The Sunday Salon: Vacation bound!

Hello everyone.  I’m super excited today because tomorrow hubby and I leave for a four-day cruise through the Bahamas!  We’ve had the cruise booked for months and months, and finally the week is here, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I’ve been having some difficulties at work lately and let’s just say I REALLY need the time away.

Originally I was planning to schedule reviews for a few days this week, but I have about a million things to get done today and I think I’ll just go dark for a week instead.  I will come back refreshed and ready to write. :)

What are you all up to this Sunday?

Oh yeah – Happy Halloween!!

America’s Prophet by Bruce Feiler

America’s Prophet:  How the Story of Moses Shaped America by Bruce Feiler
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins

Since the birth of the United States, over the course of four hundred years, one historical figure has had more impact on this country than any other:  Moses.  At least, that’s the premise that Bruce Feiler sets out to show the reader in America’s Prophet.  From the Mayflower to the Statue of Liberty to Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama, important figures and moments in US history have been shaped and inspired by Moses, and Feiler traces how this one biblical prophet molded this country into what it is today.

I was very intrigued by the premise of America’s Prophet because while I’ve always known that the US was founded on Christian principles and biblical ideals, I’d never thought of Moses as having such a pivotal role in everything as Feiler argues in this book.  I’d just never considered that idea, and according to Feiler’s research, it does seem to be the case.

I hadn’t read any of Bruce Feiler’s other books prior to this one, and I was very impressed by both the quality of his writing and the detail of his research.  He presented his case both carefully and thoughtfully, and I was surprised and enlightened to find out how much of history was influenced by Moses – he really did have an incredible impact on the United States. I loved seeing how so many pivotal moments in our history mirrored something Moses said, did, or experienced.  The whole concept was very interesting to me.

America’s Prophet is heavy with research, and as such it did get a bit boring for me from time to time.  However, most of the chapters were interesting enough to keep me turning the pages.  The section on Martin Luther King, Jr. was by far my favorite of the entire book.  Feiler drew very convincing parallels between Moses and MLK, and as King is an incredibly inspiring figure in history, it’s always fun for me to read more about him.  For me, this chapter alone made the entire book worth my time.  The book was good anyway, but reading about Dr. King was by far the best thing about it.

I would definitely recommend America’s Prophet to anyone interested in history, religion, and/or the intersection of the two.  This is a solid work of nonfiction, and I’m now interested in reading more from Bruce Feiler.

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Published by Candlewick Press

I have absolutely no idea how to review this book.  First of all, I love this series.  LOVE it.  Here are my reviews of The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, both of which I also had difficulty reviewing.  For some reason, for me these books just go beyond words.  I can’t sum up my feelings adequately or eloquently so I don’t even want to try.  But I will try, for you, my friends.

Monsters of Men is the third book in a trilogy, and it is an absolute must to read these three books in order; this one picks up right where The Ask and the Answer left off, without wasting any time on explanations or reminding the reader of important plot points or characters or anything of the sort.  If you are going to pick up this book, you better remember what happened in the first two.  I actually liked that a lot, with books this long and this packed full of stuff it would be a waste for Ness to spend time rehashing the events of the previous books.  But it meant that I had to really think to remember everything from the first two books.

I loved so much about this book.  I loved that the action literally did not stop.  Just when I’d think that the characters would have a moment’s rest, something insane would happen and they’d be running, planning, or fighting all over again.  It made for very quick reading.  I loved how much more we got to understand this world that Ness created, and how the different warring factions really got to where they were at that point.  I love how, even though it’s the final book in the series, even more questions were raised that the reader must answer for him/herself.  And I loved the way Ness wrapped everything up.  It was everything.

And that one plot point, the one I hoped and prayed would happen, but secretly was terrified that wouldn’t happen?  YES!!!  (LOL to those of you who haven’t read the book, I realize that made no sense, but those of you who have read it know exactly what I’m talking about.)

I strongly encourage you to read this trilogy if you haven’t given it a try already.  I just think there is so much depth to what Patrick Ness puts forth here, more even than many adult fiction novels and most young adult (I’m not knocking YA, I love YA, I’m just saying that these books go above and beyond, to me).

I know this “review” wasn’t much of a review, therefore I’d like to direct you to Jenny’s review and/or Nymeth’s review.  Both of these ladies said exactly what I was trying to say, but much better than I did.

Please read these books.  I’m so glad I did.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publicist

I was very excited to begin reading The Little Stranger but admittedly also a little nervous.  This was my first Sarah Waters experience, and so many of my favorite bloggers love her – what if I didn’t feel the same way?  I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time worrying about that, though, because this book was everything I’d hoped it would be and more.

Here are some of the elements of The Little Stranger:  a post-WWII setting, a creepy/possibly haunted old house (called Hundreds Hall – now if that’s not a creepy house name, I don’t know what is!), a strange and reclusive family, and a doctor named Daniel Faraday who grows close to this family and their house.  Oh, and some absolutely fantastic writing.  If this list to you makes an awesomely strange, creepy book,  then you should just stop reading what I have to say about it and go read it for yourself.  Because, to me, it was great and that’s all you need to know.

If you need a bit more convincing, I will stress once again that Sarah Waters’ writing is incredibly incredible.  There’s no other way to say it, she’s just that good.  I was torn between wanting to race through the book to find out what the heck was going on and wanting to slow down and savor every word.  Not many authors can make that happen for me, and I suspect I’ll be reading much more from Waters because of it.

The Little Stranger is packed with so much fruit ripe for discussion that I can’t even begin to cover it here.  But I will say that while it is a story about a haunted house, it is SO much more than that.  It is a psychological thriller that also asks questions about relationships, about class, about what it means to have money and what it means to not, about medicine and mental illness in the 1950′s, and more.  I actually want to read it again to allow myself the opportunity of digesting all that Waters presented, and I probably will at some point.  I was so concerned with what was happening with this darn house that I’m sure I missed a lot.  For this reason, The Little Stranger would make an excellent book club pick.  I almost never say that (because I’m not in a book club it doesn’t typically occur to me) but in this case, there’s just SO much to discuss that it begs to be read by a group.

While I’ve seen some negative reviews of this book, I personally could not disagree more – I absolutely loved it and will be reading more of Sarah Waters in the very near future.  Most highly recommended.

TSS: New House!!

This Sunday Salon is going to be short and sweet, because I have about a million reviews to write today (well, six.  But it feels like a million).  What I wanted to announce today is that the hubby and I are buying a house!  Most of you probably recall that last December we moved from Chicago to Orlando, and since we’ve been here we’ve just been renting an apartment until we could figure out if, when, and where we wanted to purchase a home.  To be honest, I wasn’t sold on the idea of buying right away – we do, after all, still own a place back home (and we have a stable renter, so the situation is okay) and I just wasn’t sure I was ready to commit to living in Florida for the foreseeable future.  And we weren’t seriously looking, either.  But recently hubby started looking at foreclosed properties in the area (sadly, there are a LOT of those around here) and fell in love with this neighborhood of townhouses about twenty minutes from where we’re living now.

Long story short, we discovered that although there are a few foreclosures in this neighborhood, there is actually a new builder who just came into the property and is going to finish the only halfway-finished neighborhood!  And the brand new homes are going for just a tiny bit more than the foreclosures at this point.  It didn’t take much more than a walk through the model home and neighborhood for us to be sold.  And when we found out the price, and everything we would get for that (incredibly affordable) price, we were completely sold.  So we signed a contract, and our home should be ready for us by February, with the closing scheduled for March.

It’s been a busy few weeks of getting pre-qualified by the bank, picking out all the add-ons and design elements we wanted for the home, rebuilding our financial plans to be sure that we can easily afford everything, etc.  But we are very, very excited and I for one cannot wait to move in come March.

So that’s my announcement. :)  And now I suppose I’m living in Orlando for good.  Which is actually completely okay, over the past 10 months I’ve really come to love it here.  And we’ve gotten connected with our church extremely well, we’re in an awesome small group, we both have good jobs, and who can complain when it’s 80 degrees in October?  So, yes, things are going well these days!

As far as books and reading go, I am mostly concerned with getting reviews written right now.  I’d overloaded myself with review copies this year and have recently stopped accepting them until further notice, which will probably be sometime after March.  Until then, I plan to finish whatever I can, but also read library books and my own personal books too, and enjoy not putting so much pressure on myself.

That’s about it for me!  What are you up to this Sunday?

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver - Audiobook Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Published by Scholastic

When I decided to pick up Shiver and finally give it a try, I was feeling like I was the last person in the world to read the book.  Now that I’ve finished it, I can see why everyone else has read and loved this book!  It was everything I’d heard it was – basically, fantastic.  I had put off reading Shiver for so long because I was nervous it would be Twilight with werewolves instead of vampires, and thank goodness it is NOT that.  The only thing that is Twilight-esque about Shiver is the whole girl-meets-nonhuman-boy-and-falls-in-love thing; everything else about Shiver is purely original and purely awesome.

Let’s talk about the book, shall we?  For those of you who don’t know much about the plot, Shiver‘s heroine is seventeen-year-old Grace, who has been obsessed with the wolves living behind her house ever since she was attacked by them at age nine.  One wolf in particular has always had a special affection for Grace, even allowing her to pet and hold him one time.  When a local teen is killed by the wolves, a group of hunters attempts to eradicate the town of them for good, and after the shooting, Grace finds an injured boy about her age shivering in the woods.  She takes just one look at him and realizes that this boy, Sam, is her wolf in his human body.

I honestly did not believe that a book about the love between a werewolf boy and a human girl could be this good, this believable, this sweet.  But it totally is all of those things.  The relationship between Grace and Sam developed at such a natural pace I would forget at some points throughout the story that I was reading a fantasy novel and feel instead like I was reading a well-written young adult romance.  The way Stiefvater managed to create these incredibly believable, likeable characters who also happened to be wolves half their lives was just amazing to me.  I mean, I loved Sam.  Had I read this book as a teenager, I would have pined for a Sam of my own.  And he is a wolf!  I am just mildly appalled that I managed to fall so much in love with a wolf!

I also really, really liked Grace.  At the beginning of the book I was feeling like she was a little crazy and a lot strange for being so obsessed with these wolves, but once I got to know Sam and got to know Grace’s story, I liked her more and more.  She came across as such an authentic character, and while I would have wanted Sam for myself as a teen, I would have wanted to be friends with Grace.

I experienced Shiver as an audiobook, and I thought the production was done very well.  Jenna Lamia and David Ledoux did an excellent job channeling the personalities of Grace and Sam and they held my attention throughout the book.  I was disappointed when I realized that my library doesn’t have the sequel, Linger, on audio right now.  I’d love to listen to that one too; however I’ll have to settle for the print version.

In conclusion, Shiver is excellent and I highly recommend it.  Don’t pass it up like I did in fear of it being too similar to other young adult fantasy novels – it is very unique and deserves a class all its own.

Keys to Good Cooking by Harold McGee

Keys to Good Cooking Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes by Harold McGee
Published by Penguin
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Keys to Good Cooking is not a cookbook.  Rather, it is like an encyclopedia for your kitchen.   The book is packed to the brim with cooking tips, from the most important supplies to have in your kitchen to how to properly cook meats to what type of flour is best to use in what situation and everything in between.  This book will not provide you with recipes, instead it will guide you in choosing recipes that make sense and will be delicious and also how to modify those recipes that don’t work so well.  Put simply, Keys to Good Cooking is a must-have accessory for any kitchen.

I’m fairly new to the kitchen – I didn’t really start cooking until two years ago, and only more recently have I been more adventurous with my cooking – so Keys to Good Cooking was like a godsend to me.  There is just SO MUCH helpful information in this book that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  I’ll just say that it pretty much covers any type of food you could ever want to cook – anything you’re cooking, you will find some type of helpful hint or sometimes a detailed explanation that will make cooking it easier.

I must admit that Keys to Good Cooking was difficult to read in a way that would adequately prepare me to review it, because it really is a reference book and not something that one can easily read straight through.  I did skip a few sections, most notably the ones that focused on things I never cook, but I plan to go back and read through them if and when I decide to make those types of foods (for example, I really don’t bake, so I didn’t read much about cakes and cookies and pies, just sort of skimmed those sections).  But the great thing about the book is how well it’s organized, so if I decide to bake a cake from scratch I can easily reference that section to ensure I don’t mess anything up. :)

The bottom line is this:  Keys to Good Cooking is an excellent reference book to keep in your kitchen.  And if you are a novice in the kitchen like myself, you absolutely MUST have this book.  It is extremely helpful and will encourage you to branch out and try new foods and new recipes you may have been nervous about before.  I most highly recommend Keys to Good Cooking.

The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion

The King’s Mistress by Emma Campion
Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House
Review copy provided by the publicist

In Edward III’s mid-14th-century reign, we meet Alice Salisbury, who at the age of fourteen marries Janyn Perrers, a merchant with a strangely close relationship to Queen Mother Isabella.  While she misses her family and her home, Alice quickly falls in love with her husband, gets used to her new life, and gives birth to a daughter.  Soon after she establishes her happiness, however, it is ripped away from her as Janyn disappears and Alice is summoned to court by Queen Philippa.  Alice is basically told that the only way for her daughter to remain safe is for Alice to stay at court and become one of Philippa’s ladies, so having not much choice in the matter, she complies.  But everything gets a lot more complicated for Alice when she captures the King’s interest, and suddenly must redefine herself as the King’s mistress.

I quite enjoyed The King’s Mistress.  I don’t know if this is a compliment or not, but it reminded me of a Philippa Gregory novel with a bit less drama/scandal.  I enjoy Gregory and find her books entertaining, so to me, that’s a good thing.  I enjoyed the pacing of The King’s Mistress – I felt like Campion allowed the reader to discover things only as Alice discovered them, which made for some shocking moments throughout the novel.  The foreshadowing was done well, as I knew there would be some twists but they weren’t clearly spelled out in advance for the reader and I, knowing very little about this period of history, didn’t know much about what would happen beforehand.

The star of this novel is the character of Alice, and what a star she was.  She was really a character I could get on board with, I respected her actions and the decisions she made and I genuinely liked her.  She was so young and naive when she married Janyn, and she was forced to grow up and learn the ways of the world very quickly.  For the most part, she figured out life at court and navigated her way through it intelligently and with her own style, and I enjoyed reading about her journey.  I very much wonder how much the real Alice Perrers fell in love with the king (in the book, she absolutely falls head over heels) as he is quite a bit older than she and their relationship had about a million strings attached, but I must admit that I liked the way this novel portrayed their relationship.  One thing I loved about Alice in the book is that she was an excellent mother, she may not have been physically present with her kids at all times (she wasn’t allowed to be) but she loved them so much and was separated from them because of how much she loved them, she made that sacrifice so that they would be safe.  And I thought that was a really admirable choice for her to make.

I also surprised myself by really liking Queen Philippa and even King Edward.  They were portrayed as such good people, yes they were royal so there was always scandal and wars and drama going on, but they seemed so genuine to me.  The Queen, especially toward the end of the book, really came across as a real person to me, and while the King kept many mistresses over the years, he really seemed to care about all of his women and treat them with respect.  I liked a lot about this book, but most notably I liked most of the characters.

The King’s Mistress was a very enjoyable piece of historical fiction that I can definitely recommend.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Still Missing Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
Published by St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan

When Annie O’Sullivan, a thirty-two-year-old Realtor, shows a house to a very nice man late in the evening, she thinks nothing of it other than business as usual – until he abducts her.  What follows for Annie is a year of complete hell, as the psychopath keeps her secluded in a cabin in the middle of who knows where, controls her every move, rapes her frequently, and beats her when she doesn’t do exactly as he wants.  The book is told from the perspective of Annie speaking with her therapist in the time after she escapes to freedom, and we learn about Annie’s time with the Freak (as she calls her kidnapper) as well as her life before and after the year she spent with him.

Holy cow guys, this book is really freaking good.  Annie is one of the most authentic, honest characters I’ve met in fiction in a loooong time.  My heart absolutely broke for her the whole entire time I was listening to this book.  Even now, weeks after I’ve finished it, I feel like I know her, like she is real, and I miss having her in my life.  I know it’s weird but that’s how much Still Missing affected me.

This book is chilling, to the nth degree.  It is extremely difficult to stomach, the abuse the Annie suffers at the hands of the Freak, however it’s worth the anguish you will feel to get to the excellence that is this entire novel.  Annie’s story may be fiction, but she represents real women to which this exact thing has happened, and for that reason alone it’s important to read this book.  Other than that, it’s incredibly well-written and well-paced, a thriller of the best kind, one in which you fall in love with the characters while you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to find out what will happen to them.

I don’t want anyone to be scared off by this book by the violence depicted in it, because while Annie does suffer a lot of abuse in her year held captive, it’s a bit easier to take in knowing that she survived it.  The reader knows from the beginning that somehow Annie escaped, so it makes the trauma a tiny bit easier to handle knowing that she ends up okay when all is said and done.  That being said, I think a lot of things Annie experiences could be triggers for those of you who have suffered from domestic violence and/or sexual abuse, so in that sense be cautious.

As I alluded to earlier, I experienced Still Missing as an audiobook, and my goodness what a fantastic production.  The narrator is Angela Dawe and she is seriously amazing.  She made Annie come to life for me – I honestly kept forgetting that this is a novel and not a real woman telling me the story of her actual kidnapping.  She managed to sound scared, honest, strong, and chilling all at the same time; I can’t really explain it properly but honestly her narration was beyond superb.  The only problem is, her voice will always be the voice of Annie O’Sullivan to me – I’ll never be able to listen to any of her other productions without thinking of this one!

I realize I’ve been unable to contain my gushing when it comes to Still Missing but truly, I loved this novel.  Not only is it an extremely well-written, engaging novel that you will have difficulty putting down, but it deals with a very important topic.  Please read Still Missing (if you can stomach it – I understand if the idea of the violence and rapes is too difficult) and if you have the opportunity/desire, choose audiobook format.  This may make my favorites list this year!

 

Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes

Strangers at the Feast Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

It’s Thanksgiving Day, 2007, when we meet the Olson family.  Eleanor and David, their daughter and her newly adopted Indian daughter, their son, daughter-in-law, and their two children all come together for what everyone hopes will be a delicious, drama-free meal.  This family is no stranger to difficulties and stresses, and over the course of their evening the usual issues do arise.  But what the Olsons do not expect are the seventeen-year-old kids from the nearby housing project crashing their holiday.  And when these two worlds collide, tragedy strikes and this family will never be the same.

The main reason I decided to read Strangers at the Feast is because the premise reminded me of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, a book  I absolutely loved.  To be honest, these books weren’t much alike besides the fact that I really liked Strangers at the Feast too!  It ended up being different from my expectations, but still an excellent read.

What carried the book for me was, hands down, the extremely well-drawn characters.  When a book is written from multiple points of view as this one is, it can be difficult for the author to create whole characters that the reader can really get on board with; however Vanderbes did exactly that.  I didn’t necessarily like all of the characters, but I believed in all of them.  The Olson family was complicated and dysfunctional (as most families are) and each family member played their part in making the family that way.  The ways in which they each reacted to one another and dealt with the conflicts between the other family members were completely authentic and always in keeping with the characters’ personalities.  Although, as the story takes place only over a single evening, they are only seen in context of this family so I suppose it’s natural that their personalities (to me) would seem to be molded in large part by the other family members.  Did that make sense?  I’m not sure.  In any case, what I’m trying to say is that I loved the interactions between the characters and I found them all to be really genuine and believable.

If I have anything negative to say about Strangers at the Feast it would be that there wasn’t enough of it.  The connection between the Olson family and the teens who broke into their house was very interesting to me, and I would have loved to learn more about that whole back story (we learn about it, just not enough for my tastes).  And I felt like there was this huge build-up to the climax of the story, and then the most important part of the whole story was super short in comparison.  I honestly would love a sequel to this book, to see how the characters I’ve fallen in love with deal with the aftermath of that horrific Thanksgiving night.

Overall, I really enjoyed Strangers at the Feast.  It was extremely well-written, the characters were fantastic, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the story.  I only wish there was more of it!