really all they every knew. When one piece of this bond was suddenly taken from them, their world turned upside down. Tibby may have been the strongest piece of this sisterhood, and it wasn’t until she was gone that they realized it. I think Brashares did a wonderful job of capturing the passion that these women had for each other, and their unbreakable bond, even after one had passed. It’s a beautiful message of true friendship, and how so much of yourself can be found in the ones you love the most.

More of my thoughts:

Thanks for sharing your point of view Katelyn! I definitely can appreciate a message about true friendship. I still have a great bond with several friends from my elementary school days and there is something special about that kind of connection, knowing someone through all the growing up and finding yourself years. That was why I connected with the other books (particulary 1-3) in this series. I could relate to the adventures and dramas of those formative years, of turning to friends for comfort and help, that bond of sisterhood that comes with sharing so much time and experience together.

But in life and in friendships change is necessary. If I still went to my girlfriends at age 31 with all of my problems like I did at age 16 my relationship with my husband and my children would suffer. And while I treasure my friendships, my marriage and children must and should take precedence. It means the same kind of closeness in other friendships is just impossible, but I wouldn’t trade my family relationships for anything. It’s the way it is supposed to be.

It’s always great when my closest girl friends and I do have that rare opportunity to come together from across the country. I love that no matter how much time has passed and no matter the distance between all of us we can still find that comfort and love. We still get each other in a way that no one else can. We have a history and connection that nothing could ever change.

In addition to seeing how so much stays the same between us we also get to see how much changes. We get to celebrate our successes, hear about our different and separate experiences, relate in new ways, and get used to our unique quirks and various lifestyles. Because of our special bond we accept our differences just as easily as our similarities. We communicate and love each other better than we did all those years ago despite interacting with each other so much less, all because we have grown, changed, and matured. That’s what an unbreakable bond looks like.

I just didn’t see that the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants ever got to this level of true friendship. Their friendship actually appeared toxic; this powerful bond they all had was actually destroying their lives because they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) grow up and allow the friendship to grow as well. In addition, as individual they were lost and dysfunctional, still trying to “find” themselves and using the same ineffective methods from the teenage years, and therefore making the same mistakes.

If I had friends with their inability to take communicate or think rationally or have any healthy relationship with anyone, I wouldn’t work very hard to keep the friendship together. There’s too much good to do in the world and too little time to be caught up in all of that drama at 30 years old. That kind of angst was understandable, even entertaining and sometimes enlightening when these characters were teenagers; their behavior was age appropriate then, but in adults I just find it all tiring, especially since I had read it all before in the 3 previous books.

You said, “Their intensely strong and almost unexplainable bond was really all they ever knew.” I did see that in the book and in 30 year old characters I see that as a problem. The bond of friendship from babyhood is great and all, but if that bond is still the glue sticking your life and identity together you probably should see a professional who can help you find happiness and peace within yourself rather than it being based on other people. Our relationships can and should bring us joy, but relying on them for our self-worth and purpose in life will smother and destroy the relationship and won’t bring us the happiness we were seeking. I don’t see true friendship as “how so much of yourself can be found in the ones you love most,” but about how much of yourself you can bring to a friendship and how much of yourself you are willing to sacrifice to build up the ones you love most.

Gregor the Overlander

Gregor the Overlander (Underland Chronicles, #1)Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a fan of The Hunger Games series this book caught my interest because it is written by the same author. I wondered if Suzanne Collins writing could draw me into another world as effectively as she did with The Hunger Games. As indicated by a 3 start rating she was semi-successful. I liked the book. Collins’s writing is good; her characters are unique, memorable, and likable. She gets right into the story; by the end of the first chapter I was familiar with the main character, his life situation, his inner conflict, and the plot development was well on its way as Gregor had already fallen into the Underland. All that in just 13 pages. The action moved quickly after that and the plot developed logically and smoothly.

I appreciated the theme of family love and loyalty. That was what I related to in The Hunger Games as well. Collins’s characters face difficult challenges, have to overcome their fears, and make hard choices, but they find the strength to do all of this because they are motivated by a desire to protect their family. I may be a wuss at times like when needles or really hot weather are involved, but I would suffer through a lot to protect my family. I can relate to the characters’ motivations.

This was a good read, but it didn’t match my love for the Hunger Games books which got 4 and 5 stars. A lot of that has to do with the target audience. Gregor the Overlander is definitely written for young readers (boys in particular would enjoy it), so it is lacking some detail that as an adult reader I wanted. More info about why and how the Underland came to be would have helped, but for young readers this information may have been too much.

The writing is appropriate for young readers and also engaging for an older audience, but I was distracted by the inconsistency related to the age of the main character. He is 11 which matches the age of the readers for which it is intended, but the kind of internal “talk” we get from him, the choices he makes, and the maturity with which he makes them seemed incompatible with his age. Yes, some hard life circumstances have required Gregor to step up and take on more responsibility than your average 11 year old, but that responsibility wouldn’t be enough to justify the maturity level he displays. Fourteen years old would have been a much more accurate age for his behaviors and thought processes. And still he would be a mature 14 year old, so 11 was a little unbelievable. About halfway through I was able to just start picturing him as 14 and that helped.

Had the book been written for a slightly older audience then some of those background details and explanation that were missing could have been appropriately added. It would have made for a stronger and more enthralling world. The plot and action is certainly interesting enough for older readers, and I think it should have been written for them.

A unique world, fast pace, likable characters, and pleasant writing make this an overall satisfying reading adventure.

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Age Recommendation: 9 and older. Easy to read, but not too dumbed-down.

Appropriateness: There is war and death related to that. The darkness of an underground world and the creatures there may seem disturbing, but the writing is not graphic. This would be a fun read aloud for parents and kids or for teacher and classroom. 3rd graders would especially enjoy it.

Other Book Recommendations: If you like this one you should read Deltora Quest by Emily Rodda, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Fablehaven and Beyonders both by Brandon Mull, The City of Ember by Jeane DuPrau, Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I tend to gush about the books I love, so here comes the gushing. This one is definitely in my top 10 all time favorite books, and probably even makes it into the top 5. Read it. It will make you and your life better.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary from Goodreads (with some of my own edits): January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb…. “ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends and their book club – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This book boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all. Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.”

My Review

This enchanting historical fiction is so well-written and in such a creative way. My husband and I (before he was my husband) wrote letters to each other for 2 years while he was a missionary, and I love the unique element that brought to our relationship. Getting to know each other through words, through time and through distance is special. This book is written completely in letters between the characters; it’s how Juliet falls in love with her Guernsey friends before she ever meets them. As a reader you fall in love with them all right along with her, in that unique way that comes through sharing letters. You don’t just read about people in this book; you meet them. They come alive and you experience their journey with them rather than reading about it like a spectator.

Each of the main characters takes a turn as narrator when you read the letters written by them, but there is one major character that you don’t “meet” so personally as she never writes a letter. But the writing is so masterfully done that she feels just as real and warm as any of the other Guernsey residents. I was awed by the author’s ability to help me love and care for a character who is only “present” in the past.

The time period is just after WWII and a lot has been written about that time period. But this one is different. Even if you are a WWII expert, don’t pass this one by. One of my favorite historical aspects of it was learning more about life after the war, particularly for those in Europe whose homes had been bombed, who were living in rubble and with very little to help them rebuild their lives. And I had no idea that the island of Guernsey even existed before reading this, and I certainly had no idea it was occupied by the Nazis. Now I want to visit Guernsey just as much as I’d like to see Prince Edward Island or Hogwarts for that matter, all because of the beauty of this book.

Even though war and the pain that it brings are a theme of the book, it still winds up as uplifting and fun. I laughed, I cried, I pondered. I learned and relished every word. I love every theme it presented including the history, the romance, the strength of character, and the power of books and reading in our lives. I have read the book twice so far and I guarantee there will be a third reading. And a 4th, and 5th…

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Age Recommendation: The themes will be best understood by a mature readers. The aspects of war could be too harsh for some as well. So I say this book is for 16 and older.

Appropriateness: There is some profanity. Fornication and homosexuality are in the book but they are not focused on at all. Their mention is so brief and not graphic in the least. So if these things are offensive to you, I still don’t think you would find the book offensive. This is a perfect book club read.

Book Recommendations: If you like this one you should try Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak