Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Book Review: The Orphan's Song by Lauren Kate @laurenkatebooks

The Orphan's Song by Lauren Kate. Book cover and review
The Orphan's Song is a beautiful story of a strange and interesting time and place in history.

Venice, 1736. Violetta is an orphan who lives at the Hospital of the Incurables. Not only does it house syphilitic people, but it is an orphanage that trains singers for the coro, a famous group that sings at the church. Mino is an orphan who lives on the boys' side. Girls and boys never see each other. Boys are kept until a suitable apprenticeship can be found.

Weird things:

1.  During this period of time in Venice, people almost always wore masks in public. Which, of course, is sometimes very convenient. Or dangerous. Or inconvenient.

2. If Violetta is chosen for the coro, she will sign an oath to never sing anywhere else in Venice--ever. Coro singers, after their time in the group, will either be married or sent to a nunnery.

3. People leave orphaned children on a wheel, so no harm comes to them. They put the child on the wheel, and turn it so they are inside until someone in the hospital finds them.

Violetta and Mino both take solace on the roof of the hospital, and eventually meet and begin a relationship. Mino plays a violin that he has repaired himself. Violetta sings. What Mino doesn't know is that Violetta witnessed, from this rooftop, Mino's mother dropping him off on the wheel. The song she sings to Mino is the song his mother sang when she left him. Mino has half a token with a picture on it. His mother has the other half. Mino vows to find his mother once he leaves the hospital.

Mino does get an apprenticeship building gondolas that float on the canals of Venice. He builds a life and a solid future for him and Violetta. On one of the few outings that the females are allowed, he steals Violetta and asks her to marry him. To his shock, she says "no."

This begins Mino's demise into poverty. He becomes a beggar, living day to day. Violetta becomes the premier singer in the coro. But she isn't happy either and begins to sneak out at night. She finds a gambling house and meets the owner who convinces her to sing once a week. She becomes famous. (Remember, all of this is under her mask.)

Mino's fortunes eventually begin to improve. And both of our main characters seem like they will be happy in their separate lives, even though they never forget each other. Happiness is fleeting.

I was mesmerized by the setting and characters in The Orphan's Song. Such a different and bizarre world. It seems they will never find each other. How can they -- even if they were looking for each other -- they are always under masks! It makes for an exciting tale. My only complaint is that the story really dragged for a while in the middle. Lots of setup before things really start happening. A minor complaint. Since I enjoyed the world Kate had created, I was patient.

If you are at all interested in history, especially historical romances, The Orphan's Song is a wonderful example.

Published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, June 25, 2019
eARC obtained from NetGalley
336 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Monday, June 24, 2019

Book Review: Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Shout, by Laurie Halse Anderson book cover and review
Anderson, who wrote Speak, has written Shouta book in poetic form, that is more autobiographical than Speak.

Anderson's life was hard. Her father was apparently suffering from PTSD and her mother was not very motherly. Like most memoirs of hard lives lived, it is a downer of a book. I believe it was very cathartic for Anderson to write Shout (I feel like that's the most important reason for this book), and I'm sure it is empowering to many, but I really didn't enjoy it very much. I guess you aren't really supposed to "enjoy" it.

But...I didn't find the poetic form to be as easy as Ellen Hopkins' (and others who have used this form effectively) books. There are a few sections that are just numbered lists written in prose and I thought those were the best parts. Shout doesn't really tell a story. There are vignettes of her life, but no beginning, middle, end. And honestly, because of the format, I'm having a hard time remembering any details of her life. The last section, especially, is just a bunch of rants. And I understand that women have a lot to rant about these days (as we always have), but Shout just wasn't my book.

I'm probably in the minority, but it is just (as always) my opinion. I feel like because I'm a woman I'm supposed to love this book, but I'm not going to say I love something that just didn't work for me. I'll probably get slammed for it, but...

Shout is a quick read, it is supposed to be empowering, and if you are an Anderson fan, probably worth your time no matter what.

Published by Viking BFYR, March 4, 2019
eBook obtained from the library
304 pages

Rating: 3/5

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora Rising by Kaufman and Kristoff book cover and review
I'm starting to realize that science fiction is becoming my favorite YA genre (maybe just after historical.) Aurora Rising helped me reach this conclusion.

We are way in the future (2380), and Tyler is on a distant planet ready to graduate from Aurora Academy with top honors and begin his career keeping the universe safe. Everything goes off the rails for Tyler when on one last flight, he rescues a girl from cryo-sleep on a spaceship that was lost over 200 years ago. The girl's name is Aurora.

Instead of the most elite squad in his class, because of this rescue, Tyler ends up with a squad of misfits who seem hopeless. And, of course, instead of an exciting, elite mission, they are given a supply delivery. However, Aurora stows away on their ship and soon it is apparent that she is wanted by the government. But Aurora is convinced she must not be caught. This unlikely crew decides to help Aurora and possibly save the galaxy from certain destruction.

The world building and science fiction elements of Aurora Rising are fascinating. The characters are quirky and distinct, each telling part of the story from their own point of view. The secrets about Aurora are compelling, and I couldn't figure out what was going on -- but I wanted too!

Yes, some of the events are a bit far-fetched, but it's science fiction, so expected. The story moved quickly from one life-threatening situation to another, and for the most part, their escapes were clever. Aurora Rising is the first book in a series, so the book ends at an appropriate point, but leaves you wanting more. After all, the survival of the universe is at stake!

These authors wrote Illuminae and the rest of that series. I enjoyed Aurora Rising more than Illuminae mostly because of the format. Aurora Rising doesn't have all of the emails and other varied types of story-telling formats like Illuminae did, and that just worked better for me.

Teens who are fans of Kaufman and Kristoff, as well as any who are sci-fi fans will enjoy Aurora Rising.

Published by Knopf, May 7, 2019
eARC obtained from NetGalley
480 pages

Rating: 4.5/5

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book Review: The Gown by Jennifer Robson

The Gown by Jennifer Robson, book cover and review
I love the Netflix series, The Crown, and am anxiously awaiting the next season, so The Gown was right up my alley!

The Gown is the story of two women who were the main embroiderers of Queen Elizabeth II's wedding gown. In 1947, London is still suffering the effects of World War II, so having a royal wedding to look forward to was a welcome diversion. We get the backgrounds of Ann and Miriam, two of our main characters, and how they ended up being embroiderers for the renowned fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Miriam, in particular, has a heart-wrenching story about being Jewish during the war.

Our third main character, Heather, is in 2016, and her grandmother (one of our embroiderers) has just passed away. Heather has never heard any stories from her grandmother about her life in 1940s London. But her Grandmother leaves her a box with embroidery samples and a picture that begins Heather's quest to discover her grandmother's secrets.

Those secrets involve stories about the creation of the gown (fascinating) and the royal wedding as well as stories of life during that period of time. There are romances, friendships, secrets, and other dramas that easily held my interest.

I'm totally wrapped up in the lives of England's royals, so The Gown was everything I hoped for. If you are interested in this time period, and especially if you are any kind of seamstress, you shouldn't miss The Gown.

Published by William Morrow, 2018
eBook obtained from the library
400 pages

Rating: 5/5

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Book Review: The Friends We Keep, by Jane Green

The Friends We Keep by Jane Green book cover and review
The Friends We Keep didn't go in the direction that I anticipated, and that made it an enjoyable read. This is not my usual genre, but it had been a long time since I had read a contemporary, and even longer since I had read Jane Green, so it was a welcome change of pace.

Maggie, Evvie, and Topher end up roommates at college in England.  I think the opening chapter, the only one from Ben's POV, had me going in a certain direction for the plot. He only refers to "my wife," so you don't really know which of our three main characters to which that refers.

We get points-of-view from each of the three as they navigate their lives during (beginning in 1986) and after college, ending in 2019.  They grow up, they grow apart. They follow their dreams, they make mistakes. They have (big) secrets. They end up reuniting.

I enjoyed their journeys. Each character was relatable. I guess my minor complaint is some repetitiveness--mostly about the winey "woe is me" situations they find themselves in.

I did want them to end up together and happy. Ultimately, The Friends We Keep is a feel-good, happily ever after story. But there is a rocky road to travel until they get there, and the journey is entertaining. A good summer "fluff" read that explores the meaning of friendship. Appropriate for teen readers, Green fans will definitely want to pick this up.

Published by Berkley, June 4, 2019
eARC obtained from NetGalley
384 pages

Rating: 4/5

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Book Review: The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins book cover and review
I was drawn to The Confessions of Frannie Langton because of the comparison to Alias Grace, which I had watched and enjoyed. The comparison was accurate, and I also enjoyed The Confessions of Frannie Langton very much.

Frannie has been accused of murdering her employers, George Benham and his wife, Marguerite. As Frannie is about to go on trial in London, she writes about her life, and what brought her to this point -- even though she can't remember what happened the night of the murders.

As a child and young lady, Frannie was a house slave on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Her owner was a "scientist" who was trying to figure out why people with black skin were naturally inferior to whites. He taught Frannie to read, and she became his reluctant assistant. I won't say too much more. She ends up in London in the employ of another scientist.

Her story is fascinating and sad. Although at times I felt she could have done more to improve her position, she is still very sympathetic. There are some surprising twists that kept me in the story. The circumstances for a woman in her situation in the 1820s are merciless; the legal system left a lot to be desired, as well as the rampant prejudice.

I've never read Alias Grace, only watched the show, but now I'm interested in reading it also. The amnesia aspect of both of these stories intrigues me.

As I was reading, I thought The Confessions of Frannie Langton had the potential to leave things unresolved, or partially unresolved, but happily, that was not the case. The ending isn't expected to be a happy one, but I found it satisfying. Fans of gothic fiction, slavery stories, murder mysteries, and/or unreliable narrators will enjoy this fascinating novel.

Published by Harper, May 21, 2019
eARC obtained from NetGalley
384 pages

Rating: 4.5/5

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Book Review: Happily and Madly by Alexis Bass @alexisbasswrite

Happily and Madly by Alexis Bass book cover and review

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved Happily and Madly. I couldn't put it down.

Maris is from a broken family and is going to spend the summer at an island rental with her father’s new family (the New Browns). This includes her father's new wife and baby, and a teen daughter, Chelsea, whom he has adopted. She is, of course, resentful of them, since they are the reason her father left her and her mother alone.

She's uncomfortable with all the happiness and while alone on a hike, she meets a beaten and bloody boy, Finn, who she helps to escape from his pursuers. They begin a romantic relationship as they meet secretly. Then Maris finds out Finn is the boyfriend of her stepsister--and his name is Edison--and that's not all of the secrets he has. His family, the Duvals, are very rich, and they treat the New Browns to all kinds of luxurious island adventures. But there is more to the story of this family. As Maris begins to uncover their secrets, the danger mounts and even though she is trying to do what is right, she ends up in a fight for her life and the lives of her family.

While some suspension of disbelief is necessary, the twists surprised me. The pacing is brisk. The tension mounts, and the characters are sympathetic. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Summer love, a mysterious and possibly dangerous boy, and plenty of lies and deception combine to make this thriller a compelling read. And I really didn't have much of any idea about what was going on until it was revealed. Given the current craze over twisted thriller books, this one is a welcome addition to the teen market.

Published by TOR, May 21, 2019
ARC obtained from School Library Connection Magazine
352 pages

Rating: 4.5/5

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Monday, May 13, 2019

AudioBook Review: The Widows by Jess Montgomery

I liked The Widows. I didn't really love it.  I'm not sure why.

It is 1924, in Ohio mining country, when the sheriff of Kinship, Daniel Ross, is murdered. His wife, Lily, who can handle herself is appointed sheriff until an interim election can be held. No one expects Lily to do anything as sheriff. But they underestimate her.

Lily is determined to find out how Daniel died. She doesn't believe the story that she was told - that a prisoner escaped from Daniel's control, stole his gun, and shot Daniel. She begins investigating.

She is visited by a very good friend of Daniel's, Marvena, from the miner's settlement. Lily doesn't know what to make of Marvena. Daniel has never talked about her. Was she a mistress? Marvena lost her husband in a mining accident -- the same accident that killed Lily's father.

Marvena is part of the movement to unionize the miners to get safer working conditions and better pay. This movement is strictly illegal, so she doesn't trust anyone -- especially Lily. But Marvena's teenage daughter has gone missing, and Daniel had vowed to help Marvena find her, so Marvena has to seek out Lily's help to find out what Daniel knew before he died.

These two women establish an unlikely bond as they help each other to investigate what happened to Daniel and Marvena's daughter. Not only do they want justice for Daniel's killer, but they both also want to help the miners live a safer and more profitable existence.

I enjoyed The Widows, but I'm not sure why I wasn't totally drawn into the story. It's historical, and I love that. The characters are richly developed. These women are strong and brave. The story is told from both Marvena's and Lily's points-of-views, and that was very effective. The plight of the miners was heartbreaking. I was surprised by some of the twists and turns. Maybe it was the setting. And I did feel the story's pacing was a little slow at times.

Susan Bennett, the reader, did a wonderful job, and I really forgot I was listening.  That's a good thing.

With such a non-specific reason for not falling in love with The Widows, I feel I should still recommend it to historical fiction fans. It is very popular, and there was a long waiting list for the audio version. So if the description sounds appealing, go for it! And, if you want another great book about coal mining, try John Grisham's Gray Mountain.

Published by Minotaur, January 8, 2019 (Macmillan Audio)
Audio obtained from the library
 336 pages

Rating: 4/5

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