Wednesday, May 15, 2019

My take on: The Song of the Jade Lily

Every time a book about World War II comes out, my immediate thought is how many ways are there to tell about the hardships of war? Is there really more to tell about WWII? Yes, there is. The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning is fictional story but it gave me insight into another piece of history that I didn't know about. Told in dual perspectives, The Song of the Jade Lily is a nuanced portrayal of friendship, parenthood, grief, loss, and love.

The book opens in 1938 Vienna. Young Romy Bernfeld, her parents, and brothers Benjamin and Daniel are outcasts in their homeland. Adolf Hitler has risen to power and is rounding up Jewish people, like Romy and her family, into camps. As difficult as it might be, the Bernfelds' only choice is to flee. But where? And will the whole family be able to make it? After suffering every parents' worst nightmare, only Mr. and Mrs Bernfeld and Romy make it out of Vienna, running away to Shanghai. Once in China, the family finally finds some relief. Mr. Bernfeld puts his skills as a doctor to good use, working at a local hospital. Romy gets to continue her schooling, she often marvels at her good fortune. She even makes friends with a local girl, Li Ho, and her family. With a shared passion for food and alternative medicine, the Bernfelds and the Hos are more like family than friends.

The bond Li and Romy share goes through many ups and downs, both knowing they can count on the other when catastrophe strikes. A bond that will be put to the test as the Japanese rise to power and eventually take over Shanghai.

In modern day Australia, Romy is now an old woman with a dying husband. Her granddaughter, Alexandra, has returned home not just to be with her grandparents but to finally put the pieces of her family's history together. Alexandra's mother, Sophia, has long since passed away but there were always nagging questions about her true heritage. Sophia was adopted and even before her death she wanted to know the truth about her birth parents. A truth that her parents always tap danced around. A truth that not even Alexandra knows. But following the death of her grandfather, Alexandra gets the chance to start over in the very place that was once Romy's salvation -- Shanghai. Professionally, moving to Shanghai offers Alexandra a chance to advance her career. But on the personal side, Alexandra's true mission is to trace her family's history, finally getting the answers her mother never got.

Multi-perspective books are often hit and miss for me. But this was an exception, as it was clear how the past connected to the present. Romy and Alexandra both have strong points of view, each with a compelling story. For both, the past has shaped their present. Without all of the personal strife of the past, neither would be able to be the strong characters they are in the present. This all made for compelling and engrossing read; definitely an author I want to read more of!

Rating: Superb

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (William Morrow) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

I have an unpopular opinion

First, where have I been. Always reading, but of course there were some books that I put aside (The Witch Elm by Tana French) because they were boring me. Second, I just finally figured out how to get back into my Blogger account after Google+ went down. :)

And....I've been trying to gather my thoughts on a very very popular book I just read. Whenever I read a well-reviewed or hyped book, I wonder if I should read it all. (Gasp) What if I don't like it? All those great reviews, and I question if I read the same book. I think back to reading Modern Lovers by Emma Straub, that had good reviews and I was swayed to read it by the pretty cover. But I was sooooooo disappointed. It's even worse when you read a book by a person you like and admire....

...yes...I regret to say...I was underwhelmed by Becoming by Michelle Obama.

It's not a bad book. It's actually well-written and inspirational. I just feel it was lacking in depth. Yes, a book clocking in at 421 pages was, for me, lacking in depth.

What fell short for me?

The White House years.

I appreciate that a book by a former First Lady was not all about her husband. Especially since her husband is portrayed as Superman. I'm not kidding, there is A LOT about how special and unique a person Barack Obama is. I did want more of Mrs. Obama's perspective on her time as First Lady. The White House years are not addressed until page 283 and by then we're more than 60 percent into the book. I felt like there was a lot of buildup to those eight years in the White House, but the actual eight years in the White House were kind of glossed over. Reading the book, I could totally understand her disdain for politics and campaigning. I remember the scrutiny Mrs. Obama herself and her family were subjected to, I often wondered what it must be like to live in a fishbowl. I thought that kind of perspective would be in her memoir, and I didn't get that.

Keep in mind, I don't say any of this as a criticism on Mrs. Obama as a person. This is purely my thoughts on her book. I feel like I need to say that because sometimes people think a criticism of a book or content is a criticism of the person. It's not! You can like a person and what they stand for and still critique their book. No regrets in buying this book. I would do it again. I'm quite sure Mrs. Obama will write another book, and I will absolutely buy it.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

My take on: The Great Alone

Tackling my TBR is an ongoing feat, especially reading books I own vs. reading review books. I'm not sure how long ago I bought The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, but I'm sure it was a least six months ago. In an effort to read more of my own books, I keep a TBR cart, yes an actual rolling cart, filled with my own books. Sort of a daily reminder: Hey read me! My rule going forward, at least one of my current reads has to be a book I purchased. So, I finally plucked The Great Alone from the cart. Plus, it's a family story, which is right in my wheelhouse.


Why? Let me tell you.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, former POW Ernt Allbright has come home to his wife, Cora, and daughter, Leni. But he's not the same man. He's consumed by nightmares and often drowns himself in alcohol to cope. He drifts from job to job and town to town, with his family in tow. Never setting down roots anywhere. One moment he's the happy and loving man who Cora and Leni remember, and the next he's a violent monster. Cora holds onto the belief that the man she loves is still buried beneath the surface. Leni isn't sure what to believe or how to feel. Is it normal for a man to emotionally and verbally abuse his family until they reach their breaking point? What is normal? Leni isn't sure anymore. Ernt thinks he has the answer to their problems: move to Alaska!

Thanks to a former Vietnam buddy, Ernt has just inherited a small cabin in a remote Alaskan town. Cora and Leni are skeptical about the move, but learn to embrace it when they see how happy Ernt is. The town is small but closeknit, everyone ready to lend a helping hand or to offer advice. As former city dwellers, the Allbright family needs all the help they can get. Their new neighbor, Large Marge, gives them the lowdown on stocking up on food for the harsh winters and how to build things. In the beginning, moving to Alaska is just what the doctor ordered. Ernt loves living off the land and providing for and protecting his family. Cora and Leni begin to love it too, even making friends. Leni has her first crush. Matthew Walker is one of the few boys her age, so Leni quickly takes a liking to him.

The Allbright family might have finally caught a break. But the happiness is short-lived. As winter approaches, everyone stays closer to home rather than getting caught out in the cold. Staying closer to home sounds good in theory, but it comes at a price. Stuck inside with his thoughts, Ernt starts to have more nightmares, drinks even more alcohol, and violently attacks his wife over the smallest things. And when he does venture out, Ernt doesn't like what he sees. Tom Walker, in addition to being Matthew's father is also the richest man in their neck of the woods, wants to bring change to the town. Change for the good, like bringing in electricity to the more remote areas, remodeling the local bar, and bringing in tourists. It's not the kind of change that Ernt wants. Anybody siding with Tom Walker, even his own family, is seen as a traitor to Ernt.

As she's gotten older, Leni knows that her father is toxic for her own physical and emotional health. She wants to escape him, but how can she leave her mother behind? How can you leave behind someone you once loved and admired? How do you break the never-ending cycle of abuse? And, it's not just her father that Leni would be leaving behind. Matthew. The boy she's grown to love and the town she's grown to love are a part of Leni. How do you leave everything that makes you you behind? And at what costs?

If you can't tell, I LOVED THIS BOOK! I found the story to be addicting, I almost missed by bus stop because of it!

Rating: O.M.G. !!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

My take on: The Quintland Sisters

History is filled with all sorts of disturbing, sad, and weird moments. In her new book, The Quintland Sisters, Shelley Wood details one of those such moments. Yet again I'm reading the fictional account of a real event.

The Dionne Quintuplets were born in Ontario in 1934, to a poor family already struggling to support five other children. Born premature and at a time before more advanced medical treatments were available, the five girls were not expected to survive. Early on, their treatment was more about making them comfortable before they died. But they survived. Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Marie, and Emilie survived and thrived. How they survived and the people who surrounded them has long been a source of controversy.

This fictional account is told through the eyes of one of their nurses, Emma Trimpany, who was just 17 when she assisted in their birth. It's through the quintuplets that Emma finds her true calling. Born with a port-wine birthmark on her face, Emma was convinced that people looked down on her because of her looks. Because of that perceived judgment, Emma didn't believe she would find her purpose professionally or personally. But she bonds instantly with her young charges, and finds her purpose in life. Led by Dr. Dafoe, Emma and her fellow nurses become the primary caregivers for the girls. Mr. and Mrs. Dionne fought to get custody of their girls back, but money, greed, and the Canadian government got in the way. Dr. Dafoe quickly realized what a gold mine Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Marie, and Emilie could be for him professionally and personally. A special hospital/nursery, complete with playgrounds, was built to house the girls. The Dionnes did have some input over their well-being, but not enough in my opinion.

"Quintland", the nickname for the hospital, drew thousands of tourists who came to gawk at the girls and it also drew thousands of revenue. Product endorsement deals and film opportunities soon outweighed any thoughts of reuniting the girls with their family. While Emma didn't agree with every decision made, she was not in favor of returning the girls to the Dionnes. Emma only sees how a custody change will impact her personally. She can't fathom how painful it must be for a parent to be told when, where, and how they can interact with their own children.

In my view, "Quintland" was basically a fishbowl cut off from reality. The Dionnes were portrayed as angry and uneducated. Maybe they were, but that doesn't justify breaking up their family. The Dionne Quintuplets were cared for but they were also exploited by sooooooo many people. I think Shelley Wood did a good job of portraying what the atmosphere was like back then, I was thoroughly engrossed!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours

Sunday, March 3, 2019

My take on: The Girls in the Picture

Historical fiction is often a sweet spot for me. While they're a piece of fiction, they can often teach me/provide insight on a time period I'm not very familiar with. The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin taught me about Old Hollywood and how not much has really changed in the present day. Women trying to make a name for themselves despite the imbalance of power in relation to their male counterparts, make this a timely book. What stands above all in this book, is the real-life friendship between actress Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion.

Early on, it's clear that Frances was not your typical woman of her time. The book opens in 1914, Frances is already on her second marriage and is looking for a way out. She doesn't want to be a housewife. She knows she wants to be part of making movies, but Frances is unsure of what her role could be. Everything but acting is on the table. When Frances and Mary final cross paths, it's a happy and sad moment. Until that point, Mary was portrayed as someone who was desperate for friendship and connection. Frances comes along at just the right moment. Through their long friendship, both women rise the Hollywood ladder. Mary becoming "America's Sweetheart" and a much sought-after actress and Frances a screenwriter.

As a whole, I think the book gives a vivid portrait of Old Hollywood, including how flickers (silent movies) morphed into "talkies." I didn't know that many of the early movies were really, really short, like under 30 minutes short. Mary and Frances paved the way for women who came after them. Where the book lost some points with me was the length, clocking in at 415 pages. I'm not against long books, I just thought this one could have benefited from a little less descriptive passages. Overall, this is a book worth reading!

Rating: Give it a try

Note: I received a copy from Wunderkind PR in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

My take on: Dumplin

Every time I picked up Dumplin by Julie Murphy, the song Jolene by Dolly Parton played on a loop inside my head. That's not a bad thing! The song made me smile and this book made me smile! The characters in this book have a special kinship to Dolly Parton's music, which I had heard about before I read a single page. I wasn't sure how that would work, but it definitely does and that also made me smile!

Willowdean "Dumplin" Dickson is comfortable with her self-proclaimed fat body, even if others, including her beauty-pageant obsessed mother, are not. She's happy and mad about her body at the same time. She can accept being fat, but the moment someone else is OK with it then it's time to panic -- and question everything you ever thought was true. Handsome jock Bo has taken a liking to Willowdean, so much that he wants to be more than just a friend from work. It's a shock to Willowdean. She's used to boys like Bo ignoring her or making fun of her weight. In her mind, it's unthinkable that a boy wants to date her, wants to kiss her, and see's her body as beautiful. Boys tend to go for Willowdean's best friend, Ellen, who is skinny and beautiful. Willowdean wants to share in her joy about Bo with Ellen but is afraid to. If Willowdean is still struggling to understand what Bo sees in her how can she explain it to another person -- even her best friend.

At times like this, Willowdean would normally crank up some Dolly Parton music and tell her troubles to her Aunt Lucy. But Lucy recently passed away, leaving Willowdean without her sounding board. Lucy was closer to Willowdean than her own mother. Lucy could relate to Willowdean better than anyone, as she struggled with her weight until the day she died. Willowdean loves her mom, but always feels like her mom sees her as a project. Something that needs to be fixed. When her mom isn't dropping subtle hints about losing weight or self-improvement, she obsesses over the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant. The pageant is the biggest event of the year in their small town, and Willowdean's mom, also a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet, is in charge of running the pageant. Willowdean normally avoids the pageant like the plague, but it just might end up being her salvation. She's doubting ever aspect of her life, including her friendship with Ellen. Entering the pageant could be her chance at regaining her confidence.

It's quirky. It's funny. It's complex. It's also heartwarming. It's the kind of book I wish was around when I was a teenager. Fat girls in books were few and far between when I was a teenager, and I wish they weren't. This girl can be more than comic relief or a sidekick. Like Willowdean, these girls can be the object of affection, funny, sad, sarcastic, and happy all rolled into one. Now, time to see if Netflix did the book justice! Off to watch the movie and sing Jolene in my head!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from Wunderkind PR in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My take on: Map of the Heart

I haven't read every book by Susan Wiggs, but her latest Map of the Heart seems like a departure from her prior books. That's a good thing. There's still the family dramas and contemporary romance elements that I've come to love in her books. But in this book there's also a connection to the past, specifically World War II France. She blends the past with the present in a descriptive and often times haunting way. This period in history was filled with strife and pain, which is still being felt in the present day.

Widowed Camille Adams is struggling with the death of her husband. It's been years since Jace died, but his loss is felt in every aspect of her life and their daughter, Julie's, life. When Jace died, so did Camille's zest for fun, traveling, and adventure. With Jace she used to throw caution to the wind and take chances with life. Those days are over. Instead Camille chooses to stick close to home, if she does travel it's by car or by train. But she still manages to harness her passion for photography by restoring old images or film. This passion leads Camille to her newest client, handsome professor Malcolm "Finn" Finnemore. Finn's father went missing during the Vietnam War. Recently discovered film, in his father's belongings, could provide some answers on his disappearance. They have to. Finn has pinned all of his hopes on this film. Those answers don't come when Camille accidentally damages the film. That should be the end of Camille and Finn's interaction, but of course fate and family keep bringing them together.

While Camille has a potential budding romance, her daughter is drowning -- literally and figuratively. Like Camille, Julie's life has never been the same since Jace died. The once happy and popular kid has turned into a sullen, moody, and isolated teenager. There's something more going on with Julie, but Camille is struggling with how to help her daughter. Getting more than a few words out of Julie is like pulling teeth. Only Camille's father can soften Julie's rough exterior and get to the heart of the matter. Camille's father had his own struggles growing up in World War II France. Camille's father was the son of a Nazi sympathizer, a label no one wanted in their small town. In America, Camille's father got to be someone else. He got to have a family. He got to experience a free life. But Camille's father wants to revisit his past, he wants to go back to where he grew up. And he wants Camille and Julie to go with him. Camille fights against it. This trip is about more than Camille's dad confronting his past. Camille will have to confront her past. She will have to confront her fears. She will also have to confront her feelings for Finn.

I enjoyed this book, but I did have some issues with it. There are certain romance tropes that I can't stand. One being two characters who have trouble dating other people, but once they met "the one" they can't stop thinking about each other. There's a spark. They can't understand where this attraction is coming from. This book has that trope. I wish it didn't, but I was able to get past it!

Rating: Superb

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours

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