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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Review: Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

Title: Everything Here Is Beautiful
Author: Mira T. Lee
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publish Date: January 16, 2018 
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "Two sisters: Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister's protector; Lucia, the vibrant, headstrong, unconventional one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When their mother dies and Lucia starts to hear voices, it's Miranda who must fight for the help her sister needs — even as Lucia refuses to be defined by any doctor's diagnosis.

Determined, impetuous, she plows ahead, marrying a big-hearted Israeli only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant. She will move with her new family to Ecuador, but the bitter constant remains: she cannot escape her own mental illness. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until inevitably, she crashes to earth. And then Miranda must decide, again, whether or not to step in — but this time, Lucia may not want to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans, but what does it take to break them?"

My Two Cents:

"Everything Here is Beautiful" is the story of two sisters: Miranda and Lucia. Miranda has always been the older, more responsible one. Lucia has been the dreamer and the one that needed worrying about. When Lucia receives a diagnosis after a breakdown, Miranda is the one picking up the pieces. When Lucia has another breakdown, it is Miranda that swoops in to take care of her. Miranda finally realizes that she needs to do something for her own life but still watches over Lucia from a distance. This story is about the power of sisterhood and the difficulty of mental health issues for both those who have them and their families.

I really felt for both Miranda and Lucia. Miranda is hamstrung when trying to get Lucia help. She runs into the problem that so many families run into when trying to take care of adult family members with mental health issues. Because the patient is an adult, they can't be forced to do anything. Miranda grudgingly allows Manny, Lucia's boyfriend and the father of her baby, step in to try to keep Lucia safe after Lucia makes decisions that will take her to Manny's native Ecuador and further away from Miranda's safety net. Miranda is trying to balance her own life in Switzerland while still trying to take care of Lucia. She is pulled in so many different directions.

This book covers a lot of time in the lives of the sisters so you get to know them well. Lucia wants so badly to have a normal life. She wants to work even though that is frowned upon in Ecuador. She just wants to feel useful but feels that her diagnosis holds her back from having a truly normal life. She fights it at every turn! You're pulling for her even though you know that fate is so against her.

Even with the difficult topics that this book tackles, it is still a hopeful book in the end! It just isn't hopeful in the way that I thought it would be. I really enjoyed this one and know the characters will stick with me for a long time!


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Six Tips to Reading More in 2018!

So I read 338 books last year. It's a lot (and that's not even a record for me), I know. Since announcing my 2017 number, I've been asked many times how I'm able to read so much. I do have a few tips that I thought I'd put down for you to help you read more in 2018.

1. Read wherever. 

Waiting in the grocery store line? Waiting for friends at a restaurant? Would you otherwise be scrolling away through your phone? Yeah? Read then. I always have a book or two in my bag with me. If you have access to it, it's easier to pick it up and read a few pages.

2.  Audiobooks!

Audiobooks have been a game changer for me. Think you can't read while you're doing dishes, cleaning, or gardening? You can! I use an app called Libby and my handy, dandy library card and listen to audiobooks all the time.

3. If it's not working for you, put the book down.

Life is too short to read bad books. You do not have to finish every book you pick up. It took me a long time to learn that but once I embraced that rule, it has made the pool of the books I read so much better. Here's my personal rule: A book gets 50 pages to grab me and if it doesn't, I have no issue about putting it down!

P.S. I don't count what I don't finish!

4.  Find your happy reading time.

This doesn't happen nearly enough but if I could plan my perfect morning, it would involve waking up in a light filled room with a fresh cup of coffee on the nightstand and being left alone to read for a bit before getting out of bed. I'm an early bird and my most productive reading time is morning! I have other friends that are night owls and read the most late, late at night. Test things out! Find out what works for you!

5. Fix your bedtime ritual.

I usually like to get in my bed for about an hour before I actually go to sleep. Once I get in bed, I try really hard to stick to the no electronics rule. You know how hard it is to pick up the phone and start scrolling? It's hard but with practice, it's doable. And you all know that you've read that staying away from electronics before bed will help you sleep better so while you're reading more, you can also be sleeping better! Win - win!

6. Figure out what you're going to read next.

I always have the next three or four reads in my queue picked out. I'm not sure how much this increases my reading speed but I know it keeps me moving so I can move on to the next book that I'm excited about!

Those are just some of the tips that have worked for me! I know there are a lot of other tips out there. I have a friend who can read while she walks (Hi, Carrie!!!) and I am endlessly jealous of that. I just don't think I'm coordinated enough to do that but maybe I can practice in 2018! Some of it really comes down to being able to read quickly. While I don't speed read, I do read fast. I can't exactly tell you how I've been able to hone that skill other than a lot of practice.

What tips do you have for reading more?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Review: The Green Phoenix: A Novel of the Woman Who Re-Made Asia, Empress Xiaozhuang by Alice Poon

Title: The Green Phoenix: A Novel of the Woman Who Re-Made Asia, Empress Xiaozhuang
Author: Alice Poon
Format: Kindle
Publisher: Earnshaw Publishing
Publish Date: September 1, 2017
Source: Author

What's the Story?:

From "With the fate of East Asia hanging in the balance, one Mongolian woman manipulated her lovers, sons and grandsons through war and upheaval to create an empire that lasted for 250 years. The Green Phoenix tells the story of the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang, born a Mongolian princess who became a consort in the Manchu court and then the Qing Dynasty's first matriarch. Shelived through harrowing threats, endless political crises, personal heartaches and painful losses to lead a shaky Empire out of a dead end. The story is set against a turbulent canvas as the Chinese Ming Dynasty is replaced by the Qing. Xiaozhuang guides her husband, her lover, her son and her grandson - all emperors and supreme leaders of the Qing Empire - to success against the odds."

My Two Cents:

"The Green Phoenix" is a sweeping novel about Empress Xiaozhuang (who is called Bumbutai in her native Mongolia), a woman who started off as a Mongolian princess and became a powerful empress on the Chinese throne during the 17th century (Qing Dynasty), which was a very exciting and quickly changing time in Chinese history. I had not heard of the Empress before picking up this book and it was a treat to see how she rose from her family in Mongolia to becoming such a powerful figure in China.

We basically get to see Bumbutai's entire life from the time that she was a young child through her adult years and into her later years. I loved that we got to see her at all different ages because it really helps you to appreciate just how much her life changed. Mongolian royal life was quite different than Chinese royal life. It takes Bumbutai awhile to find her footing but eventually we get to see her grow quite powerful.

This book had a lot of palace intrigue, which I enjoyed. There were many surrounding the royal family and even some of those at court who wanted to see their downfall. Bumbutai gets an unfortunate taste of this throughout the book but each time she is able to learn a little bit more about the direction her life must take and how she must comport herself.

The story line was very interesting to me and it is clear that author did a ton of research in order to bring the book to life. There are many parts of the book that verge on telling a little bit too much rather than showing how things were. The detail is interesting so I still appreciated it but it did take me out of the story by taking me away from the characters. I wished that the detail would have been a little more baked in. That being said, I did enjoy this story and this introduction to such an interesting historical figure.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Title: A Dangerous Crossing
Author: Rachel Rhys
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Atria
Publish Date: January 9, 2018
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "1939: Europe is on the brink of war when young Lily Shepherd boards an ocean liner in Essex, bound for Australia. She is ready to start anew, leaving behind the shadows in her past. The passage proves magical, complete with live music, cocktails, and fancy dress balls. With stops at exotic locations along the way—Naples, Cairo, Ceylon—the voyage shows Lily places she’d only ever dreamed of and enables her to make friends with those above her social station, people who would ordinarily never give her the time of day. She even allows herself to hope that a man she couldn’t possibly have a future with outside the cocoon of the ship might return her feelings.

But Lily soon realizes that she’s not the only one hiding secrets. Her newfound friends—the toxic wealthy couple Eliza and Max; Cambridge graduate Edward; Jewish refugee Maria; fascist George—are also running away from their pasts. As the glamour of the voyage fades, the stage is set for something sinister to occur. By the time the ship docks, two passengers are dead, war has been declared, and Lily’s life will be changed irrevocably."

My Two Cents:

"A Dangerous Crossing" is the story of Lily, a young woman seeking to put the bad things in her life behind here. Europe is on the cusp of war and she decides to leave England behind for a new life in Australia. The ship that she boards is filled with people from all walks of life, some very different from herself. When she is taken under the wings of some newfound friends, she realizes that appearances can be deceiving and that almost everyone has their own secrets.

The characters had a tendency to surprise throughout the book. Lily is hiding her own secrets in her past that slowly begin to unfurl as the book goes on and we find out what she is running from. Two of the most interesting parts to me were when Lily interacted with a sister and brother traveling together. The sister makes it very clear that she is leaving much behind for her brother but that she is happy to do so. Lily keeps wondering how this can be. The author is at her best when she is slowly showing what is going on with the brother and why he is upending his entire life. This results in one of the most shocking endings I have come across recently.

Rachel Rhys is the pen name for a well-published thriller writer and that style definitely comes across in the book. While this book does feel like a traditional historical fiction, the author is a master at twists and turns. The opening is electric and makes you want to start reading right away. There were a few parts where it seemed like too much was going on and it was hard to keep track of where the story lines were going. I thought things could have been streamlined a bit, however, this was an exciting story.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Title: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI 
Author: David Grann
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Doubleday
Publish Date: April 18, 2017
Source: Library

What's the Story?:

In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history.

My Two Cents:

"Killers of the Flower Moon" is the story of the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and how the agency got its reputation as the premier investigation entity of the U.S. government. I love books that uncover some of the hidden stories of history and this book certainly does that. After oil is discovered under the Osage Native Americans' land, they begin to die unexplained deaths. No one can figure out what is happening or why it is happening. I had never heard of this event before and loved Grann's telling of this event.

I do read non-fiction but I like when it feels more like a story. It feels more immersive to me and is more enjoyable. This book definitely feels more like fiction - I had to keep reminding myself that it really happened and all of the twists and turns in the case are really real. Grann takes us right to the characters on the ground. They definitely pop off the pages. I felt for the Osage, particularly ones like Mollie who basically sees her entire family picked off for no reason at all. She can't get much traction on getting help at first. You really feel for everything that she has been through.

Now we take the work of the FBI for granted. They are simply there when they need to be as events happen around our country. It is hard to remember that this was once not so. This case was one of the first that the FBI really got to stretch its legs. It was interesting to see how things used to be to what they are like now. I really enjoyed this book!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman 
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Atria Books
Publish Date: July 15, 2014
Source: Owned

What's the Story?:

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

My Two Cents:

"A Man Called Ove" is one of those books that had a huge following before I ever got around to reading it. After reading it, I knew exactly why this book had such a big following. This is a warm hearted story about an old man named Ove. He misses his wife and has lost his zest for life. His days consist of planning his death so when he has new neighbors move next door who won't take no for an answer when it comes to involving him in their life, he begins to see that there can be more (but he's not going to move towards being open without kicking and screaming).

This book was my first Fredrik Backman read and now he is on my auto-read list. This book has such great characters. Ove is such a curmudgeon but even before he turns over a new leaf, you can't help but to fall for him a little bit. You feel for his plight and want things to change for him. One of the things that I loved most about this book is how Backman takes a character that at first seems to have very few redeeming qualities and slowly gives you detail to both enlighten you to the character's background and begin to turn you towards the character.

I think that is one of Backman's hallmarks after reading a few of his other books is that he creates really amazing characters that feel real. Their feelings feel real, their actions feel real.

This was a great story! It would be a good pick for when you're looking for a story to give you the warm and fuzzies!

Monday, January 8, 2018

2018 Reading Challenges

2018 is here! I'm planning to do two challenges plus trying to read more of my own books (gosh, this is my perpetual reading resolution!). I will be participating in the Ultimate Popsugar Reading Challenge. I did this one last year and loved it! I also collected a list of some of my friends' favorite books. I'm super excited about this challenge!

I made the Google Sheets tracker that I'm using available if you'd like to see what I'm reading. Check it out here! 

What are you planning to read this year?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Review: Together at Midnight by Jennifer Castle

Title: Together at Midnight 
Author: Jennifer Castle 
Format: ARC
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publish Date: January 2, 2018
Source: PR

What's the Story?:

From "What does it really mean to be kind . . . and why does it sometimes feel like the hardest thing in the world to do? High school senior Kendall, who just returned from a life-changing semester in Europe, and Max, who is drifting his way through a gap year before college, struggle with these questions when they witness a tragic accident in New York City during the holiday season. Racked with guilt, the two accept a dare to perform random acts of kindness to strangers. The challenge pulls these two teens, who have a history together from back home, closer and closer as they explore a vibrant city filled with other people’s stories and secrets.

Kendall and Max can’t deny their growing bond, even though they both have other romantic entanglements and uncertain futures. As the clock counts down on New Year’s Eve, will they find themselves together at midnight?"

My Two Cents:

"Tonight at Midnight" is the story of Kendall, who has just returned from a semester abroad in Europe. When she gets home, all she wants to do is leave again. When an opportunity presents itself so that she can spend the New Years holiday with her brother in his cool NYC apartment, she takes it. She can't begin to imagine how much her life might change after this one holiday, especially after just coming back from a life-changing semester abroad.

In NYC, Kendall runs into Max, a guy she knows from back home. They witness an accident and in a turn of events are challenged to commit several acts of kindness. This was probably my favorite part of the book. I am a big believer in kindness because as Kendall and Max find out, acts of kindness can have a major ripple effect, often bigger than one could begin to imagine. We get to hear from the people that they commit kindnesses for, which I loved. It added so much more to the story to see things from their side.

I do wish that the book had focused a little more on the kindnesses. They were glossed over a little bit but the blooming romance that seems to take center stage. It made the kindnesses feel less than they were. That being said, I did like the romance but felt that some of the goodness of the book was overshadowed.

This was a good end of the year read for me and made me think a little more about the impact that we can have on others if we just give a little bit of ourselves!


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Interview with Jennifer Laam

 I'm so happy to welcome Jennifer Laam, author of "The Lost Season of Love and Snow."

Your books are set in different periods in Russia, which (unfortunately for readers like me) seems to be an uncommon subject. What draws you to writing about that particular country?

I grew up in the Central Valley of California. History has always been a form of escapism for me, so I was drawn to the other side of the world. In my first novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, the main character, Veronica, expresses similar sentiments.

Having said that, my true fascination with Russian history was born in the early nineties, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The possibilities for a new world, a better world, seemed endless. I don’t think those possibilities have yet become reality, but the dream endures. Once I focused on Russia, I was drawn in by the complex personalities: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Revolutionaries, and the last Romanovs. I never looked back.

What inspired you to write about Pushkin?

As a college student, I grew fascinated with Alexander Pushkin’s world and the details of the fatal duel fought over his wife’s honor. His beautiful wife, Natalya Goncharova, was rumored to have been unfaithful, and perhaps even the tsar’s mistress. Whenever a woman is the subject of gossip, I want to hear her side of the story.

Years later, I ran into Natalya again in Martin Cruz Smith’s Tatiana. Present day characters refer to her in derogatory, demeaning ways and even blame her for Alexander Pushkin’s death. My interest was re-sparked, and after researching and learning more about Natalya, I knew I had to tell her version of the events that led to her famous husband’s duel.

What is your favorite scene in the book?

My favorite scenes to write were between Natalya and her sisters, especially Ekaterina. I made Natalya and Ekaterina antagonists. I loved writing snarky dialogue and exploring the tense dynamics of their relationship. When a beta reader wrote “she is awful” (or something along those lines) about Ekaterina, I knew I was on to something. Please understand, though, I have sympathy for Ekaterina, just as I do for Natalya. This wasn’t an easy world for women.

Who is your favorite character?
The fictionalized version of Natalya depicted in the novel is a combination of my interpretation of Natalya as a historical figure and my own quirks, opinions, and romantic view of life. I’d never written in first person before. Once I started, I absolutely loved it. When you dive that deep into someone else’s head, it’s hard to tell where they end and you begin. Given that she’s partially me, Natalya was bound to become my favorite character. ;)

If you could bring three people, fictional or non-fictional, with you to a deserted island, who would you bring and why?

To answer this question, I will briefly set aside my love of Russian history and focus on my equally strong love for science fiction and fantasy. On a deserted island, I want companions who are both resourceful and good company. I first select Captain Jean-Luc Picard for his steady leadership and rational approach to life. Besides, in his spare time, he might help us stage impromptu Shakespeare plays. Secondly, I choose Captain Malcolm Reynolds for his willingness to do what needs to be done. In some situations, I’m sure we would need to act first and worry about consequences later. He’d make the days pass faster with witty banter and is also easy on the eyes. Finally, I’d bring the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen. I’m assuming her dragons will come along, and I want to watch them fly overhead while I relax on a beach.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Review: The Lost Season of Love and Snow by Jennifer Laam

Title: The Lost Season of Love and Snow
Author: Jennifer Laam 
Format: Paperback
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Publish Date: January 2, 2018 (Today!)
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "At the age of sixteen, Natalya Goncharova is stunningly beautiful and intellectually curious. But while she finds joy in French translations and a history of Russian poetry, her family is more concerned with her marriage prospects. It is only fitting that during the Christmas of 1828 at her first public ball in her hometown of Moscow she attracts the romantic attention of Russia’s most lauded rebel poet: Alexander Pushkin.

Enchanted at first sight, Natalya is already a devoted reader of Alexander’s serialized novel in verse, Evgeny Onegin. The most recently published chapter ends in a duel, and she is dying to learn what happens next. Finding herself deeply attracted to Alexander’s intensity and joie de vivre, Natalya hopes to see him again as soon as possible.

What follows is a courtship and later marriage full of equal parts passion and domestic bliss but also destructive jealousies. When vicious court gossip leads to Alexander dying from injuries earned defending his honor as well as Natalya’s in a duel, Natalya finds herself reviled for her alleged role in his death."

My Two Cents:

"The Lost Season of Love and Snow" is the story of Natalya, the wife of famous Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. While I have not read anything by Pushkin (after reading this book, I might need to change that), I was familiar with some of the details of his life to include his untimely end. I was not familiar with his wife and the impact that she had on his life so I was looking forward to hearing her side of the story through this book and I was certainly not disappointed!

Come to find out, Natalya is yet another example of a woman who was maligned by those who either felt wronged by her or perhaps were jealous of her. Alexander was a hot commodity already by the time Natalya meets him. He was already published and very well-known throughout Russia when he falls for Natalya. She very quickly becomes the envy of Russia as she takes Alexander off the market. Their romance was anything but clear cut. Alexander has his dalliances and Natalya is relentlessly pursued by a man who could upend the Pushkin family's lives with one move: the Czar of Imperial Russia. I loved having a front row seat for all of this drama.

I have loved this author's other books. I am fascinated with Russia and I love the way that Laam has brought the time periods that she has chosen to write about to life. She does a great job of bringing Natalya and Alexander to life. I loved how she was able to create their movements in and out of Russian high society as they seem to follow Alexander's whims from wanting to be a man about town to acting (and sometimes not acting!) the part of the struggling artist.

Overall, this was a good read and I am looking forward to reading more by Laam in the future!

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