The Lovebird by Natalie Brown

The LovebirdThe Lovebird by Natalie Brown
Published by Doubleday
Unsolicited review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

Margie Fitzgerald has always had a soft spot for helpless creatures. Her warm heart breaks, her left ovary twinges, and Margie finds herself smitten with sympathy. This is how Margie falls in love with her Latin professor, a lonely widower and single father who trembles visibly in class. This is how Margie joins a band of ragtag student activists called H.E.A.R.T. (Humans Encouraging Animal Rights Today) in liberating lovebirds from their pet-store cages. And this is how Margie becomes involved in a plan so dangerous, so reckless, and so illegal, that she must flee her California college town, cut off contact with her dear old dad, and start fresh in a place unlike anywhere she has ever been. Introducing one of the most unforgettable heroines in recent fiction, The Lovebird is a novel about a girl who can’t abandon a lost cause, who loves animals, and who must travel to the loneliest place on earth to figure out where she really belongs.

From time to time I can be a shallow reader and decide to read books because of the cover alone – which is exactly what I did in this case. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this gorgeous cover, and so I picked up the book and began reading, knowing exactly nothing about what I’d find within the pages.

Imagine my happy surprise upon learning how wonderful The Lovebird is! Admittedly, the beginning is a bit slow and Margie makes a lot of incredibly stupid choices that have enormously bad repercussions – sleeping with her professor only the first in a long list. What bothered me the most about her relationship with her professor was not the relationship itself, but it was that he had a young daughter, a girl who’d already lost her mother, and this girl was now getting emotionally attached to Margie, only to see her father’s relationship with Margie eventually come to its inevitable end – it was just sad! Don’t bring kids into something like that, people!

Anyway, that’s really only a small part in a story about Margie’s growth as a person and as a woman in a scary and confusing time in her life. She literally has to run from the law, and hide from the authorities in a remote Native American reservation, living among complete strangers, some of whom really, really don’t want her there. She’s a shy and quiet person who has gone through life latching onto people and causes and matching her own personality to those around her – and now, in this isolated town, she must find a way to become herself, to figure out what kind of person she wants to be in the world and work toward becoming that person.

The Lovebird is kind of a love story, but it’s more a coming-of-age story, and within its pages are sordid relationships, violence, animal activism, deep sadness but true reawakening of people’s spirits. This is a quiet novel but don’t let that scare you – there’s real depth of emotion here, real people figuring out life, as messy as that can be. And it’s very beautifully written. I really enjoyed it.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints, #1)Saints (Boxers & Saints, #2)

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Published by First Second

From the publisher (Boxers):

China, 1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.

Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers–commoners trained in kung fu–who fight to free China from “foreign devils.”

Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful. But nothing is simple. Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost? So many are dying, including thousands of “secondary devils”–Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity

From the publisher (Saints):

China, 1898. An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family when she’s born. She finds friendship–and a name, Vibiana–in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.

But China is a dangerous place for Christians. The Boxer Rebellion is in full swing, and bands of young men roam the countryside, murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie…and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

American Born Chinese was one of the first graphic novels I’d ever read, and it opened my eyes to the amazing way storytelling and illustrations can come together in this medium to create an incredible reading experience. Since then, I’ve read many more, but I always think fondly about Gene Luen Yang as he is literally the person who introduced me to the graphic novel – so I always pick up his books when I can. Boxers and Saints are two separate books, but in my opinion they must be read together – otherwise you’re only getting half of the story. I loved that he did these as companion books, as they are two very distinct books with their own characters and events, but they truly come together to complete the picture of this scary time in Chinese history.

I love Yang’s illustrations and these books were no exception to that. He is so detailed, so precise, to the point where the illustrations alone would tell the story if the text wasn’t there. His drawings are gorgeous and I could pore over them for a long time without even needing the words.

But the story itself is an important one. And by showing the Boxer Rebellion from both sides, he really illuminated the fact that in all conflicts, there is no right or wrong, necessarily. There are just people, fighting for what they believe in, for what they know in their hearts is true and what they feel desperately needs to be done. Both Little Bao and Vibiana showed me that their stories have value, their beliefs are real for them, and I just thought, how unfortunate and tragic that this conflict even had to happen in the first place.

What I love is when books make me want to do more research upon finishing them, and these books did exactly that. I read more about the Boxer Rebellion – something I knew almost nothing about – after finishing these books and can now say I’m more educated on this particular time in history. After learning more about it, I am even more impressed by the way Yang managed to combine facts with his own fictional spin on things, and actually want to reread the books armed with more background knowledge about the conflict.

Highly recommended! Graphic novels are awesome – do pick one up if you never have before, your eyes will be open to a whole new world of reading.

That Night by Chevy Stevens

That NightThat Night by Chevy Stevens
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by SheReads

From the publisher:

As a teenager, Toni Murphy had a life full of typical adolescent
complications: a boyfriend she adored, a younger sister she couldn’t relate to, a strained relationship with her parents, and classmates who seemed hell-bent on making her life miserable. Things weren’t easy, but Toni could never have predicted how horrific they would become until her younger sister was brutally murdered one summer night.

Toni and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted of the murder and sent to prison.

Now thirty-four, Toni is out on parole and back in her hometown, struggling to adjust to a new life on the outside. Prison changed her, hardened her, and she’s doing everything in her power to avoid violating her parole and going back. This means having absolutely no contact with Ryan, avoiding fellow parolees looking to pick fights, and steering clear of trouble in all its forms. But nothing is making that easy—not Ryan, who is convinced he can figure out the truth; not her mother, who doubts Toni’s innocence; and certainly not the group of women who made Toni’s life hell in high school and may have darker secrets than anyone realizes. No matter how hard she tries, ignoring her old life to start a new one is impossible. Before Toni can truly move on, she must risk everything to find out what really happened that night.

But the truth might be the most terrifying thing of all.

I was a huge fan of Stevens’ first novel, Still Missing, but was less than thrilled with her second, Never Knowing, and didn’t even bother with her third. So I have to admit that I went into this novel with a bit of trepidation. But I have to say, That Night really impressed me – she’s completely back to the place she was at for her first novel, and I might have even liked this one better than Still Missing.

The thing about this book is that you go into it knowing that you have an unreliable narrator on your hands. Toni’s past isn’t the best, she’s made some serious mistakes, and the love of her life, Ryan, could possibly be a shady character. We have Toni’s memories, which color everything in her favor, although she does admit to being somewhat of a troubled teenager, and then we have the people around her who assumed she and Ryan were guilty based on their preconceived ideas of what kinds of people they were.

Even though I knew I couldn’t trust Toni, I wanted so desperately to believe her from the very beginning. I just couldn’t let myself believe that she would do such a horrible thing and I had my fingers crossed throughout the entire novel for her to find the real killer and get the opportunity to clear her name. I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whether I could really trust her story or if she was playing me, the reader, for a fool the whole time. The book takes a ton of twists and turns and while I didn’t guess the ending, it was one of those “aha” moments for me and things finally clicked into place. It made so much sense and I loved how Stevens took me on this wild ride and delivered a shocking, but perfect, answer to all of the questions I had along the way.

I’m not sure that Stevens meant for this to happen, but That Night does an excellent job showing just how difficult it is for ex-cons to make any kind of lives for themselves after their sentences are over. Also, it illuminates the fact that once you are labeled something in life, it’s extremely difficult to get out from under that label and make something of yourself. Every single time Toni had something good going for her, her past would rear its ugly head and find a way to drag her down. People would frame her for things and accuse her of things, and immediately it was assumed she was guilty because of her past. It made me stop and think – this is how we treat people who have been convicted of crimes, or even suspected of crimes – crimes they may not have even committed. I know this is a thriller and not a social commentary, but it was a surprisingly interesting element of the novel for me.

Anyway, I was thoroughly impressed with That Night and I’m once again a fan of Chevy Stevens. Highly recommended!

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon

The Midwife of Hope RiverThe Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

From the publisher:

As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy’s only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need-and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor’s wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience’s secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.

 

A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Klu Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.

After hearing Patricia Harmon speak at SIBA 2012, I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I got home. Unfortunately, I took way too many books home with me and then life got in the way and now it’s two years later and I’m finally getting to this one, the LAST of my SIBA books to read, and I’m annoyed that it took me so long to read this one because it’s GREAT. This is the kind of novel that you can sit with for hours, wrapped up in a time and place completely different from your own, following the amazing Patience around as she goes through her days, saving lives and birthing babies. It’s incredibly interesting, engaging reading.

The star of this novel is the midwife herself, Patience Murphy. She’s compassionate, caring, and genuine, yet truly no-nonsense when it comes to dealing with women in labor and saving lives. She does exactly what she has to do in a matter-of-fact way to get the job done, and the work she does is so fast-paced to the point where sometimes there’s no time to show tender loving care. I loved the many sides of Patience – she has such a heart of gold, yet when someone attempts to get close to her she has a tendency to put walls up for fear of getting hurt. There are two people in this novel who eventually break down those walls – a friend who ends up becoming a roommate, and a potential love interest – and watching these relationships unfold was pure joy for me. I loved seeing Patience shed some of the pain from her past and open herself up to a potential future.

Patricia Harmon used her own extensive background and experience as a midwife to craft this story, and her knowledge and understanding of midwifery shines through. I’m sure that some of the situations Patience is faced with in the novel are exact things that happened to Harmon’s laboring mothers when she was a practicing midwife. The whole story just felt so genuine, it was crystal clear that Harmon really knows her stuff. 

The other thing I loved about this novel is how the history of the time and place comes through in surprising ways. Patience has to figure out how to navigate major racial tensions while tending to (and loving) black families, and eventually taking over for the only black midwife in the area. She has to fight against the KKK and deal with dire poverty – both her own and her patients’. There is a scene at the end where Patience is being attacked in her own home, and it is truly terrifying. To think that this was a reality for people not too long ago, and in some cases is still possible today, is eye-opening and very hard to think about. But I loved how Harmon used these issues as a background for the more pivotal story – that of the midwife and her work and life. It wasn’t an “issue” book – the issues were just there, just a part of Patience’s life.

I really enjoyed The Midwife of Hope River and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. If you’re like me and have been sitting on this title for a while, don’t wait any longer! It is truly an excellent book and I really, really enjoyed it. 

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Published by Mulholland Books

From the publisher:

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.

I’m one of those people who only considered reading The Cuckoo’s Calling once it was revealed that Robert Galbraith is actually a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I am also one of those people who MUST read everything Rowling writes, so there you go – obviously at some point, I had to get to reading this book. And I’m incredibly happy that I did, because although it might be my bias that leads me to believe J.K. Rowling can do no wrong, she solidified that once again with this fantastic and wonderfully written mystery.

Despite everything that is unfortunate about Strike, I couldn’t help finding him incredibly endearing. His life is just SO depressing, and yet he continues to put his blinders on and never really deals with the real issues in front of him. The fact that Bristow asked him to take this case is a complete miracle and exactly the thing he needed to get his mind off all of his failings and faults – so the fact that he ran into the opportunity full steam ahead was something I absolutely loved. I read someone (can’t remember who, tell me if it’s you!) compare him to a smaller in size, non-magical Hagrid, and oh my goodness I can totally see this and I love the comparison. He’s just so unappealing as to make himself appeal to me – does that make sense?

I also loved Robin, Srike’s temporary assistant, who over time grew just as invested in the murder as Strike did. I actually thought her character could have been used a little more to further the story and so I’m excited to see where Galbraith takes her in the next installment of this series.

Murder mysteries aren’t totally my thing, although I do enjoy the ones I read, so I don’t have the experience to be very critical of the specifics of the plot in The Cuckoo’s Calling, but I will say that I thought it was well done. Maybe I’m naive, but I definitely didn’t see the ending coming, but I do think, looking back, that the clues were placed in such a way that it was possible to guess the killer, which I think is kind of the point of these kinds of books. Although maybe I’m wrong about that? You can see my unfamiliarity with this kind of read – but whatever, I really loved where the book went and I was kept on my toes the entire time.

Where Rowling always shines, and continues to do so in The Cuckoo’s Calling, is her incredible writing and great characters. As always, her writing is super descriptive, to the point that I can picture characters, scenes, and events in my mind with crystal clarity. And as I’ve already said, I found these characters incredibly interesting and well-drawn. I couldn’t put this book down and I’m anxious to read The Silkworm, the next book in the series. No matter what name Rowling writes under, her talent truly shone through here for me and I’m so glad I got to discover another batch of her excellent characters with this novel!

The Sunday Salon

Currently, I’m

Feeling … Exhausted. Hubby and I drove to Tampa yesterday after work to spend some time with my mother-in-law. We ate at an awesome restaurant on Clearwater Beach, Jimmy’s Fish House, where the food was only decent but the view and atmosphere were absolute perfection. There was a live band – one of the guys was playing an electric violin, which I die for – and you’re literally on a pier on the water. It was a beautiful evening but we didn’t get home until almost 2 a.m. and honestly, after being up since 6 and working all day, it was just too long of a day. My poor hubby drove home while I slept, and I’m STILL incredibly tired.

Dreading … Hubby and I both have to go into work today for two hours because the company is doing a server upgrade, and we have to make sure everything is ready to go for tomorrow morning. The last thing I want to do on a Sunday afternoon is go into work but I know it’s important so I’m not really complaining … just, you know, I’d rather be home reading. ;)

Ok, now some good stuff!

Reading … I finished several books this week – The Maze Runner, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner. And last night I was able to finish That Night by Chevy Stevens on the drive into Tampa. All of these were excellent reads, so I’m loving the great streak I’ve been on lately! Next on deck is Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando.

Listening to … Still The Lonely Polygamist. I think this one will take me many more weeks since I don’t listen too often so maybe I’ll just update you guys when I finish, sound good?

Watching … I don’t talk about TV much on here but I do watch a lot of it. Hubby and I DVR many, many shows and are still catching up with some of our shows from the spring while also watching a few summer shows. We’re finishing catching up with Chicago PD and Chicago Fire, Shark Tank, Glee, and Once Upon a Time. And our current summer shows include 24, So You Think You Can Dance, and The Bachelorette (I know, I know). I also started watching Veronica Mars on Netflix but I’m not very far along.

Looking forward to … The 4th! We don’t have any plans set in stone yet, but there are a couple of festivals over the weekend that we might attend, or we might just walk over to watch the local fireworks by our house. We went to a local wine and food tasting event on Wednesday night, and they were advertising fireworks on the 5th, which might be nice – less crowded maybe? We’ll see – all I know for sure is that I get the day off and that is always something to look forward to.

What are you up to this Sunday?

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

The Cloister WalkThe Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Published by Riverhead Trade

To summarize this beautiful book is not an easy thing to do, but basically it is the fragmented diary of sorts of Katheen Norris, a woman who spent ten years as a Benedictine oblate and another two years living at a Benedictine monastery. In The Cloister Walk, she muses on just about every aspect of faith you can imagine and delivers for the reader a perfect balance of education, beautiful writing, and her own observations and opinions about the faith and her experiences within said faith. The style is rather disjointed and, at first glance, seems disorganized, but when I allowed myself to sink into the book, the writing style and organizational layout of the book felt absolutely right, somehow.

The Cloister Walk is not a book that’s easily explained or understood until you actually experience it. The book is truly an experience – each chapter provides a new and unique perspective on some aspect of religion, usually pertaining to Catholicism but not always. She comes at the faith as a lapsed Protestant filled with doubt, so her observations and ideas are incredibly refreshing for those seeped in the faith for years and years – she’s bound to see things differently than someone who’s always been a believer.

This book is just really quiet, contemplative, reflective, just a beautiful piece of nonfiction. Norris is a gorgeous writer and I loved thinking through the many thoughts and discussions she posed to the reader. Highly recommended.