Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Review: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Title: Purple Hibiscus
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Harper
Publish Date: October 2003
Source: Library

What's the Story?:

From "Fifteen-year-old Kambili’s world is circumscribed by the high walls and frangipani trees of her family compound. Her wealthy Catholic father, under whose shadow Kambili lives, while generous and politically active in the community, is repressive and fanatically religious at home.

When Nigeria begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili’s father sends her and her brother away to stay with their aunt, a University professor, whose house is noisy and full of laughter. There, Kambili and her brother discover a life and love beyond the confines of their father’s authority. The visit will lift the silence from their world and, in time, give rise to devotion and defiance that reveal themselves in profound and unexpected ways. 

This is a book about the promise of freedom; about the blurred lines between childhood and adulthood; between love and hatred, between the old gods and the new."

My Two Cents:

"Purple Hibiscus" is the story of Kambili, a young teenager living under the thumb of her father who seems to only be driven by religion. He is incredibly hard on Kambili and her mother and brother. They don't have much freedom if her father does not explicitly give them permission. Kambili wants something more but she is afraid. She finally gets a chance to be outside of her father's influence when she goes to live with her aunt.

This book is about many things but to me, the thing that it was about most is the moment when you start realizing that your parents are just flawed humans like yourself. We've all had those moments where you realize that your parents are human. It was so interested to see Kambili go through these thoughts about her father when he is such an imposing and controlling figure in her life. Kambili's father borders on abusive and seems to represent the religious forces that have entered Nigeria and changed the old ways to what are supposed to be new, better ways.

Adichie has such a way of capturing human emotion and these universal feelings that we all have. This book is so much more than that though. There are so many things packed into this book and for that, this book is one that you find yourself mulling over long after the last page is finished. I love books that stick like that with you. I look forward to reading more by her!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Review: The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

Title: The Weight of Ink 
Author: Rachel Kadish
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publish Date: June 6, 2017
Source: Borrowed

What's the Story?:

From "Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history. 

As the novel opens, Helen has been summoned by a former student to view a cache of seventeenth-century Jewish documents newly discovered in his home during a renovation. Enlisting the help of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student as impatient as he is charming, and in a race with another fast-moving team of historians, Helen embarks on one last project: to determine the identity of the documents’ scribe, the elusive “Aleph.”   "

My Two Cents:

"The Weight of Ink" is intricate story surrounding a historical mystery of a young woman in the 1660s who has the privilege of being a scribe for a rabbi in England. At the time, this is a job that a woman would almost never be given. Centuries later, a crotchety professor and a impatient graduate student are trying to find out more about this mysterious scribe.

This is a good, immersive story that makes it easy to get lost in the world of Ester, the scribe, as well as the more familiar world of Professor Helen Watt and graduate student Aaron. These main characters as well as the secondary characters are great. Ester occupies an interesting space in this story. Because of her affiliation with the rabbi and his family, she has a lot of opportunities that many other women during that time didn't have. I loved Helen. For some reason, I am incredibly drawn to characters who have tough exteriors and rich back stories. I loved seeing how Helen's story unfolded and all that we get to learn about her through the book. And then there is Aaron. Admittedly, it took me a little bit to warm up to him. He's impulsive and to some degree, self-important but very quickly, we get to dive into what makes him tick and what pushes and motivates him. We learn a lot about him through the letters that he writes, which makes for a nice juxtaposition from the way that he acts.

At over 500 pages, it would have been easy for this book to get boring. There are so many books where you are ready (really, really ready) for them to end by the point they get that large. In this case, the author does such a great job with pacing the story and keeping the twists and turns going throughout the book that by the time the end comes, you still are not ready to let go of these characters. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review: Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia by Anne Garrels

Title: Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia
Author: Anne Garrels 
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Farar, Straus, and Giroux
Publish Date: March 15, 2016
Source: Library

What's the Story?:

From "More than twenty years ago, when NPR correspondent Anne Garrels first visited Chelyabinsky--a gritty military-industrial center a thousand miles east of Moscow--her goal was to chart the aftershocks of the USSR's collapse. Returning again and again, Garrels found that the city's new freedoms and opportunities were both exciting and traumatic. As the economic collapse of the early 1990s abated, Chelyabinsky became richer and more cosmopolitan while official corruption and intolerance for minorities grew more entrenched. Sushi restaurants proliferated; so did shakedowns. In the neighboring countryside, villages crumbled into the ground. Far from the glitz of Moscow, the people of Chelyabinsk were working out their country’s destiny, person by person.

Putin Country crafts an intimate portrait of Middle Russia. We meet upwardly mobile professionals, impassioned activists who champion the rights of orphans and disabled children, and ostentatious mafiosi. We discover surprising subcultures, such as a vibrant underground gay community and a circle of determined Protestant evangelicals, and watch as doctors and teachers trying to cope with inescapable payoffs and institutionalized negligence. As Vladimir Putin tightens his grip on power and war in Ukraine leads to Western sanctions and a lower standard of living, the local population mingles belligerent nationalism with a deep ambivalence about their country’s direction. Drawing on close friendships sustained over many years, Garrels explains why Putin commands the loyalty of so many Russians, even those who decry the abuses of power they regularly encounter."

My Two Cents:

Russia is one of my favorite places to read about whether in fiction or non-fiction. I think it is a fantastically interesting place but much of what I read (fiction or non-fiction) set there always seems to be set in the big cities. What I really liked about "Putin Country" is that the author gets us out into the less-traveled places in Russia to explore how Russians feel about their leader Vladimir Putin.

Drawing on interviews with every day people in Chelyabinsk (a fairly industrial city), Garrels explores the mayhem and the mystique that surrounds Putin and his government. The answers about what she finds are especially interesting in light of what we have going on in our country right now with our own government.

We see people explaining away some of the government corruption and deception that permeates everything from newspapers to television. We get a view of why Putin maintains popularity after so much time in the spotlight. It's fascinating! This book definitely shed some light for me and made me think about things in a different way - something I always appreciate about a good book!


Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Flight Season by Marie Marquardt

Title: Flight Season
Author: Marie Marquardt 
Format: Ebook
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publish Date: February 20, 2018
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "Back when they were still strangers, TJ Carvalho witnessed the only moment in Vivi Flannigan’s life when she lost control entirely. Now, TJ can’t seem to erase that moment from his mind, no matter how hard he tries. Vivi doesn’t remember any of it, but she’s determined to leave it far behind. And she will.

But when Vivi returns home from her first year away at college, her big plans and TJ’s ambition to become a nurse land them both on the heart ward of a university hospital, facing them with a long and painful summer together – three months of glorified babysitting for Ángel, the problem patient on the hall. Sure, Ángel may be suffering from a life-threatening heart infection, but that doesn’t make him any less of a pain.

As it turns out, though, Ángel Solís has a thing or two to teach them about all those big plans, and the incredible moments when love gets in their way."

My Two Cents:

"Flight Season" is the story of three very different people: Vivi, TJ, and Angel. Vivi is trying to fix her life after losing her beloved father. Every turn seems to throw more difficulty at her: failing grades, a mother who seems too lost in grief and flakiness to take care of things, and a general uneasy feeling about her future life path. TJ seems stuck in his family business while trying to make something of himself outside of his job at the family restaurant. Angel wanted a better life in the United States but finds himself in the hospital hanging on to his life after fate deals a cruel hand. All of these people are very different but will come together in some surprising ways.

Marie Marquardt is becoming a must-read author for me. Her previous books have been smart with a message behind them. The message always feels baked in and never didactic, which I think is important for any book but particularly young adult books. Because I had enjoyed her previous two books so much, I knew that I needed to jump on reading this one. I was not disappointed!

The characters in this book are great. Vivi is floundering in the beginning of this book. She's done trying to keep up with the social life that took her down a dark path. She is in college at Yale, pre-med but while this seems like something she should do, she isn't sure if she is doing this for herself or for another reason. TJ is confident in his own skin most of the time and seems to know what he wants. Angel was the most touching character. Seeking a new life in the United States, he never was worried about getting hurt; he thought getting over to the U.S. would be the hard part. Because of his status and trying to please his terrible uncle, he has to take any job he can get even if it is dangerous and ends up working on a turkey farm with some insidious practices. These characters come together in such an amazing way. Their bond was really special throughout the whole book.

The book was well-written. Each of the characters had a very different and unique voice. The author has a really good way of pulling together a really interesting story line with characters that will stick with me long after I shut the book.


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Title: Sourdough
Author: Robin Sloan
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Farar, Straus, and Giroux
Publish Date: September 5, 2017
Source: Owned

What's the Story?:

From "Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouthwatering sourdough bread.
Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive.  Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer's market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show.
When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people, exactly?"

My Two Cents:

"Sourdough" is the story of Lois, a computer engineer, who lives a relatively boring life. She goes to work, she goes home. She is so busy at work and so pushed by peer pressure that her sustenance consists of this weird protein that is terribly boring but fills her hunger. One day, she decides to order some spicy soup in and it comes with the most wonderful sourdough bread. This simple deviation from her normal life will change everything for Lois.

This book is soooo quirky and I really enjoyed it. It's a strange little story but I really liked that it was so off the beaten path. Filled with good food, people learning to become friends, and a good message of embracing the unknown, this was a good read for me. It also has a good dose of magical realism, which is always one of my favorite elements that a book can have!

Lois is such an interesting character. She finds a lot of comfort in routine, even if it doesn't make her life that exciting. When the two brothers that make the spicy soup and bread are forced to leave the country and they leave her the mystical sourdough starter, Lois's life changes for the better. She isn't so afraid to shake up her routine and do something different. I thought this was a really good message that sometimes you do have to make yourself a little uncomfortable in order to make things better!


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Review: Wallis in Love: The Untold Life of the Duchess of Windsor, the Woman Who Changed the Monarchy by Andrew Morton

Title: Wallis in Love: The Untold Life of the Duchess of Windsor, the Woman Who Changed the Monarchy
Author: Andrew Morton
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publish Date: February 13, 2018
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From ""You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance." -Wallis Simpson
Everyone has heard of Wallis Simpson, the woman for whom Edward VIII so infamously abdicated his throne and birthright. But although her life has constantly been the subject of much fascination, gossip, and speculation, her whole story has yet to be told. Now historical biographer Andrew Morton uses diary entries, letters, and other never-before-seen records to offer a fresh portrait of Wallis Simpson in all her vibrancy and brazenness as she climbed the social ladder, transforming from a hard-nosed gold digger to charming chatelaine.

Morton takes us through the cacophonous Jazz Age, a period of casual sex, cocaine, and screeching trombones; Wallis's romantic adventures in Washington and friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; her exploits in China and beyond; to her entrance into the strange wonderland that is London Society. During her journey, we meet an extraordinary array of characters, many of whom smoothed the way for her dalliance with the king of England, Edward VIII, and we gain insights into the personality and motivations of a complex, domineering woman striving to determine her own fate in a harsh, turbulent world."

My Two Cents:

"Wallis in Love" explores the life of Wallis Simpson, the woman who changed the course of the British Monarchy. Twice divorced, she charmed Edward VIII who ended up abdicating the throne. It was supposed to be a great love story but in many ways, it seemed only to imprison Wallis and Edward. Fairy tales are not always what they seem!

I love all things related to royalty so when I heard that Andrew Morton was coming out with this book, I jumped at the chance to read it! I knew about Wallis meeting Edward and I knew about the abdication debacle but I didn't realize until I dove into this book how little I knew about Wallis. This book traces all the way back to when she was a little girl and it was fascinating to see the transformation from the girl from Baltimore to one of the most controversial women in history with regard to the British monarchy.

Morton both lays out who Wallis was and who she wasn't. People all across the world were very concerned when Edward abdicated. I was interested especially in the way that politicians worldwide were concerned about what the abdication might do in shaking up the political order of the world even with the monarch being perhaps the spiritual leader of the country but not the political leader.

Morton also squashes some of the rumors that were spread about Wallis at the height of abdication mania. Like many women in the public eye, she had a lot of pretty hurtful rumors spread about her. Some seemed to bother her more than others. I liked seeing what was true and untrue and why certain rumors seemed to shake the public's psyche, while others were put to rest rather quickly.

Overall, this was a good look at Wallis and will interest my fellow royal watchers!


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: The French Girl by Lexie Elliott

Title: The French Girl
Author: Lexie Elliott 
Format: ARC
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publish Date: February 20, 2018 (Today!)
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "They were six university students from Oxford--friends and sometimes more than friends--spending an idyllic week together in a French farmhouse. It was supposed to be the perfect summer getaway--until they met Severine, the girl next door.

For Kate Channing, Severine was an unwelcome presence, her inscrutable beauty undermining the close-knit group's loyalties amid the already simmering tensions. And after a huge altercation on the last night of the holiday, Kate knew nothing would ever be the same. There are some things you can't forgive, and there are some people you can't forget, like Severine, who was never seen again.

Now, a decade later, the case is reopened when Severine's body is found in the well behind the farmhouse. Questioned along with her friends, Kate stands to lose everything she's worked so hard to achieve as suspicion mounts around her. Desperate to resolve her own shifting memories and fearful she will be forever bound to the woman whose presence still haunts her, Kate finds herself buried under layers of deception with no one to set her free."

My Two Cents:

In "The French Girl," once upon a time, Kate and her group of friends from Oxford vacationed in France. They had a hanger-on in the form of Severine, a mysterious French girl who threatens to topple the sort of balance that the group has found. When Severine ends up dead, the friends are questioned. Nothing turns up at first and the friends go their separate ways. They never expect that Severine will continue to haunt them all.

This is a thriller but it's much more quiet and there is a very slow build throughout the book. I did find myself wishing that things would move a little bit faster throughout the book. The story line is also very much focused on the present and I wanted to know more about how the group of friends was when they were actually friends. When we meet them in present day, it was hard to see what made them work as a group - they seem so different.

I also found myself wanting to know more about the characters. We see how they interact with each other but it felt like readers are held at arms length throughout the book. We get to know Kate a little bit better as we see the action through her eyes.

Overall, I did like that this book keeps you guessing but I was looking for something to invest in more!


Monday, February 19, 2018

Review: As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

Title: As Bright as Heaven
Author: Susan Meissner 
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publish Date: February 6, 2018
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "n 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters--Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa--a chance at a better life.

But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without--and what they are willing to do about it."

My Two Cents:

"As Bright as Heaven" follows the story of the Bright family as they leave the countryside for Philadelphia where the father of the family plans to take over a funeral business for a family member. Even though it is hard, and sometimes sad, work, it promises to give the Bright family a more successful future. Fate has a way of intervening though. It is the late 1910s and the world is ravaged by the Spanish flu and World War I has taken many young men far away from home where they may be hurt irreparably. This is a story of a family standing together even when things are difficult.

While this is a story about a whole family, the mother and daughter relationship is especially important in this book. When Pauline's husband goes away, she becomes the full caretaker for her three daughters. They live in a brand new place and are trying to get used to a brand new business. Pauline puts everything on the line for her daughters until she can't anymore. Being a mother (and of daughters at that), I found a lot of common ground with Pauline throughout the story. It makes the turn of events even more painful!

I loved the characters in this book. We get to see the Bright daughters as they grow up. They are three very different people but all brave in different ways. At first, I didn't understand why the author chooses to show the Bright family both in 1918 and then a little bit later but as you see (and I don't want to give anything away), it was necessary in order to show the full progression of their characters, which I really liked.

This was a difficult read. This flu season has been bad so it was interesting comparing the differences between the flu in this book and the flu currently going around. It was so crazy to me how widespread the flu was then and how deadly it proved to be. I thought the author did a really good job of showing how devastating this flu was and how worried people were. There's one part of the book where the grandparents of the family refuse to let the family come back to the countryside to escape the flu because they believe the Bright family already has it. It was very sad to read how the flu tore families apart both in life and death.

Overall, this was a hard read in a lot of ways but I enjoyed how thought provoking it was and the writing was great!


Friday, February 16, 2018

Help a Book Lover Out!

This week has really gotten away from me. It has been such a crazy few weeks and I am woefully behind on book reviews!

So I want to know what you're reading right now? And if you aren't digging it, tell me what the last great book you've read is!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Giveaway Winner!

Another giveaway is over and I have another winner to announce!

The winner of "The Secret Life of  Mrs. London" is Terry M.!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: Elmore by Holly Hobbie

Title: Elmore
Author: Holly Hobbie
Format: ARC
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: January 30, 2018
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "Elmore is a porcupine desperate to make friends. But it is hard to seek closeness with others when you're covered with spikes that shoot off your back every so often. Elmore suffers rejection and heartbreak, but the goodness of his forest community ultimately shines through as the animals find a way to connect with this prickly bundle of love.

Holly Hobbie is the creator of the beloved Toot & Puddle series and now brings us a character for the next generation. Just as charming, funny, and good-hearted as her little pigs, Elmore the porcupine will snuggle and prickle his way securely into the picture-book canon."

My Two Cents:

"Elmore" is the adorable new release by Holly Hobbie. Elmore just wants friends but finds it hard to connect to the other animals in the forest because of who he is: extremely prickly! The other animals are scared of him at first but eventually they figure out some common ground with him and suddenly the prickles don't matter!

I liked the message that this book had about trying to see the good in people before just stopping at outside appearances. The adorable animals make this message accessible to even little readers! I always like when books don't talk down to kids and this one certainly doesn't, which is great and makes for a story that both parents and children can enjoy.

I loved the illustrations in this book. They are adorable and you want to just hug each of the woodland creatures, even Elmore, prickles and all. This is a very pretty book with great art! My kids and I both really enjoyed this one.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: Layover by Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer

Title: Layover
Author: Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer
Format: ARC
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Publish Date: February 6, 2018
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "Flynn: At first we were almost strangers. But ever since I moved to New York, Amos was the one person I could count on. And together we were there for Poppy. (I mean, what kind of parents leave their kid to be raised by a nanny?) I just didn’t expect to fall for him—and I never expected him to leave us.

Amos: I thought I was the only one who felt it. I told myself it was because we were spending so much time together—taking care of Poppy and all. But that night, I could tell she felt it, too. And I freaked out—you’re not supposed to fall for your stepsister. So I ran away to boarding school. I should have told her why I was leaving, but every time I tried, it felt like a lie."

My Two Cents:

"Layover" is the story of step-siblings Amos and Flynn and their half-sister, Poppy. They are getting ready to go on a family vacation to Bora Bora with a layover at LAX. Poppy overheard something their parents said and tells Amos and Flynn. It upsets them so much that they decide they won't meet their parents in Bora Bora and that they will stay in their layover location, Los Angeles, instead. I had high hopes for this one but it fell sort of flat for me. 

This book was really just ok for me. I had a really hard time caring about any of the main characters in this book. Flynn is the total "not like other girls" heroine, which falls really flat for me. In trying to make her different, she keeps making comparisons between herself and the other girls around her and how she is so unique and different. It got old. Amos just isn't particularly interesting. Poppy was probably my favorite character. She is 10 years old but incredibly precocious (in some cases, too precocious that it didn't feel real). She kept the story going and in many ways, proved to be more insightful than the other characters.

The writing of the book was okay. I liked that the story was told from the perspectives of Flynn, Amos, and Poppy but I wish the voices of the different characters had sounded a little more separate from each other. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

HFVBT Review: The Phantom's Apprentice by Heather Webb

Title: The Phantom's Apprentice
Author: Heather Webb 
Format: Ebook
Publisher: Sonnet Press
Publish Date: February 6, 2018 (This week!!!)

Source: HFVBT

What's the Story?:

From "In this re-imagining of Phantom of the Opera, meet a Christine Daaé you’ve never seen before…

Christine faces an impossible choice: be a star at the Paris opera as Papa always wanted, or follow her dream—to become a master of illusions. First, she must steal the secrets of the enigmatic master who haunts her, survive a world of treachery and murder, and embrace the uncertain promise of love. To succeed, she will risk her life in the grandest illusion of all."

My Two Cents:

"The Phantom's Apprentice" is the re-imagining of "The Phantom of the Opera." I was drawn to this book as I am a huge fan of musicals and grew up enchanted with Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom. In fact, it was the very first musical that I saw on stage! That being said, I have never read Gaston Leroux's original book so some parts in the book were new to me. This was an exciting story that added a little more depth to the story of the Phantom for me. 

This book started out a little slowly for me. It really picked up once Christine is selected to become a part of the Opera company. And then the book gets very exciting as Christine discovers who her Angel of Music really is and more about his back story. I really liked that there is a large dose of magic and illusions throughout the book. This acts as a kind of thread to bind the book together - definitely an exciting take!

I really liked that the story was told from Christine Daae's perspective. Even though she is one of the main characters in the musical, musicals are not great for fleshing out characters so I loved getting a better sense of her in this book. She is much stronger than she seemed in the musical, which I liked. It was fascinating to see how she deals with all that she goes through in this book. You really get to see her change throughout the book as she grows a little older and more savvy about the world that she is surrounded by. 

Overall, I enjoyed this retelling! Although it started a little slowly, I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

HFVBT Review and Giveaway: The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg

Title: The Secret Life of Mrs. London
Author: Rebecca Rosenberg
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Publish Date: January 30, 2018
Source: HFVBT

What's the Story?:

From "San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.

As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear."

My Two Cents:

"The Secret Life of Mrs. London" is the story of famous writer, Jack London, and his wife, Charmian, who works with him to get all of his brilliant ideas and writing down on paper. They have a tumultuous, fascinating relationship. They are sparring partners: physically and mentally. They love each other but both of their gazes are often going in opposite directions. A chance encounter with infamous magician Harry Houdini will turn everything on its head.

This book initially ensnared me with the promise of giving a little insight into famous people like Jack London and Harry Houdini but once I opened the book, it was really Charmian that charmed me the most throughout this book. The characters are really the stand out feature of this book. She has a fantastic sense of adventure and thinks nothing of going off with Jack on another adventure. She isn't like many other women of her time and she lives on her own terms and makes her own rules for herself and for her relationships with others. I really loved that we got to see the action as she sees it throughout the book!

Before reading this book, I didn't know much about Jack London's personal life at all. One thing that I loved about this book is that it gives you a little insight into what kind of man he was. He obviously loved Charmian but it was mixed with a healthy dose of suspicion and jealousy. He was talented but never seemed to realize how much Charmian did to help him with his writing. He doesn't seem to give her enough credit even as he loves her. I knew a little more about Harry Houdini and found him fascinating in this book. The interactions between him and his wife, Bess were very intriguing. I don't want to give anything away but their marriage is very different and I really liked how the author unfolded the secrets throughout the book.

Overall, this book was a treat with the vivid characters. I loved "meeting" Charmian through this book for the first time. This book definitely made me want to look up more about this fascinating woman and her "Mate."


Want to win your own copy? Just fill out the form below (U.S. only, please!).

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

Title: Next Year in Havana
Author: Chanel Cleeton 
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publish Date: February 6, 2018 (Today!)
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity--and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution...

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba's high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country's growing political unrest--until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary...

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa's last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba's tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she'll need the lessons of her grandmother's past to help her understand the true meaning of courage."

My Two Cents:

"Next Year in Havana" is a historical fiction book set in two times: late 1950s Cuba and 2017 Miami and Cuba. Marisol has grown up hearing stories about her grandmother's and great aunt's luxurious lives in Cuba before the revolution that brought Castro to power. After the revolution, they are exiled to the United States where they settle in the ex-pat community of Miami, forever dreaming of returning to their homeland once things are safe again. When Marisol's grandmother dies, she will be left to fulfill her final wishes.

Oh, this book! I was so excited when I heard about it as I would love to read more historical fiction set in Latin America and the Caribbean. There are so many interesting stories to tell there! I studied Latin America in undergrad and it remains of special interest to me. The historical detail in this book did not disappoint. The author has a really good way of making you understand the history through the characters witnessing it and it's never in a way where it isn't artfully blended into the story.

The book is told through Marisol and her grandmother, Elisa. Both of them are really great characters that I fell in love with. Elisa lives a very privileged life. Her father is a sugar baron and does not want for anything. The country is beginning to change. Elisa realizes that her family is on the opposite side of the revolutionaries that are spreading over the countryside even if they don't harbor particularly warm feelings for the things that Batista is doing; they are protected by his regime. Marisol is excited to see Cuba for herself. She has a very specific view pulled from listening to family stories so she isn't sure what to expect. I loved watching as Marisol unfolded the mystery of her grandmother's life throughout this book.

Another aspect of the book that I loved are the romances. The parallels between Elisa's and Marisol's story really thrilled me. Elisa falls in love with someone that society says she shouldn't. They will both be in danger for different reasons if they let love take hold. Marisol falls in love with someone that will put both her and him in danger. But in both cases, you can see that it is inevitable and the only thing that could possibly happen. Both stories are terribly romantic!

I was so sad when I reached the end of this book as I loved the ride so much. I was very excited that the book included an excerpt which promises to tell the story of Beatriz, Elisa's sister. Unfortunately, that book isn't slated to be released until 2019. I can't wait to get back to this family!


Monday, February 5, 2018

Excerpt: Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

I am very excited to share a special excerpt from "Next Year in Havana" by Chanel Cleeton. I loved, loved, loved this book and can't wait to share my review with you. Check it out tomorrow!

Chapter One
Havana, 1959
“How long will we be gone?” my sister Maria asks.
“Awhile,” I answer.
“Two months? Six months? A year? Two?”
“Quiet.” I nudge her forward, my gaze darting around the departure area of Rancho-Boyeros Airport to see if anyone has overheard her question.
We stand in a row, the famous—or infamous, depending on who you ask—Perez sisters. Isabel leads the way, the eldest of the group. She doesn’t speak, her gaze trained on her fiancé, Alberto. His face is pale as he watches us, as we march out of the city we once brought to its knees.
Beatriz is next. When she walks, the hem of her finest dress swinging against her calves, the pale blue fabric adorned with lace, it’s as though the entire airport holds its collective breath. She’s the beauty in the family and she knows it.
I trail behind her, the knees beneath my skirts quivering, each step a weighty effort.
And then there’s Maria, the last of the sugar queens.
At thirteen, Maria’s too young to understand the need to keep her voice low, is able to disregard the soldiers standing in green uniforms, guns slung over their shoulders and perched in their eager hands. She knows the danger those uniforms bring, but not as well as the rest of us do. We haven’t been able to remove the grief that has swept our family in its unrelenting curl, but we’ve done our best to shield her from the barbarity we’ve endured. She hasn’t heard the cries of the prisoners held in cages like animals in La Cabaña, the prison now run by that Argentine monster. She hasn’t watched Cuban blood spill on the ground.
But our father has.
He turns and silences her with a look, one he rarely employs yet is supremely effective. For most of our lives, he’s left the care of his daughters to our mother and our nanny, Magda, too busy running his sugar company and playing politics. But these are extraordinary times, the stakes higher than any we’ve ever faced. There is nothing Fidel would love more than to make an example of Emilio Perez and his family—the quintessential image of everything his revolution seeks to destroy. We’re not the wealthiest family in Cuba, or the most powerful one, but the close relationship between my father and Batista is impossible to ignore. Even the careless words of a thirteen-year-old girl can prove deadly in this climate.
Maria falls silent.
Our mother walks beside our father, her head held high. She insisted we wear our finest dresses today, hats, and gloves, brushed our hair until it gleamed. It wouldn’t do for her daughters to look anything but their best, even in exile.
Defiant in defeat.
We might not have fought in the mountains, haven’t held weapons in our glove-covered hands, but there is a battle in all of us. One Fidel has ignited like a flame that will never be extinguished. And so we walk toward the gate in our favorite dresses, Cuban pride and pragmatism on full display. It’s our way of taking the gowns with us, even if they’re missing the jewels that normally adorn them. What remains of our jewelry is buried in the backyard of our home.
For when we return.
To be Cuban is to be proud—it is both our greatest gift and our biggest curse. We serve no kings, bow no heads, bear our troubles on our backs as though they are nothing at all. There is an art to this, you see. An art to appearing as though everything is effortless, that your world is a gilded one, when the reality is that your knees beneath your silk gown buckle from the weight of it all. We are silk and lace, and beneath them we are steel.
We try to preserve the fiction that this is merely a vacation, a short trip abroad, but the gazes following us around the airport know better—
Beatriz’s fingers wrap around mine for one blissful moment. Those olive green–clad sentries watch our every move. There’s something reassuring in her fear, in that crack in the facade. I don’t let go.
The world as we know it has died, and I do not recognize the one that has taken its place.
A sense of hopelessness overpowers the departure area. You see it in the eyes of the men and women waiting to board the plane, in the tired set of their shoulders, the shock etched across their faces, their possessions clutched in their hands. It’s present in the somber children, their laughter extinguished by the miasma that has overtaken all of us.
This used to be a happy place. We would welcome our father when he returned from a business trip, sat in these same seats three years earlier, full of excitement to travel to New York on vacation.
We take our seats, huddling together, Beatriz on one side of me, Maria on the other. Isabel sits apart from us, her pain a mantle around her shoulders. There are different degrees of loss here, the weight of what we leave behind inescapable.
My parents sit with their fingers intertwined, one of the rare displays of physical affection I’ve ever seen them partake in, worry in their eyes, grief in their hearts.
How long will we be gone? When will we return? Which version of Cuba will greet us when we do?
We’ve been here for hours now, the seconds creeping by with interminable slowness. My dress itches, a thin line of sweat running down my neck. Nausea rolls around in my stomach, an acrid taste in my mouth.
“I’m going to be sick,” I murmur to Beatriz.
She squeezes my fingers. “No, you’re not. We’re almost there.”
I beat the nausea back, staring down at the ground in front of me. The weight of the stares is pointed and sharp, and at the same time, it’s as if we exist in a vacuum. The sound has been sucked from the room save for the occasional rustle of clothing, the stray sob. We exist in a state of purgatory, waiting, waiting—
“Now boarding . . .”
My father rises from his seat on creaky limbs; he’s aged years in the nearly two months since President Batista fled the country, since the winds of revolution drifted from the Sierra Maestra to our corner of the island. Emilio Perez was once revered as one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Cuba; now there’s little to distinguish my father from the man sitting across the aisle, from the gentleman lining up at the gate. We’re all citizens of no country now, all orphans of circumstance.
I reach out and take Maria’s hand with my spare one.
She’s silent, as though reality has finally sunk in. We all are.
We walk in a line, somber and reticent, making our way onto the tarmac. There’s no breeze in the air today, the heat overpowering as we shuffle forward, the sun beating down on our backs, the plane looming in front of us.
I can’t do this. I can’t leave. I can’t stay.
Beatriz pulls me forward, a line of Perez girls, and I continue on.
We board the plane in an awkward shuffle, the silence cracking and splintering as hushed voices give way to louder ones, a cacophony of tears filling the cabin. Wails. Now that we’ve escaped the departure area, the veneer of civility is stripped away to something unvarnished and raw—
I take a seat next to the window, peering out the tiny glass, hoping for a better view than that of the airport terminal, hoping . . .
We roll back from the gate with a jolt and lurch, silence descending in the cabin. In a flash, it’s New Year’s Eve again and I’m standing in the ballroom of my parents’ friends’ house, a glass of champagne in one hand. I’m laughing, my heart so full. There’s fear lingering in the background, both fear and uncertainty, but there’s also a sense of hope.
In minutes, my entire world changed.
President Batista has fled the country! Long live a free Cuba!
Is this freedom?
We’re gaining speed now, hurtling down the runway. My body heaves with the movement, and I lose the battle, grabbing the bag in the seat pocket in front of me, emptying the contents of my stomach.
Beatriz strokes my back as I hunch over, as the wheels leave the ground, as we soar into the sky. The nausea hits me again and again, an ignominious parting gift, and when I finally look up, a startling shock of blue and green greets me, an artist’s palette beneath me.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba, he described it as the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen. And it is. But there’s more beyond the sea, the mountains, the clear sky. There’s so much more that we leave behind us.
How long will we be gone?
A year? Two?
January 2017
When I was younger, I begged my grandmother to tell me about Cuba. It was a mythical island, contained in my heart, entirely drawn from the version of Cuba she created in exile in Miami and the stories she shared with me. I was caught between two lands—two iterations of myself—the one I inhabited in my body and the one I lived in my dreams.
We’d sit in the living room of my grandparents’ sprawling house in Coral Gables, and she’d show me old photos that had been smuggled out of the country by intrepid family members, weaving tales about her life in Havana, the adventures of her siblings, painting a portrait of a land that existed in my imagination. Her stories smelled of gardenias and jasmine, tasted of plantains and mamey, and always, the sound of her old record player. Each time she’d finish her tale she’d smile and promise I would see it myself one day, that we’d return in grand style, reopening her family’s seaside estate in Varadero and the elegant home that took up nearly the entire block of a tree-lined street in Havana.
When Fidel dies, we’ll return. You’ll see.
And finally, after nearly sixty years of keeping Cubans in suspense, of false alarms and hoaxes, he did die, outlasting my grandmother by mere months. The night he died, my family opened a bottle of champagne my great-grandfather had bought nearly sixty years ago for such an occasion, toasting Castro’s demise in our inimitable fashion. The champagne, sadly, like Fidel himself, was past its prime, but we partied on Calle Ocho in Miami until the sun rose, and still—
Still we remain.
His death did not erase nearly sixty years of exile, or ensure a future of freedom. Instead I’m smuggling my grandmother’s ashes inside my suitcase, concealed as jars in my makeup case, honoring her last request to me while we pray, hope, wait for things to change.
When I die, take me back to Cuba. Spread my ashes over the land I love. You’ll know where.
And now sitting on the plane somewhere between Mexico City and Havana, armed with a notebook filled with scribbled street names and places to visit, a guidebook I purchased off the Internet, I have no clue where to lay her to rest.
They read my grandmother’s will six months ago, thirty family members seated in a conference room in our attorney’s office on Brickell. Her sisters were there—Beatriz and Maria. Isabel passed away the year before. Their children came with their spouses and their children, the next generations paying their respects. Then there was my father—her only child—my two sisters, and me.
The main parts of her will were fairly straightforward, no major surprises to be expected. My grandfather had died over two decades earlier and turned the family sugar business over to my father to run. There was the house in Palm Beach, which went to my sister Daniela. The farm in Wellington and the horses were left to my sister Lucia, the middle child. And I ended up with the house in Coral Gables, the site of so many imaginary trips to Cuba.
There were monetary bequests, and artwork, lists upon lists of items read by the attorney in a matter-of-fact tone, his announcements met with the occasional tear or exclamation of gratitude. And then there was her final wish—
Grandparents aren’t supposed to play favorites, but my grandmother never played by anyone else’s rules. Maybe it was the fact that I came into the world two months before my mother caught my father in bed with a rubber heiress. Lucia and Daniela had years of family unity before the Great Divorce, and after that, they had a bond with my mother I never quite achieved. My early years were logged between strategy sessions at the lawyers’ offices, shuttled back and forth between homes, until finally my mother washed her hands of it all and went back to Spain, leaving me under the care of my grandmother. So perhaps because I was the daughter she never had, yet raised as her own, it made sense that she charged me with this—
No one in the family questioned it.
From her sisters, I received a list of addresses—including the Perez estate in Havana and the beach house no one had seen in over fifty years. They put me in contact with Ana Rodriguez, my grandmother’s childhood best friend. Despite the passage of time, she’d been gracious enough to offer to host me for the week I’d be in Cuba. Perhaps she could shed some light on my grandmother’s final resting place.
You always wanted to see Cuba, and it’s my greatest regret that we were unable to do so in my lifetime. I am consoled, at least, by the image of you strolling along the Malecón, the spray of salt water on your face. I imagine you kneeling in the pews of the Cathedral of Havana, sitting at a table at the Tropicana. Did I ever tell you about the night we snuck out and went to the club?
I always dreamed Fidel would die before me, that I would return home. But now my dream is a different one. I am an old woman, and I have come to accept that I will never see Cuba again. But you will.
To be in exile is to have the things you love most in the world—the air you breathe, the earth you walk upon—taken from you. They exist on the other side of a wall—there and not—unaltered by time and circumstance, preserved in a perfect memory in a land of dreams.
My Cuba is gone, the Cuba I gave to you over the years swept away by the winds of revolution. It’s time for you to discover your own Cuba.
I slip the letter back into my purse, the words blurring together. It’s been six months, and yet the ache is still there, intensified by the moments when I feel her loss most acutely, when she should be beside me and is not.
The sight of the merenguitos she would make me on special occasions, their sugary taste dissolving on my tongue in a cloud of white powder, the sound of my childhood—our musical icons: Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, and the Buena Vista Social Club—and now this, the wheels of the airplane touching down on Cuban soil.
I miss my grandmother.
Tears spill onto my cheeks. It’s not merely the absence of her; it’s this feeling of connection as the airplane taxis down the same runway that carried her away from Cuba nearly sixty years ago.
I stare out the window, treated to my first glimpse of José Martí International Airport. At first glance, it looks like the countless Caribbean airports I’ve flown through on vacations in my life. But underneath it all there’s a sense of recognition and a thrill that runs through me. A sigh that escapes my body as though I’ve been holding my breath and can finally exhale.
It’s that sensation of being away for a long time and returning to your house, the sight of it greeting you—both familiar and changed—stepping through the doorway, dropping your bags on the ground next to you with a sense of completion, your journey over, and taking in your surroundings, surveying all you left behind, and thinking—
I am home.
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