September 24, 2018

Book Review: One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus


One of Us is Lying

by Karen McManus

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Length: 361 pages
Published: May 30, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Pay close attention and you might solve this.

On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention.

Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule.
Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess.
Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing.
Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher.
And Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High’s notorious gossip app.

Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident. On Monday, he died. But on Tuesday, he’d planned to post juicy reveals about all four of his high-profile classmates, which makes all four of them suspects in his murder. Or are they the perfect patsies for a killer who’s still on the loose?

Everyone has secrets, right? What really matters is how far you would go to protect them."

Quote:

"Unless one of us is lying. Which is always a possibility."


Excerpt:

"Mr. Avery is a give-detention-first, ask-questions-never kind of guy, but maybe there’s still time to change his mind. I clear my throat and start to raise my hand until I notice Nate’s smirk broadening. 'Mr. Avery, that wasn’t my phone you found. I don’t know how it got into my bag. This is mine,' I say, brandishing my iPhone in its melon-striped case.

Honestly, you’d have to be clueless to bring a phone to Mr. Avery’s lab. He has a strict no-phone policy and spends the first ten minutes of every class rooting through backpacks like he’s head of airline security and we’re all on the watch list. My phone was in my locker, like always.

'You too?' Addy turns to me so quickly, her blond shampoo-ad hair swirls around her shoulders. She must have been surgically removed from her boyfriend in order to show up alone. 'That wasn’t my phone either.'

'Me three,' Cooper chimes in. His Southern accent makes it sound like thray. He and Addy exchange surprised looks, and I wonder how this is news to them when they’re part of the same clique. Maybe ├╝berpopular people have better things to talk about than unfair detentions.

'Somebody punked us!' Simon leans forward with his elbows on the desk, looking spring-loaded and ready to pounce on fresh gossip. His gaze darts over all four of us, clustered in the middle of the otherwise empty classroom, before settling on Nate. 'Why would anybody want to trap a bunch of students with mostly spotless records in detention? Seems like the sort of thing that, oh, I don’t know, a guy who’s here all the time might do for fun.'"


My Book Review:

One of Us is Lying is a fast-paced, clever YA mystery. The descriptions out there about this book are accurate: it's a Breakfast Club murder mystery. The story pulls you in very quickly and it is a really engaging read.

One afternoon, Bronwyn, Addy, Cooper, Nate, and Simon are all sent to detention. All of them claim that they aren't guilty and that they've been framed. The offense is minor, however, and they each have bigger things (and secrets) on their mind. When one of them fails to leave detention alive, the other four are implicated in the murder. Each one claims to be innocent, but each one also has a storied past that they're trying to keep quiet. Worse off, each of them has a reason for wanting the victim gone.

When an author chooses to format their novel with chapters that alternate narrators, they run the risk of audiences preferring some voices over others. There would be moments when reading this novel (and let me add, I read it very quickly because it was just the escape I needed) when I thought I was gravitating towards or relating to one narrator more so than another, but as the story evolved I found myself increasingly absorbed by each character as the stories, crimes, secrets, and implications shifted. 

McManus' story is clever, she keeps the action moving, and the finger-pointing continues to shift keeping audiences curious as to whodunnit. There is some language and sexual content which might make it better suited to older audiences than younger ones, but it's an intriguing mystery and left me looking forward to McManus next mystery novel, Two Can Keep a Secret, due January 2019.



September 21, 2018

Book Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed

by Khaled Hosseini

Genres: Fiction 
Publisher: Riverhead Books 
Length: 404 pages 
Published: May 21, 2013 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Note: You can read my review of Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns and read my preview for his recently released short story/picture book, A Sea Prayer, as well.

My Goodreads Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"So, then. You want a story and I will tell you one...Afghanistan, 1952. Abdullah and his sister Pari live with their father and stepmother in the small village of Shadbagh. Their father, Saboor, is constantly in search of work and they struggle together through poverty and brutal winters. To Abdullah, Pari - as beautiful and sweet-natured as the fairy for which she was named - is everything. More like a parent than a brother, Abdullah will do anything for her, even trading his only pair of shoes for a feather for her treasured collection. Each night they sleep together in their cot, their heads touching, their limbs tangled. One day the siblings journey across the desert to Kabul with their father. Pari and Abdullah have no sense of the fate that awaits them there, for the event which unfolds will tear their lives apart; sometimes a finger must be cut to save the hand. Crossing generations and continents, moving from Kabul, to Paris, to San Francisco, to the Greek island of Tinos, with profound wisdom, depth, insight and compassion, Khaled Hosseini writes about the bonds that define us and shape our lives, the ways in which we help our loved ones in need, how the choices we make resonate through history and how we are often surprised by the people closest to us."

Quote:

"All good things in life are fragile and easily lost." 

All of Khaled Hosseini's books thus far

Excerpt:

"Once upon a time, in the days when divs and jinns and giants roamed the land, there lived a farmer named Baba Ayub. He lived with his family in a little village by the name of Maidan Sabz. Because he had a large family to feed, Baba Ayub saw his days consumed by hard work. Every day, he labored from dawn to sundown, plowing his field and turning the soil and tending to his meager pistachio trees. At any given moment you could spot him in his field, bent at the waist, back as curved as the scythe he swung all day. His hands were always callused, and they often bled, and every night sleep stole him away no sooner than his cheek met the pillow.

I will say that, in this regard, he was hardly alone. Life in Maidan Sabz was hard for all its inhabitants. There were other, more fortunate villages to the north, in the valleys, with fuit trees and flowers and pleasant air, and streams that ran with cold, clear water. But Maidan Sabz was a desolate place, and it didn't resemble in the slightest the image that its name, Field of Green, would have you picture. It sat in a flat, dusty plain ringed by a chain of craggy mountains. The wind was hot, and blew dust in the eyes. Finding water was a daily struggle because the village wells, even the deep ones, often ran low. Yes, there was a river, but the villagers had to endure a half-day walk to reach it, and even then its waters flowed muddy all year round. Now, after ten years of drought, the river ran too shallow. Let's just say that people in Maidan Sabz worked twice as hard to eke out half the living."

Cover to the UK edition

My Book Review:

First off, if you are not aware, it is essential that you understand that Khaled Hosseini is an amazing writer. If you have not yet read any of his books, you are really missing out on beautiful language, masterful craftsmanship, and emotional, power-house books that will blow you away. The Kite Runner will rip your heart out and mend it again. A Thousand Splendid Suns will make you angry and then make you weep. His first short story/picture book, Sea Prayer, is due out this fall and I cannot wait to read it. He's a phenomenal writer and his level of writing stands above most of his peers.

And the Mountains echoed is a perfectly titled novel. The book is essentially a series of intertwined short stores that propel the audience forward through a series of journeys all starting with a fairy tale told by a father to his two young children. This fairy tale establishes what will be the repeating but also evolving themes within this book: commitment versus abandonment and emotional fidelity versus imposed distance. Essential, the book is an investigation of the choices we choose to make or not make when it comes to keeping our relationships whole.

In the poor community of Maidan Sabz, a father is compelled to sell one of his children to a childless couple in exchange for the money he needs to keep the rest of his family alive. What follows is a beautiful if heartbreakting stained glass composition of the lives in and around this one choice.

Generally speaking, I do not usually love short stories. I rarely choose to read them if unassigned. I would much rather sink into a novel or least a novella, so it speaks volumes that I was not only engaged in each story, but that I ended up loving that Hosseini chose to craft the story this way. It could not have been better told in another narrative mode.

Overall, I give the gook four stars in comparison to how much more I loved his five-star knockout novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, but Hosseini's writing quality is so superior to many of his contemporaries that to me it merited a bump up to a 4.5 out of 5 star read. I am very much looking forward to his new book.


September 19, 2018

Book Review: Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist


Present Over Perfect:
Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living

by Shauna Niequist

Genres: Nonfiction, Self Help, Memoir
Publisher: Zondervan
Length: 240 pages
Published: August 9, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"A few years ago, I found myself exhausted and isolated, my soul and body sick. I was tired of being tired, burned out on busy. And, it seemed almost everyone I talked with was in the same boat: longing for connection, meaning, depth, but settling for busy.

I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, writer, and I know all too well that settling feeling. But over the course of the last few years, I’ve learned a way to live, marked by grace, love, rest, and play. And it’s changing everything.

Present Over Perfect is an invitation to this journey that changed my life. I’ll walk this path with you, a path away from frantic pushing and proving, and toward your essential self, the one you were created to be before you began proving and earning for your worth.

Written in Shauna’s warm and vulnerable style, this collection of essays focuses on the most important transformation in her life, and maybe yours too: leaving behind busyness and frantic living and rediscovering the person you were made to be. Present Over Perfect is a hand reaching out, pulling you free from the constant pressure to perform faster, push harder, and produce more, all while maintaining an exhausting image of perfection.

Shauna offers an honest account of what led her to begin this journey, and a compelling vision for an entirely new way to live: soaked in grace, rest, silence, simplicity, prayer, and connection with the people that matter most to us.

In these pages, you’ll be invited to consider the landscape of your own life, and what it might look like to leave behind the pressure to be perfect and begin the life-changing practice of simply being present, in the middle of the mess and the ordinariness of life."

Quote:

"Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in, instead of waiting for some rare miracle or fairytale. Present means we understand that the here and now is sacred, sacramental, threaded through with divinity even in its plainness. Especially in its plainness."


Excerpt:

"This is a love story, like all my favorite stories. It's a story about letting yourself be loved, in all your imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory. And it's about the single most profound life change I've yet encountered.

One Saturday, three years ago, I stared at the ceiling of a hotel room in Dallas, exhausted. I said to myself, 'If anyone else wants to live this life I've created for myself, they're more than welcome to try. But I'm done. I need a new way to live.'"

My Book Review:

I love the intent behind this book, the message that we are worthy and good enough and that we need to enjoy each moment of our life now instead of focusing on perfection or some point of happiness down the line. If this book helps someone to feel that worth about themselves, I am genuinely happy for them, but for me, this tone was cheesy and the book overall was not nearly as helpful, well-written, or thoughtful as Brene Brown's books.

Shauna Niequist aims to help her audiences feel present in their lives--to truly engage in the moment--and hopes to help them see that happiness and fulfillment often get lost in the hustle and bustle of life and neverending to-do lists, goals, and plans for the future. In this way, it felt derivative of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now or similar to some of the messages within Brene Brown's books (Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, The Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly)--all of which I recommend.

Though the message is solid, Niequist's advice, however, is ethereal, impractical, and not helpful. She enjoys her life the most when she spends weeks at a time renting a cabin on a lake in a quaint, quiet town. I'm sure many people would also feel wonderful about their lives if they were able to afford such luxuries and time away to reflect, but most cannot. Some of her suggestions include throwing candy and picturing love as a red heart shape. The book would have improved if Niequist spent less time projecting onto her audience with use of "you" and "we" as if she can speak for everyone, and instead focused her writing on providing more thoughtful and plentiful first-person "I" experiences and stories to share. After finishing the book book, I felt that I didn't know much about the author personally aside from her life on vacation. In some places in the narrative, audiences learn more about what she is eating than how she was purportedly changed her life.

One of my friends reviewed this book and wrote that maybe her expectations as a reader were too high; the same might be said of my own experience reading this book. I only recently discovered Brene Brown and when I saw that she wrote the forward, I assumed this book would be as good as if not better than Brown's. Consequently, I was somewhat disappointed.


September 17, 2018

Book Review: What If? by Randall Munroe


What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

by Randall Munroe

Genres: Science, Nonfiction, Humor
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 307 pages
Published: September 2, 2014
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Randall Munroe left NASA in 2005 to start up his hugely popular site XKCD 'a web comic of romance, sarcasm, math and language' which offers a witty take on the world of science and geeks. It now has 600,000 to a million page hits daily. Every now and then, Munroe would get emails asking him to arbitrate a science debate. 'My friend and I were arguing about what would happen if a bullet got struck by lightning, and we agreed that you should resolve it . . . ' He liked these questions so much that he started up What If.

If your cells suddenly lost the power to divide, how long would you survive?
How dangerous is it, really, to be in a swimming pool in a thunderstorm?
If we hooked turbines to people exercising in gyms, how much power could we produce?
What if everyone only had one soulmate?
When (if ever) did the sun go down on the British empire?
How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?
What would happen if the moon went away?

In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity, studded with memorable cartoons and infographics. They often predict the complete annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion. Far more than a book for geeks, WHAT IF?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions explains the laws of science in operation in a way that every intelligent reader will enjoy and feel much the smarter for having read."

Quote:

"They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places."

Alternate cover

Excerpt:

"Q. What would happen if the Earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning, but the atmostphere retained its velocity? - Andrew Brown

A. Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting." 

My Book Review:

What If? documents Randall Munroe's attempt to provide the best, most thorough and scientific answers to some really out-there questions. I really liked the overall concept of this book because I enjoy asking questions and learning new, nerdy things. I often wonder and ask "What if?" and "Why?" so seeing someone with a NASA background and scientific know-how able to answers questions ranging from sincere to bizarre was fun.

That being said, the chapters themselves are rather hit-and-miss as far as interest level depending upon the question being answered. The book covers a wide range of questions, such as the velocity issue excerpted above, the danger of swimming in a radioactive swimming pool, if everyone on earth actually has a soulmate how the math and logistics would work out, to pointing a powerful laser at the moon. I liked Munroe's sarcastic and dry sense of humor as well as the stickman cartoons he inserts throughout the book to help audiences visualize the science behind his explanations.

I did listen to the audiobook and have to admit my mind wandered in and out of focus depending upon the topic at hand. If I'd had a physical copy, I might have read through the questions and just read particular chapters of interest, but I still listened to them all and enjoyed Wil Wheatley's performance as narrator.

September 14, 2018

Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (Hunger Games series #3)

by Suzanne Collins

Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Length: 501 pages
Published: August 24, 2010
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Note: Spoilers ahead.

My Goodreads Ratings: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. Gale has escaped. Katniss's family is safe. Peeta has been captured by the Capitol. District 13 really does exist. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.

It is by design that Katniss was rescued from the arena in the cruel and haunting Quarter Quell, and it is by design that she has long been part of the revolution without knowing it. District 13 has come out of the shadows and is plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plans -- except Katniss.

The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss's willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels' Mockingjay -- no matter what the personal cost."

Quote:

"It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart."

Excerpt (from Chapter 1):

"I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of gray?

Almost nothing remains of District 12. A month ago, the Capitol's firebombs obliterated the poor coal miners' houses in the Seam, the shops in the town, even the Justice Building. The only are that escaped incineration was the Victor's Village. I don't know exactly why. Perhaps so anyone forced to come here on Capitol business would have somewhere decent to stay. The odd reported. A committee assessing the condition of the coal minds. A squad of Peacekeepers checking for returning refugees.

But no one is returning except me."

My Book Review:

Another 3-star rating for Mockingjay, the last installment in the series though the second-half of this book was my least favorite part of the series.

Unlike most readers, I actually preferred the first half of this book, the part where Katniss is basically catatonic, depressed, suffering PTSD, and hiding in broom closets. I hope people don't read too much into that because generally speaking that sounds like a terrible plot for a book, but it appealed to me because it was more honest about the trauma of Katniss's experiences. If she'd just jumped into battle or war with the Capitol and not been a bit messed up, I probably would have set the book down. I kept reading, however, because she was damaged and that made sense. She seemed genuinely conflicted and I thought that made sense.

By the book's second half, I was a bit exhausted from reading about all of the violence and I had mixed feelings about the ending (there seems to be some general consensus about this). If Katniss had to choose someone (could the series have ended another way?) I guess choosing Peeta makes more sense because there's no way anyone can sanely decide to have a romance with the dude purposely responsible for killing your sister--that's just messed up.

Overall, the series is really successful because Collins did so well creating this other world. I felt I could visualize Panem in my mind, there were interesting characters, conflict, and compelling reasons to keep reading. I can understand some readers' objections to the series--it is extremely violent--but if you consider Greek and Roman myths as a background or jumping off point, the modern-day dystopia was an intriguing idea.

It's been so long since her last novel was published--eight years--that I'm wondering where her writing career will go from here. In 2013 she published a picture book, Year of the Jungle, about a girl whose father is serving in the Vietnam War, but since then it's been silent. What do you hope Collins writes next?


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