Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Sunday Post #102

The Sunday Post is hosted by The Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to recap the past week, talk about next week, and share news. It’s Monday, What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date. I get to tell you what I’ve read recently.

On The Blog Last Week

On The Blog This Week

  • On Monday I mini review some poetry collections.
  • On Tuesday I show you the best books I’ve read so far this year.
  • On Wednesday I review A Manuel for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin.
  • On Saturday there’s a book haul.

In My Reading Life

Last week, I finished The Girls by Emma Cline and tried to read A Fortune-Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East by Tiziano Terzani. I read more than half of it before I DNFed. The author/narrator got on my nerves. One of my pet peeves is when a person gets the opportunity to do something amazing and then complains nonstop about it. To research this book, the author got to spend a year meandering through Asia, but the book is just him complaining about how modern and touristy Asia is. No thanks. After I DNFed that one, I started Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

In The Rest Of My Life

Five things that made me happy last week:

  1. I’m on a hiking trip right now. Hopefully I’m taking lots of photos to show you.
  2. It was my dog’s birthday. My baby is 9. Honestly, I forgot it was her birthday until the day after, but I don’t feel too bad because she doesn’t know it was her birthday.
  3. Remember the #NeilCake hashtag on Twitter? It raised $111,771 to help refugees. Thank you to everyone who donated.
  4. Speaking of refugees and Twitter, my review of The Optician of Lampedusa has nearly 300 pageviews. That’s an insane number of views for a review on this blog. Most of the traffic came from Twitter. If you’re interested in the refugee crisis, I strongly recommend reading The Optician of Lampedusa. It’s very short, and you’ll learn stuff.
  5. New John Green Book? What?

Take care of yourselves and be kind to each other! See you around the blogosphere!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag

This tag has been around forever. I think I may have even done it before. The good news is that the answers change every year, so here it is again.

Mid-Year Book Freak Out

Best book you’ve read so far in 2017?

I reread the whole Harry Potter series this year, so I’m going to try not to answer “Harry Potter” for every question. The best non-Potter thing I read this year is Most Dangerous. It’s a nonfiction book about government leakers and whistleblowers. Even though it’s about the Vietnam War years, it’s surprisingly relevant. I need to find more books like this.

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2017?

Okay, ignore everything I said in the last question. The only sequels I’ve read this year are Harry Potter. I do plan on reading Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab. I just haven’t done it yet.

New release you haven’t read yet but want to?

This was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2017. Have I read it yet? Of course not.

Most-anticipated release for the second half of 2017?

I think this comes out in September? As soon as I saw the title, I knew I needed it. That’s my kind of title.

Biggest disappointment?

An atmospheric alternate-history dystopia that’s set in a world where sin is visible. That sounds glorious. Too bad there’s no plot.

Biggest surprise?

Honestly, I only read this book because it has won so many big awards. Turns out, it totally deserves those awards.

Favorite new author?

This is tricky because I haven’t loved many books from new-to-me authors this year. I am curious about Ruta Sepetys’s books. I wasn’t blown away by Between Shades of Gray, but I’m interested enough in her work to read more of it.

Newest fictional crush?

I’ve still never gotten a crush on a fictional character.

Newest favorite character?

The sausage in “The Mouse, The Bird, and The Sausage” by the Brothers Grimm. The character is a sausage that likes to cook. The story never says what it cooks, but I imagine that it cooks the bodies of enemy sausages.

Book that made you cry?

A book has still never made me cry. I’m pretty sure I don’t have emotions.

Book that made you happy?

Besides the sausage one, you mean? Guts by Gary Paulsen. I loved the Brian books when I was a kid, so I liked learning the stories behind the series.

Favorite book-to-movie adaptation you saw this year?

This isn’t an adaptation, but I really liked Capote. It’s about Truman Capote, Harper Lee, and the book In Cold Blood.

Favorite review you’ve written this year?

I had a lot of fun writing my review for Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. Most of you already know these stories, so I got to deviate from my usual review formula.

Most beautiful book you bought so far this year?

My copy is banged up because I got it from the scratch-and-dent section of Book Outlet, but it’s still a beautiful book. My only complaint is that the covers are very glittery. I hate glitter. Haven’t book designers heard that glitter is the STD of art supplies? It sticks on everyone and everything, and it doesn’t come off. This book got glitter on my hands, and on my pillows, and on my desk, and on my dog. It was stressful. #FirstWorldProblems

Are you sick of looking at this book yet? I've only shoved it in this post 3 times.

What books do you need to read by the end of the year?

So many! I should probably prioritize The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff and We Are Unprepared by Meg Little Reilly because they’ve been on my To-Be-Read shelf since last year. I just haven’t felt motivated to read them. All the other unread books on my shelf were acquired in the last six months, so I don’t feel too bad about letting them chill on the shelf.

Do you want to do this tag? Consider yourself tagged.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Review: Between Shades Of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades Of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

It's 1941 and fifteen-year-old artist Lina Vilkas is on Stalin's extermination list. Deported to a prison camp in Siberia, Lina fights for her life, fearless, risking everything to save her family. It's a long and harrowing journey and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?


“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother's was worth a pocket watch.” – Between Shades of Gray

I don’t think I’ve ever started a review with a quote before, but that’s some brilliant writing right there. It deserves to be slapped up at the top. The whole book is beautifully written.

Between Shades of Gray tells the story of a Lithuanian teenager, Lina Vilkas, whose life is threatened when the Russian army invades Lithuania in the 1940s. Her family is on Stalin’s “enemies” list. Before they can flee the country, they’re captured and sent to a Siberian prison camp. With no hope of escape, Lina has to make the best of a bad situation.

I was interested in this book because my ancestors were also on Stalin’s list. My family lived in Russia for hundreds of years, but they weren’t ethnically Russian, so Stalin considered them enemies. The ones who didn’t get out of Russia before the 1940s were sent to prison camps. One-third (I think?) of the people in the camps died. So, that’s the story of why I’m American and not Russian. My great-grandparents got out.

Back to the book: I liked it. It’s about prison camps, so it has the potential to be massively depressing, but it’s actually a hopeful story. It focuses on the goodness of people and how strangers can help each other survive horrible situations.

The setting is well-developed. It’s easy to picture the train cars stuffed with prisoners, and the lice-infested shacks at the camps. I’ve never been to Siberia, and I wasn’t alive in the 1940s, but this novel brought everything to life for me.

“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?” – Between Shades of Gray

I love every character in this book. Lina and her love interest, Andrius, are strong and determined to keep their families alive. Unlike in many young adult stories, the parents are actually competent. They do whatever it takes to protect their children. I only have one complaint about the characters. I wish Lina had more agency. I realize she’s a prisoner, and she doesn’t have control over her life, but she doesn’t really do anything. She’s mostly an observer. Her mother and Andrius do more to move the plot than she does, which is weird because she’s the main character. 

There is a romantic subplot, but it’s kept to a minimum. I appreciate that because it would have been easy for the love story to dominate over everything else. The author keeps the focus on the camp and the characters’ survival. I think that was the right move.   

“We'd been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we'd get a little closer.” – Between Shades of Gray

The beginning hooked me right away. I stayed up way too late at night because I didn’t want to put the book down. But, then the plot became a little too slow for my tastes toward the middle/end. Once the characters are settled into their routine at the prison camp, I feel like the story loses some of its urgency. I understand why the plot slows down. For the characters, time passes slowly in the camps, but it’s too slow for me.

Between Shades of Gray is an important book. Many people don’t know about the Siberian prison camps. During history lessons at school, Stalin’s actions often get overshadowed by the other events of WWII. I’m glad this book is so popular because it’s bringing attention to a part of history that is sometimes overlooked. I’m excited to read Ruta Sepetys’s other books.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Series I’m Procrastinating

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is all about the series that I haven’t started yet.

I am terrible with series. I procrastinate starting them and rarely finish them. I’m especially bad with fantasy series. Fantasy is a genre that I’m curious about, but I usually end up hating it. It’s the tropes, people! Fantasy tropes are awful. Anyway, here are ten series that I’ve been putting off starting. Let me know what you think of them.

Series I’m Procrastinating

The Forest of Hands and Teeth – Carrie Ryan

In Mary's world there are simple truths. The Sisterhood always knows best. The Guardians will protect and serve. The Unconsecrated will never relent. And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. But, slowly, Mary’s truths are failing her. She’s learning things she never wanted to know about the Sisterhood and its secrets, and the Guardians and their power, and about the Unconsecrated and their relentlessness. When the fence is breached and her world is thrown into chaos, she must choose between her village and her future—between the one she loves and the one who loves her. And she must face the truth about the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Could there be life outside a world surrounded by so much death?

Shadow and Bone – Leigh Bardugo

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee. 
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling. 
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.

The Crossing – Mandy Hager

The people of Onewere, a small island in the Pacific, know that they are special—chosen to survive the deadly event that consumed the Earth. 
Now, from the rotting cruise ship Star of the Sea, the elite control the population—manipulating old texts to set themselves up as living 'gods.' But what the people of Onewere don't know is this: the leaders will stop at nothing to meet their own blood-thirsty needs. 
When Maryam crosses from child to woman, she must leave everything she has ever known and make a crossing of another kind. But life inside the ship is not as she had dreamed, and she is faced with the unthinkable: obey the leaders and very likely die, or turn her back on every belief she once held dear.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Laini Taylor

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. 
In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war. 
Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands," she speaks many languages—not all of them human—and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out. 
When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

March – John Lewis

March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

An Ember in the Ashes – Sabaa Tahir

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear. 
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do. 
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy. 
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Grave Mercy – Robin LaFevers

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others. 
Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

The Raven Boys – Maggie Stiefvater

Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her. 
His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble. 
But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little. 
For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

Vivian Apple at the End of the World – Katie Coyle

Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple never believed in the evangelical Church of America, unlike her recently devout parents. But when Vivian returns home the night after the supposed "Rapture," all that’s left of her parents are two holes in the roof. Suddenly, she doesn't know who or what to believe. With her best friend Harp and a mysterious ally, Peter, Vivian embarks on a desperate cross-country road trip through a paranoid and panic-stricken America to find answers. Because at the end of the world, Vivian Apple isn't looking for a savior. She's looking for the truth.

Scythe – Neal Shusterman

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control. 
Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which should I read, and which should I avoid?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters

A gifted young black man calling himself Victor has struck a bargain with federal law enforcement, working as a bounty hunter for the US Marshall Service. He's got plenty of work. In this version of America, slavery continues in four states called "the Hard Four." On the trail of a runaway known as Jackdaw, Victor arrives in Indianapolis knowing that something isn't right—with the case file, with his work, and with the country itself. 
A mystery to himself, Victor suppresses his memories of his childhood on a plantation, and works to infiltrate the local cell of an abolitionist movement called the Underground Airlines. Tracking Jackdaw through the back rooms of churches, empty parking garages, hotels, and medical offices, Victor believes he's hot on the trail. But his strange, increasingly uncanny pursuit is complicated by a boss who won't reveal the extraordinary stakes of Jackdaw's case, as well as by a heartbreaking young woman and her child who may be Victor's salvation. Victor himself may be the biggest obstacle of all—though his true self remains buried, it threatens to surface. 
Victor believes himself to be a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he has worked so hard to earn. But in pursuing Jackdaw, Victor discovers secrets at the core of the country's arrangement with the Hard Four, secrets the government will preserve at any cost.

Review: I think I should just give up on reading thrillers. Maybe it’s time to admit that they’re not my thing. I always feel so “Meh” about them. That was unfortunately the case with this one.

Underground Airlines is set in an alternate-present US. In this world, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while he was president-elect. The Civil War never happened, and slavery is still legal in four states. The story follows a former slave who calls himself Victor. He works undercover for the US government and is tasked with hunting down escaped slaves and returning them to the companies that own them. While pursuing a slave called Jackdaw, Victor has to infiltrate Underground Airlines, an abolitionist group. He discovers that the group may have information that could bring down slavery forever. Should Victor risk everything to become a double agent?

The alternate-history US setting is what got my attention. What if the Civil War never happened? That’s kind of a creepy thing to consider. The world-building in this book is well-researched and believable. It shows how different life would be if history had taken a different course. It’s also disturbing because there are people in the real world who’d probably love to live in a place run by white supremacists. As far as dystopian worlds go, this one is fairly realistic.

“Sometimes it's possible, just barely possible, to imagine a version of the world different from the existing one, a world in which there is true justice, heroic honesty, a clear perception possessed by each individual about how to treat all the others. Sometimes I swear I could see it, glittering in the pavement, glowing between the words in a stranger's sentence, a green, impossible vision—the world as it was meant to be, like a mist around the world as it is.” – Underground Airlines

If you like twisty plots, then this is the book for you. The pace is quick, and I was never able to predict what would happen next. The narrator is one of those kickass characters who’s always able to outthink the bad guys and get himself out of any situation. He rarely loses his cool while under pressure.

Even though the book is fast-paced, I had a hard time staying interested in the story. I think it’s because the characters didn’t feel real to me. The reader doesn’t get to know much about Victor. “Victor” isn’t even his real name. While he’s working undercover, he plays a variety of characters. We get to read a few flashbacks to his childhood, and we know that he genuinely feels guilty about his role in capturing slaves, but we never get to see the real Victor. Victor is nobody. Or everybody. Or whoever he needs to be to get his job done.

“I bore silent witness, thinking, there is no army of abolition. This is what the world has for heroes. Ordinary men, squabbling and prideful. Hassling each other, doing their best, busting the world free. And men like me, behind fake papers and clear-glass spectacles, keeping it chained.” – Underground Airlines

Thematically, Victor’s lack of identity makes sense. Victor has always been owned by other people. He’s had many different roles forced upon him. He’s never been allowed to develop his own identity. I understand all that, but since he’s nobody, I couldn’t get to know him. I wasn’t attached to him or invested in his journey. That made it hard for me to stay interested in the story. 

This is a classic case of “It’s not you; it’s me.” I prefer books with a lot of character development. I think thrillers just aren’t the right genre for me because they’re usually plot-focused. If you like thrillers, then you’ll probably enjoy Underground Airlines a lot more than I did.

“Freedom is a matter of logistics.” – Underground Airlines