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review 2015-12-08 13:59
Review | Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver's fifth novel is a hymn to wildness that celebrates the prodigal spirit of human nature, and of nature itself. It weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of lives amid the mountains and farms of southern Appalachia. Over the course of one humid summer, this novel's intriguing protagonists face disparate predicaments but find connections to one another and to the flora and fauna with which they necessarily share a place.







I had so many smiles, pangs and other feels from this book that I've had to really think about what to say about the whole thing (isn't that the way with the books that really hit ya? ;-D). It might still come out all over the place but I'll do my best to get my thoughts right here. 


One of the things that made this novel tricky to follow at times is the fact that there are 3 different storylines going on at once and you have to pay attention for small, subtle details that link all of them together. Things kick off with Deanna, a forest ranger living in a remote part of the woods in order to study a small pack of endangered coyotes (endangered in that they are uncommon to the area, so when a small family of them makes an appearance, it's a big deal to Deanna). While at her post, she meets mysterious hiker Eddie Bondo, whose behavior turns a wee bit shady when she asks him about what brought him to this remote area of the woods. Though she's not sure she can entirely trust him, the two do have this immediate spark between them and fall into a tempestuous, earthy kind of coupling (and I will say here, I like that Kingsolver was able to write this in a way that was different but kinda still sexy without making it weird or unnecessarily vulgar). Deanna struggles with the realization that while she feels a powerful bond with Eddie, it's soon clear that they view the world through fundamentally different lenses. She doesn't know how to make peace with the two of them moving together through life with differing moral codes. 


"What did you teach?" {Eddie}


"Science and math and Please Shut Up to seventh graders. I liked the kids sometimes, but mostly I felt like I was under siege. I'm an introvert. I like being alone. I like being outside in the woods. And there I was. Living in a little brick house in a big-city suburb, spending my days with hundreds of small, unbelievably loud human beings... I'm not all that maternal." {Deanna}


"You. You spend more time making sure you don't hurt a spider or a baby bird than most people do taking care of their kids. You're maternal."


The second story introduces Lusa, a Polish-Arab woman who marries an Appalachian farmer. While Lusa's story mainly focuses on cultural struggles between her heritage and what she married into, she has her own ties to the coyote plot. 


The third storyline involves Garnett. His family's fortune came about through the milling of chestnut trees, until the blight of the 1950s that ruined the majority of the chestnut tree population. All these years later, Garnett is still pushing to rebuild the wealth that once was, by using a strain of Chinese Chestnut blended with what's left of the American Chestnut line. 


While sometimes tricky to keep all this straight as the reader, I really loved how the connections between them were not all that obvious. It made for really fun "lightbulb" moments when a detail from one story would click together with something I just read from the story before that. (I should probably point out that the three storylines are laid out through alternating chapters, not clearly defined PT1 PT2 etc style). There's also a connecting vein through the use of the Volterra Principle running throughout the novel, though it focuses on the general idea of the principle which says (in very generalized layman's terms here) that the harder you try to get rid of something, the more it's likely to come back at you in increased number, strength, etc. The characters in this novel who understand the idea are trying to convince the other characters to live life in a way that works with nature, rather than against it so much. But then those who encourage this kind of living are labeled as "backwards", "not willing to advance with the times". So this novel as a whole becomes very much a look at man vs. nature, man vs. man, rural vs metro, the push for always advancing things vs. the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. These characters also hash out the rash of rampant consumerism and how the demand for products that fulfill the need for ease of living and immediate gratification end up cluttering the world with low-quality junk products. (I cheered when Eddie asks Deanna to name the one thing she misses most from society and she says being near a public library!) Kingsolver even has the characters addressing the topic of dietary opinions -- meat eaters vs. vegetarians and vegans. 


But through all these major topics, this novel never once came off as preachy to me. A lot of solid "food for thought" moments are gently mixed into engaging storylines filled with characters you really want to know and come to genuinely care about. The characters, through their conversations with each other, point out that there is no one perfect answer, that any lifestyle choice will have a pros / cons list attached to it.


Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed. 

~ opening lines of Prodigal Summer



What's stressed in this novel is the idea that however you choose to live -- whether you're meat-eating country folk or salad-lovin' metro dwellers (or vice versa!) -- live gently, be respectful of the planet you live on and be grateful for all it provides. Kingsolver's story simply encourages readers to do their best to be kind caretakers of the Earth, 'cause we got a pretty sweet pad here in our solar system, if we can just get our act together! 

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review 2015-12-06 12:10
Review | Of Nightingales That Weep by Katherine Paterson
Of Nightingales That Weep - Katherine Paterson,Haru Wells

The daughter of a samurai never weeps. But Takiko, whose warrior father was killed in battle, finds this a hard rule, especially when her mother remarries a strange and ugly country potter. To get away from her miserable home, Takiko eagerly accepts a position at the imperial Japanese court. There, her beauty and nightingale voice captivate the handsome young warrior, Hideo -- who also turns out to be an enemy spy. As war breaks out, Takiko flees the court and is forced to choose between loyalty to her people and her love for Hideo. She painfully learns that whatever choice she makes, she cannot run away from her samurai honor.






Of Nightingales That Weep takes place in feudal Japan, specifically the era of the Genpei War (1180-1185). In this story, Takiko, age 11, suffers the loss of her samurai father. Takiko's mother, discovering that there is little money left to her to live off of, sees little option but to quickly remarry, which she does. Takiko finds she is forced to accept Goro, a local potter, as her new stepfather. Goro does his best to win over Takiko, but well, when your biological father was a freakin' samurai, talk about pottery is a tough sell. Given time though, she starts to see sides to Goro that she does like. Just as she starts to accept her new life situation (by this time, entering her teens), Takiko is offered a position in the royal court, a lady in waiting to the princess. Takiko joins the court crew as a royal hairdresser and singer. Her singing catches the attention of Hideo (still not entirely sure if it's pronounced Hee-de-o or He-day-o), while his looks catch her attention.


"Take care, little one. Love is like a brushfire in August."

~ Lady Kiyomori to Takiko


Bummer for her, she comes to discover her warrior crush is actually a spy. But just as she's trying to sort out her tangled mess of a heart, war breaks out and the entire royal court is forced to flee the area, unsure of when they'll be able to return home. 


I liked the environment building here but as far as the plot and character interactions went, this one didn't quite reach the level of intensity I was hoping for. Many of the characters seemed to have very little depth / dimension to them, too stiff to feel real or relatable. Though I will say, I did end up really liking the character of Goro! He was written well, the way he developed over the course of the story.


Though this takes place during a time of war, the main characters seemed to largely only experience it from afar, hearing stories of other people in battle. There are a few quick battle scenes here and there but they felt rushed to me -- a few arrows shot here and there, something set on fire and then boom. Done. Next scene. 


I gave an extra half star for a scene near the end of the novel because it was pretty dramatic (and cinematic!) in the way things were described and the ceremonial behavior the characters take on. What they choose to do -- I would have never guessed that scene! I was honestly shocked and I wish the entire novel would have left me as tense and awe-struck as that scene. I am curious to check out Paterson's other books with this same theme / time period (though not necessarily same characters, I don't think). There was something to her environment building that I did really enjoy. 


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review 2015-11-21 16:53
An Amish Christmas Gift: 3 Christmas Novellas
An Amish Christmas Gift: Three Amish Novellas - Ruth Reid,Amy Clipston,Kelly Irvin


Clocking in at 409 pages total, this is a cozy collection of Amish-themed Christmas romance novellas written by Amy Clipston, Ruth Reid and Kelly Irvin. While the first story, Naomi's Gift, takes place in the well known Amish area of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the other two incorporate areas less commonly referenced in this genre -- St. Joseph County, Michigan in An Unexpected Joy and Bee County, Texas in A Christmas Visitor. So let's break down & discuss each of these! 




Naomi's Gift by Amy Clipston


Naomi King, 24, works in her family's quilt shop in Lancaster, PA. After a couple of failed romances and no new romantic prospects on the horizon, she finds herself feeling pretty passive about her situation. She grudgingly accepts her "old maid" status, believing that she's just destined to be the child that stays in the home to help her parents and siblings. That is until she meets Caleb. Caleb is a young widower with a 7 year old daughter, Susie. Caleb is the brother of one of Naomi's neighbors, but he's been living in Ohio for many years. This year he decides to come back home to visit his family for Christmas. Caleb & Naomi get to know each other through Susie's fascination with Naomi's quilt shop. As a friendship between them develops, Caleb wonders if it's time to come back home to Lancaster. 



My thoughts: A cute if pretty predictable romance. The friendship between Caleb and Naomi is full of warm fuzzies, making it perfect for a holiday read, but there was one thing that kept bugging me. Caleb has family in Lancaster, but has been living in Ohio for 10 years or so at the request of his late wife whose family lived there. Naomi is 24, which means she would have only been about 14 when Caleb left town, yet in this story they are written as if they've never met....even though Caleb's brother is Naomi's neighbor? How would they have never run into each other before?!



An Unexpected Joy by Ruth Reid


Abigail Kemp, 23, is hired by Micah Zook to be a caretaker to his grandmother while his parents are out of town. Micah, a glassworks artist, is a little overwhelmed with orders for Christmas gifts as well as a Christmas wedding and needs all the time he can get to get caught up. At first Micah finds Abigail's bubbly, uber-chatty personality a little exhausting, nicknaming her "Gabby Abby". Over time though, he finds himself being able to more easily look past that, taken by her kind and generous nature. In fact, Abby convinces Micah to hire a veteran suffering from PTSD that many others in the community have written off. Caleb himself is hesitant, concerned that the man might be a liability, but Abby teaches him that it's more important to concern yourself with living by a code of compassion and honest, good deeds rather than fretting over the opinions of others. Abby and Caleb also come to see that even though life might throw a wrench in your original plans, it can often be the start of something even better!


My thoughts: I think this was my personal favorite of the collection. There are a number of adorable, humorous moments between Caleb and Abby as Abby unabatingly pours her sunshiney personality all over Caleb's constant crabbiness, which amusingly just frustrates him more. The thing that impressed me most that Abby isn't written as one-dimensional as you might think. She does have moments where her more serious side peeks through, making one think -- when you run into others that seem over-the-top bubbly, might make you wonder what lies underneath that that they're scared to let others see. 



A Christmas Visitor by Kelly Irvin


Frannie Mast meets and falls in love with English (non-Amish) man Rocky Sanders while on her rumspringa. Frannie's family does not approve of the relationship and does their best to separate the two, insisting that Frannie return to the family homestead. Come Christmas season, Rocky makes a surprise appearance to make it known that he deeply cares for Frannie and is intent on learning the Amish culture. At first no one takes him seriously, waiting for him to leave, but the elders are gradually impressed by his persistence in learning the traditions. Frannie herself is surprised and confused at Rocky's dedication but, since she has developed strong feelings for the guy, can only hope his follow-through game is strong to the end. 


My thoughts: While not a bad story, my issue with this one is that the plotline took a hit with keeping the whole thing at novella length. We don't get to know much about the development of the relationship between Rocky and Frannie while she was on her rumspringa trip, so it was hard for me as the reader to understand Rocky's sudden commitment to converting to the Amish life. It felt a little too out of nowhere. What was it about Frannie exactly that had him knowing she was worth leaving the modern lifestyle he'd always known. The story doesn't really get into it all that well. Subsequently, it made the later bits of romance between them feel pretty rushed... because I didn't have a satisfying amount of backstory. 



As a whole, you get pretty much what you'd expect with this kind of collection. The romances are cute and tame, full of side glance smiles and hands "accidentally" brushing up to the whirlwind confession of love and oaths of eternal devotion. Nothing that was long-term memorable for me necessarily, but a solid holiday collection to escape into, particularly if you like the drama in your reading to be minimal and you really want that HEA. 


FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2015-11-03 17:06
The Girl From The Train by Irma Jourbet
The Girl from the Train - Irma Joubert

Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Aushwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks. As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They intend to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.

Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her in. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.

But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered. Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.






The story opens with 6 year old German-Jewish Gretl and her family on a train bound for Auschwitz, trying to find a way off the train. Outside, along the track, is 21 year old Polish resistance fighter Jakob planting bombs to derail an expected German supply train. Only too late does he realize that the train headed his way is actually full of innocent Jewish families. The bomb detonates, train explodes, the smoke clears to reveal the only two survivors from this train -- Gretl and her older sister. Jakob guiltily runs off, not seen by either of the girls. Hours later they are picked up by a local farmer when he sees how sick Gretl's sister is. Gretl's sister doesn't survive. In an strange twist of fate, the farmer's wife turns out to be an aquaintance of Jakob, contacting him to come get this orphaned girl she is unable to care for. Upon arrival, Jakob it is shocked to find it is Gretl, and perhaps largely to ease his guilty conscience, agrees to take Gretl to his family's farm.


Gretl ends up staying with them for a number of years until Jakob's mother decides it has become too expensive and too dangerous (as Gretl is looking more and more German during a very much anti-German time in Poland) to keep the child around. Stressing over the limited amount of alternatives, Jakob hears of a town in South Africa looking German war orphans to boost the population there. Feeling there's nothing better he can offer her, he gets on a train with Gretl to South Africa. Once there, he tells her they must cut off further communication with each other for her safety, that she must go on and have the best life possible from here on out. The story then divides between what happens to the two of them individually as the years pass. Will they ever have a chance to meet up again? You'll have to read to find out  :-) 



I struggled to get into this book at first, but that could possibly be due to reading it in October when my brain has been eating up all these paranormal and horror stories. It makes it tough to immediately flip over to standard historical fiction. But I was pretty curious about this one, learning that the author herself is a South African novelist -- 8 to her name -- yet this was her first book to ever be published in English. I also liked that the story goes to South Africa during WW2, as it's not a part of the history that is widely taught in school here in the States. I ended up liking this story a good bit, pulled in by a number of elements. Two of the main things I recall:


>> I really liked the way young Gretl kept finding strength in recalling the story Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Not only because I remember myself being enamored with that story when I was little, but the way it kept encouraging her to push through strange or painful experiences with this idea of "This is just like the story" or "Heidi did this, so I can too." I found Gretl's optimism incredibly warm and endearing. Also with Gretl, I found myself really feeling for her, how throughout her whole life she was forced to try to keep so many lies straight for the sake of staying alive! Just keeping all the names she uses throughout the story -- Gretl, Gretz, Gretchen, Grietjie -- was making my head spin!


  1. >> I found Jakob's constant struggle with trying to be a good man but being forced into difficult positions pretty powerful. Particularly with his political stance. Many of Jakob's friends and neighbors believe that the only way for Poland can win against the German invasion is to join forces with Russia's Red Army. Though Jakob is a resistance fighter, he doesn't agree with joining Russia, he feels it's only potentially swapping one enemy with another. At least he maintains that belief until he gets to Warsaw and sees troops primarily made up of young teens... children, basically... to take on the German troops. After that, he has to reluctantly acknowledge that there might be some truth in the benefits of banding with Russia's army. 



The couple downsides to this story for me: a) the pace was a little slow for my liking, and something about the writing, while definitely good, lacked that extra something that kept me glued to the pages and b) I personally felt the back and forth between two of the characters near the end dragged on a bit too long. I thought it was cute in the beginning but by the end I was bored and burnt out of hearing about it, lost interest in how things would turn out. I called the ending within a few chapters of the novel's start, so that part wasn't really a surprise anyway. 


If you were a fan of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, I would recommend trying this one on for size. I felt a number of commonalities between the relationships of Gretl / Jakob in The Girl From The Train and Liesel / Max from The Book Thief (at least in the first half of the book). The one similarity that especially stood out to me was when Jakob gets seriously injured and Gretl takes it upon herself to nurse him back to health, much like the way Liesl did for Max. Similar stories, though I personally enjoyed The Book Thief much more. 


FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.



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review 2015-09-14 03:48
Review | On This Long Journey by Joseph Bruchac
On This Long Journey, the Journal of Jesse Smoke, a Cherokee Boy, the Trail of Tears, 1838 - Joseph Bruchac

In 1838 in Tennessee, the Cherokee Nation is on the brink of being changed forever as they face the Removal -- being forcibly moved from their homes and land, in part because of a treaty signed by a group of their own people. Sixteen-year-old Jesse Smoke has been studying at the Mission School, but it has been shut down and turned into a fort for the ever-increasing number of soldiers entering the territory. Now Jesse has returned to his home to live with his widowed mother and two younger sisters. All hope lies on the Cherokee chief, John Ross, who is in Washington, D.C., trying to delay the Removal. Then one night, family members are suddenly awakened, dragged from their homes, and brought at gunpoint to a stockade camp. From there, Jesse and his family are forced to march westward on the horrifying Trail of Tears during the long, cold winter months. It's a difficult journey west, and Jesse's not sure if he and his family can survive the journey.






Another selection from Scholastic's historical fiction epistolary novels for middle-grade readers, this time from Joseph Bruchac. I'd not heard of his books before, but it turns out Bruchac has a number of Native American themed novels under his belt! 


Our protagonist this time is 16 year old Jesse Smoke, a Cherokee boy who unfortunately comes to experience The Trail of Tears. When we first meet Jesse, he only hears stories of other small communities outside of his own being moved across the country. The movement all begins when a group of Cherokee chiefs sign a treaty that, unbeknownst to them, completely signs over all Cherokee land to the U.S. government. In exchange, starting in the fall of 1838 the Cherokee people, along with members of the Muscogee, Seminole, Chicasaw, & Choctaw nations as well as black slaves and white family members of the Native American people are made to walk what came to be known as the Trail of Tears until they reach government allotted land for them (in this story they are being relocated to Mississippi from Tennessee). Chief John Ross goes to Washington, D.C. to try to reverse the treaty or at least try to get postponements for the remaining scheduled relocations. His efforts are for naught. Jesse and his family -- in fact, his entire community -- find their time come around the following May. Jesse's experience throughout the following months is shared via his journal entries, which carry through to February of 1839.


Soon after leaving Calhoun, Tennessee, trouble began. People became sick from drinking stagnant water and eating sour grapes by the roadside. So many were ill that the caravan halted more than a week. People began to die, especially children and the old. Among the many buried by the roadside was Chief Dreadful Waters, one of the signers of the Treaty of 1817, which promised us our lands forever.


As I said with Kathryn Lasky's Blazing West, this diary-style format of teaching the historical period is bound to appeal to middle-grade and YA students / readers in general. There is a bit more reference to violence in this one though. Jesse tells of his father being murdered by a white man and a woman who was an eyewitness bystander to the incident later being found dead with her throat cut. Jesse also shares stories of having to witness family and friends die of illness or exposure to the elements as well as his own experience of trying to speak with a soldier, getting the butt of a rifle to the face in response, leaving him in serious pain for months after.



This novel will help young readers gain a rudimentary understanding of the time period, not only through Jesse's fictional story but also through the supplemental material included at the end of the book, which offers a brief synopsis of the actual history, including photographs, maps and other images to further explain the story. I personally struggled with what felt, to me, like a lack of an authentic voice. The tone or the way Jesse spoke either sounded too old to feel believable for a teenage boy, or it was simplified to the point of making him sound much younger. All in all, a good starting place to get young readers interested in learning more, but definitely have supplemental references.

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