MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Reviews by Becky H

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The Storyteller
by Jodi Picoult
Who can you forgive? Will you? (1/30/2016)
A story within a story within a story is the only way to quickly describe THE STORYTELLER. There are three storytellers -- Sage, a baker, who carries guilt and grief that consumes her; Josef, a beloved elderly man, who confesses to Sage and wants her to forgive and then kill him; and finally, Minka, a Polish Jew and resident of a concentration camp during WWII. I found Minka’s story compelling. Forgiveness is the overriding theme of the book. A sentence on page 450 states that you can only forgive someone the wrong they have done to you personally. Sage, Josef and, even Minka, need forgiveness, but who can forgive them and will they – that is the question.
I found this to be one of Picoult’s more challenging and thought provoking books. She is known for addressing timely topics with a twist ending. THE STORYTELLER addresses forgiveness in way that will give you pause for thought, especially the ending. Book groups will have a lively discussion of guilt and forgiveness.
5 of 5 stars
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins
by Antonia Hodgson
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson (1/17/2016)
After a thrilling start, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins takes a while before the reader truly cares about Tom, his "trull" Kitty and the other characters in the novel. But, once apprehension for Tom's life and liberty sets in, the thrill ride begins and doesn't stop. Hodgson's characters are engaging and fully formed. The setting and history (London, in the early 1700s) is well researched and clearly told. The mystery is exciting with many red herrings and plot twists. The picture presented of Queen Caroline is delightful -- and convincingly nefarious.

Readers of both historical fiction and mysteries will be captivated with this book. Although this is a second outing for Tom Hawkins, and several other characters from The Devil in the Marshalsea are present, the necessary information from the first is presented logically and without undue repetition.
Front Lines
by Michael Grant
Front lines --alternative history (12/28/2015)
This novel is alternative fiction that takes place just before and during World War II. The premise is that girls as well as boys must register for the draft at age 18 and serve in combat if called up. The two female leads are both only 17, but lie about their ages and join up when America is attacked at Pearl Harbor. They both expect to serve in “safe” secretarial type units and are surprised and chagrined when they discover they will serve in combat units. The novel covers their experiences training and then in combat in North Africa.

The author shows quickly that he is NOT a female in the early sections of the book. The women’s actions and attitudes just don’t ring true, especially considering the time period is the 1940’s. He gets better when the “action” becomes actual action in war zones. The male members of the unit are both sexist and accepting of women in combat. Although the book is more than 500 pages, only the first few actions of the unit are covered in any depth. The end of the war is quickly summed up in a few foreshadows strewn throughout and then in a final few pages. The very green female sergeant who embeds herself in a combat action with no battle training and in relative defiance of her superiors is patently unrealistic.

Because the aftereffects on both the men and women in the unit and those at home are not covered the book cannot be considered a foreshadowing of today’s “women in combat” initiatives. The first part of the book drags a bit, but the later war scenes are quite good.
The Same Sky
by Amanda Eyre Ward
A sad, hopeful book (12/2/2015)
What a sad, hopeful book. No, that is not an oxymoron. This really is an excruciatingly sad book full of hope and faith. A young girl, left alone to care for her even younger brother, must lead them from crushing poverty in Honduras to their illegal immigrant mother in America. Hope and belief carry them until her brother is hooked on glue and she is raped.
A young American couple with everything -- a successful restaurant, enough money, friends, family, an enduring love for each other, but no child to make them complete. Hope and belief seem lost when the child they adopted is taken from them after one blissful day because the birth mother changes her mind.
Told in alternating chapters with Carla, the Honduran child, and Alice, the American wife, voicing their stories. The situations are real, the characters are fully fleshed out, the tension increases as the stories play out. How can this end happily? Does it end happily? Who are the winners and losers?
A beautifully written tale of heart wrenching loss, dashed dreams, hope, love and a place to belong.
5 of 5 stars
The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir
by Ruth Wariner
The Sound of Grave by Ruth Wariner (11/3/2015)
What a sad – and horrifying – life these children had foisted upon them by adults who should have cared for and loved them. It is hard to know where to start – with the father who wouldn't give his children his name, a mother so blinded by faith she puts her children in mortal danger, a community that lives in abject poverty out of fear? – faith? – stupidity? It also shows the inadequacy of border patrols, government assistance, the safety net for children and women and on and on.
Ruth Wariner's calm retelling of her childhood living in a cult was difficult to read. The life of this family caught in the blindness of the mother to the toxic and heartbreaking reality of her family's desperation and danger is written in straightforward prose. Ruth's ability to ultimately save the remaining children is testament to her strength of character.
I can't say that I "enjoyed" this book, but it was certainly riveting reading. I was a bit disappointed that I didn't learn more about fundamental LDS, but then that was not the point of the book.
Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America
by Joseph Kim, Stephan Talty
UNDER THE SAME SKY by Joseph Kim (8/31/2015)
What a harrowing tale Joseph tells in this, his story from early childhood in North Korea to young manhood in America.
His father is a mid-level party worker and his family is comfortable in the 1980’s. Kim, his father, mother and sister, Bong Sook, live with electricity, a TV and plenty of food and snacks. Then the famine in North Korea takes all of that away. His father and mother lose their jobs, then their furniture, TV and even clothing in order to eat. Eventually they lose their home and are dependent upon their extended family for a roof and food. Finally they have exhausted all options. Kim’s mother sells his sister in South Korea, and disappears. Joseph is left on his own as a young boy. The book details the heartrending life he leads as a homeless youth, descending into theft, lies and violence to survive. Written in simple, but graphic terms, he tells how he ultimately loses all hope and faith in communism and North Korea. He sneaks into South Korea at great risk, becoming a refugee from one the world’s most repressive regimes.
The book’s subtitle, FROM STARVATION IN NORTH KOREA TO SALVATION IN AMERICA, gives the story of his life in one sentence. This is a book that will not leave you for many months. You will learn about life in North Korea when things go well and how quickly plenty can turn to extreme want when a government is oblivious to the needs of the citizens – and how citizens continue to defend and love their country long after the country has abandoned them.
5 of 5 stars
We All Looked Up
by Tommy Wallach
Skip this one (7/27/2015)
Okay, maybe the teens will love this book. I didn’t. There is an awful lot of bad sex, too much drug usage, gratuitous violence, an absent society, clueless parents, messed up kids, a dying father and, oh yes, buried all the dreck is a rather sweet love story. The actual mechanics of the writing is fine. The story is awful. If you want a good “end of the world” story, read Pat Frank’s ALAS, BABYLON. Skip this one.
1 of 5 stars
The Testament
by John Grisham
Not your usual Grisham - in a good way (6/23/2015)
I started this book thinking “oh no, another bad will, lawyers fighting it out” book. I was wrong. This book is really a character study of two people: one selfless, powerless, kind, gentle, loving, astute; the other selfish, brutish, drunk, egotistical, powerful. It is also about a land – beautiful, treacherous, unforgiving, abundant. When these forces meet, the story begins.

Grisham is a great storyteller; his characters are real, the situations are plausible, the tension is unending. THE TESTAMENT has a clear message, told clearly in a powerful way. This is a story that will stay with you. I’m glad I read it and you will be too.
5 of 5 stars
The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
by Jenny Nordberg
THE UNDERGROUND GIRLS OF KABUL by Jenny Nordberg (6/20/2015)
The life of girls who dress and act like boys for the benefit of their families is detailed in this well researched book. Most of the girls – called Bacha Posh – are turned into boys because the families do not have sons. Not having a son is an embarrassment to the family and a failure of a wife. Because girls are kept inside the home and kept completely separate from the outside world, a family with no sons has no one to chaperone the women/girls of the family, no one to shop or run errands and no one to uphold the family’s honor. Most bacha posh turn back into girls shortly before reaching puberty, marry and have children. But some find the return to being female in a strictly regulated, patriarchal society almost impossible to endure.

The family stories are compelling reading, especially that of Azita (herself once bacha posh) who is one of the few female parliamentarians in Afghanistan. Azita is educated and had expected to become a professional before the Taliban and then the mullahs decreed a return to veiled and hidden women. Married into a village family with an illiterate husband, the transition is difficult and only bearable when she is chosen to be a Member of Parliament in the reformed Afghanistan. With 4 girls and no boys, Azita makes the decision to “save face” by turning her youngest daughter into a son. With the resurgence of strict Muslim adherence, her life and the life of her bacha posh daughter, again becomes constrained.

The final chapters of the book detail the psychological and legal repercussions of bacha posh as well as the world wide incidents of daughters being made into boys in patriarchal societies and times. These chapters drag a bit in an otherwise engrossing book.

4 of 5 stars
Cinnamon and Gunpowder
by Eli Brown
CINNAMON AND GUNPOWDER by Eli Brown (6/17/2015)
Food and pirates works surprisingly well in this sometimes funny, sometimes scary, sometimes poignant tale of a kidnapped chef and the female pirate who keeps him a la Scheherazade until he can no longer make a meal that tantalizes her taste buds. Of course the problem of missing ingredients (what pirate ship carries fresh herbs and truffles?) and a cramped and skimpy kitchen make his dilemma interesting. Chef Owen and Pirate Hannah are clearly drawn characters you will like. The supporting pirate crew is equally well drawn. Life aboard ship is made plain.
The plot also concerns the opium trade with China and the scoundrel British captains who control it. The enemy pirate – The Fox – turns out to be related to Hannah in more ways than one. The final battles are tense with the final ‘winner” difficult to guess.
A good outing for a debut author. I look forward to his next book.
4 of 5 stars
Orhan's Inheritance
by Aline Ohanesian
ORHAN'S INHERITANCE by Aline Ohanesian (5/28/2015)
The discord between the Turks and the Armenians comes alive in Ohanesian’s book that details three generations of those two groups that once occupied the same land. The book begins in 1990 with the reading of a will. Orhan, a Turk, has been left his family’s business, but not the family home, in the will written by his grandfather. The home has been left to an unknown woman living in California. Orhan’s father is enraged. He and Orhan’s Auntie have been left with no stake in the family’s Kilim rug factory and only an apartment building in another town in which to live.

Orhan flies off to meet the Californian, Seda, an aged Armenian, in an effort to regain the family home. The rest of the book is divided between the events in Armenia just after the close of WWI and the meetings between Orhan and Seda.
The connection between the two families is compelling reading. The horror of the Armenian genocide is rendered in a beautifully written tale of love, horror, forgiveness, deceit, discrimination, fear, kindness, anger and, finally, understanding.

5 of 5 stars
A Good Family
by Erik Fassnacht
A GOOD Family (5/16/2015)
I almost quit reading – then I got to page 58 and I was hooked. The four members of this family are damaged, damaged by each other, damaged by their past, damaged by their own actions. The characters are finely drawn, believable and you get to know them intimately. The situations are timely and true. The writing is expressive. These are people and situations you want to know and care about deeply – even when they are being incredibly stupid in their actions. The tempo and tension increase as the book travels to its conclusion. There is sufficient humor to lighten what could be a depressing book.
I especially liked the sections about Barkley and his illustrious Catholic high school. The politics of schools are spot on (I'm a former teacher at a religious school). I rooted for Julie to detach from her stifling marriage and find (re-find?) herself and her dreams. The male writer got women right –Julie, Ginny and Margaret.
Book groups will a plethora of topics to discuss, including the endings for each family member.
The Art of Baking Blind
by Sarah Vaughan
The Art of Baking Blind by Sarah Vaughan (4/9/2015)
Vaughan has created five very likeable characters in the contestants for the “Next Mrs. Eaden, ‘ although Mike seems like the required male, an afterthought serving only as a foil for Claire’s Jay. Kathleen Eadon, who appears in back flashes, is the glue that serves to highlight each of the other character’s flaws and perfections. The book is lengthy (over 400 pages) but is a “quick” read. You will want to know the conclusion of the contest, and the solutions to each of the contestant’s (and Kathleen’s) dilemmas. The pronunciation of Kathleen’s last name might lead one to believe that housewifely skills always produce an “Eden” in one’s life -- and one would be wrong.
I hope in the finished book there is a glossary of the British cookery terms – and pictures of the wonderful treats the bakers create. The descriptions of the baking projects are scrumptious and will send you to the kitchen -- or hustling off to the grocery. Book groups will find a “baker’s dozen” of topics for discussion – marriage, motherhood, cookery skills, self-worth, bulimia, miscarriage, contests , love vs sex, perfection and many more.
5 of 5 stars
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson
DEAD WAKE by Eric Larson (3/28/2015)
DEAD WAKE, the beautifully detailed history of the events leading up to and after the sinking of the Lusitania, is written in Larson’s style of presenting well-known facts and events in the manner of a well plotted mystery. Using both famous and obscure persons, Larson fleshes out the event that ultimately leads to the United States entering World War II. He contrasts the tension generated by the ship speeding to disaster with the courtship of the widowed and lonely President Wilson and the discord between Winston Churchill and Jacky Fisher in the British Admiralty. The action moves between the Lusitania, the U-20, President Wilson, and the Admiralty.
Book groups will find the history intriguing and lead to a good discussion of the merits of attacking “innocent” targets during war. Participants will also enjoy a discussion of the courtship between the President and Edith Galt, a “distracted” President during a time of international tension, the safety measures taken on board ship, and the actions (or inaction) of various passengers and ship crew.
A map of the entire area traversed by the U-20 and the Lusitania would be helpful in following the routes. I was frustrated by failing to find points mentioned (and important) noted on the end paper map. A listing of the persons encountered in the book with a brief description would be helpful in identifying the many passengers on the Lusitania when they are re-encountered in widely separated parts of the book. For real history buffs, the end notes are generous and detailed.
5 of 5 stars
I Am Forbidden: A Novel
by Anouk Markovits
I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits (3/24/2015)
Three children who survive the destruction of their orthodox Jewish communities during WWII are followed throughout their lives. One survives because his Catholic nanny hides him as her son until he is “restored” to Judaism after the war. One survives because that same boy prevents her from following her mother and father to certain death. The third survives because her family is fortunate enough to escape to neutral land and then Paris after the war.
The aftermath of the war influences all the decisions, secrets and separations that follow them all their lives. The Ultra orthodox community is sympathetically rendered as is the decision of one of the three to leave that insular and confining faith.
The characters and faith are presented with clarity. Book groups will discover the lifestyle of the orthodox and its ramifications. A discussion of the decisions of the three characters and the decision of a granddaughter should lead to a lively conversation.
4 of 5 stars

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