These Dark Wings (John Owen Theobald)

Just to keep things on the up and up, I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for a review. Promise, this didn’t change my opinion of the book…

… Which is that it was fantastic. John Owen Theobald killed it with this one.

When I submitted a request to read this book, it wasn’t because I knew anything about the author. No, I thought the cover looked cool. I did actually read the synopsis, which really only solidified my decision. I read kids books, but I have a tendency these days to really stick to rereading those that I liked when I was younger, I don’t (typically) get so eager about a book aimed for a significantly younger crowd. But, this looked like a seriously cool book.

This wasn't the cover that hooked me originally, this is the paperback version, but it's cook, nonetheless.
Here is the paperback cover. Looks good, right?

Anna is 12 years old when her mother is killed in the Blitz. With her father dead years before, she is sent to live with an uncle she barely knows. Her uncle is a Yeoman Warder in the Tower of London and is the Ravenmaster. At first, Anna despises the ravens and life within the Tower walls. The legend is, if the ravens leave the Tower, then England will fall. As the Blitz rages on and things begin to happen to the ravens, Anna gains new perspective on not only them, but her own life and tries to find answers for what exactly is going on.

I’ll admit, I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about Britain during the Blitz. Most of my mental picture comes from two (really amazing) episodes of Doctor Who. Given that I have a degree is art history, the rest of my WWII knowledge has more to do with the looted art work. And of course the rest is filled out with several books I read growing up about the Holocaust (Night, The Big Lie, The Diary of Anne Frank). This was a welcome addition to help me fill in the gaps in my picture of the war.

I certainly felt like this book captured some of the tension of what it was like living in London at the time: the fear and the fatigue, some people turning to looting and threats, while others retained kindness for those in need. Most of the book takes place within the Tower of London, but there are several glimpses of what was happening outside of those walls, as well. It was easy to picture life in London at that time.

This book was definitely directed to a younger audience, but never felt like it was talking down to any children reading. It was mature without being pretentious or condescending. This is a hard topic and I didn’t feel like he shied away. It wasn’t needless graphic, but he didn’t sugarcoat, either. It just as readable for adults, it didn’t feel like a book only for children.

And surprise for me! It’s only the first in a series! I did not realize this going in and there is a pretty huge cliffhanger at the end of the book. I will certainly eagerly await the next installments in this series.

Part of what drew me to the book what that a great deal of the book centered on the Tower’s Ravenmaster. You can actually follow the current Ravenmaster on Facebook. For the more brave at heart, Chris Skaife (the aforementioned current Ravemaster) has a blog with Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris called Grave Matters. This may of course lead you to Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris’s blog The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, which is an amazing blog of medical history and I read the entire thing in a day when I first discovered it a few years ago. And is also wildly off topic. At any rate, that should be quite enough to send some of you down the rabbit hole for a few hours.

But definitely check out These Dark Wings.  I think it holds plenty of appeal for adults, but if that isn’t your thing, recommend it to your children, or grandchildren, or random children you see out and about. Happy reading!

True Crime Addict (James Renner)

I made a little bit of a mistake when I was reading this book. I plowed through the last half or so of the book in one evening. But, that wasn’t the mistake. The problem was, I read it right before bed. While home alone. And there were parts that were a little freaky.

True Crime Addict is primarily about the disappearance of Maura Murray. Intertwined with Maura’s story is that of the author, James Renner, and the effects that his own personal true crime addiction has had on his life.

Here's something that looks mysterious, because I couldn't find any better pictures.
Here’s something that looks mysterious, because I couldn’t find any better pictures. Or get permission to use the cover image in time for this post. There’s probably a lesson here in procrastination. Moving on…

I first heard about Maura Murray’s disappearance pretty recently, actually, on a comedy website, of all places (Cracked.com, which you should also read, it’s fantastic). She was listed in an article called 5 Weirdest Disappearances No One Can Explain. I absolutely love a good mystery, in real life or fiction, and this one was certainly compelling. The All-American girl abruptly leaves school. She gets into an accident on the way to locations unknown and vanishes before the police can arrive, only minutes after she was last seen by witnesses.

I’ve seen a fair amount of criticisms that this book was basically exactly the same as James Renner’s blog. However, never having even heard of James Renner before I found this book, I can safely say that that fact does not bother me in the slightest. For me, the book almost read like a novel. It was impossible to put down. On one hand, this sometimes made it almost too easy to forget that this was something that happened to real people. The family of Maura Murray did not want this book written, most of them declined to even speak with the author. On the other hand, it made it ridiculously hard to not get sucked in.

James Renner was also sucked in, so much so that it had an adverse affect on his life. This wasn’t a first for him either: after getting deeply involved in the murder investigation of Amy Mihaljevic (whom he also wrote a book about), Renner suffered PTSD.

My own criticisms are fairly small, but, I do wish he had gone into more detail on certain things. When he spoke to one of the Murray daughters’ former husband, he says that he asked him a sensitive question about the girls’ father. Now, obviously, you can read a certain amount into this, but I would rather know what exactly it was that he asked. I kept waiting for the answer to that, and he never revealed it. Considering that there was a fair bit of speculation going on about what exactly had happened to Maura, I don’t feel like revealing the contents of that particular question would have been out of line. Ok, maybe it would have been somewhat invasive. Maybe, I’m a little nosy. I can live with that.

Ultimately, nothing is really definitely concluded. Not all mysteries are going to have answers that wrap up with a neat bow. However, James Renner does make some decently compelling arguments for his theory of what happened to Maura and where she might be.

All in all, I recommend this for any fans of true crime, or even crime fiction. It’s a quick read and very hard to put down. That being said, I can’t really suggest reading it before bed. It definitely shines a light into some of the darkest corners of mankind.

The View from the Cheap Seats (Neil Gaiman)

I’ll be honest here: I’m not really sure why I decided to pick up this book in the first place.

I can’t in all reality admit to being a huge Neil Gaiman fan. Sure, I’d read The Cemetery Book several years ago and had enjoyed it, but had never read further. He’s one of those authors I’ve for some reason always felt like I should read, however for one reason or another never really had. He comes up on my radar frequently. Turns out it’s because Neil Gaiman is, in fact, awesome. But that isn’t something I really understood before I read this book.

Books of speeches and/or essays aren’t really my thing either. Once in a great while, okay, they’re alright, but I don’t go actively seeking them out.

But, for whatever reason I had at the time, I picked this up, and am terribly glad I did.

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Seen here: awesomeness (I promise, it’s totally a word).

It begins with essays and speeches about my favorite things (books, duh) and ends on a few very poignant notes. In-between is full of books, comics, music and other miscellany.

Typically, I’m the type of person who will sit and read until I can’t prop my eyes up any further. For me, the format of this book was actually a rather nice change. While each section had a connection, it wasn’t a straight narrative, so I felt more comfortable forcing myself to find a stopping place. Most of the essays are only a few pages, so once I finished one, it was easier to make myself stop and again easier to pick it back up after I had.

More truth: I didn’t know what was going on 100% of the time. I don’t read much sci-fi and never really got into comic books. However, I can safely say I’ve walked away from this with a list of things to delve into further. Not only the works (books, comics, even movies) of Neil Gaiman himself, but of the many others whose talents he acclaims in this book. This was definitely a doorway for me to broaden my horizons considerably.

More than once, I found myself thinking, ‘Wow, I’m not the only person who thinks this!’ Of course, I’m not the only one with thoughts on many things, but its always nice to see someone saying what you are thinking, albeit far more eloquently than I ever could. His thoughts on books were, of course, spectacular. The sections on Doctor Who and Edgar Allan Poe in particular had me nodding along with my reading.

The last two essays of the books are beautiful, honest, and touching. A perfect way to end.

If you are already a Gaiman fan, I cannot recommend this enough. No doubt you will take away much more from it than I possibly could with my limited knowledge. If you are not already a fan, I still recommend it. I have no doubt that you, like me, will find something in this book with which you have a connection, and possibly an author you cannot wait to read more from. I really do feel that in these musings there is something for everyone, and I have no doubt that, like me, he will lead you down other roads to explore.

My Top 5 Summer Reads (And Cocktail Suggestions)

So now that summer is officially upon us, some of you may be wondering, “Sara, what books do you recommend for summer reading? And what libations should I enjoy while reading these books?”

Or maybe not.

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At any rate, I can certainly make a few suggestions, whether you really wanted to know the answer to that question or not.

 

 

1.The Historian (Elizabeth Kostova)

Engrossing, complex and more than a little dark, this book makes for an absorbing read, one that certainly might make you long for a little sunshine to chase away the shadows. It has plenty of two of my favorites: history and vampires. Everyone likes vampires.

Drink suggestion: Red wine. Obviously.

rotwein flasche mit glas / red wine bottle and glass

2.  The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (Lauren Willig)

A fun combination of chick-lit and historical romance, this is the first book in a great series if you are looking for something that might be described as a “romp”. Flowery named spies in Napoleonic France? Yes, please. The Pink Carnation is just the first book in a series that is just absolute fun. Although, I have discovered since finishing this series that that description is apt for all of Lauren Willig’s books. You can’t lose.

Drink suggestion: Lemonade. Just kidding. Try a Lavender Lemon Drop. A much more fun version of the lemonade Amy insists on (sort of) with a flowery twist to tie into the books.

3. The Diviners (Libba Bray)

Set in 1920s New York with a paranormal angle, this was one of those books I just couldn’t put down. This book felt like what I wanted the 1920s to be like. Add in a cast of fascinating paranormal characters and it was just about perfect.

Drink suggestion: A Sapphire 75. This drink has gin (which just feels right for a book set during Prohibition) and Prosecco, for a little sparkle I feel is perfect for Evie’s bubbly personality.

4. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)

If its drama you’re looking for, forget crappy reality TV and grab this oldie-but-goodie. It tells the story of the Cleary family, in particular their daughter Meggie, over the course of years. Mostly set on a sheep station in Australia it has all the drama you could ask for: mean spirited plots, forbidden love, dramatic deaths! There is even a great 80s miniseries if you need more.

Drink suggestion: A Wildfire martini. Not only is this a drink with a fair amount of its own drama, but there is wildfire in the books. It had tragic results, so perhaps a nice martini might help.

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5. Beautiful Creatures (Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl)

I know what you’re thinking: another YA series? Yes. Another. I may be in my thirties now, but many of the best books being written these days are for young adults and I’m still happy to pretend that I am one. Anyway, this whole series was one I really enjoyed reading. It was dark, Southern and full of magic. There is also a spin off series, Dangerous Creatures, if you enjoy this one. However, I can’t really recommend the movie. It was pretty awful. Although, it does have Alden Ehrenreich (a.k.a. the new Han Solo), who is pretty dreamy.

Drink suggestion: The Charleston Bog. Summery and Southern, a perfect drink to help lighten up the darker moments in the book.

This list is really just scratching the surface. What are your favorite summer books (or drinks, for that matter)? Let me know in the comments!

The Raven Cycle (Maggie Steifvater)

I’m a little ashamed to say that the first book in this series was recommended to me via Goodreads over a year and a half ago by a high school friend who is now a librarian. Normally, I try to pay more attention when people who I know appreciate books tell me to read something. I slacked off in this regard.  I recall being intrigued (the email sat in my account forever), but at some point I forgot about it.

Enter: this blog. While wracking my brain for books to add to my TBR pile, The Raven Boys, the first book in the series came back across my radar. Lucky for me, my local library’s app had the ebook, so I put a hold on it and waited. About a week later, it was all mine for 21 days. I finished it in two. It would have been less, but, sigh, the need to actually go to work and sleep got in my way.

The next day I got online and ordered not only The Raven Boys for my very own, but also the rest of the series (The Dream Thieves, Blue Lily, Lily Blue and The Raven King).

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Pictured: poorly photographed book porn

Wow.

Guys. Guys. If you have not already, you must read these books. I was floored.

Sometimes there are books that just are so enjoyable and so satisfying that it makes it difficult to function in the real world. I can give a book no higher compliment. These books fall solidly into that category.

I didn’t plan on reviewing them as a whole unit, but given that I consumed them so quickly, it just seemed right that I look at them all together.

To briefly give you an idea of the plot, Blue lives in a house full of psychics and is a girl destined to have her true love die after a kiss. Gansey, Ronan, Adam and Noah are all Raven Boys, students of the affluent private school Aglionby. Aglionby boys are trouble and Blue wants nothing to do with any of them. Reluctantly, she is drawn into their orbit and ultimately for their search for the mythical Welsh king, Glendower. All of them are much more than they seem, including Blue herself.

These books are at once lush, dark, dreamy and real. They were magical while at the same time they seemed made the impossible seem more than possible, made it seem almost normal. It was a really glorious experience. I finished The Raven King less than 30 minutes ago as I write this and I already cannot wait to read them again.

And the descriptions!! Holy moly. Unbelievable! I found myself rereading sentences more than once because I was just so amazed at their construction, at the word she used to describe objects, people, situations. She describes things in such a way that, even though they wouldn’t be the words anyone else might pick, they are exactly right. I could never have thought of it, but it was wonderfully perfect. That really helped to add to the dreamlike atmosphere.

I also loved that the romance didn’t have a complete chokehold on the whole series. As you may know, I really love my YA books, but with so many of them, the love story between the protagonists is almost cloying. With these books, that romantic connection is there, it is in fact rather key to the story, but it doesn’t overwhelm the entire plot. It compliments it, which makes it much more convincing.

The Raven Cycle truly makes an outstanding summer read. So, go read them. Read them now! What are you waiting for?

Bay of Sighs (Nora Roberts)

Allow me a moment to go all fangirl here for a moment: I. Love. Nora. Roberts.

I picked up my first Nora Robert’s books in college, and I was somewhat skeptical at the time. I ordered her Circle Trilogy with a gift card right after Christmas for next to nothing. I loved cheesy romance novels, but Nora Roberts? It was quantity, not quality, right? I was not convinced, but was willing to give her a try.

I fell in love pretty quickly. In particular I’m weak for her paranormal books. Is there a bit of a formula to them? Yeah, probably. However, there is something completely relaxing about her books for me. They are light, fun books where I can count on a happy ending.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

To that end, Bay of Sighs did not disappoint. This is the second entry in The Guardians series. Sorry to start this with the second book, but I didn’t have a blog when I read the first book.  It was good.

To summarize, six people are charged with finding three stars created by three goddesses to celebrate the rise of their queen. The first book follows the romance of Sasha and Bran, a seer and sorcerer, respectively, and the hunt for the fire star, along with Riley, Doyle, Annika and Sawyer. Long story short, they fall in love and find the star and kick the ass of the villain, Nerezza, an evil goddess trying to capture the stars, setting her back in her quest to obtain the stars for herself.  All of this is set against the back drop of Corfu, Greece.

That brings us to Bay of Sighs. This book follows the mermaid Annika and Sawyer, a traveler, who can move through time and space with the help of a magical compass, as they seek the water star.  Here, they have moved the party to Capri, providing another gorgeous location for my imagination to play with.

Sort of like what I pictured...
Sort of like what I pictured…

Annika is not my favorite character in the series. Prior to this, she just came off as naïve and simple, but there is something likeable about her unfailing optimism. She is naïve, but as a character who spent her life living in the ocean, I suppose I can forgive that.  And Sawyer is like most other male Nora characters: handsome and a good man. He also cooks, what’s not to like?

This one surprised me a little. There are often scenes in Nora’s books that could be considered dark. I’m not squeamish, really, but there was a torture scene that was a little darker than normal, but it more or less fit.

I’ve read other criticisms of this series that say it’s boring, or just follows a predictable formula. I didn’t think it was boring. There was a decent amount of action to balance the romantic elements, as well as the “planning” scenes.  As far as the formula goes, I have to admit, it doesn’t bother me. I go into any Nora Roberts’ book with certain expectations, and this fulfilled them for me. They are brain candy, comfort books for me. It’s a chance for me to shut down the parts of me that are stressing and escape.

The only negative for me, is that I can breeze through one of these books in no time. Less than two days, and I had killed this book. This now leaves months of waiting until the final book in the series, Island of Glass comes out in December. I just have to keep in mind that slightly over five months is really not that long to wait for a new book in a series.  Until then, I’ll be patient… and possibly reread the In the Garden series again (spoiler: It’s wonderful).

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Katarina Bivald)

It is seriously difficult not to enjoy a book where not only does the main protagonist share your name, but also a great number of your personality traits, but I really found this one enjoyable for other reasons/

I started this book based on a recommendation from my mother. As much as it still pains me to admit it, even now that I’m in my 30s, I usually like most of the books she suggests. Nancy and Plum, Harry Potter… let’s just say this isn’t a first.

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Sourcebooks

The story picks up with Sara Lindqvist arriving from Sweden in Iowa for a visit with her pen pal, fellow book lover Amy Harris. Her timing, as it turns out, is not great: she arrives in time for the end of Amy’s funeral. The rest of the story follows Sara and the people of Broken Wheel, Iowa as they navigate this aftermath.

I don’t want to give too much away, because I think you should just read the book. It’s worth it and was a relatively quick read. The story itself reminds me a great deal of Billie Letts (Where the Heart Is, The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, Made in America), with the sort of fish out of water scenario in a small middle American town with a cast of unusual characters and the idea of friends that become a family you build for yourself. I absolutely love Billie Letts, so I couldn’t help but find this books appealing as well. Broken Wheel didn’t have quite the same drama to it, but the similarity is there.

The only place where I think she let me down a little was that there were plenty of opportunities to flesh out the characters more. There are hints to their back stories I wish could have been explored more in depth. I know, I know. We are meant to fill in some of the details in our imagination. But all the same, there were quite a few characters and there were plenty of tantalizing allusions to their pasts, particularly in the letters from Amy to Sara. I really think that the author could have explored some of those stories a little more.

I couldn’t help but like seeing so much of myself in Sara. Name aside, she is a somewhat shy woman who takes great comfort in the mere presence of books. She feels that there is a book out there for everyone, if they don’t read it’s simply because they have not yet found the right one. That is an idea I can wholeheartedly agree with. For what little good it does me, I try to encourage reading to everyone I know. My life would certainly be far poorer without it.

At any rate, this was Katarina Bivald’s first book, so I will definitely be looking forward to others as this one was very enjoyable. Although, so far her newer books appear to only be in Swedish, a language I obviously lack proficiency in, so for now, I will eagerly await.  All in all, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was a cozy sort of book that would go excellently with a warm beverage and comfy reading nook.

Throwback Thursday: Rimwalkers (Vicki Grove)

Welcome to Throwback Thursday!  This is a new thing I’m trying out where I’ll take another quick look at books I loved as a kid.  Of course, I realize that at this point anything I do here is new.  We’ll call it a tryout.

Anyway, today I’ll be taking another look back at Rimwalkers.

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Tory and her younger sister Sara are off to their grandparents farm for the summer, along with their cousin Elijah.  Shy Tory is looking forward to a summer with her projects and time with her cousin, while outgoing Sara is distraught at a summer away from her adoring friends.  Upon arrival, they are both surprised to find their rebellious cousin Oren, also joining them for the summer.

Tory, Elijah and Oren develop a close bond, while surprisingly Sara drifts away.  For them the summer will hold adventure, a ghostly mystery and ultimately, a terrible tragedy.

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To me this book has always just felt like a drowsy, golden, childhood summer to me.  It reminds me of visits from out of town cousins at my grandparents as a kid.  We never had real ghosts, be we sure wished to see them in the old, empty mill across this street.

I absolutely love it.  For me, this book has held up surprisingly well.  I can still pick it up on a hot summer day for a quick read and enjoy it just as much as ever.  I definitely suggest this for kids looking for something to read as well as any adults looking to recapture some childhood nostalgia.

 

Modern Romance: An Investigation (Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg)

Let me preface this by saying that I have some guilt about this review. Firstly, because I hate making my first review a not entirely positive one. Secondly, because I think Aziz Ansari is brilliant, and incredibly funny. But I truly struggled with this book. Give me a few days and I can finish about any book. It took me more than a month and a library renewal to force myself though Modern Romance.

And I feel unbelievably terrible about it. Particularly when everyone else I know that read it thought it was great. I normally don’t really care about going against the crowd, but sometimes when it comes to books, I have more difficult time of it. I want to like books. All of them. I really, really, really wanted to love this one. I just couldn’t do it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this issue lately. Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers. Yes, Please. Bossypants. All written by comedians I typically can’t get enough of, all absolutely painful for me to get through. Nothing against Nick Offerman, Amy Poheler, and Tina Fey. They seriously rock my face off 99.9% of the time.

Modern Romance is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: an in depth look at dating and love in modern society. I’ll be honest: I was in this for the comedy. I care about the dating world insofar as I have participated in it now and again. That’s where my interest ends. I’m certainly not interested in analyzing it to death.

There was plenty going on in the book that would seemingly apply to my life. I met my boyfriend online, which is a huge part of the book. I’ve had issues in the past with social media/cellphones being involved in infidelity. Despite that, I had trouble getting through more than a few pages without losing the battle with sleep. So, on the plus side, it did help somewhat with my insomnia.

I just don’t have a great deal of interest in sociology. It was boring beyond belief in college and it was boring for me now. To me, this just proves that even with the most interesting voice, I’m never going to be a fan of the topic.

I won’t say there wasn’t any humor here. There were a few chuckles. There were also a few parts that hit close to life for me. It was certainly not the worst book I’ve ever read. It just wasn’t for me. Overall, I just can’t recommend this book. But, if sociology is your thang… well you might love it.