Review: A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I cannot even begin to explain how much I loved this book! Ove is the grumpiest, most OCD curmudgeon I have ever encountered. He's worse than Scrooge! Yet, underneath it all, he has a heart of gold and a set of principles that you just don't find anymore.

The cast of characters in this novel - from the crazy neighbor with a yippie dog to the foreign family who moves into the neighborhood, to the neighbor Ove feuds with because he bought a BMW to the cat that Ove reluctantly adopts - are just wonderful and make for a highly entertaining novel. I lost count of the number of times that I laughed aloud while listening to this book in my car. The narrator of the audiobook was spot on and perfectly read the story.

Through his interactions with his neighbors and flashbacks to his past, Ove is revealed to be more than just the resident grump. Mixed in with all the hilarity is actually a really sweet love story and a portrait of a man of integrity and upstanding character. I loved this book from start to finish. I highly recommend this one.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book translated to English

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Review: Zlata's Diary

Zlata's Diary Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filipović
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was one of the choice books that our English department decided to offer students as part of our nonfiction narrative unit. Since I had never read it, I decided to read it along with my literature circle group. I liked the book. Zlata is a bubbly adolescent and I admire her ability to remain so even in the face war and hardship.

In terms of our big question - How do people respond to and overcome challenges? - Zlata's Diary generated a lot of great discussion amongst my literature group. Many of my students were able to connect with Zlata and imagine themselves in her shoes. They found the diary to be easy to read and they were able to make some great connections between it and some of the other pieces we read.

My only criticism of the book is its lack of context. I was around Zlata's age in the 1990's and remember hearing about the conflict in Sarevjo, but being a child myself, I didn't pay much attention. My students, of course, were born well after this conflict and had no real knowledge to work from. I wish the book had a forward or introduction that provided a bit of information on the conflict so that it was easier to understand the narrative in context. There are, of course, other resources out there, but finding ones that are simplistic enough for middle schoolers and accessible to a wide range of reading levels is challenging. It would have been nice to have something as part of the published work to use, especially since it has been so many years.

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Review: Zac and Mia

Zac and Mia Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have read and loved many "cancer books," but this isn't your typically "cancer story." First, it's not a romance. It is really the story of a friendship. The type of friendship where you can truly be yourself, warts and all, where you find complete and total acceptance, and deep understanding.

The characters are the true heart of this story. Zac is one of the most loveable characters I have come across. You literally cannot help but love him. He is funny, affable, self-deprecating, cautiously optimistic, caring, and his family is adorable. However, the real star of the story is Mia. Her character arc throughout the novel was brilliantly done. She was raw and real, and she made no apologies. Her anger and grief were such true emotions in the situation that it made the story so relatable and engaging.

I liked how Betts didn't attempt to sugarcoat anything. Even loveable Zac, when faced with a heartbreaking and seemingly insurmountable challenge, reacted in a real way. He became angry and withdrawn, he didn't pretend that everything would be alright. But the beauty of Zac and Mia's relationship is how they pick each other up when they stumble or fall. I thought it was a beautifully written narrative. It was funny, sad, hopeful, entertaining, and a very satisfying read.

I only have one complaint about the audiobook version of this novel. It is about two teenagers who live in Australia, yet neither narrator had an Australian accent. They kept referring to kangaroos and places in Australia and it bothered me every time I was reminded of the setting of the story. Don't get me wrong, I liked the narrators. Other than their complete lack of Australian accents, I thought they embodied the characters wonderfully. It may just be my OCD talking here...

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Review: Inferno

Inferno Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been a fan of this series from the very first novel. Dan Brown has done a remarkable job of sustaining this series and the character of Robert Langdon. I love the mix of art, history, suspense, and mystery that Brown brings to life in these books. I love Robert Langdon. He's the quintessential professor with an intimidating intellect, yet an affable and approachable personality.

Inferno is probably the best yet. I remember studying Dante in college so it was fun to have it serve as the backdrop of this story. This is an action packed book that goes from zero to sixty and doesn't let up on the gas pedal. There were several instances where I thought I had figured part of the mystery out, only to be surprised by an unexpected twist. I think the conflict, which centers around the environment, population control, and sustainability, is timely and thought provoking.

The ending took me completely by surprise because I was anticipating something completely different. This novel is not predictable at all. I loved it from start to finish.

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Review: Every Last Word

Every Last Word Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were things about this novel that I really liked and some things that I didn't. First, for what I liked...

My favorite thing about this novel was the characters. I liked Sam and found her to be a relatable character. I could sympathize with her desire to be normal despite having to cope with OCD. I adored the characters from Poet's Corner and would love to spend an afternoon hanging out with them in their secret room. I loved that Sam was able to connect with others and herself through poetry and I loved the idea of a secret poetry group. Ever since I saw the movie, Dead Poet's Society I have harbored a desire to belong to a secret poetry society. Unfortunately, I haven't come across one just yet. I liked the relationship between Sam and AJ because it was all about forgiveness and second chances. This book had me hook, line, and sinker until about three-quarters of the way in.

Now, onto what I didn't like...you might want to stop here to avoid spoilers. I'm going to try not to give too much away, but just in case...

I thought I knew exactly where this story was going til Mrs. Stone through me a supernatural curve ball. Then she lost me. The introduction of a ghost was just too left-field for me. Although, Stone did a good job explaining the situation and connecting it with Sam's mental disorder, the story just lost steam for me after that.

What I liked about this novel far outweighs what I didn't like about it, but that supernatural element keeps me from being about to give it four stars. It's really like a 3.5 for me.

On an unrelated note to the novel, I listen to the audio version of this novel and found the narrator's accent or maybe it was her intonation off-putting. Just an FYI in case you might be considering the audiobook. If you have a choice, I would suggest a non-audio version.

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Review: Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have read a few of Foer's novels now, but this is definitely my least favorite. For a book that is entitled, Everything is Illuminated I found this novel to be anything but illuminating. The narrative was confusing and I think it was supposed to be funny, but I just didn't get it.

The characters were flat and uninteresting. The plot was disjointed - switching between past and present, different perspectives, prose and letter format, etc. - and it was hard to follow. I found myself having to re-read whole sections just to make heads or tails of it. At times, Foer drops plot lines abruptly and never comes back to them, which left me questioning their relevance to begin with.

It took me a long time to get through this novel. Normally, I don't mind a novel that requires a more active approach, but about halfway through, this one became a chore for me to get through. I think it lacks the witty, descriptive prose that I have come to expect from Foer. This novel just felt gimmicky. Not one of my favorites.

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Review: All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This has been hailed as "The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park" but I fail to see the comparison, other than it's about two teenagers who fall in love. But, the love story is not even central to the story. This book is about mental illness and all its forms - depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, etc. - and the stigma that is placed on those who suffer from these disorders. Most of the characters in this novel are dealing with some issue to varying degrees.

Theodore Finch is the poster child for how mental illness is viewed in today's society. He is clearly a young man who is suffering from an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. I suspected around that halfway mark that he might be bipolar. He is labeled as a freak and shies away from seeking real treatment because being labeled as "bipolar" would simply confirm what others think of him and he refuses to live his life under a label. His family dismisses his erratic behaviors, saying simply, "that's Finch." The whole family is clearly in denial of not only Finch's mental health, but their own.

Violet, on the other hand, is a prime example of grief and the hold that it can have on a person. Finch was a flawed but very likable character. He seemed to lack insight on how to help himself, but he certainly pegged Violet and I enjoyed watching him bring her out of her shell and move through her grief surrounding her sister's death. Both are likable characters. The narrative was highly entertaining and funny at times. I think both Finch and Violet were relatable characters who were easy to connect with.

I think this book approaches a very serious and pervasive issue in an accessible way. Removing the stigma surrounding mental illness is so important. Many people don't seek the treatment they need because they fear being labeled and judged unfairly. As a middle school teacher, I see so many of my students dealing with mental help issues and the fear of others finding out about it. Unfortunately, because of this, too many chose the path that Finch did.

This is a YA novel, but because of its subject matter, I would say it's more Mature YA. In the end, I was left with mixed emotions. I felt incredibly sad but also hopeful. I urge anyone who sees themselves or someone they love in Finch or Violet to know that you are not alone and to seek help.

2016 Reading Challenge: The first book you see in a bookstore

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Review: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have seen a few TV interviews with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and find her to be an intelligent and articulate woman. It is quite easy to see why she is controversial with her opinions on Islam and its need for reform. To be upfront, my understanding of the Islamic faith is basic. I do not pretend to have knowledge or understand all of Islam's long history, subgroups, and intricacies.

Until September 11, 2001, Islam was just another religion to me. Something that I learned about in a textbook in World History class. However, after 9/11 and in the subsequent decade, Islam has stepped into the spotlight on the world stage and in the media with the rise of groups such as the Taliban, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations.

I fully believe that not every Muslim is a terrorist and that Islam is not alone in having extremists, but I also find it interesting that a proclaimed "religion of peace" is shrouded in violence, oppression, and has followers who are willing to carry out such atrocious acts in its name. Unlike many other world religions, Islam seems to have stayed in a time capsule, never experiencing the progressions and modernizations that others have and continue to have.

While I am by no means qualified nor do I know enough to decide whether Hirsi Ali is correct in her assertions, I do think she puts forth some thought provoking arguments for the reformation of Islam. For example, how can Muslims argue that Islam is a religion of peace when one of its central tenants is jihad, a holy war against infidels (any non-Muslim)? Countless acts of violence have been carried out in the name of jihad. Violence is correlated with reward in the afterlife. To call it a peaceful religion seems contradictory and irreconcilable without some change to Islam's core values and beliefs.

If you are looking for a book to help you better understand Islam, this isn't the book for you. If you are interested in learning about some of the modern challenges facing Islam, this book certainly contributes to that discussion. It's a discussion that I believe is worth having, especially if we have any chance of combating such an extreme ideology.

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Review: Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a very interesting narrative. It consists of several disparate stories that McCann somehow manages to overlap and weave together. The vastly different characters deal with love, loss, grief, hope, and a gamut of other emotions with 1970's New York City serving as the backdrop.

I was impressed by this book. At first, I didn't see how the narrative would come together. The interweaving of Philippe Petit's famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers seemed too simple and superficial connection, but as the book progressed, the connections between the stories and characters became deeper and more meaningful, and there were a few surprises too.

This book is not for the impatient reader. You will need to give it several chapters before you begin to see the bigger picture. This shouldn't be too hard, though, as McCann's prose is well structured, engaging, and well written. I liked the book and thinks it's worth a read.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book recommended by a family member

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Review: Here I Am

Here I Am Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one was just okay for me. It is the story of an American-Jewish upper middle-class family and its implosion. The characters were both endearing, yet completely off-putting at times. The prose was funny and witty, yet ridiculous and crude. The novel seemed to be fighting with itself over its own identity, just like its characters fought with each other. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? Are we meant to vilify or sympathize with certain characters? I don't know. It almost felt bi-polar to me.

I liked the parts about Jacob and his relationship with his sons and wife, but a lot of the plot was just ridiculous. Foer has a unique writing style, which is not for everyone. It's a long book, so it definitely requires a time commitment. I'm not sorry that I read it, but it was just okay for me.

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Review: Tales of the Peculiar

Tales of the Peculiar Tales of the Peculiar by Ransom Riggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every culture has it's own fairytales, myths, and legends. Stories that we hear as children growing up that speak to the values and lessons important for us to internalize. I love when authors release books like this because it adds another dimension to the world that they created in their novels. It also gives readers another connection to the characters. Now we too can read the stories that are known by our favorite characters and referenced in the novels. I loved that Millard added his own annotations to the tales because it brought humor and a sense of interaction to the collection of stories. I highly recommend this book for fans of the Peculiar Children series.

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Review: Library of Souls

Library of Souls Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think this was my favorite book in the series. I liked how Jacob's character was developed in this novel. I just felt like he was so much more mature and I enjoyed watching him discover and develop his peculiarity. I almost felt like a proud parent watching their child blossom and come into their own. I felt more connected to his character in this book and could appreciate his struggle between his old life and his new one and the weight of responsibility he felt. Jacob became a rounder character for me in this novel.

Library of Souls was full of action, mystery, fantastic new characters, fun plot twists, amazing photography, with a dash of romance. It was a highly entertaining read and I enjoyed it from start to finish. I was satisfied with the series' resolution and don't have any complaints about how it all ended. I am sad that there are no new books to look forward to, but all good things must end, and this series is definitely a "good thing."

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Review: Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love old Hollywood movies and the glamorous actors and actress, like Elizabeth Taylor, that starred in them. So, I especially loved that they were the backdrop for a lot of this novel. I liked the "behind the scenes" approach to telling the story. I also liked that this story had many moving pieces. It was interesting to have different perspectives and see how the lives of so many characters intersected and overlapped. Jess Walters really did a masterful job of weaving them all together in a way that didn't feel contrived or predictable. He even managed to work in a few surprises!

I found the narrative to be funny, heartfelt, engaging, and well written. I would give it 3.5 stars.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book set in Europe

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Review: The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?

The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anyone who is even slightly familiar with the Christian faith has probably heard of Rick Warren and The Purpose Driven Life. I, of course, had heard of the book before reading it and had heard mostly good things about it, so I decided to give it a read.

In this newest edition, the book is broken up into 42 chapters, each one with a short online introduction video and "Message to Hear" sermon attached to it. In addition to the book, I also purchased the companion journal which has reflection questions for each chapter. The idea is to set aside time each day to watch the introduction video, read the chapter, listen to the corresponding sermon, and journal. This is the schedule that I followed over the course of 42 days. It is a time commitment, requiring about one and a half to two hours a day to complete, as the "Message to Hear" recording were of previously recorded full-length sermons.

As a fairly mature Christian, there was nothing in this book that I didn't already know. It speaks about building a relationship with God, getting connected to a Church and small group, serving, and outreach. For me, there was nothing Earth shattering. Nevertheless, I did find it helpful for identifying areas for continued spiritual growth. Pastor Warren also references several free self-assessments and other resources throught his website that I found helpful.

I thought the chapters and journal were paired nicely together and would recommend that you purchase both if you chose to take this study on. I found the journal to be very helpful for reflection and recording my thoughts as I moved through the different chapters. I didn't always see the connection between the "Message to Hear" and the chapters. Each message is a previously recorded sermon from Saddleback Church, Pastor Warren's church. I wish that they had been a bit more tailor-made for the book itself.

I think this book has a little something for everyone, no matter where you are in your spiritual journey. For those who are new to the faith, it provides direction on how to begin walking in faith. For those who have already been walking in faith, it can help identify areas for continued growth. I found it worth the time.

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Review: Hollow City

Hollow City Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a unique series and Riggs delivered an excellent second installment. This book picks up right where the first ended and sets off on another wild adventure. The Peculiars, in search for a cure for Miss Peregrine, find themselves traveling to new loops and encountering all new Peculiars along the way. This novel builds on what made the first so great - adventure, fantasy, amazing photography, and plenty of surprises. It even has a little bit of romance drama! This is an excellent YA series. Can't wait to see what happens in book three!

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Review: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was quite an enjoyable suspense thriller. I liked that it switched perspectives because it gave the narrative a puzzle-like feel and kept the plot from being too predictable. I was able to figure out certain elements of the mystery fairly quickly, but it was harder to put all the pieces together than I thought it would be. For example, I knew that Rachel's ex-husband was involved, but I couldn't quite figure out how, and there were certainly other things that acted as distractions from the truth. I didn't see how the ending played out coming at all.

The story is suspenseful and thrilling, there are plenty of twists and surprises, and Hawkins does a good job fitting all the moving pieces together. In the end, I think this book was worth all the hype.

I saw the movie and it closely follows the book with minor changes (i.e. the story is set in New York rather than London). Overall, I think it was a pretty good adaptation of the novel. Of course, the book was still better. ;)

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Review: The Awakening

The Awakening The Awakening by Kate Chopin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The truth is, I have always struggled to understand feminism, and I'm a woman. For me, feminism has always been about choice. It's about women being able to define for themselves what they want for their lives, regardless of what society (or anyone, really) says. It means that if a woman chooses to get married, have children, and be a stay-at-home mom, she can. If a woman chooses to focus on her career, travel, and not have children, she can. If she chooses any number of combinations in between, that's her prerogative. It means recognizing that women are more than just their gender and not judging how they choose to live their lives. We are human beings with our own ambitions, thoughts, and value.

Unfortunately, we women are still fighting many of the same battles that Edna faced in this novel. We are still fighting against a male-dominated society who still wants to keep us in our traditional roles. On top of that, we are fighting against each other. It saddens me to see women attacking other women because they do not prescribe to the same brand of feminism. Feminism should be about equality and valuing women, and embracing the many different and unique talents and traits women bring to the table. We are more than our gender, but our gender also makes us uniquly qualified to contribute to society.

I could keep going, but I'll step down off my soapbox for now. Back to the novel...I can see why The Awakening is hailed as "feminist" literature. Edna starts out as a "traditional woman" - she gets married to a suitable match, has children, and fulfills all of the social obligations expected of her, seemingly without stopping to ask herself if that is what she really wants. As time goes on, she begins to realize that the life she leads is not the life she would have choosen had she known herself better or had other options. She falls in love with a man who is not her husband; while she still appears to love her children, she reconsiders whether motherhood is really right for her; she pursues her own desires, rather than engaging in social niceties that she abhors. In short, she refuses to continue defining her life by what society and other people say it should be, which ultimately leads to her downfall.

People seem to either love her or hate her. In reading other reviews, Edna is harshly critized for her choices and I have to wonder why? Do I agree with everything she did? No. But I also have to ask myself how I would feel and respond if I felt trapped in my own life. It's important to consider the time period of this piece as well. Women did have the options they had today. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that she was a victim because she made choices and knew the potential consequences of those choices. I find her to be a sympathetic character. This book certainly sparks great discussion and I can see why it was so controversal when it was first published.

I suggest giving it a chance. It would certainly make a great book club read.

2015 Reading Challenge: A book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit

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Review: Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting one for me. Marquez's prose is beautifully descriptive, yet not pretentious or complicated to understand. The novel has a very laid back, casual tone. The plot is simple - boy meets girl, girl marries someone else, boy waits for girl for 50 years, and the couple reunites. But it's not the story that makes this novel special, it's Marquez's writing style. The plot is almost secondary to his crafting of words that make it up.

However, it's supposed to be a romance and I did not find it very romantic. I wasn't able to really emotionally connect to the characters and the overall story lacked the passionate fire I look for in a good romance. At times, I found the plot ridiculous and almost comical (maybe that was the point?). This wasn't one of my favorites. Perhaps something was lost in translation?

2016 Reading Challenge: A book from Oprah's Book Club

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Review: Hard Choices

Hard Choices Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have always respected Hillary Clinton and her long career dedicated to helping families, especially children. I admire her ability to break "glass ceilings" and be a force in a male dominated field. I picked up this book because I wanted to learn more about Clinton's time as Secretary of State. Listening to the audio book was somewhat jarring because Hillary read the first chapter of the book and the narrator, Kathleen Chalfant, who read the rest of the book have very similar sounding voices.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book. It was written and structured well. The narrative was engaging, even funny at times. There were parts that were more candid than others and some that were more "P.C." than I would have liked. I think Clinton was honest, but let's face it, politicians never stop being politicians, so I'm not sure that some of her opinions were censored.

What I came away with from the book was an appreciation for how complicated foreign policy is. It is a delicate dance where every move, no matter how small, is significant. The color outfit you wear, the gift you send, where you travel or don't travel, every word said and every gesture made - it all matters. And yes, hard choices must be made. It's a job that I can't imagine anyone ever wanting, but it is a job that I know have a greater appreciation for.

Overall, I liked the memoir.

2016 Reading Challenge: A political memoir

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