Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Review: The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Title: The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy #3)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Violence

In the first book of Jennifer Nielsen's The Ascendance Triology, Jaron rose from orphan boy to king of Carthya. In the second book, he fell in love. In The Shadow Throne, the final installment of the trilogy, both his kingdom and his love are under attack. Jaron, who always has tricks up his sleeve, works to foil his rivals and deals with some unexpected hurdles along the way as this series drives to a satisfying conclusion.

I find myself looking at The Shadow Throne from two perspectives. I'm the mom of ten- and fourteen-year-old boys, both of whom are reluctant readers of fiction. If they're going to keep reading a book, there needs to be lots of action and fighting. They're not really interested in the development Jaron's character over the three stories, and they're only marginally interested in love. If Nielsen is writing to that audience (and I think she is), then she nails it-- this book is nonstop fighting and action, with epic battles. But, I'm more interested in how a character changes over time, and with so much happening in every page of this novel, there's not a lot of room for character development. So is the book written for preteens or for their mother? If for them, it's definitely a winner. If it's for me, the reaction is a bit more mixed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: To The Mountain: One Mormon Woman's Search for Spirit by Phyllis Barber

Title: To the Mountain: One Mormon Woman's Search for Spirit
Author: Phyllis Barber
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy

After Phyllis Barber and her husband raised their sons as traditional Mormon parents living in Salt Lake City, the pair divorced, and Barber divorced herself from the LDS Church too. To the Mountain is a series of beautiful essays, delving into the child-rearing years, the years away from the church, and the experiences that led her back to the Mormon faith.

This collection of essays is all the good things-- honest, literary, real. It may be uncomfortable for some rank-and-file Mormons in some places, but I loved seeing the variety of experiences that enriched Barber's spirit, and appreciated that those things could be seen in a holistic way that enlightened her life as a Mormon, too. I see this book not just as a collection of essays, but as a journeying piece, in which Barber seems to come to a sense of peace.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Hemingway on a Bike by Eric Freeze

Title: Hemingway on a Bike
Author: Eric Freeze
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy

We all know that Ernest Hemingway aspired to be the most masculine man of the twentieth century. When I think of Hemingway, I think of those Dos Equis commercials about the most interesting man in the world. Hemingway threw himself headlong into bullfighting, deep sea fishing, large game hunting, drinking, womanizing, and generally being larger than life. Think of him as  an AJ Jacobs who oozes machismo. Essayist Eric Freeze seems takes inspiration from a vision he has of Ernest Hemingway riding a road bike through Paris, but his essays meander through themes of spirituality, masculinity, francophilia, parenting, home repair, and popular culture.

This is a fantastic collection of essays-- one that seems to work as a cohesive whole (I read the book in one sitting) since it feels vaguely chronological (even if it's not), but I would imagine that a more leisurely reading would be even more fruitful. The collection as a whole is sweet, quick-paced, and a little daring. I think Hemingway would approve.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: Way Below the Angels by Craig Harline

Title: Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary
Author: Craig Harline
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Although Harline claims to be way below the angels, this was a clean read

Craig Harline writes about his mission to Belgium in the 1970s. This is a book about a regular boy, with the normal kinds of delusions of grandeur and fits of self-doubt, who goes on a regular mission, where things are boring and hard and he doesn't baptize a lot of people, but he still has a pretty good experience. What I appreciate about Way Below the Angels is the fact that Harline is so normal-- most other missionary narratives I've read have the characters/protagonists converting zillions, or else they end up falling in love with someone or escaping from the mob (or all three). This is a guy whose mission experience was mixed and probably pretty similar to most missionaries' experiences, and I appreciate the honesty with which he tells his story. Also, it's funny, which is always a plus.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks

Title: Hippie Boy: A Girl's Story
Author: Ingrid Ricks
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Paper copy
Content Alert: physical and mental child abuse, neglect, implied adultery

In her memoir Hippie Boy, Ingrid Ricks writes about the years of her life when her mother's religious zealotry, her stepfather's abusiveness, and her traveling salesman father's ability to shirk responsibility all weighed heavily on her. Ricks could turn the story into a heavy-handed "woe is me" kind of tale, but she doesn't do that. Instead, Ricks works to see the perspectives of both of her parents (not excusing them, but also not condemning them). The book deals a lot with power-- religious power, abuse of power, abdication of power, absence of power, and how they play out in the lives of the Ricks family. She tells an engaging, empowering, and ultimately hopeful tale.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Field Notes on Language and Kinship by Tyler Chadwick

Title: Field Notes on Language and Kinship
Author: Tyler Chadwick
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Paper copy

I've been writing reviews for days now, and I've saved my review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship until the end, primarily because I'm not sure how to classify it. In the book, Chadwick responds to, or is inspired by, many of the poems in Fire in the Pasture, the poetry anthology he edited. This is a really creative book, with essays, poems, literary criticism, and thoughts on life thrown in the mix. And by "thrown in," I think I mean, "carefully considered." This book is such a delightful mix of things, and it shows how one work of art can work to inspire readers to create others.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Title: The Good Girl
Author: Mary Kubica
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: sex, language, violence

The fact that Mia Dennett, daughter of the prominent Chicago judge, is missing is national news, but on the home front, the only people who seem to care are her mother and Gabe, the detective assigned to the case. We know that Mia isn't dead-- she's been kidnapped by Colin, who was supposed to snatch her and turn her over to the bad guys who hired him. Mia and Colin end up spending the fall and winter hiding out in a summer cabin in Northern Minnesota, while Gabe tries to track them down.

The Good Girl has some qualities in its favor-- the narrative alternates between before Mia is found and after she returns, which requires the reader to put in some effort to construct the story in a linear fashion. But (like Gone Girl, to which the story is compared), the story relies on a twist. I figured out what that twist would be the first time Mia alludes to it during her capture, and that made the ending a whole lot less satisfying. That, and Stockholm Syndrome. It's an entertaining read, and I enjoyed listening to it, but I wish I'd been kept guessing a little longer.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Book Review: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Title: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
Author: Julie Berry
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Murder most foul

The seven students at Saint Etheldreda's School for Girls are enjoying their Sunday dinner when suddenly their headmistress and her brother drop dead at the dinner table. The girls see this fortuitous event as their ticket to freedom, and decide to bury the bodies in the vegetable garden rather than inform the authorities, who will surely return them to their parents. However, keeping their headmistress's demise a secret and fending off a murderer becomes more work than they had bargained for.

While the book takes place in the Victorian Era, these girls (Pocked Louisa, Stout Alice, Dull Martha, Smooth Kitty, Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane and Dour Elinor) have spirit to spare. They recognize that the death of Mrs. Plackett might lead to the most freedom they would have in their lives. This is a darkly tongue-in-cheek book that gets all of the details right, and also has a lot more heart than I expected it would when I started reading. I enjoyed it more and more as the story wore on, and was happy to see a satisfying conclusion, with lots of girl power.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Good Manners For Nice People who Sometimes Say F*ck by Amy Alkon

Title: Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck
Author: Amy Alkon
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: language (obviously)

Amy Alkon isn't Emily Post. She doesn't pretend to be Emily Post. She doesn't want to be Emily Post. What she does want to do is to help people coexist peacefully in a modern world. She gives great advice about when people should use cell phones (never at a time when it inconveniences others). In fact, her book seems to have two major theses-- don't inconvenience others, and when in doubt, be nice. Simple, right?

But there are times when these two theses come into conflict. Let's say, for instance, like when you have children. For all her aspersions to modernness, Alkon is definitely of the school of "children should be seen and not heard." Therefore, children do not belong in restaurants if they can't keep their mouths shut. They do not belong at New York Fashion Week. They do not belong on airplanes, unless, Alkon says, someone in their family is either dead or dying, or they need a lifesaving medical procedure. And if the children in your charge do raise a ruckus in an inappropriate place (say, at 25,000 feet), it's probably because you are a bad parent. Alkon is very sweet about her neighbor's children, and the efforts her neighbor puts into flying with her children ("she makes these delightful backpacks that she fills with stuff for them to do on the plane" how novel!), but I think she finds it easier to be nice to people she knows than she does to be nice to that mom in the plane whose kids are polluting up her quiet with their noise. She also has this whole thing about writing shaming letters or putting up shaming signs about people who she thinks are not using nice manners, which also seems to go against the second thesis. All in all, an entertaining and helpful, but also a maddening read.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Title: The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: swearing, sex, vivid descriptions of domestic violence

The Girl on the Train is the it book of the moment. I've heard it called "The Next Gone Girl" several times. My husband called me from the bookstore on Valentine's Day to see if I had read it, apparently because there was a huge stack of books on display, and not because of what the book says about the enduring power of married love. But I'd finished the book earlier in the week, and he was back to the drawing board, trying to find me something I hadn't already read.

Over the last few years, Rachel has been in a slow descent. First, she couldn't get pregnant. Then she started drinking a little more than she should. Then she learned that her husband was cheating on her. Then she moved out to a rented room even further from London and the pregnant girlfriend moved into her house, which Rachel had to pass on the train to work every day. When she got fired for drinking too much, she continued to go into the city each day, and peering into her old home and the home four doors down, where "Jess and Jason," the perfect couple she liked to watch from the train window, lived. Then Jess disappeared, and Rachel's life gained a purpose-- find Jess.

The Girl on the Train is a thriller, and Hawkins does a lovely job unfolding some of the surprises of the story in the early parts. The middle part of the story felt a little boring-- I think it would have been a better story if it were 50-75 pages shorter. The narration of the audiobook is fantastic, with three women taking the roles of Rachel, the new wife Anna, and "Jess." I figured out the whodunit part of the story about halfway through, and sometimes I wanted to fast-forward to the inevitably gruesome conclusion. It's a good story, but one that does not benefit from the comparison to Gone Girl, because it raises the expectations too high.