Review: The Maggie Bright: A Novel of Dunkirk

The Maggie Bright: A Novel of Dunkirk
The Maggie Bright: A Novel of Dunkirk by Tracy Groot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oof. This book deals with a lot of heavy topics. I mean, WWII isn’t known for being a light or happy period in human history, but sometimes books set during that period focus on the homefront and on happier parts of the story. I don’t think I’d ever read a book with such a focus on the beaches of Dunkirk. I also hadn’t read a book that painted such a bleak picture of the war effort before America joined in. There are some snide comments made throughout the book about isolationist Americans, because even through the end of the book America has not decided to join the war yet. It’s fascinating to read a book set in the thick of WWII before the tide had turned and our triumph was ensured. It’s also really scary to see how close the Nazis came to winning everything.

The book takes a surprisingly dark angle on the Nazis as well. I mean, we all know that they were awful–that’s not up for debate, of course–but a lot of book that are set more on the homefront don’t really focus much on the enemy powers as much more than potential bombers. We get an intimate, horrible look into the atrocious acts committed by the Nazis throughout the book. I won’t go too much into the circumstances because those would be spoilers, but suffice it to say that the main characters talk about the Nazi T4 program.

Anyway, moving on to the book as entertainment rather than just as history. I liked it, I did, but I have to say that my main appreciation for the book comes from its historical insights rather than from the characters. Murray is definitely my favorite, and then Jamie and then probably Clare, but there were so many characters that things got rather confusing by the end. Everyone also had a chronic over-sharing problem: perfect strangers would walk up to each other, exchange some pleasantries, and then spill huge secrets to each other. The worst offenders were the two Scotland Yard agents who literally introduced themselves to Clare, invited her to coffee, and then told her big state secrets known only by a few (as well as a plethora of little personal details they surely should have been trained not to reveal to a complete stranger). Along the same vein as this ever-so-convenient openness, there’s a dreadful case of insta-love in the book as well. Within the case of a single week and just a few encounters, Clare and a man she just met fall completely in love with each other. It’s rather painful to watch.

Also, there’s a whole side-plot with Clare’s colorful family history, but we never even get to meet her oppresive uncle or learn anything important about her parents or watch her properly process something else she stumbles across over the course of the book. I would have really liked to see more in this area, because I liked what we got.

But really, though, I devoured The Maggie Bright because it’s about a fascinating, and little-known, period of WWII. I lapped up the historical details and the new perspective on both the war as a whole and America’s role in it, and I read anxiously to see what would happen to my favorite characters on every fresh page because I knew that so many real soldiers faced similar situations to theirs. It’s a gripping story, even if parts are rather contrived, and I am glad I had the opportunity to read it.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up

How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up
How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve always had a huge variety of interests. I had a terrible time deciding what major to pursue in college next year because there were so many careers I wanted to try: publicity, computer science, economics, accounting, and history were all subjects that I seriously considered majoring in at one point or another. I struggled with the idea of shutting doors on my future, of choosing one path and eliminating my chance to pursuing the rest of them. I eventually wound up choosing to double major in computer science and economics, which are two of my favorite subjects and ensure I will have a wide variety of appealing career paths to choose from down the road.

I say all this to provide some insight into my background approaching How To Be Everything. I have never considered myself to be a “straight arrow” person, which means that by Wapnick’s definition of the word I must be a “multipotentialite” (a person with multiple passions and potential pursuits). The book is designed to introduce its readers to this term, a convenient label to put on those of us who have more than one interest, and then to offer different strategy ideas for incorporating diverse interests or even total career switches into one’s working life. While I do like Wapnick’s advice about following your passions (while always still keeping one eye on the finances!), I’m not sure I agree with her idea that some portion of the population are multipotentialites, that they are a misunderstood and often oppressed bunch, and that they must basically “come out of the closet” about the fact that they are a multipotentialite and try to fight against restricting social norms that seek to make them have only one interest their entire life.

Why do I not agree with this? Because I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t a multipotentialite. If there’s truly someone with only one interest out there, who never gets sick of their job or passionate about a side hobby or occasionally daydream about hopping careers, then they are the minority in this world. Honestly, I think most people pursue what Wapnick calls the “Einstein Approach,” which is basically just having a good enough job and doing things that interest them in their free time. Gobs of people also follow the “Group Hug Approach,” pursuing a career that encapsulates most of their greatest interests. I, to be perfectly honest, will probably do both of those: I’ll have a “group hug” job that combines my love of tech and economics, and then I’ll spend my free time reading and doing art projects and other things my job doesn’t offer. This won’t make me any sort of strange person or outlier–it’s really a pretty normal path! The outliers are truly the ones who follow Wapnick’s other models: the “Slash Approach,” which is basically when you have a few different rewarding jobs simultaneously, and the “Phoenix Approach,” which is when you pursue one career to an expert level and then start over in a new one. These subsets of Wapnick’s “multipotentialites” are really the more rare ones, and these are the people who would find that the world isn’t really designed for their eclectic career path. I suppose it’s good that they are encouraged to pursue what really fascinates them, but I do hope they give things a full try before getting discouraged and moving on (and if they only have one year left in their PhD program, then for heaven’s sake they should finish it!!).

All in all, though, this was a pretty interesting self-help book that was very different from any other one I’ve ever read. It was quite engaging and easy to read, unlike most books of the genre that I have to drag myself through, and I honestly liked thinking about Wapnick’s tips even if I didn’t agree with all of her points. If you think this book is interesting, by all means do give it a try!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in order to participate in a TLC book tour.

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Review: Just Life

Just Life
Just Life by Neil Abramson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is also available on my blog, Read Till Dawn.

Whew, this book is heavy.

I mean, it’s got the whole animal euthanasia plotline about Sam’s attempts to protect New York’s dog population during the outbreak, but it also has a lot of poignant discussions about animal abuse, the use of animals in medical testing, human abuse (including one memory of a sexual assault and another of the discovery of a gruesome murder), substance abuse, and more. The main characters each carry their own heavy, terrible baggage and they must learn to cope with it throughout the course of the book in order to do their best for the dogs who are being pinned (with little to no evidence) for the spread of a dangerous new virus that is affecting and killing children.

Honestly, I didn’t really like the book that much. It was a little too gritty, too painful, and too explicit. The language was really bad and the description of violence was too extreme for my tastes. Also, the descriptions of animal cruelty and of the euthanasia process were way too much for this animal lover. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to read about how the innocent, loving creatures who are put down because no one will love them back!

Setting aside the strong language and my emotional reaction to the violence, Just Life is definitely a very thought-provoking read that makes a good jumping-off point for interesting debates. The characters are diverse and pretty well-rounded, and Sam is even pretty likeable (though her sort-of romance plotline feels really forced). If you’re a little less sensitive than I am, you might like this book much more than I did.

As it is, I’m handing off my copy to the Little Free Library by my house and making sure to give my dog lots of extra pats. It’s been a roller-coaster month as my sweet old boxer has been slowly losing control over her hind legs, and I really don’t need any sad books about dying dogs lying around while watching her deteriorate. Come to think of it, my dog’s health problems may also have affected my reaction to the book; if so, I’m sorry I can’t give a more unbiased review. If anyone else has read Just Life, please let me know in the comments what you thought of it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book to participate in a TLC book tour.

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Review: Dark Breaks the Dawn

Dark Breaks the Dawn
Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is also available on my blog, Read Till Dawn.

Basically: I love everything to do with Swan Lake. Always have, always will. So when Dark Breaks the Dawn showed up on my doorstep with a swan on the cover and a reference to Swan Lake in the cover letter, I was thrilled.

And I was right to be. I loved seeing the old familiar tale being told in an entirely new light. I may just be imagining it, but I also sensed hints of Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl and even Gail Carson Levin’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre in the story as well, and it was very cool to see how the author also made the story her own. The magic system is very intriguing and original, with a balance of magic between the “Light” and “Dark” kingdoms. The monarchs are kind of like the lodestones for the magic of their kingdoms, channeling the power given to them by the ancient tree of magic and into all of their people. When they die, their successor must go through a ritual of claiming all the magic within a few days or otherwise they lose all of their power and the new monarch must make a long trek to the tree to somehow get the magic back and restore the balance between the two kingdoms.

Very intriguing, isn’t it? I love it, this whole magic system and the world Larson has created for the old tale. What I don’t love quite so much boils down to, well, the romance. I feel like there are so many amazing ways the story could have gone, so many aspects of the world-building it could have focused on or side plots it could have included, but instead we spend a significant amount of time watching Evelayn and her insta-love romance interest. Don’t get me wrong, Tanvir seems like a nice enough character (and more principled than a lot of love interests!), but I just didn’t really . . . well, care about his attachment to Evelayn. Whenever they had a romance scene, I would read through it quickly to get back to the good stuff. Evelayn’s awesome best friend Ceren more than made up for the gooey stuff with Tanvir, though, so everything’s good.

Except for that ending. The ending is not good. Why? Because it really gets into the juicy Swan Lake stuff . . . and then it’s over! I can’t wait to see what happens in the second book of the duology!

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited complementary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Pinot, Pasta, and Parties

Pinot, Pasta, and Parties
Pinot, Pasta, and Parties by Dee Dee Sorvino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is also available on my blog, a href=”… Till Dawn.

I basically only like to eat meat and carbs.

At least, that’s what my parents say. Whether that’s true or not may be up for debate, but it’s a definite fact that all of my favorite foods consist of pastries, pastas, and meats. This means that Italian is favorite style of cooking (followed closely by mediterranean, of course!), and that Pinot, Pasta, and Partiesis perfect for me.

I mean, come on. It’s a cookbook full of recipes for foods like “Chicken Parmigiana Sticks with Marinara Sauce,” “Calzones with Spinach-Ricotta filling,” “Lentil Soup,” and “Bruschetta with Caramelized Onions, Mushrooms, and Roasted Garlic.” Just flipping through the cookbook’s pages made me starving. I put scraps of paper between the pages to mark my favorite recipes, and wound up marking about twenty of them. Then I showed some of them to my mom and she thought they looked amazing too. She usually finds it slightly annoying when I get cookbooks for review, because she never uses them and they take up space in her kitchen, but not this one–her eyes lit up as soon as I said the words “Italian cookbook!”

There are full-color pictures of almost all the foods, though a few don’t have pictures (or feature pictures of the authors instead of the food, which is a little odd). A handful of recipes, though, get two-page spreads to show how tasty they look. It seems a little random in which foods get no pictures and which ones get big spreads. The recipes are not sorted by type, but rather they’re organized into ten multi-course meals (which are essentially chapters). Each meal is supposed to have some sort of theme, related to either a location or to patriotism, and some of the connections made sense. Others just seemed like they were filler to complete the full meal. But anyway, I thought it was an interesting way of organizing things. Each meal chapter starts with an intro from the authors, talking about their lives and inspiration for the food, and then more or less features foods for the following traditional Italian courses: Aperitivo (small bites served with drinks), Antipasto (appetizer), Primi (pasta course), Secondi (main course), Contorni (side dishes), Insalata (salad), and Dolce (dessert).

Whew, I’m stuffed just thinking about all that food! Anyway, mixed into each chapter are also tips about some of the techniques needed to make the recipes featured in them. It’s a good thing everything’s listed in the table of contents, because otherwise it would be basically impossible to ever find anything in the cookbook.

Anyway, the recipes are amazing. You can probably skip the intro texts for each chapter, in which the authors alternately talk about how much in love they are (he at 75, on his third wife, and she at 50 years old) and humble-brag about all of their accomplishments, but the recipes look so amazing. I can’t wait to try them out!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Attend: Forty Soul Stretches Toward God

Attend: Forty Soul Stretches Toward God
Attend: Forty Soul Stretches Toward God by Laura Davis Werezak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is also available on my blog, Read Till Dawn.

I started out with the goal of doing one chapter a day from Attendand recording my results.

Day One, “Open a Window:”

I opened a window for a couple of hours this afternoon, and kept my door shut to keep the cold breeze from messing with the rest of the house. What struck me first was that, even though it was a chilly February day, my room actually felt perfectly fine once I turned off the overhead fan. Just think how much needless energy I waste on the fan when an open window would work just as well! Second, my room smells . . . it’s hard to describe. Sweet? Yes, perhaps that’s it. It smells fresh, like someone put some life into my normally stuffy bedroom. I need to keep my window open more often, it really does brighten my mood. Seeing how well the first suggestion worked also gives me hope for how it will help me spiritually as well. Also, my cat really loved the open window.

Day Two, “Make Your Bed:”

I usually never make my bed, but doing so this morning actually only took me about two minutes. Now my bed looks very pretty! I’m also feeling the need to clean my floor now, though, because it looks even worse in comparison with my tidy bed. I usually like to do my schoolwork on my bed with the blankets pulled over my lap, but I’ve had my eye on this pretty, fluffy throw blanket for a while now. I ordered it today for the foot of my bed, and I’ll use it to snuggle under during the day.

Day Three, “Plant a Seed”
My pot of dirt, which will soon hold some chrysanthemums, is to the left. I’m looking forward to seeing what grows!

Day Four, “Set a Table”
I didn’t really do this one per se, but I often set out my own plate/bowl so I’m counting it. Also, I helped set the table for a dinner party we had, so that counts, right?

Day Five, “Sing a Song”
For this one I’m counting the time a few days ago when I took a ridiculously-long shower and belted out Frozen songs in Spanish for like an hour. Hey, she said any song goes, right? Plus, she said she likes to use Spanish songs with her students!

Okay, yeah, I gave up on doing every single day’s “assignment.” I kept forgetting to do them, or forgetting to write them down, so eventually I just gave up and read the thing cover to cover over the course of a few evenings.

And what do I think? Well, I think that it’s the best devo that I’ve read in a long time. Werezak’s tips are all very good ones, and her discussions of faith and searching for God were both heartfelt and genuine. I loved most of them, and more than that I actually got the feeling that I would like her if she were a member of my church. She’s not weirdly conservative or legalistic, something a lot of church leaders seem to be these days, but instead is just nice and straightforward and open to trying novel approaches to spirituality like meditation-type breathing and praying with beads (as a Protestant).

Honestly, I think Attend would make a great devotional for not just Christians but also for Jews and perhaps even for people of other religions (though she does quote a lot of Bible verses). The focus is on God, and growing close to God, but not really on Jesus per se. I think it’s nice how much more flexible that makes the text for use by people from a diverse array of denominations and even of religions. If you’re looking for a devotional to bring you closer to God, then this is the one that I would recommend.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Restart

Restart by Gordon Korman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. This review is also available on my blog, Read Till Dawn.

Do you know, I was supposed to be studying for my AP exams all day today. That was the goal, at least, until that little yellow package from Scholastic showed up on my doorstep. Once I pulled out my brand new ARC of Restart, the newest Korman novel, then my day was doomed. I dropped everything and devoured the entire thing in about two sittings (the one break consisted of my trying to get back to work, failing, and then shrugging and picking the book up again).

I don’t know what it is about Gordon Korman, but his books always suck me in. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading them for so long now, his distinctively funny yet deep writing style makes me nostalgic and lets me pretend that I’m a little kid again and not a high school senior preparing to head off to college. Perhaps its simply because of the intriguing storylines or because he always takes the story the way I’m hoping. Maybe it’s a combination of all of those things.

Because on the surface, Restart is not the most amazing book I’ve ever read. I mean, its premise is awesome–a bully who’s lost his memory and is nice now? Sweet!–but it’s also incredibly unrealistic. Take it from the girl who was supposed to be studying AP Psychology all afternoon. And a lot of the elements that make up Restart have shown up in previous Korman novels. I was especially reminded of No More Dead Dogs and The Chicken Doesn’t Skate, because all three books have elements of social blending, with kids from wildly different clubs and interests coming together in a combination of sports and theater/filmmaking/science (respectively). I also noticed a few character archetypes, like the filmmaker addict and the main girl who starts out hating the protagonist, and the slightly spacey fangirl chasing after the protagonist. All of these characters show up in at least two of the three books I mentioned, and some of them in others besides.

But you know what? I just don’t care. Gordon Korman does middle schools books well. And I love the elements he pulls together, and Restart is actually a really good book. Because you see, I adored No More Dead Dogs and The Chicken Doesn’t Skate. To this day, they still rank on my list of favorite books ever. If Korman wants to revisit some of his greatest successes and borrow a few devices, then I am totally okay with that.

And besides, how could I not love the “bully with amnesia” angle? Realistic or not, it’s played amazingly here. My main critique, honestly, is that we don’t get enough details about Chase’s ordeal. I would have loved much more time spent just on watching him adjust to life without any of his memories, and I wouldn’t have even minded getting more medical mumbo-jumbo to explain why his whole personality suddenly shifted with the bump on the head!

Anyway, I’ll stop the review here because I don’t actually have my copy of the book anymore: my elementary-school-aged brother came into my room tonight, asked for Restart,and disappeared with it. And honestly, if that doesn’t tell you something about the universal appeal of Korman’s books, then I don’t know what would.

[Update: Just thought you’d like to know that within the first two days of Restart being in the house, three of us read it: I finished it the first day, my brother borrowed it that night and finished it by lunch the next day, and my mom borrowed it that night and stayed up past midnight reading it (on the landing, because my dad kicked her out so he could go to sleep). Like I said, my family love Gordon Korman books.]

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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