Monday, August 29, 2016

Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

Reviewed by Ambrea

Katie arrives in Southport, North Carolina, only a handful of belongings and a determination to avoid forming personal ties in this close-knit southern town.   She’s on the run from something—or someone—but she’s not about to talk to Alex, a widowed store owner with two young children to raise, and Alex isn’t about to ask.  As Katie settles into Southport, she finds herself drawn to Alex’s charming Southern accent and his stability, and she actually makes a friend in her bluntly honest neighbor, Jo.  She discovers she’s unexpectedly making a life for herself, and she couldn’t be happier, until a dark secret rises out of her past and threatens to destroy her future.

Oddly enough, I fell in love with Safe Haven.  I’ve always been reluctant to read Nicholas Sparks’ work.  I was never interested in reading The Notebook and I wasn’t thrilled with The Choice, but I loved watching A Walk to Remember and I even liked watching Safe Haven when it came on TV.  Regardless of my affinity for his movies, I was still a little hesitant to begin listening to an audiobook copy of Safe Haven, because I really didn’t know what to expect—or if I would even like it.

Well, I did.  And I was pleasantly surprised by how thoroughly I enjoyed it.

I’ve read Nicholas Sparks in the past, but I could never fully enjoy his writing.  Something about The Choice just wasn’t appealing to me.  I’m not sure if it was his writing style, or the story, or the format—or if it just wasn’t right for me at the time—but, either way, I wasn’t very impressed.  I pretty much brushed Nicholas Sparks aside and discounted him as a writer.

However, I found myself enjoying Safe Haven more than I expected.  It’s a sweet little romance with endearing characters set in a small, Southern town on the coast, and it’s threaded with very subtle hints of magic.  I might have liked it because it reminded me of Sarah Addison Allen and Linda Francis Lee, but I think I might have also liked it best because it’s set in North Carolina.  I’ve been to tiny towns like Southport, I’ve been to beaches like Katie describes, so the story appealed to me on a deeply personal level.

Most importantly, I liked the narrator:  Rebecca Lowman.  Lowman, who also narrated The Girl Who Chased the Moon, does a fantastic job of bringing Sparks’ work to life.  She’s careful to distinguish characters with individual accents, using the soft drawl and twang of a Southern coastal town, while affecting different inflections in others.  I often felt myself drawn into the narrative as Lowman recounted Katie’s story and her desperate flight from her past.

Granted, I didn’t like Kevin for obvious reasons.  He wasn’t crafted very well, and he had a strange religious/superiority complex that made him unusual and slightly absurd, but I suppose that stems from being purposefully made crazy in a novel.  He’s not a great character and he’s just a horrible human being.  I really didn’t like him, and he kind of ruined the story for me, despite Lowman’s excellent narration.

Safe Haven was a great audiobook, overall.  It struck a perfect balance of romance, suspense, and drama without leaning in one direction or the other, and it had a little bit of magic thrown into the mix that made it stand out.  It’s sure to warm your heart, like it did mine.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Reviewed by Ambrea

 In The Rat Queens:  Sass and Sorcery, readers have the opportunity to meet a most unusual group of battle maidens-for-hire:  Hannah the rockabilly Elven mage, Violet the hipster Dwarven fighter, Dee the atheist Human cleric and Betty the happy, hippy Smidgen thief.  After a most ignominious encounter with the city guards, the Rat Queens are forced to complete a series of tasks to prevent their imprisonment—or, worse, banishment from the kingdom.  But when their quest to slay the cave creatures on the outskirts of town goes horribly, horribly awry, the Rat Queens must fight their toughest battle if the hope to protect their city from the dark magic slowly seeping into their lives.

On the back of the first volume, a quick synopsis reads:  “This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent, monster killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!”  It’s a description that begs the question, “Is that really a thing?”

Yes.  Yes, it is.

Rat Queens is a genre bending epic that hearkens to its roots in traditional fantasy, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It pokes fun at the Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and the fantasy genre as a whole.  Rat Queens:  Sass and Sorcery combines fantastic characters, humor, and irreverent, bloody adventures, creating a strange but oddly fascinating story.

Oh, it’s possibly one of the weirdest graphic novels I’ve read, but it’s also one of the more interesting volumes I’ve had the chance to pick up.  An amalgamation of traditional fantasy epics, role-playing games and quest-based video games, it’s possibly one of the quirkiest, oddball adventure stories I’ve had the pleasure to read.  Throw in a few modern amenities, like enchanted stones that serve as cell phones and designer cocktails courtesy of Betty (who is very liberal when it comes to her vices), it’s sometimes just plain weird.

And, oddly enough, I really liked the characters.  Betty is strange and flighty, but she’s a mighty fun character who simply goes with the flow; whereas Dee is quieter, more introspective, more prone to common sense and good decisions among her friends.  Hannah is the wild child, a bawdy battle-maiden with a sharp wit and a foul mouth and a wicked grasp of magic.  And then there’s Violet.

I’ll be honest, I thought Hannah and Betty were great fun, and Dee is the best friend I’d love to have in my life, but, for some reason, I just adored Violet.  All these ladies are setting off on their own, trying to forge their own paths and defy the expectations set out for them; however, Violet struck a chord with me that instantly made her my favorite character. 

She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s battle savvy, and she’s desperate to prove a point to her parents.  Like Hannah, Betty, and Dee who are set on starting new lives, she wants to separate herself from her parents’ world, differentiate herself from the dwarven culture she feels has consumed her.  She doesn’t want to model armor, she wants to wear it and use it—and she wants to fight.  She wants to be a warrior, regardless of the expectations of her family and culture.

And that’s what I like about her:  she’s true to herself.  She wants what she wants, and she won’t apologize for going out to seize her own life.

Overall, I enjoyed Rat Queens.  It’s fun, it’s weird, it’s a raucous delight, but it has charming characters and an interesting plot—and I loved the art.   Roc Upchurch does an excellent job of bringing Kurtis Wiebe’s characters and story to life.  He gives it a gritty, edgy vibe that meshes well with the attitudes of the Rat Queens, and I liked it.

I liked it a lot.

But, fair warning to other readers, Rat Queens is not a tame series.  Violent, crude, graphic, and rather explicit, it’s not for younger readers.  I wouldn’t recommend it to readers offended by or vehemently against discussion of drugs, crude language, explicit content, general misconduct, or graphic depiction of violence or murder.  Seriously, the Rat Queens hold nothing back and they’re not afraid to cause a little (read:  a lot) of mischief.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nevermore: Gone Girl, Winnie the Pooh, Washington's Spies, Joan Rivers, Place Names & The Secret to Hummingbird Cake

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore settled in with a familiar book and revisited one of their favorite authors with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  On the day of Amy and Nick Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears—and Nick is at the very top of a list of suspects.  Suddenly, Nick finds himself under intense scrutiny by the police, the local media, and his own family and, when a series of lies and inappropriate behavior surface, he’s left shouldering the blame.  An intense and twisted examination of one man’s deteriorating marriage, Gone Girl was described as a “fascinating book.”  Although our reader had already watched Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, he was pleasantly surprised by the way the story grabbed and held him.  Despite knowing how the story would end, he enjoyed reading Gone Girl and highly recommended it to other readers who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to read it.

Next, Nevermore looked at The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh:  A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood by Kathryn Aalto, which delves deep into the forest—Ashdown Forest—that inspired and helped shape A.A. Milne’s beloved stories.   Serving as a both a guide to the Hundred Acre Wood (and the creatures which inspired it) and a biography of the author, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh was thoroughly researched and, according to our reader, incredibly fascinating.  He liked the detail Aalto provided, especially regarding the photographs of locations within the Ashdown Forest which inspired the world of Winnie-the-Pooh.  He “[spent] a delightful, nostalgic afternoon with this book,” saying he enjoyed it immensely.  He loved the opportunity to reminisce about his experiences with Milne’s stories, both as a reader and an adult reading to his children.

Nevermore also looked at another fascinating book on George Washington and early American espionage.  Like George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Washington’s Spies:  The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose was an intriguing examination of the Culper Ring—George Washington’s secret spy ring which helped bring victory to the United States during the Revolutionary War—and its impact on espionage.  “Rose’s thrilling narrative tells the unknown story of the Revolution—the murderous intelligence war, gunrunning and kidnapping, defectors and executioners—that has never appeared in the history books.”  A fascinating book on Nathan Hale, the Culper Ring, and the indomitable leader, Washington’s Spies was a big hit for our reader.  He called it a “good little book” that struck all the right notes.  Although short and simple, it doesn’t lack for impact and it served as an enjoyable way to pass time.

Switching gears from the American Revolution to modern American stardom, Nevermore checked out I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me by Joan Rivers.  In book, Rivers takes on—and hates on—everything from ugly children, dating rituals, First Ladies, politics, Steven Hawking, feminists and doctors and hypocrites, even herself.  She shows no mercy, poking fun at everyone and everything, much to the amusement of her audience.  Uproariously funny and viciously irreverent, I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me received rave reviews from our reader for its candor, biting wit, and humor.  Our reader said she had so much fun reading this book.  It’s so true to Joan River’s personality, to her voice, that it feels very similar to one of her stand-up comedy roles.  However, she noted she often read River’s book by individual chapters.  It could sometimes get a little tiring when taken in large chunks, so it was best enjoyed in small doses.

Next, our readers looked at A Place Called Peculiar:  Stories About Unusual American Place-Names by Frank K. Gallant.  In his book, Gallant examines some of the most unusual city names and dives deep into the urban legends, myths, and sometimes humorous origin stories of these strange towns.  His list includes:  Smut Eye, Alabama; Tie Siding, Wyoming; Breakfast Hill, New Hampshire; Dinner Station, Nevada; Bug Tussle, Alabama; and Useless Bay, Washington.  Full of interesting names and peculiar places, A Place Called Peculiar proved to be an intriguing and delightful book for our readers, passing through several hands before coming to Nevermore.  According to one reader, it was a wonderful book to pass through and read the little anecdotes provided by the author.  She said she flipped through the pages and couldn’t help but enjoy the short synopses of each town, as well as the colorful history provided by the author.

Last, Nevermore looked at The Secret to Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale.  A uniquely Southern novel, The Secret to Hummingbird Cake tells the story of Carrigan—Carrie to her friends—and Ella Rae and Laine.  Together, this inseparable trio has grown up in the same Southern town and relied on each other through the very worst moments, including Carrigan’s deteriorating marriage.  But when their friendship is threatened by more than petty squabbles and rough roads, Laine, Carrigan, and Ella Rae are going to have to come to terms with losing something more precious than they realized.  Our reader said she really enjoyed McHale’s first novel.  Sweet, like the hummingbird cake for which it’s named, but hinted with threads of tragedy, The Secret to Hummingbird Cake was a wonderful novel about friendships, cake, love and quirky friendships and loss.  It was an excellent novel with wonderful story development, and it hit just the right notes to make it both incredibly fun (and funny) and terribly tragic.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter

Reviewed by Ambrea

Cassie O’Malley has spent her life treading water, trying to appease the mother she both loved and hated, fighting to find herself beneath a lifetime of psychological trauma that left her vulnerable—and trapped in a mental institution for almost three years.  At eighteen, Cassie is finally ready to return to the world and the life she left behind, even if it means relying on the twisted generosity of her mother.

As Cassie tries to adapt to her new life at school, she struggles to forge meaningful relationships, make new friends, and trust her peers—or her memory.  After a lifetime of abuse, Cassie isn’t sure she knows how to swim on her own in a world full of depths and dangers and, as she comes to terms with her tumultuous past, she must learn to weather the storm or succumb to the waves that would pull her under if she lets them.

I loved reading The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter.  I know, I love a lot of books (hence my enormous reading list); however, The First Time She Drowned has quickly taken its place beside such young adult favorites as The Fault in Our Stars, I’ll Give You the Sun, and The Book Thief.  It has many of the same tragic, but beautiful qualities that made me love these books more than the usual novels I read.  I ugly cried with this book, and I do not very often ugly cry with my books.

The First Time She Drowned is a very special novel.  This book hurt my heart—I mean, absolutely crushed it—and then it made me cry for all the small, beautiful things (a best friend with a heart of gold, small kindnesses from classmates, a counselor who actually cared) that made Cassie’s unbearable life more manageable and, ultimately, helped her heal.  My heart was broken by all the unbelievable cruelty and grief she endured, only to be broken again when she finally begins to piece her life together.

Additionally, Cassie makes a wonderful narrator.  Her descriptions are beautiful, and her voice is unique and strangely compelling.  She tells her story with such emotion, giving it a depth that rivals the very ocean she loves.  Personally, I loved her words.  I loved the way she spoke, the way she related her history and made it a sensory experience.

As a reader, I enjoyed those little details that gave an added emphasis to what she felt, tastes and sounds and tactile sensations that made her experiences undeniably real.  It’s fascinating to see her story unfold, to see her life come together in bits and pieces as she uncovers dark secrets from her family and makes new friends, finds new ways to heal herself and her relationships, and I quickly became entranced by her narrative.

However, I sometimes found Cassie’s narrative difficult to read.  It’s staggering the amount of abuse she endures.  Great-aunt Dora was terrible, of course.  I despised her, because I could tell her place in the story would lead to very bad things.  (I was right, which didn’t make me feel any better.  It puts me in the mind of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, tragic and horrifying all at once.)  But I was most shocked by her mother.

At first, Cassie deals with all these little slights—small, tiny things, like her preference for Cassie’s older brother or her demeaning comments meant to make Cassie feel bad about herself—and then it turns into outright abuse.  Her mother is malicious and, if things don’t go her way, she’s not above manipulating the situation to turn things in her favor.  I mean, she even goes so far as to confine Cassie to a mental institution when she realized she could no longer control her daughter.

It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, and I hated to see it.

Cassie’s narrative also frequently bounces through time.  It’s easy enough to distinguish between the past and the present:  one, Cassie frequently notes when she’s reaching into her memories; two, she speaks in the past tense when she’s referring to the past, but she speaks in the present tense when she’s living in the moment.  There’s a definitive line between her past and present, but I was sometimes surprised (or, maybe more accurately, alarmed) by her history as the boundary between the two became very fluid.

Basically, readers are caught in the middle of her story.  She’s still living her life, struggling to survive and heal from the various hurts she endured from her mother (and, by proxy, her easily manipulated father), but she’s also reliving her past.  I started in the middle of her story and worked my way out, seeing her past and glimpsing her future as she fights for the present.  It can sometimes be complicated, but I can’t say I didn’t expect it in a novel as emotionally complex as The First Time She Drowned.

Overall, I absolutely loved reading The First Time She Drowned.  It’s heart-breaking, but it’s so beautifully compelling.  I can’t completely describe how much I enjoyed this novel.  It hit me on an emotional level and it made me care about Cassie, made me care about what was happening in her life and gave me hope that everything would eventually be okay—and, of course, it made me ugly cry.

But I think that’s always the mark of a good book:  it makes you care.