Friday, April 24, 2015

The Winter Guest - Pam Jenoff

Title: The Winter Guest
Author: Pam Jenoff
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
Published date: 2014
Paperback: 341 pages (ARC version)
FTC: Received ARC from publisher to review

I'd heard of Pam Jenoff but I had never read any of her books before. I'd been wanting to read her WWII books The Kommandant's Girl and its follow up The Diplomat's Wife.  So when I received another WWII book The Winter Guest to review I delved in. I have to admit it took me longer to finish than normal. It was great writing, interesting area in Poland, it just seemed to drag a bit. BUT it did have a nice twisty turn at the end.  A good read but not my favorite WWII book.

Back of the book:

A stirring novel of first love in a time of war and the unbearable choices that could tear sisters apart, from the celebrated author of The Kommandant's Girl 

Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn't be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day. 

Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena's concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.

My thoughts:

I always enjoy books about sisters. I have a sister (and brother) and I always find reading about the different sibling dynamics so interesting. While I know all siblings have their unique odd idiosyncrasies, I just didn't quite buy the disconnect between Ruth and Helena.  The narration is told from both Ruth and Helena's perspectives and it was pretty obvious that the reader wasn't supposed to quite like Ruth and root for Helena. That said I did like getting into the heads of both sisters and how these twins had such different experiences and perspectives. I really felt for the sisters who were left taking care of their siblings, such an enormous responsibility in peace time and an almost impossible task during wartime.

It was interesting to read about Poland during this period as the Nazi's are moving in and no one can hide from their presence. If you are looking for a really good romance, this probably isn't the one to pick up. There is a romantic story between Helena and Sam, the downed American but for some reason I didn't really find it too stirring. Not bad, just ok. It all seemed a bit juvenile but then again, they were all young, just teenagers so there's that.

Like I said above, the story didn't really pick up until almost the end, around 250 pages in. Yeah. So while good writing, engaging characters and a good historical time period, it just kind of dragged a bit. I still want to check out her book The Kommandant's Girl. Pam Jenoff is a wonderful writer and I was fascinated by her as an author in her acknowledgments.  She worked at the Pentagon and was in Slovakia for the 50th Anniversary of WWII when she heard a true story that inspired this story. I think that's why I still am drawn to WWII stories because it was such a perilous and tumulus time that the true stories (and thus fictional ones) to come out of that period are so numerous and fascinating.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Not My Father's Son - Alan Cumming

Title: Not My Father's Son: A Memoir
Author: Alan Cumming
Publisher: HarperAudio
Published date: 2014
FTC: Checked eAudio from library

When I heard that Alan Cumming came out with a memoir I really wanted to read it. I am an Alan Cumming fan. Ok, not a crazy, seen everything of his type of fan. Just one of those every time I see him in something I think he does a fantastic job and I can tell, just tell, that he is a truly likable person. AND he does the intro to Masterpiece Mystery if you've ever watched Sherlock (strictly to make Patti Smith jealous - just kidding - read the book).  Which is funny because that is one of my memories of my father, watching Masterpiece Mystery and loving the Gorey intros.  I also knew I'd want to listen to the audio because 1) Alan Cumming has a fabulous voice - I just listened to the audiobook of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan and he did an awesome job and 2) I love when people narrate their own memoirs, it's so interesting to hear their story told in their own voice. For example, I love Kristin Chenoweth's audio book A Little Bit Wicked. Awesome. Anyway, I digress.

Back of the book:

 In his unique and engaging voice, the acclaimed actor of stage and screen shares the emotional story of his complicated relationship with his father and the deeply buried family secrets that shaped his life and career.

A beloved star of stage, television, and film--"one of the most fun people in show business" (Time magazine)--Alan Cumming is a successful artist whose diversity and fearlessness is unparalleled. His success masks a painful childhood growing up under the heavy rule of an emotionally and physically abusive father--a relationship that tormented him long into adulthood.

When television producers in the UK approached him to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show in 2010, Alan enthusiastically agreed. He hoped the show would solve a family mystery involving his maternal grandfather, a celebrated WWII hero who disappeared in the Far East. But as the truth of his family ancestors revealed itself, Alan learned far more than he bargained for about himself, his past, and his own father.

With ribald humor, wit, and incredible insight, Alan seamlessly moves back and forth in time, integrating stories from his childhood in Scotland and his experiences today as a film, television, and theater star. At times suspenseful, deeply moving, and wickedly funny, Not My Father's Son will make readers laugh even as it breaks their hearts.

My thoughts:

While I was a fan of Alan Cumming as an actor and performer before I read this book, I can safely say that I was correct and he is a thoroughly likeable person.  He has got such a great sense of humor and such a way of bringing his story to life. The narration flashes between Then - stories of growing up in Scotland where, I know this is silly, but I keep seeing his father as a gruffer meaner version of Golly in Monarch of the Glen. (Seriously, Netflix it - fun show.) Then if flashes to Now (being 2010) when he is doing the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? which sounds fantastic. I tend to not like reality shows but I love genealogy being a history major and all. And I do really think that a lot of us have questions about our ancestors or past that would be fascinating to uncover.

Since I haven't seen the show, I thought it uncovered his parental questions. Nope. That would have been really awful even for reality tv. Anyway, the show went into what happened to his grandfather Tommy Darling after WWII.  But during this time, his father tells him that he wasn't his father's son.  Wow. Now if you think well, that's the story I don't need to read the I don't want to spoil it for you.

While filled with painful memories from his past, Alan Cumming manages to make his memoir quite humorous (I really need to watch Eurovision) and respectful. I was actually quite amazed at his ability to manage his outrage, emotions, and language at some of the things he went through. At the end of the book, when Alan Cumming dedicates the book in part to his father, while also stating that he is NOT his father's son (so interesting, read the book) it is pretty jaw dropping fantastic.

How can I possibly rate someone's intimate memoir? I did. Five stars.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints - P.J. Brackston

Title: Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints (A Brothers Grimm Mystery #1)
Author: P.J. Brackston
Publisher: Pegasus Crime
Published date: January 2015
FTC: Publisher sent the book to review

I am a bit of a sucker for fairy tales and while Disney is fun I tend to prefer my fairy tales to be more Grimm if you know what I mean. At first I was a little leery when I started the story but I ended up really liking it. It reminded me of my type of beach read. You know, one of those stories or series that you know you'll enjoy, won't be a tough read and you can read the whole thing on your vacation.

Back of the book:

Bavaria, 1776. 

When Albrecht Durer the Much Much Younger's Frog Prints go missing, he knows exactly where to turn for help. Gretel (yes, that Gretel), now 35 and still living with her gluttonous brother Hans, is the country's most famous private investigator, and she leaps at the opportunity to travel to cosmopolitan Nuremberg to take on the case. But amid the hubbub of the city's annual sausage festival, Gretel struggles to find any clues that point toward the elusive thief.

Even with the aid of the chatty mice living under her bed, the absent prints remain stubbornly out of view, and Gretel is forced to get creative in her search for the truth.

My thoughts:

When I first started reading this book I was a tad leery. I mean, when I thought of Hansel and Gretel being detectives I was thinking more like Jeremey Renner and Gemma Arterton from the movie.  The book opens up with Hans being a bit pudgy and lazy (kind of like on the cover of the book) and Gretel liking to indulge in food as well.  I just couldn't get a grasp in my head what Gretel looked like. But as the story progressed I started to really enjoy the time period, the comedy, and the character of Gretel. I like when authors can get a historical time period to feel authentic without being overly descriptive and keep the story going. I also really enjoyed the fairy tale whimsey - like talking mice and hobgoblins - that actually felt realistic.

I also enjoyed the variety of characters: the historical Albrecht Durer's much much younger relation, Gretel's nemesis Kingsman Kapitan Strudel who's competitive jealousy is hilarious to read, and General Ferdinand who is a handsome possible love interest.  Of all the shows and movies out there, I think this one would be so fun to adapt. It was a fun book to read.

Extra stuff:

Albrecht Durer is a famous artist I remember learning about in my art history class.  If you Google Albrecht Durer animals you can see some gorgeous work.  Here is a rhino print that I believe was mentioned in the book:

I also did't make the connection that P.J. Brackston and Paula Brackston are the same author (duh!) and I had recently received her book The Silver Witch in the mail. Have you read any of her works? I had seen a few of her books but had never read them. The covers are gorgeous though:

I also just noticed that the cover and description for book #2 of the Grimm Mysteries is now out. Here is Once Upon a Crime:

Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frogs was a perfect fit for Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge. Head over to the review site to check out other people's reviews of fairy tale-ish reads.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Once Upon a Time IX

If you've read my blog for long enough, you'll know that I love participating in and following Stainless Steel Droppings' different yearly challenges: Once Upon a Time, R.I.P. and Science Fiction.  It used to be more of a challenge for me. I'd write up lists of books to read and check them off. Now that I have less free time to read, I love checking out other people's choices and just enjoying the magical feeling of Spring. Yes! It is finally spring!

The Once Upon a Time IX Challenge has a few rules:

Rule #1: Have fun.
Rule #2: HAVE FUN.
Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!
Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.

In Carl's own words:

Saturday, March 21st marks the official start date of the ninth annual Once Upon a Time Challenge. This is a reading and viewing and gaming event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum. The challenge continues through June 21st and allows for very minor (1 book only) participation as well as more immersion depending on your reading/viewing/gaming whims.

I'm excited for this one because there are a few books I recently finished that fit perfectly into the fairy tale category. If you haven't checked out Carl's awesome site Stainless Steel Droppings, head over to check it out.  

You can check out the links to some of my past Once Upon a Time reads.  Hope you join in or check out the Review Site to see what other people are reading.  Cheers!

Once Upon a Time III
Once Upon a Time V
Once Upon a Time VII

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand

Title: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Hardcover: 473 pages (my version ebook)
Publisher: Random House
Published date: 2010
FTC: Check out eBook from the library

Wow. I had been meaning to check out this book now for a long while but it seriously ALWAYS has a hold at the library and being a stay at home mom, let's face it, I'm cheap right now.  Finally. FINALLY, I got on the waiting list for the eBook and I had 14 days to read it.  I literally sucked this book down and it's one of those reads that make books afterwards just kind of pale in comparison. If I was a writer, this is how I'd want to write. Seabiscuit, the book or movie hasn't really interested me (never seen or read) but now I am going to have to read it because she wrote it.  I am also going to have to see Unbroken the movie but I'm sure I'll end up saying the book was much better.  Have you read the book or seen the movie?

Back of the book:

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

 My thoughts:

I think it would be so hard to write a really interesting and good non-fiction story. Often they can be pretty dry and boring. Either that or the author has to turn the story into fiction just to liven it up.  I think this was the perfect non-fiction book.  The author put in an astonishing amount of research and work into writing this interesting and fluid story. The story was equally amazing and unbelievable. One of those truths are often more strange and interesting than fiction.  Take any part of this story and it would be an amazingly good tale on it's own: poor delinquent becomes Olympic track star, man survives plane crash and survives on raft for over a month, man survives POW cruelty. It is truly an amazing story.

It's hard to write something new about this book. I mean I'm sure you've heard all about it. But I now know why you'll probably never find a used copy. If I had bought one it would be lent out to quite a few people and I'm still debating buying copies for my sister, mom, husband, get the picture. It's that good. I wish my dad was alive to read this one. He was an amazing runner and was a history and WWII buff.  I am sure he had heard of Louis Zamperini since Mr. Zamperini wasn't an unknown until Ms. Hillenbrand's book.

Enough of me blathering. Buy this book.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Interview with Katherine Reay & Giveaway!

I am so excited to introduce Katherine Reay to A Library of My Own's readers.  I absolutely adored her two novels Dear Mr. Knightley and Lizzy & Jane and am eagerly awaiting her next novel -- more about that at the end of the interview!

So grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy!

Welcome to A Library of My Own. I am so excited to have the opportunity to interview you because I recently read and loved both of your books Dear Mr Knightly and Lizzy & Jane.  

I love books that incorporate different senses into the writing and Lizzy & Jane is definitely one of those books. I actually tabbed some of Elizabeth's recipes to try later - like the Greek chicken salad she made Nick. How did you do your research to write through Elizabeth's foody perspective?

That was the best research project ever – enlightening and yummy. It took a three-prong approach to capture all I wanted to learn. I dug into literature, looking at all the references I could find in Austen, Hemingway and other writers for ways food was used as reflection of character and relationship. Simultaneously I scoured cookbooks for healthy eating ideas and tips for people struggling with cancer, compromised immune systems, allergies and other heath-related concerns. My daughter has some dietary issues and my husband and I run a lot, so that was familiar reading. And finally I picked through some of my favorite cookbooks and family recipes, playing on familiar and comfortable themes. We love to cook in our house and everything Lizzy made is a variant of a family favorite. I must remember that for future books – make your research tasty.

One of my favorite passages in Lizzy & Jane is when you wrote "Great writers and my mom never used food as an object. Instead it was a medium, a catalyst to mend hearts, to break down barriers, to build relationships." I noticed your love of literature, not just Jane Austen, all through the book. Ernest Hemingway, Cold Comfort FarmA Year in ProvenceThe Wind in the Willows.  It reminded me of how I love the smells and tastes in Sarah Addison Allen's books or Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients.  Do you have other favorite food or sensory books? 

Great question… Food books: Recently Christa Parrish’s Stones for Bread had me pulling French loaves apart and Hillary Manton Lodge’s A Table for Two compelled me to bake cakes. I also love Dickens’s breakfasts; the stark cold feeling from the sparse fare laid out in Wuthering Heights; the opulent culinary texture Peter Mayle gives us in every book; the full sensory experience emanating from The Life of Pi; the rich flowers that permeate the air when reading The Language of Flowers; the sights and smells suggestive of 1940s Seattle in The Hotel at The Corner of Bitter and Sweet and even the acrid, dead scents captured in Dracula, which kept me awake a few nights last month.

As writer, I haven’t mastered this area; but as a reader, it’s important to me to feel absorbed within a story on multiple levels. And such absorption in sight, smell and texture, fit Lizzy’s character so I worked to keep her close to all her senses.

One of the main reasons I picked up Lizzy & Jane is because I love books about sisters.  I have an older sister and it's such an important relationship. Obviously even Jane Austen thought so too. Do you have a sister and what was your inspiration for writing about this relationship?

I do have a sister. She is eight and a half years younger (same distance between L & J.) and her name is Elizabeth. Now before you think Lizzy & Jane is in any way autobiographical, I need to assure you it’s not. Like L & J, however, our age difference meant that Elizabeth and I were not terribly close as children. Unlike L & J, my sister is now my beloved confident, first reader and closest friend.

Perhaps our relationship was part of the inspiration for Lizzy & Jane, but not entirely – Sibling relationships are always fascinating. One can look at a sister or a brother and in a single heartbeat feel love, annoyance, jealously, bitterness, betrayal and a fierce loyalty – and that’s in one moment. I wanted to play upon that depth of emotion and explore it and felt sisters gave me the greatest latitude in both pulling and pushing a relationship.

Lizzy & Jane really resonated with me because like Elizabeth, I lost my father to cancer when I was 17 years old. I empathized with her age and also the fact that no matter what, losing a member of the family is tough on everyone and leaves such a scar. But I also loved that while you wrote about such a serious topic the book is filled with optimism and hope. What made you decide to use cancer as the center of conflict between Elizabeth and Jane?

I’m so sorry you experienced that. Thank you for letting me know that Lizzy’s experience and perspective wasn’t too off-the-mark. It breaks my heart that cancer is such a reality in our lives and in our families, but it is. As I began to think about using cancer as a canvas for Lizzy and Jane’s struggle, I asked others about their experiences. I didn’t find a single person who hadn’t traveled the road either personally or beside a family member or friend. These conversations definitely revealed the pain that cancer and life can bring, but they also revealed how much hope and strength and beauty exists within our families and our faith during such times.

As I think back to the very beginning, I’m not sure I can separate Lizzy’s character from her journey with cancer. It was simply part of her story and make-up from the first moment she and I met.

I am a Christian and I loved how subtly you incorporated Elizabeth's faith into the story. For instance I love the passage "I knew I could no longer justify my existence. No work could accomplish that. And if it couldn't, then it meant that I was more. I could be more, live more, give more - live large and thankful and with no regrets."  Do you consider your novels to be Christian fiction? How do you balance your writing knowing more than just Christians will be reading your novels?

Ah… That’s an interesting question. Clearly my novels come from a Christian world-view. It’s my worldview. But it’s not my intention to let readers grasp that too easily. Rather, I believe I write best when I let the characters wrestle issues to the ground in their own fictional situations, even leaving some questions and concerns unanswered all together.

Whether one is a Christian or not, or one talks about such things aloud or not, we all struggle with the same big eternal issues: Who am I? What’s my purpose? Where do I belong? I love examining those and if a reader glimpses something true, beautiful and affirming in my story then I’m more than delighted.

Last question, I read a brief synopsis about your next book and think it sounds awesome. Could you tell my readers what it's all about? When do you think it will be published?

Okay, you’ve just hit upon a great weakness. I’m horrific at the Elevator Pitch – that elusive one sentence description that captures a story’s totality in a fresh and tantalizing way.

My next book doesn’t have a name yet. Left to me, I’d probably title it something dreadful like Two Women on an Exciting Journey through England. It involves a young computer hacker, an octogenarian former thief, lovely books, London, Yorkshire, interior design, great clothes and a huge diamond. And I love the story… And before it releases in October 2015, it will have a fabulous title and a pithy Elevator Pitch!   

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all my questions and I'm looking forward to reading your next novel!

Amanda, Thank you very much. I so enjoyed your questions and loved being here today. All the best, KBR


Also super excited to let you all know that Katherine Reay recently unveiled the title of her next book via her Facebook page. I am so excited!

The Giveaway has ended, February 23rd - the winner is LEEANN!!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lizzy & Jane - Katherine Reay

Title: Lizzy & Jane
Author: Katherine Reay
Paperback: 339 pages (my version ARC)
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Published date: October 2014
FTC: Received ARC to review

When I got an email asking if I wanted to review Katherine Reay's novel Lizzy & Jane, I jumped at the chance. I had heard raves about her first novel Dear Mr. Knightley (my review) and I absolutely love this cover. When I read the synopsis I knew I'd like it.  I read Dear Mr. Knightley first, loved it, and then devoured this one.  When the publisher asked if I wanted to interview Ms. Reay I said YES!

This is going up there as one of my favorite novels. The writing is great but more importantly it really hit me - it's about sisters and cancer and figuring out who we are and where we belong. I am going to make my sister read this one too.

Big note:

Right now the Lizzy & Jane eBook is on sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for .99 cents so download it now!

Back of the book:

At the end of a long night, Elizabeth leans against the industrial oven and takes in her kingdom. Once vibrant and flawless, evenings in the kitchen now feel chaotic and exhausting. She's lost her culinary magic, and business is slowing down.

When worried investors enlist the talents of a tech-savvy celebrity chef to salvage the restaurant, Elizabeth feels the ground shift beneath her feet. Not only has she lost her touch; she's losing her dream.

And her means of escape.

When her mother died, Elizabeth fled home and the overwhelming sense of pain and loss. But fifteen years later, with no other escapes available, she now returns, Brimming with desperation and dread, Elizabeth finds herself in the unlikeliest of places, by her sister's side in Seattle as Jane undergoes chemotherapy.

As her new life takes the form of care, cookery, and classic literature, Elizabeth is forced to re-imagine her future and reevaluate her past. But can a New York City chef with a painful history settle down with the family she once abandoned...and make peace with the sister who once abandoned her?

My thoughts:

There is just so much I loved about this novel. Just like Elizabeth in the story, my father passed away from cancer when I was 17.  She was 17 when her mother passed away from cancer and left a gapping hole in the family dynamic.  Her older sister left, her father engrossed himself in his work, and Lizzy took off to college and set up her life as far from Seattle as possible in New York City. In my life, my older sister and brother were off in college while I still had a year in high school and a gapping hole in our hearts and family.  To say the book resounded is an understatement.

Now you'd think a story about loss and cancer would be a sort of a downer of a book...but it wasn't. I loved how Katherine Reay wrote the whole story, full of hope, love, and eventually reconciliation. It was honest too. No one was completely right or wrong, the sisters didn't become best friends, and very often Elizabeth didn't make the best decisions. But that's what made it work and made it real.

I absolutely loved the literature in this book. Elizabeth and Jane's mother obviously was a fan of Jane Austen and Jane finds comfort in Austen's classics to escape the chemo reality. Elizabeth uses her culinary skills to incorporate the tastes and smells of Austen's time period and local to create home cooked foods that appeal to Jane despite the cancer treatments.  There were elements of literature from Dickens to Hemingway and I just absolutely loved that she mixed literature with food. I mean, how cool is that. It reminds me of how some book clubs incorporate cooking, baking, cocktails, etc with their book choice.  I loved this quote in Lizzy & Jane:

Great writers and my mom never used food as an object. Instead it was a medium, a catalyst to mend hearts, to break down barriers, to build relationships. Mom's cooking fed body and soul. She used to quip, "If the food is good, there's no need to talk about the weather." That was my mantra for years - food as meal and a conversations, a total experience.

Just like her first novel Dear Mr. Knightley, Elizabeth's story in Lizzy & Jane is a modern coming of age story where Lizzy has to learn to mend old wounds and face her past so she can face her future.  There is a bit of a love story between Elizabeth and an awesome neighbor and friend of Jane's but really the story is about Elizabeth discovering where she belongs. It is a beautiful novel.

And More!

I will be posting the interview and a giveaway on Valentine's Day. Check back!