Today's Grateful List/16 February 2015

  • Time to get things done
  • Cleaning K's room
  • Good reads
  • A warm house
  • Snow days!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Between Shades of Gray

I grew up with a father who fought in World War II. I always knew he didn't think much of Josef Stalin, but beyond the bit I learned in school I really didn't know why. This book by Ruta Sepetys, helped illuminate for me what went on "behind the scenes", so to speak, in Stalin's Soviet Union. To say I was profoundly moved and appalled is an understatement.

Fifteen year old Lina and her family are taken from their Lithuanian home one night in 1941, placed on a cattle train, and sent far away to remote Siberia. Separated from her father, Lina does not understand why they are forced to leave, and fear of the unknown is crippling. Along with her mother and younger brother, the taken people are forced to live in a shack and work for the NKVD (the Soviet military in charge). Lina, a gifted artist, is forced to dig in dirt, pick beets, and carry heavy bags of grain, all for a small bread ration each day. Her mother, Elena, is relentlessly upbeat about the possibility of being let go and reuniting with the father, and Jonas, Lina's younger brother, works hard but falls ill to scurvy. There is a young man, Andrius,with whom Lina begins to form a relationship, and a soldier named Kretzky whom Lina particularly despises. The others in the camp, including the bald man and the grouchy woman, bring the story to life as Lina struggles to maintain a sense of hope while just trying to survive.

At first glance, this story seems to be another Holocaust story, but the truth is, it has nothing to do with the Holocaust at all. These Lithuanians were all Christians who were sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor for their "crimes" against the Soviet Union. This included the children of those accused, and there was little to no hope of escape. The conditions these people were forced to endure do indeed echo the Holocaust, but are perhaps even worse as their story remains mostly untold.

It was easy to become engrossed in this story, as Lina's voice is clear and her words pull you inside the horrible, unthinkable actions of man against mankind. Her art helps her to survive, allowing her to express herself in limited ways and giving the reader a sense of the human who would not be defeated. This is not an easy book to read because of its subject matter, but it is an important one. With its strong content and horrible situations, it is probably better for slightly older children, but its message is definitely one people of all ages could embrace.

~taminator40

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Girl on the Train

Hmmmm...what to say about Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train that hasn't been said yet? Well, I'm not much of a mystery reader usually, but the buzz about this one was interesting enough to make me think maybe I'd like it. So I picked it up on a whim and what do you know? It's that good and generally lives up to the hype. Win!

The basic storyline is this: Rachel, a miserable alcoholic, continues to take the daily train into London even after losing her job because she doesn't want her roommate to find out how and why she's unemployed. You don't find this out right away; the author has a delicious way of revealing details that click another piece of the plot into place a bit at a time. Anyway, the train takes Rachel past the stop where her ex-husband and his new wife and daughter live--coincidentally in the same home Rachel shared with her ex, Tom. Rachel becomes fixated on a couple a few houses down from where she lived, even giving them names and inventing an entire, perfect life for them. But then the perfect wife, Megan, goes missing and Rachel, either desperate or drunk or a combination of the two, becomes overly involved. A drunken night she does not remember places her at the scene during the time Megan disappeared and an acrimonious relationship with Tom's new wife fuel Rachel's imagination and lead her to interacting with Megan's husband, Scott. But nothing is the way it seems and everyone has something to hide.

If I'm being nitpicky, the biggest problem with The Girl on the Train is that there is literally no one likable in the entire book. Not Rachel, who is a drunk and sorta pathetic all around; not Scott, who is the focus of his wife's disappearance; not Tom, who cheated on Rachel and then married Anna; not Anna, who is self-righteous in her marriage; not even Megan, whose infrequent point-of-view chapters reveal that she has her own problems. I would have liked for at least one person I could whole-heartedly cheer for, but there is no one who is not flawed to the point of being contentious. Still, that does not in any way take away from the mystery and its ultimate resolution. I was turning pages long after my bedtime in order to sort it all out.

I suppose there may be more complex mysteries out there, but this one, even with its unlikable characters, is so well plotted and fueled that I was totally caught up. It's one I have no problem recommending to most everyone, including those who don't normally read mysteries *raises hand*. A very solid 4.75 that I will round to a 5 because I think it's that much of a page turner. Read it for yourself and find out what the buzz is about.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Third Twin...A YA Thriller!

The Third Twin is a well-written thriller that kept me guessing right up through the end, and that doesn't happen all that often in adult fiction, let alone in YA. So pull up a seat and crack open the story that has twins second guessing each other amid a chaotic environment full of secrets.

So what's The Third Twin about? Here's the basics: Identical twins Ava and Lexi were adopted as infants by a man and his wife, but the wife left the family early on. As small children, the girls invented a third twin, Alicia, who took the blame for mishaps, etc.--pretty basic stuff that was fairly innocent. Fast forward to senior year of high school, and we find the girls resurrecting Alicia in a much less pleasant way: They take turns playing her when they want to date boys they normally wouldn't (for lots of reasons), even maintaining social media pages for her and coming up with a list of rules they must follow when they embody her. The problems really begin when Lexi goes out (as Alicia) with Casey, who attempts to rape her in his car. Lexi escapes, and wants to put Alicia away for good, but Ava still sees the third twin as useful. When Casey is found murdered, the girls' lives slowly begin to unwind as Ava refuses to let Alicia go and Lexi is forced to continue the story they've created. Drop in some eerie coincidences, a new guy Lexi is attracted to, an absent father, and mysterious clues that seem to implicate involvement in the murder, and you've got The Third Twin.

Told from Lexi's point of view, we get a skewed vision of the events surrounding the creation of Alicia and the downward-spiraling of what should be charmed lives. There's a side story of Lexi wanting to attend Stanford which sort of fuels things later on but it's really the weirdness of both girls pretending to be a third person that drives the entire plot. There were times when I was frustrated with both girls and even found them unlikeable, but just enough is revealed at a time that I was hooked into trying to guess what was really going on. Without much adult involvement in their lives, the twins think they can handle themselves but it doesn't take long for them to get in over their heads. I thoroughly enjoyed The Third Twin, and even if I feel that a few parts were unrealistic, I definitely can recommend this thriller.


~taminator40

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Read The Martian. Do It Now. I Mean It.

Imagine being one of the first astronauts to step foot on Mars. It's a cold, barren planet, but that's all fine since you and your crewmates will only be staying for about thirty days to conduct experiments. Except that there's a sudden storm and you all have to evacuate in a hurry, and during the frenzy of leaving, it looks like you've been fatally lost, so your crew leaves. Trouble is, you're still alive, you're all alone, and you have no way to communicate any of this. This is astronaut Mark Watney, and he's in deep trouble.

The Martian is gripping and intelligent from the first words (of which truer ones have rarely been written). I was impressed from the earliest pages by the ingenuity and resourcefulness Mark has; he not only figures out how to grow potatoes in order to prolong his food supply, he makes his way to an abandoned probe named Pathfinder in order to find a way to communicate with Earth. Once his predicament is known, NASA spends countless time and energy in developing a plan to rescue him. If it seems as though this would make for fairly boring reading, it doesn't. I was on the edge of my seat with each attempt, each failure, each idea, each page. If it's all very technical (impressive in and of itself), it all makes sense and just plain works. It's all believable.

The best part of The Martian, however, isn't the day-to-day survival story, or the spirit of cooperation inspired back on Earth, but the people themselves. Mark is absolutely one of my favorite characters ever, with his wit and wry comments that make you laugh out loud or plunge you into terror. He's the one you cheer for every second and feel for when there are setbacks. But he's not alone in being compelling by any means. The NASA people, including Venkat Kapoor, Mitch, Teddy, Annie...they are real and engaging and cheer worthy as well. The crew of the Hermes (the ones who accidentally left Mark behind) are funny and smart and determined; I seriously think none of them could have been written any better.

The Martian is one of those books I'm going to be cheerleading for for a very long time to come; it's definitely a cut above most of the reading I've done in the past year or so. If you think it's only for science fiction fans, think again; I absolutely challenge you to not become engrossed within the first fifty pages. Pick up and give it a try...you're going to love it.


~taminator40

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Red Queen (With an awesome cover!)

What a great premise Red Queen has! And even more importantly, what a very good execution for the story. Sometimes great premises get lost but Red Queen delivers. Almost entirely, with only a few minor bumps.

The story: Set in a world where people are divided and called by two different kinds of blood, Mare sees her life going nowhere. Mare's blood is Red, so she's assigned a life of servitude (if she's lucky enough to get a job) or enforced conscription into the nation's war (as her three older brothers have found themselves). The "other half" is made up of Silver blood, giving them not only nobility and/or preferred jobs, but a super power as well. Mare knows her time is up and she's months away from being sent as a soldier since she doesn't have a skill that will earn her a job, which is bad enough; then her friend, Kilorn, loses his job and is just days away from being sent to fight. Desperate, Mare goes to an undercover operative named Farley for help; one thing leads to another but life becomes even worse. When an encounter with a wealthy stranger leads to a job within the Palace, Mare hopes her fortunes are changing...until a fall that should kill her leads to her display of astonishing electrical power. Caught as a Red with a power, the royal family moves quickly to cover it up by giving Mare a new identity as a royal, turning her life upside down and inside out. But underneath it all, she's still Red...and determined to help her fellow Reds. No matter what the cost.

There's so much more going on, including an *almost* love quadrangle between Mare, Kilorn, and the two royal princes. Mare has to both deny everything she's ever known or ever been, and embrace her new life as a member of the Silvers in such a way as to cast no doubt that she belongs among them. There's a secret organization that is working to bring down the Silvers who have basically held the Reds as slaves forever, and Mare makes many, many mistakes along the way. There's a theme that gets repeated throughout: Anyone can betray anyone, and it's true with deadly consequences.

Problems? A few, but not overwhelming. Mare is headstrong yet in over her head; she's an outcast and a leader who is learning to cope with a power that is not only unknown among the Reds but possibly even among the Silvers. I did get annoyed because it's fairly easy to figure out what's going to happen but Mare can't, or won't, see it. There is also more than a few coincidences, something that bugs me in any novel. I did think the parts where Mare is learning how to be Silver dragged at times, but most of the slow parts are setting up bigger action later on. And one more thing...possible spoiler so stop reading now...one character seriously reminded me of King Joffrey of Game of Thrones fame by the time the book was done. In fact, that's the only person I could picture as the last major action took place. Kinda over the top.

Red Queen is really good, with a likable main character and an excellent plot that is revealed to be multi-layered. Of course it ends on a cliffhanger, and it's a big one. I'm eager to find out where we're going and how the evil villains will be brought down. This book kept me so entertained that I stayed up much later than I should have a few nights just to see what happened next. It's really a solid 4.75 on the Amazon rating scale.

On a side note...I adore the cover! Whoever created it deserves major props. Very intriguing and just the right amount of gory beauty.


~taminator40

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Read Between the Lines (AND READ THIS BOOK)

I'm struggling a bit in writing this review. I want it to be glowing, because this book is amazing, but I want it to be realistic because it's not an easy read in any form. I want to reassure those who think an entire book cannot revolve around one rude gesture; not only does it, this book fleshes out what that gesture means and how its intent may vary. I also want to caution those who think this is just a light-hearted look at The Finger because the issues go so, so much deeper than that. But mostly I want to say...this book is brilliant. You need to read it.

The idea of Read Between the Lines is that we're all subject to the one finger salute, but for different reasons and with varying reactions. But Knowles has taken the gesture and woven an entire world around it, highlighting the lives of several high school students, none of whom are defined by giving or getting the finger. In fact, the gesture itself becomes almost an after-thought as we become immersed into the lives and facades of Nathan, Lacy, Dylan, Jack, Grace, Stephen, and Claire (to name a few but not all). What happens inside the head of the kid who gets bullied by everyone, including his father? What does it take to become popular? When do you stop living a lie and come out? How long can you go along with your friends even when you know it's wrong?

Over the course of a couple of days, we see what these high school students go through at the hands of those who supposedly love them and those who even sometimes hate them. Each chapter is from a different point of view, yet they all overlap in at least one way, and it's often unexpected. I got fully engrossed in every story and found myself changing opinions about characters as I saw events through different eyes. I loved them all and I hated a few. The best were the honest ones; some make huge changes and some barely register a blip, but all are affected by life, by people, by events, by a finger.

I just cannot say enough good things about this book. It's original even if the stories themselves may not be. It's just the way it all works together that is utterly riveting and brilliant. I'm also incredibly jealous that I didn't write it! If you read one book this spring, make it Read Between the Lines. If you don't take my recommendation, I just may have to flip you off myself. Read it!


~taminator40

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Seeking Good Young Adult Fiction?

Can we just all take a deep breath and stop comparing every new young adult novel/series to The Hunger Games? Because if I read that endorsement for a novel again, I probably won't pick it up.

Not that Seeker is a bad novel by any means. There's a lot to like in this first book of a new series by Arwen Elys Dayton. Action-packed almost from the beginning, and set in a sort of alternate universe of our world, we learn about three young padawan...oops, I mean students...who are being trained for their destinies as Seekers. Seekers, as we learn in spurts, are supposed to be the ones who right the wrongs and help those most in need through whatever means necessary. What we gather, as the story gains momentum, is that means being trained to be killers and how to use a powerful artifact known as an athame to travel THERE, a sort of time/space loophole that takes a Seeker wherever he/she is trying to go. These three students, around age fourteen or so, immediately face differing futures as one, John, is dismissed as not worthy, and the two remaining, Quin and Shinbonu, take the Oath of a Seeker given by their fathers/uncles. But far from being the Good Thing Quin and Shinbonu believed it to be, they are forced to commit atrocities designed to gain their families power and keep others from recovering stolen athames. It's enough to drive good kids crazy...and does.

There's so much going on, and way too much to recap here, so I'll give you a basic rundown of the story: Quin, the lone girl of the trio, thinks she is in love with John while Shinbonu, her sort-of cousin, looks on wistfully; the scene shifts from London to Hong Kong and back again; there's lots of violence; the parents are, in general, very very bad and/or fairly useless; there's a totally cool airship called The Traveler that circles London and is John's home; three sort of "overseers" of Seekers called the Dreads also have a part in this story (particularly the Young Dread, also known as Maud, who has a point of view). The novel moves among the points of view of the three would-be Seekers and Maud, pushing the story forward as split second decisions are made and long-term choices have devastating consequences.

So, did I like it? Well, yes. I found the story mostly engaging and highly readable. I was especially sympathetic to Maud, a young girl bound by her calling but struggling against the Middle Dread's obvious hatred of her. Dayton does a good job of world building for the most part, and her characters are often conflicted and unnerved in their actions, but steadfast to their ideals (mostly). My biggest problem is, even after 400 pages, I still didn't feel close to Quin or Shinbonu or John, and I certainly never bought into any love triangle (which was really unnecessary, by the way). There's way too many words spent on the fact that Quin and Shinbonu are cousins (or not) and it bugged me that it was set up that way so that it became an issue, especially because it's obvious that Shinbonu is in love with her. John's behavior, while explained, made me the most irritated: Is he a bad guy with good tendencies or a good guy with bad reasoning? Quite honestly, by the end of the book, I was pretty much over him and his justifications.

So the final question remains...will I read the sequels? Probably. I liked the story well enough and Dayton can certainly write action very well. But comparisons to The Hunger Games, whether in storyline, ability to fascinate, or just because it's a young adult novel, need to stop. Good, yes, but totally different and there's definitely no Katniss Everdeen to be seen anywhere.


~taminator40

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Final Book In Series

The final book in Caroline Cooney's Janie Johnson series, Janie Face to Face, wraps up the storyline that began with The Face on the Milk Carton (a book that's now twenty years old!). Set five years in the future after Janie discovers that her parents aren't really her parents, and that she was kidnapped as a toddler, Janie's now going to college and attempting to leave behind all the turmoil that came with the media sensation. After Reeve's betrayal in The Voice on the Radio, Janie's trust issues no longer allow her to see him romantically, but her relationship with her birth family has improved to the point that Janie sees herself as a Spring. Still, she's torn between the Springs and the Johnsons, and still unsure of her place. Is it any wonder that she allows a good looking young man into her life, even though her friends are skeptical of him? There seems to be something off in his attentions, and as the story progresses, more clues to something devious start to come to light. It looks like Janie's life is about to get more complicated.

Meanwhile, we get glimpses into the mind/psyche of Janie's kidnapper, Hannah Javenson, who has been living in Colorado for years, subsisting on menial jobs and blaming her parents, society, and Janie for everything that went wrong with her life. Hannah, now in her late forties/early fifties, has never amounted to anything; she's stolen identities, money, and things in her sad existence. As she ages, she begins to find ways to spy on Janie and her now elderly parents and fixates on the idea that Janie somehow stole the life Hannah should have had (even though we experience the kidnapping from Hannah's point of view early on in this book). She decides the time has come to "fix" things, and in her delusional mind, she plots revenge.

I liked this final installment, finding it entirely believable in lots of ways, even down to the....

SPOILER ALERT....

...impromptu reunion of Janie and Reeve. I could see how Janie would need Reeve as a bit of stability in her life, and I felt that even the rather rushed wedding would come off. I liked the movement between various characters' points of view, even the annoying Kathleen (who ended up adding a good deal to the overall story, despite her neediness). I loved how Janie's siblings accepted her even though they were alternately happy and irritated by her behavior. I also loved that Janie still felt loyalty and love for the Johnsons who raised her, and that there was recognition that they were blameless in such a mess. There are also attempts by Cooney to pull the timeline of the original story forward so that this installment wouldn't find Janie in her mid-thirties (for example, the explanation of no cell phones earlier, the appearance of the phone booth Janie and Reeve used, and the way Janie just ignores social media and has for a long time). If there were a few issues, such as the convenience of having the FBI on speed dial, Reeve's undying devotion, and Hannah's ability to act upon her delusions, I could overlook it because Cooney's writing is very engaging and the pages just flew by. Janie comes across as normal as a girl could be in such an awful situation, and the glimpses of others' thoughts and actions filled out the story. This is a fitting conclusion to a series that could actually have happened. Not perfect, but still good.

~taminator40

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Last One of 2014

The Jewel is the first in a new series by Amy Ewing, and it's a promising beginning. Set in a society where the royalty is a bunch of pampered elitists who cannot bear children of their own, Violet is a surrogate who is expected to give birth for the royal woman who purchases her at an Auction. Violet has no say in her fate; she was chosen after "passing" a blood test at age twelve, taken forcibly from her home and made to live in a holding facility for four years, and at age sixteen, she has been prepped for her role in life. Purchased by the cold Duchess of the Lake, Violet lives in dread of the time when she will be impregnated with the Duchess's baby and forced to carry her child. Even though she lives in luxury during her time with the Duchess, she is at the command and whim of her ladyship, knowing that once her mission is accomplished, she will be sterilized and sent to live in a holding community for the rest of her life, never to marry or see her family again. To say Violet is dissatisfied is an understatement.

Told through Violet's eyes, we see the humiliation she endures, and the desperation she feels at her fate. But more than this, there's a sense of loss--Violet is only sixteen, and her life will be over within the year when she successfully bears a child. Not only is the Duchess cruel, she's almost fanatic, and her reasons for choosing Violet are only for what Violet could bring to a potential child; the Duchess's first child, a nineteen-year-old son named Garnet, has been a tremendous letdown and she will not stand for that happening again. But there's so much more going on: Violet's best friend, also a surrogate, seems to be being grossly mistreated by her mistress, a murder takes place, and there's the presence of a male "companion" for the Duchess's niece, a young man named Ash whom Violet almost immediately falls for. But when a way out of her situation is offered, Violet has to decide if it's worth the risk and if she can give up her new romance.

Violet is immature in her actions at times, but very sincere in her beliefs. She is also loyal and assertive, to the point that she endures cruel punishments from a woman who seems a bit unbalanced in a society that devalues all life except their own. I never really bought into the "romance" between Violet and Ash because it seems pretty superficial and I sense there's something else going on with Ash (who seems to have no problem with Violet risking everything to be with him and expects her to understand his "work"). There's a physical aspect there that normally wouldn't bug me (and does add an additional twist to the story) but it just sort of reinforced my opinion that Violet is immature in her decisions. That same reinforcement exists in her relationship with Lucien, a lady-in-waiting who has chosen to help Violet out of her situation, but really strikes me as more of a bad guy in the long run (and I may end up being mistaken!). But if I keep in mind that yes, Violet has been sheltered and is now in an untenable place with a guy who is showing her attention for herself, I can understand the directions the author is taking and run with it. Less clear to me is the existence of the Augeries, a sort of forced selection ability the surrogates are trained to use which causes them pain and bleeding. We'll see where that plot point takes us.

I really enjoyed this story and the author's writing style pulled me in quickly. In fact, I fell victim to the "one more page" syndrome and ended up staying up much later than I'd planned just to see what was going to happen. When that occurs, I know I've got a winner on my hands. I am already anticipating the next entry in the series!


~taminator40

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Winter Crown

The Winter Crown picks up where The Summer Queen left off--Eleanor of Aquitaine has married Henry of Anjou, soon to be Henry II of England after receiving an annulment of her marriage with Louis of France. Far from being the glittering experience of co-rule Eleanor may have envisioned, she soon finds herself almost continuously pregnant as Henry takes care of his vast domains. Eleanor is never shy and retiring, however, and even with her numerous children, she gives Henry a run for his money in both personality and politics. What could have been a time of her life that would be easily glossed over comes alive in the capable storytelling hands of Elizabeth Chadwick; she brings Eleanor's determination, heartbreak, and haughtiness to life in ways that will have you cheering her on even when she could possibly be wrong.

I was absolutely swept away into Eleanor's world with The Winter Crown. The relationship between Eleanor and Henry is fraught with temper, both good and bad; you can feel the sparks fly whenever they are together, yet I never got the sense that Eleanor particularly liked Henry except for what he could bring her...and vice versa. Still, when his affair with Rosamund de Clifford is revealed, I could feel the humiliation and despair Eleanor tried to hide; even when she treated him horribly, I could still empathize with her. More moving, though, is the emotion Eleanor had to swallow at the early loss of her daughters to marriages for alliances; it's not something that is often discussed, being seen as a trial women and children had to endure during the era. Add in the violent times, including the death of Thomas Beckett, and the degeneration of the relationship between not only Eleanor and Henry, but between Henry and their sons, and you have a story that makes fact read like fiction in the best ways possible.

Whenever I read anything by Elizabeth Chadwick, I'm reminded that there are few historical fiction authors who can transport you into the times quite as thoroughly and as seamlessly as she does. Eleanor being one of my personal heroines, I'm particularly pleased with how she is displayed in The Winter Crown: she's a real person, capable of both subterfuge and assertiveness, but with a human side that translates across the centuries. With the end of The Winter Crown, I'm left hanging and waiting on The Autumn Throne. I feel confident that I will love the close of Eleanor's story as much as I have the first two thirds.

~taminator40