The Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister

The Magician's LieThe Magician’s Lie by Greer Macallister
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark
Review copy provided by SheReads

The Amazing Arden is a famous female magician, running her own show and her own empire in a male-dominated world and industry – it is the early 1900’s and traveling circuses, usually headed by men, are all the rage. When Arden’s husband is found dead inside one of her famous illusions, young detective Virgil Holt is determined to get her confession, so he finds her in a bar, brings her home, and traps her until she gives him the information he needs. But the story she spins is unlike anything Holt’s ever heard before, and he’s torn as to whether she’s telling him elaborate lies, or if her crazy story could actually be the truth.

This book appealed to me because it had been compared to Water for Elephants, a book I loved years ago. The novel begins with Virgil watching The Amazing Arden’s act and finding himself shocked and confused by what he’s seeing – he doesn’t know how she’s making these illusions happen, but he instinctively doesn’t trust the woman behind them. When her husband is found dead, he just knows that she’s either responsible for the death or involved somehow. Macallister draws the reader into the story right away – Arden’s husband is found within the first few pages, and a few pages after that, Virgil tracks down Arden and basically kidnaps her. After that, the majority of the novel is Arden telling Virgil her life story.

And what a life story it is! Arden’s past is filled with tragedy and the life she made for herself only came about through a mixture of determination, patience, circumstance, luck, and sheer will on Arden’s part to not go back to where she came from. But the whole time Arden is telling Virgil her life story, he’s questioning everything she says and wondering if he can trust even one word that comes out of her mouth. When she finishes her tale, Virgil is shocked and the reader is left feeling the same way.

I liked The Magician’s Lie well enough. I found myself spellbound by Arden’s story, alternately horrified by the things she experienced and proud of her for turning such a difficult life into such a successful one. But at the same time, I didn’t love this novel as much as I wanted to. The characters were a little too much for me – the good guys too perfect and the bad guys had not an ounce of humanity in them. Arden herself is a mystery because while as a reader, you want to like her and root for her, you also suspect that she’s playing you and Virgil for fools. Because I could never trust Arden, I couldn’t exactly like her, even though I found myself hoping that what she was saying was the truth – until the very end. Without going into detail, while I didn’t quite see the ending coming, it did feel a bit contrived to me. Almost as if the author knew she had to do something shocking with this story, and what she chose to do may have worked really well for a lot of people – but for me, not so much.

I don’t know. I’m torn with this one because while I really liked the journey and was highly entertained by most of the novel, there were aspects of The Magician’s Lie that I didn’t love. But I think that a lot of people will really enjoy this book and I do commend the author for an incredibly unique and successful debut novel.

Mini-Reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 4

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman #2)The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
Published by Text Publishing Company
Review copy provided by Netgalley

I loved The Rosie Project so I was super excited to see that Simsion wrote a sequel. In this book, Rosie and Don have been married just under a year when Rosie becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, this sends their relationship into a tailspin – the two of them aren’t communicating, Don has moved a friend into their apartment, and Rosie continues to insist that everything is fine even when it so obviously is not.

I have to be honest and say that I was so disappointed in this book. What was endearing and cute about Don in the first book became redundant and quite annoying in this one. Further, it bothered me how Don and Rosie both acted exactly in character, yet for some reason neither one was able to figure out how to deal with the others’ issues – even though they figured out how to communicate and get along perfectly fine in book one! Wouldn’t you think that Rosie would understand how Don sees the world and acts in the face of adversity and know how to handle it when things out of the ordinary happen (as she did in the first book)? And vice versa? I was, quite frankly, bored with most of the book and if I hadn’t gotten it from a review copy source I would have abandoned it. I like Simsion’s writing but I’m ready for him to create some new characters.

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
Published by It Books

I have been a fan of Amy Poehler since she was on Saturday Night Live. I love Parks and Recreation (and really, really don’t want this to be the last season – SO SAD!) and I knew I’d read this book as soon as I could. Yes Please was everything I wanted and more. Funny, honest, authentic, true, Amy Poehler is everything and I just love her. Everyone says that the audio is better than print, so I may have to reread it this year in audio format. But either way, it’s fantastic and if you are at all a fan of Poehler’s, this is a must-read.

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged HospitalFive Days at Memorial: Life and Death at a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sherri Fink
Published by Crown

If you haven’t heard of this book, chronicling the five days nurses, doctors, patients and their families spent at Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, you must have been living under a rock. I am here to tell you that the praise this book has received is absolutely worth it, Five Days at Memorial is an incredibly fascinating, if terrifying, read. There’s so much here to think about and discuss it boggles the mind but the biggest lesson I took from this book is that disaster planning is so necessary, especially for big companies. There are individuals who Fink kind of points the finger at here, but at the end of the day, the structures that are supposed to be in place to protect people from having to make life or death decisions in the face of very little food, sleep, and water were just not in place here. I cannot recommend this book enough. I didn’t put it on my end of year survey because I hadn’t quite finished it when I wrote that, but Five Days at Memorial is one of the best books I read all year, hands down. And the audio production is fabulous. Please pick up this book in audio or print – either way you will not regret it.

Mini-reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 3

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the WestEscape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Published by Viking Adult

I read this book because a customer at my job recommended it to me during a discussion of the book (and now movie) Unbroken. And also, I had just finished Without You, There is No Us and wanted to read more about North Korea (I still do. Recommendations, please.). Let me just say that anytime I read anything about North Korea, I am never not shocked and heartbroken. That was the case with Escape from Camp 14, without a doubt. I learned more about this atrocious dictator and how he keeps his people enslaved and malnourished and completely ignorant about the rest of the world. In this book, the man who escaped lived in what was basically a death camp, only they don’t outright kill people there, just overwork and underfeed them and get them to have no relationships with one another so they end up either dying of starvation or disease or another prisoner or guard kills them for something horrifyingly insignificant. It’s awful and sad and I don’t even know what to say.

Here’s the thing about this book, thought, that I didn’t like so much. It’s not written by the guy who actually escaped, Shin Donghyuk. Instead, journalist Blaine Harden tells his story for him. For whatever reason, this format just bothered me. I know that Harden spent tons of time with Shin and really got to know him, and I’m sure he knows his story inside and out, but there’s just no way that he can possibly fully understand what Shin has been through. It seemed to me that this format kept the book at arm’s length for me and I would have been much happier reading a book that Shin wrote about his own experiences.

All that being said, Escape from Camp 14 is incredibly fascinating and I would still recommend it. This stuff is happening in our world, RIGHT NOW, and we need to be aware.

YouYou by Caroline Kepnes
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books

So. This is a book about a stalker, from the stalker’s point of view. The “you” in the title is the girl he’s stalking. He’s basically writing this book to her, so it reads kind of like this: “I watch you as you get ready for work and you are so beautiful it almost kills me” (I made that line up, but that’s the general idea).

This book is so freaking creepy but it was really good, too. It’s almost weird for me to say a book THIS creepy can be good, but truly I couldn’t put the thing down. The crazy part is that the girl he’s stalking actually becomes friends with him and they kind of start dating … well, read it to find out more. But it got me thinking about all kinds of things like how well do we really know the people we surround ourselves with? You is really good and if you can handle the creep factor, definitely pick it up.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published by Scribner

This one is hard for me because I had very, very high expectations. Several people who have very similar reading tastes to mine named it their favorite book of the entire year. I went in expecting to be blown away, and while it is an excellent book and I did really like it, it isn’t my favorite ever.

There’s a lot going on in All the Light We Cannot See, but basically it is set during World War Two, and it’s about two people: Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living in Paris with her father, and Werner, a young German boy who joins the Hitler Youth and ends up being an asset to the Nazis as he has a special talent with radios. I liked the alternating focus between the two – the quick pace kept my interest throughout, and I got to the point towards the end when I was just frantically turning pages to get to how this book would end. I liked how the book explores what this war did to ordinary people, and it was particularly compelling reading about how the Nazis groomed the Hitler Youth to become killers, basically.

I really liked this book, a lot. But it wasn’t my favorite ever and definitely wouldn’t make a top ten list for the year, either. I’ll just take this as yet another reminder that not all books have to be the best, and I shouldn’t have such high expectations.

Mini-Reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 2

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family TableDinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table by Jenny Rosenstrach
Published by Ecco

Blogger Jenny Rosenstrach has finally decided to put together the story of how she came to be the incredible cook she is, why she values family dinner time so much, and how the average person with a million things to do and a job and a life and kids can make it happen, too.

I feel like it’s not even fair for me to review this book because I haven’t actually cooked anything from it (yet) but I LOVED it so much that I have to share it with all of you! There’s a lot more to this book than family recipes – although there are a ton of those, of course. It’s full of advice and helpful hints and tips and tricks and ways to simplify cooking and dinner so that it’s doable for any family of any size and any level of busyness. Also, the author tells her own story, allowing the reader to get to know Rosenstrach herself – and she seems like a pretty awesome person, I must tell you. I unfortunately got this from the library and had to return it before I could cook something from it, but I plan to check it out again very soon and make something. All of her recipes are in the easy-to-medium range and I feel confident that I can make just about anything in this book. I’m very excited to try something!

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
Published by Crown
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Journalist Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary/teacher at one of North Korea’s most exclusive and elite universities, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, for six months. Her memoir of her time there is fascinating and incredibly sad. I am honestly shocked and baffled that there is a country in the world, that RIGHT NOW, is this way. These people are so repressed, so completely in servitude to their Dear Leader, so unknowledgable about the world around them, it truly baffles the mind. I don’t have much to say about this one other than that it should be required reading for anyone who cares at all about the world, and please read it for yourself to understand what I mean. Craziness, folks, is what this is.

A Share in Death (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James, #1)A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie
Published by Avon

This book is the first in a long series about Scottish detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. Everyone raves about this series so I thought I’d finally give it a try. A Share in Death takes place at a vacation cottage where Kincaid is trying to relax and take his mind off work, when a gentleman who works there is killed, and of course Kincaid can’t help but get involved in trying to solve the murder.

I liked this book well enough but wasn’t wowed by it. I think because so many people LOVE this series I was expecting a little more. It was your average mystery to me, nothing too special. I liked the characters, though, and I can see how there will be chemistry between Kincaid and James going forward, so I may continue with the series at some point. It’s just disappointing when you go into a book expecting to be blown away and it doesn’t happen.

Mini-reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 1

In an effort to at least mention everything I read at the end of 2014, I will be doing a few batches of mini-reviews. Here are the first few.

What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and LoveWhat Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love by Carole Radziwill
Published by Scribner

I first heard of Carole Radziwill when she appeared on the Oprah show many years back. It hadn’t been long before her appearance on the show that she tragically lost her best friend, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her husband’s cousin, John Kennedy, in a plane crash, and immediately after that lost her husband, Anthony Radziwill, to cancer. I was struck, even at whatever young age I was when I watched that episode, by Carole’s amazing strength and positive attitude in the face of such tragic circumstances.

Fast-forward many years – Carole is now a reality TV star on the show Desperate Housewives of New York City, which I happen to watch and love. I LOVE her on the show – she is witty, sarcastic, no-nonsense, and extremely cool. I decided to pick up this book for all those reasons, plus the fact that a good friend read it and recommended it to me. You guys, this book is so fantastic. Carole’s life is really fascinating – it was almost a fluke that she met and fell in love with this man of royalty and his incredibly famous family. Her friendship with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy is one that many women will be able to relate to – most of us have that BFF in our lives who we couldn’t imagine living without, the one person we can go to with absolutely anything and it will be a judgment-free zone. Carolyn was that person to Carole, and she lost her way, way too soon. Anthony’s scary and sad battle with cancer was heartbreaking to read about, but again, so much of this book is about the strength and courage Carole had in fighting this battle alongside her husband. What Remains is really a beautiful book and I highly recommend picking it up, for so many reasons.

Love & TreasureLove & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
Published by Knopf

This is a complex and layered novel about the Hungarian Gold Train in World War Two. Waldman introduces the reader to Jack Wiseman, a lieutenant who in 1945 is charged with guarding a massive warehouse full of treasures stolen from Jewish people during the war. Seventy years later, Jack gives his granddaughter, Natalie, a mysterious necklace and asks her to search for the woman to whom it belonged. Natalie’s search introduces the reader to even more characters, with even more complicated histories, and the novel continues on from there.

I really liked this novel and thought the writing was absolutely beautiful. I loved how Waldman introduced me to an element of the Holocaust that I knew about, vaguely, but hadn’t read much about in the past. The book is kind of three novellas that ultimately tie together into one larger novel, and while I found that format effective for telling this particular story, it wasn’t my favorite overall. I got super engrossed in one story, only to have it end and move on to the next novella and its characters, and that threw me off a bit. Like I said, it worked for Love & Treasure, but I would be annoyed to read books in that format regularly. I know Waldman has said some nasty stuff on Twitter lately and people are kind of down on her because of that, but I really enjoyed this book. Girl can WRITE.

RoomsRooms by Lauren Oliver
Published by Ecco

In this novel, the reader gets to know both the living Walker family, and the ghosts of the people who inhabited their home before them, Alice and Sandra. Richard Walker left his possessions and home to his family members – ex-wife Caroline, teenage son Trenton, and daughter Minna (along with her six-year-old daughter) – and the four of them are back in Walker’s house, sorting through his things, as Alice and Sandra watch. Though Alice and Sandra cannot speak to the living, they communicate to them through the house itself. When a new ghost shows up, and Trenton begins communicating with her, Alice and Sandra are thrown off-course, tipping the delicate balance between the humans and ghosts in the house.

Oliver has gotten a lot of criticism for this one but I really liked it! I was swept into this world right away, desperate to learn more about Alice and Sandra and why they were still ghosts in this home. I didn’t particularly like any of the human characters, but I did want them to figure out their own issues and move on from their family’s legacy of hatred towards one another. I think Oliver is a fantastic writer and while Rooms isn’t her best book ever, I highly enjoyed the experience of reading it.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – Reread for HP Readalong

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)When I began my re-read of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for Sheila’s Harry Potter Re-read I wasn’t super excited. I’ve always felt that this is my least favorite book in the series, and even though I love all the books, this is the one I felt I could probably skip and feel okay about it.

I didn’t skip it, and I’m glad I didn’t, but I still think it’s my least favorite of all seven novels. Here are some of my thoughts about this one – with spoilers!

Gilderoy Lockhart is SO ANNOYING. Seriously. I strongly dislike that guy and I wanted to skip every single scene of the book that he was in.

I remembered a LOT more foreshadowing about Ginny being involved with the Chamber of Secrets than there actually was in the book. In my memory, she was stressed, obviously dealing with some kind of major issue, and avoiding Harry, Ron and Hermione like the plague. Well, that’s not really what happened. She only showed up after more than halfway through the book, and there was maybe one conversation between she and someone else (Percy I think) when Harry and Ron thought something might be up with her. Before long, Harry himself found the diary and then we don’t see Ginny again until she ends up in the Chamber.

Harry and Ron were really stupid to drive that car to school. Why, oh why, couldn’t they just take the car and drive back to The Burrow and have the Weasleys get them to school? Or send an owl to the school informing them the barrier closed? Ugh, pre-teen boys and their rebelliousness (aka stupidity).

As always, I continue to love Hermione. She stepped up her game in this book, coming up with the potion the way she did and then in the end solving the whole thing (of course).

I watched the movie right after finishing the book and I liked this movie better than the first movie. I used to think I didn’t like any of the Harry Potter movies, but upon watching them so far I’m enjoying them a lot more than I thought. It’s fun to watch them right after reading the book and finding the things that were changed or left out entirely.

Anyway – while this is still my least favorite of all seven books, I did enjoy the re-read! Thanks again Sheila for putting this together. Now it’s on to Prisoner of Azkaban!

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published by Viking Juvenile

From the publisher:

For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

Everything I have read by Laurie Halse Anderson has been incredible, and this book is no different. She writes with such unflinching honesty and creates characters who are so damaged and raw, characters you get mad at but want to hug all at the same time.

In this case, Hayley is damaged and raw, yes, but she is also a child and is keeping her shit together pretty well for a teenager tasked with the enormous responsibility of taking care of her mentally ill father. I just wanted to shake Andy – couldn’t he see what he was putting his daughter through? The answer is, unfortunately, no he couldn’t see it, not through the haze of his PTSD and resulting self-medication through alcohol. I felt deeply for him, but ultimately I just wanted him to get help and get back into the real world so that Hayley could attempt some semblance of a normal teenage existence.

I liked Finn a lot, and I definitely liked him and Hayley together, but honestly he was secondary to the story of Hayley and her dad for me. I think the book could have been just as good without him in it. Not that he took anything away from the story (really it’s a perfect book, in my opinion), but all I’m saying is the romance itself wasn’t absolutely necessary and the book would have been phenomenal either way.

It’s terrible what happens to the men and women in our military upon returning home. They go through unimaginable mental and emotional trauma (not to mention the physical trauma) when fighting a war, and when they come home they are expected to carry on as if nothing happened, as if their bodies and minds aren’t irreparably changed, mostly for the worse. And the level of pride and self-reliance that the military instills in them makes it very difficult for those suffering from PTSD, addiction, and other mental and emotional issues to get the help that would truly make a difference in their lives. The level to which Anderson portrayed this very real problem in her novel is excellent. The Impossible Knife of Memory is an important book, and it’s one I won’t soon forget. Please read it.