4/23/2017

Review: The Princess Diarist

The Princess Diarist The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have always been a fan of Carrie Fisher. I appreciate her dry and witty sense of humor. I was saddened to learn of her passing and that of her mother's only a few days later. I had this book on my to-read list for awhile and when the audiobook became available through my local library, I snatched it up.

The Princess Diarist came about when Fisher discovered some long-lost diaries that she had kept while filming the first Star Wars movie. The first part of the book chronicles Fisher's experiences with auditioning for the part and getting cast. She also reveals that she and her co-star, Harrison Ford, had a brief affair while filming the first film. I was glad that Fisher was the narrator for the audiobook. It made it that much more special to hear the stories in her voice. Her unique personality shines through beautifully.

The middle of the book consists of the journal pages, read by Billie Lourd, presumably because she sounds younger and Fisher wanted the journal pages to sound like the voice of a nineteen-year-old, which is when she wrote them. The journal pages consist mostly of entries written in poetic form and reveal the inner dialogue of a young, naive, and vulnerable teen. I found them to be quite good and was impressed with Fisher's writings. I found them to be rather sophisticated, especially for someone who never graduated from high school. Fisher was a very talented writer.

The end of the book explores Fisher's love-hate relationship with her role of Princess Leia. I found this part of the narrative to be particularly entertaining, especially Fisher's description of what she calls a "lap dance" or when celebrities participate in events where they sell their autographs for cash.

Overall, I found the book to be entertaining, funny, witty, and engaging. It made me sad to think that we have lost one of our biggest icons and brighest stars. Fisher's approach to this book makes you feel like you are out to coffee, listening to her tell stories and trying not to cry with laughter. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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4/16/2017

Review: Caraval

Caraval Caraval by Stephanie Garber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is quite the fantastical tale. The narrative is imaginative and a delight to the senses. Every page is full of magic, wonder, mystery, and danger. It is well written and the characters are dynamic and colorful. The games of Caraval hosted by the notorious, Legend, make for an entertaining and magical backdrop. Nothing is what it seems in this world that is both wondrous and deadly. The plot is full of twists and turns that kept me guessing and jumping to more than one false conclusion throughout. I am eagerly anticipating the sequel.

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Review: Under the Egg

Under the Egg Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun adventure-mystery novel and I love that it had an art history twist. Theo is an intelligent and precocious character and the characters who help her solve the case are fun and make for an entertaining read. I loved the historical basis and twists of the plot and thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It's definitely a unique YA novel.

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Review: Bystander

Bystander Bystander by James Preller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a middle school teacher, I deal with issues of bullying on a regular basis. Often, bullying continues because bystanders refuse to intervene or report it, but the power of the bystander is one of the hardest messages to get across to students.

I really loved the idea of this book and I think that Preller did a really good job of developing believable characters and realistic conflict for the first three-quarters of the book. I was disappointed in the story’s resolution. I had hoped that the protagonist, Eric, would have taken the higher ground instead of acting like the bully himself.

While Eric does begin to question certain behaviors of his own and his friends, I wish he had gone further. I don't deny that bullying is a complicated issue, but I feel like this book falls a little short of its potential. Nevertheless, I do think that it can be used to generate a good discussion on the issue and I am considering using it as part of my social justice unit with my students.

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Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is just a screenplay but the closest thing to a novel that we are likely to get. I read it after watching the movie and felt like I was watching it play across the screen all over again. Even in screenplay form, J.K. Rowling’s writing remains as descriptive and wonderful as ever. The book is illustrated with fun little designs of the beasts throughout which makes this book a nice collectible and addition to any fan’s HP library.

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Review: Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat

Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat by Lynne Jonell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun and imaginative little tale. It was full of humor, magic, mystery, and adventure. A modern-day fairytale. The plot was somewhat predictable, but it was well written and the characters were well developed. The story has heart and is an excellent addition to any children's literature section.

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4/14/2017

Review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up, I loved the movie The Secret of NIMH. It was one of my favorites, up there with The Land Before Time and FernGully, but I never knew it was a book. I recently began preparing for our annual Battle of the Books competition and was pleasantly surprised to see Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH on the list of books.

Reading this book was like stepping back into my childhood for the briefest of moments. The story was just as I remembered, although there are some differences in plot between the movie and the novel, but the characters I loved were still there. As an adult, I was more aware of the darker undertones of the story, relating to the animal research and experimentation, but it was still mixed in with the humor and adventure I remembered from the film. I am probably biased towards this story, as many of us are about stories we encounter in our childhoods, but I still loved it. I look forward to sharing it with my children someday.

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4/13/2017

Review: Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely

Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely by Lysa TerKeurst
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Lysa TerKeurst's books. Over the last few years, I have read a few of TerKeurst's books and have come to appreciate her straightforward and honest approach. For me, this book lacked some focus. It covered many aspects of rejection but lacked the depth that I have come to expect from TerKeurst. I just didn't connect to this book in the way that I have connected with others I have read.

The overall message, however, is an important one. We will all face rejection. It is inescapable, but we still have a choice on how we face rejection. We can give into it and allow it to become our identity and the lens through which we view the world or we can choose to "live loved" and embrace who we are in God. Neither path is without struggle and TerKeurst does give some helpful advice and verses in the book. While I did not feel as deep of a connection to this message as I expected, I did come away with a new perspective on rejection and, therefore, I think this book is a worthwhile read.

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4/11/2017

Review: Legend

Legend Legend by Marie Lu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do love a good dystopian novel and Legend does not disappoint. Set in what was once the United States, the book switches between the perspectives of June, a gifted and loyal soldier of the Republic, and Day, a slum-born rebel determined to undermine the Republic. I loved that these two characters were from such different worlds. The switching of the perspectives kept the story moving forward nicely and Lu does a really good job of developing these two characters. It's the juxtaposition of these two characters that makes the society's problems/realities really stand out. This novel has all the elements that make dystopian literature so entertaining - adventure, mystery, betrayal, and a dash of romance. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and will be jumping into the sequel ASAP.

2016 Reading Challenge: A romance set in the future

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4/10/2017

Review: The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business

The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business by Charles Duhigg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a really interesting read! The book begins by going through the brain science behind what Duhigg refers to as the "Habit Loop." Our brains make thousands of decisions a day, so things that we routinely do become habits, so that our brains don't have to take up mental "bandwidth" thinking about them. Instead, when we are presented with a familiar cue, our brain goes into autopilot and completes the determined behavior without much thought to get the desired reward.

While nothing in the book was particularly mind-blowing, it was interesting to see behaviors broken down into a fairly simple model or process. Duhigg briefly talked about how to modify behaviors based on the "Habit Loop" and outlined some of his experiments with his own behaviors. The book goes on to explore how habit science has been used with business and other organizations with varying success.

If you are interested in how habits are formed and how they can be changed, I think this is a good book to start with. It is written in easy to understand language and there are several case studies included. It is certainly not the "be all, end all" of habit science, but even someone like me, who really had only a passing interest in the topic, enjoyed the book and found it informative.

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3/04/2017

Review: Defending Jacob

Defending Jacob Defending Jacob by William Landay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a great listen. It has all the great elements of a murder mystery/crime story. I liked the format of the narrative, which was like a trial within a trial format. There were some interesting plot twists, especially at the end, that kept the story interesting and prevented it from becoming predictable. It raised some interesting questions about free will and predetermination, nature vs. nurture, parenting, and family dynamics. This is a must read for all you murder mystery/crime story fans out there.

2016 Reading Challenge: A murder mystery

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Review: Our Revolution: A Future to Believe in

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe in Our Revolution: A Future to Believe in by Bernie Sanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have always identified as a Democrat. I am pro-union, pro-choice, and tend to be fairly liberal when it comes to social issues. While I did not agree with everything President Obama did, overall, I was pleased with what he was able to do while in office. However, even I found myself disillusioned with my political party going into the 2016 election season. I had heard of Bernie Sanders prior to him running for president but was only vaguely aware of his policy stances. I knew he was an independent from Vermont and that his ideas were "progressive," but I didn't know specifics. Throughout the primary season, the more I listened to Bernie Sanders talk about various issues and challenges facing our country, the more I found myself agreeing with him. I appreciated his straight-forward and frank assessments of our country and his detailed plans for solutions. He was a breath of rationality in what felt like a circus act.

This book has two parts. The first chronicles Bernie's decision to run for office and his campaign for president. What I found to be so remarkable about Bernie's campaign was that is was very much a grassroots effort. He did not accept any money from PACs and all the money raised was from individual donors, averaging something like $23.00 a person. I have a big problem with the Citizens United decision and the role that money plays in our elections. I was disappointed to see other Democratic candidates, such as Hillary Clinton, spend so much time in fancy fundraisers instead of talking to average citizens. Like many Americans, I feel like big business and wealthy individuals have more say in our government because of their political contributions. I agree with Sanders that true campaign finance reform is needed. I appreciated the way he chose to run his campaign and feel that it should serve as a model for reform.

The second part lays out Bernie's agenda for transforming the country. Among the issues he addresses are money in politics, Wall Street, the decline of the middle class, health care, higher education, climate change, criminal justice reform, and corporate media. What I appreciated about this part of the book is that Sanders not only laid out the issues, supported by verifiable facts, but he also gave detailed solutions to the problems. So many politicians will speak ad nauseam about the troubles facing the nation but they never offer any solutions or detailed plans.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with his policies, I believe that we need more people like Sanders in Congress. People who remember that they are public servants who work for the American people and refuse to be beholden to the 1%. People who use logic and facts to create real solutions to problems and don't waste time arguing and talking in circles. People who are willing to "reach across the aisle" and cooperate and compromise to pass legislation that benefits ALL Americans, not just the businesses and top earners. Only then will real reform be possible, and our Democracy is in need of some serious reform.

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2/14/2017

Review: The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has a very Downton Abbey feel to it as it explores life in the White House, not through the lens of the First Family, but through the lens of the many service staff members that make the White House run. Brower interviewed several White House staff members and combined these insights with archival research to write this narrative.

The White House is a six-floor mansion, with 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, three elevators, and eight staircases and its employees are responsible for cleaning, repairing, and maintaining it all, on top of preparing everything from hors d’oeuvres for intimate gatherings to meals served at elaborate state dinners.

It was interesting to see everyday life in the White House through the eyes of apolitical people who support the First Families and whose first priority is not politics, but service. The stories they told were funny, touching, and told with a great deal of humility and respect.

The one thing that bothered me was that this book contains several stories that are also included in Brower's book, First Women. I read these two books back-to-back, so that might be why I was so cognizant of the overlaps. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and learned some facts that I didn't know before, so all in all, a successful reading experience.

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Review: First Women: Inside the White House with the Modern First Ladies

First Women: Inside the White House with the Modern First Ladies First Women: Inside the White House with the Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have always been fascinated by First Ladies and the roles they play in their husband's administration and in history. Brower's book takes a look at modern First Ladies spanning from 1960 to today, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama.

The book is based on interviews with White House staff, friends, and family, as well as personal correspondence. It explores how these different women defined the role of "First Lady" for themselves, including navigating the transition of power, managing the White House, their own personal crusades, raising children in the public eye, their personal relationships with their husbands, dealing with the tensions between the West Wing and the East Wing, protecting their family's legacy, their relationships with each other, and facing national crises and tragedies.

It was an interesting read and readers who like history or political books will enjoy it.

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Review: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always have a mixed reaction to Amy Schumer. While I find her funny most of the time, sometimes she crosses over into the bit too crass for me. I did not find this book to be crass at all, in fact, I was surprised by how truly funny, insightful, honest, and vulnerable it was, not because I don't think Schumer is all of those things, but because it wasn't what I was expecting.

Mixed in with funny stories about her childhood and how she got started in comedy, which is what I was expecting to read, are some truly candid stories about her experiences with her father's illness and abusive relationships, which I wasn't necessarily expecting as I did not know much about Schumer's back story before this book. The result of this mix is an honest, humorous, and humanizing narrative (how's that for alliteration!) that is real but doesn't take itself too seriously.

Schumer does an excellent job narrating the book and I recommend the audiobook highly. It almost felt more like participating in a conversation rather than listening to someone tell their life story. If you're a fan of Schumer's or enjoy autobiographies by celebrities I would give this one a go.

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Review: The Engagements

The Engagements The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting narrative because it has a lot of moving pieces. It starts by chronicling how the diamond became the hallmark of the marriage/relationship market. Thanks to clever marketing campaigns by the De Beers family, the diamond has become the "go-to" stone for engagement rings and become status symbols for relationships here in America. Throughout the narrative, we return to the story of Frances Gerety, the copy editor in charge of the De Beers account, and follow the diamond's evolution from the 1940's through the 2000's.

Against this backdrop, we follow five love stories from different time periods. We meet Evelyn, who has been married to her husband for forty years. Delphine, who marries for companionship only to be swept up into an affair that doesn't last. There's James, a paramedic who works the night shift, who feels constant pressure knowing his wife’s family thinks she could have done better. Kate, partnered with Dan for a decade, who doesn't plan to ever marry and is helping with her gay friends' wedding. All of these stories explore marriage and the role of the diamond through different lens and decades.

What I found to be most creative is how Sullivan brought all of these seemingly divergent stories that are so different and take place during different time periods all together. For me, it was not immediately obvious what was going to be the connecting thread, but I was quite impressed when it finally came out. It was quite creative storytelling.

The audiobook was a long one to listen to, as the print book is over 400 pages, but I did not find it hard to sustain my attention throughout the listening experience. I would definitely recommend checking this novel out.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book with a blue cover

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Review: The Magnolia Story

The Magnolia Story The Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Chip and Joanna Gaines. Fixer Upper is one of my favorite HGTV shows to watch. I love Chip's goofy personality and Joanna's style. I love that they are faith and family oriented and their personalities appear very genuine. I've seen interviews with Chip and Joanna, so I knew a bit about their backstory, but I was interested in learning more.

I liked the structure of the book. It's mostly Joanna's telling the couple's story, but Chip jumps in throughout the book. Different fonts are used for Chip and Joanna, so it was easy to keep track of who was "speaking." Even though I have been a fan, I was surprised by things. For example, I didn't realize that Joanna does not have a background in design and that she is largely self-taught. I was also unaware of the many business ventures Chip has been a part of.

The humor and personality that Chip and Joanna display on their TV show is the same as what comes through in this narrative. It's a genuine and honest retelling of their relationship, struggles, and adventures. If you are a fan of their HGTV show, you will like this book.

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Review: The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars

I have a love/not love so much relationship with this book. I won't say love/hate relationship because there was nothing about the book that I hated, just somethings that I didn't love so much.

Here's what I really loved about this book...First, I loved the premise. I loved that the main character, Victoria, was able to communicate using flowers. It was just an interesting juxtaposition - this character who had such a traumatic childhood using the one beautiful thing - flowers and their meanings - from her childhood to communicate and find her place in the world. Secondly, I liked how the story wove several narratives together, many of which had "full circle" moments, which added a lot of depth to the novel as a whole. Overall, I found the book to be well written, perhaps a bit too long in some places, but a tremendous effort for a first-time author.

Here's what I didn't love so much...here's where you might want to stop reading because of spoilers...

(view spoiler)

I think this one is worth the read. Overall, it is a beautiful story about broken people and their journies back to wholeness. I wish some things had turned out differently but I would still recommend the novel.

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1/28/2017

Review: Scrappy Little Nobody

Scrappy Little Nobody Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather enjoyed this audio book. It was fun to listen to Anna Kendrick read her own thoughts. I'm a big fan of Anna's and love her tweets on Twitter. I found the book to be very similar, full of wit and wry humor. I laughed out loud several times throughout the book. It's not all laughs, however. Anna does a nice job of balancing the humor with what I believe to be an honest telling of her experiences in Hollywood. I look forward to future books from Kendrick.

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Review: And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a beautiful little story about a grandfather and his grandson. It's about life, love, loss, and the power of memory. There is an unexpected little twist at the end that gives the story a very "full circle" feel. I rather enjoyed this story and it made me tear up a bit.

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1/08/2017

Review: Britt-Marie Was Here

Britt-Marie Was Here Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Britt-Marie Was Here is a sort of spin-off of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry but it can be read as a standalone. It is an incredibly sweet story. While in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie is a busy-body nag, in this novel her character is much better developed. It turns out that she is so much more than she appears. Her relationships with the people of Borg made me laugh, cry, cheer, and everything in between. It is a story of loss, hope, second chances, resilience, and self-discovery. I enjoyed this story from start to finish.

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Review: The Chemist

The Chemist The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Chemist is certainly a departure for Meyer from her other YA novels. I think this novel had a lot of potential but I don't think the execution was entirely successful. For me, this novel was so full of contradictions and odd juxtapositions that it wasn't entirely believable. Granted, it is a fiction novel, but the best fiction does have some basis in reality.

The main characters, Alex and Daniel, both were developmentally flawed. Alex was this awkward, socially inept, Mary Jane character. Yet, I was also supposed to believe that she was this ruthless interrogator? She had a split personality that just didn't quite mesh for me. How can one be both ruthless and naive at the same time? Daniel was too everything - too good, too forgiving, too trusting. They fell in love too quickly. It just made the story unrealistic and unbelievable at times.

At over 500 pages, the story was in need of some serious editing. There were times when the narrative dragged and lulled, which caused the suspense and drama of the story to lag and wane. There were whole scenes that could have been removed that would have moved the story along at a better pace. In the end, this one was just okay for me. I would really give the novel 2.5 stars.

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Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is quite a lot of hype behind this book and I had to wait a long time to get it from the library, so I went into this novel with some high expectations. For the most part, they were met.

The book is centered on two main story lines: Marie-Laure, a young, blind girl living in Paris with her father and Werner Pfennig, a young boy seeking to escape his coal mining town by joining the Hitler Youth. There are also several other parallel stories that are woven together and branch off from these two main stories, some which are atypical of a World War II novel. There is the story of Marie-Laure's reclusive uncle who takes her in and his faithful servant who leads a resistance movement in seaside Saint-Malo. Or the story of Frank Volkheimer, a ruthless Nazi soldier known as "The Giant" who loves classical music and has a soft spot for Werner. Frederick, Werner's best friend at school who doesn't quite fit the mold and suffers the consequences. Reinhold von Rumpel, a Nazi officer on a mission to collect valuable for the Reich and hunt down a fabled gem known not only for its value but mystical powers. All of these stories weave together to drive the convergence of Marie-Laure and Werner's stories towards the end of the novel.

At first, it can be a little difficult to track these seemingly divergent story lines, but once you get used to the structure it becomes easier to see how the stories are all pieces of one story. The narrative is sad and there are many broken pieces, but war stories rarely have happy endings. I thought the book was well written and deserving of the praise it has been receiving. It was worth the read.

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Review: Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide

Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This third installment of Pottermore material focuses on Hogwarts. Again, I feel like most of this material has been previously released on the Pottermore website, but that doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy another diversion into its hallowed halls. I am still waiting for my acceptance letter, after all. :)

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1/07/2017

Review: Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this second installment of Pottermore material, we get more details on Umbridge, Quirrell, Slughorn, past Ministers for Magic, and Azkaban. Once again, I feel like some or most of this material has been previously published on the Pottermore website, but if you like reading more about the history of Rowling's wizarding world, it's worth a read.

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Review: Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies

Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Any chance I have to venture into the wizarding world that J.K. Rowling created, I'm going to jump at the chance. One thing that I love about the Pottermore website is that it offers readers a chance to dive into the history of the places and people of this magical world. This collection of short stories gives readers a taste of the Pottermore experience.

My favorite stories from this collection would be the histories of Minerva McGonagall and Remus Lupin. These are two of my favorite characters from the Harry Potter series and I enjoyed learning more about their lives before.

It is not an extensive collection and much of what's in it can probably be found on the Pottermore website, but if you are a fan, you will enjoy this quick little diversion.

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Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second novel by Fredrik Backman and I think he is becoming one of my new favorite authors. This novel has such a wonderful mix of misfit characters! The characters are what make this novel so special. I loved the parallels between the fairy tale characters and the "real" characters living in the flats in Elsa's building. I found myself wishing that I could live in the building, too. This book had me laughing out loud, tearing up, cheering, and everything in between. It is a beautifully written novel about loss, family, and love. It was excellent.

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