Archive for ‘Reviews’

January 5th, 2016

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

by Gwen


Years ago, I read Chris Bohjalian for the first time and while I remember little of the actual plot, what sticks with me is the extremely powerful punch of an ending. (I’d link to the review of Secrets of Eden, but as I mentioned, it was years ago and I was a novice book blogger found of gushing…embarrassing.)

Not all of his books that I’ve read since left such lasting memories and sadly, there is one that I’ve attempted to read multiple times and failed to finish. (Sorry, striving for honesty in 2016)

The Guest Room, however, brings back that powerful wallop of an unexpected ending and the entire book was an inescapable tour de force in making you think and putting real faces on a social issue (human trafficking, such a PC way to say sex slaves) that I think many of us have a hard time understanding.

It starts with something as banal as Richard, a mature sedate successful husband and father, agreeing to host his immature brother’s bachelor party. The idea makes he and his wife cringe a bit, but really, how bad can it be and isn’t it better than the uber-creepy over-done trip to a strip club?

Hold up, what you’re thinking happens, doesn’t. It’s worse and better at the same time. That’s the magic of Bohjalian, he gets you in the feels. You start thinking about what you would do in this situation….or that one, if your husband did this…or that, how would you respond? You start feeling the character’s pain and it isn’t always pleasant. There were times that I felt like I was watching a horror flick. You totally understand the reasons the scantily clad teenagers want to leave the spooky cabin, but you’re silently urging them not to and then you’re begging them. It wasn’t campy like a horror movie, but that urge to second guess their decisions is palatable.

The ending? I may have yelped; don’t think I cried. I’m sure I didn’t. Just like Secrets of Eden, this is a story that is going to stick with me for years and from someone that averages a book a day? That’s saying something.

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December 2nd, 2015

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit

by Gwen

Anna and the Swallow Man

Have you ever read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas? John Boyne was able to show one boy’s view of WWII in a way that I’d never seen done before or since until now.

Kraków, 1939. A million marching soldiers and a thousand barking dogs. This is no place to grow up. Anna Łania is just seven years old when the Germans take her father, a linguistics professor, during their purge of intellectuals in Poland. She’s alone.

And then Anna meets the Swallow Man. He is a mystery, strange and tall, a skilled deceiver with more than a little magic up his sleeve. And when the soldiers in the streets look at him, they see what he wants them to see.

Over the course of their travels together, Anna and the Swallow Man will dodge bombs, tame soldiers, and even, despite their better judgment, make a friend. But in a world gone mad, everything can prove dangerous. Even the Swallow Man.

It’s heartbreaking to think of a child all alone on the streets of Krakow in 1939. Anna is plucky and smart, but that is no defense against the horrors of the time, doesn’t give her a place to sleep or food in her belly, and it certainly doesn’t make what’s going on around her any easier to understand.  The Swallow Man attempts to teach her how to survive; to cross borders and streams, to seem friendly, not needy and how to best deal with the Wolves (German soldiers) and the Bears (Russian soldiers).

He’s irascible and it often seems that he’s lost that beautiful touch with humanity that as a child, Anna still holds dear, but he’s also dependable in a world that gives Anna nothing else she can depend on. He’s an anti-hero. He’s a survivor. That comes at a cost and Anna may be the one that has to pay it.

Anna and the Swallow Man broke my heart and mended it over and over. It made me grateful for the time and place that I came into the world and angry at the time period she and the real children of the time grew up in. It made me laugh. I cried. It made me want to give up on humanity and then quickly reminded me that not all of us are bad; that we may have quirks and none of us are perfect, but there are still a fair amount of people that have their heart in the right place.

As of right now, I’ve read 335 books this year. This one is my favorite.

Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit

  • Age Range: 12 and up
  • Grade Level: 7 and up
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (January 26, 2016)
  • ISBN-10: 0553513346
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553513349


I’m grateful to the great folks at Penguin Random House for asking me to be apart of their pre-pub date push for this book.

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October 28th, 2015

The Betrayal: How the 1919 Black Sox Scandal Changed Baseball

by Gwen

The Betrayal

Baseball. History. Scandal. Crime. Chicago. That’s like Christmas, my birthday, and everything good wrapped into one for me and just in time to watch my team duke it out with the Royals in the World Series.

Charles Fountain takes a big swing at separating the fact from gossip, what little can be known for sure and what has passed into legend, and while I don’t think that anyone is ever going to be able to put this game to bed, he makes a great slide into home.

Too many baseball metaphors? I’ve got more….many, many more.

Rumors were rampant that the fix was in even before Eddie Cicotte took the mound in 1919 for the White Sox against the Cincinnati Reds. However, the bigwigs of organized baseball didn’t want to hear it, it would have made America’s Pastime look bad to even check out the rumors. Journalists talked about it amongst themselves, but their editors squashed any actual mention of the idea in print, too controversial and this is baseball, it was too clean and fix something as big as the Series? That’s not possible.

What made it even harder to figure is that the boys played well, really well. They just lost. There were very few questionable plays and the bats were still active, balls were caught, runners were thrown out, etc.

It all fell apart a year later and just got more complicated from there with a myriad of complicated motivations to keep it hidden, get the truth out there, personal squabbles, ambitious lawyers, bitter players and the list is honestly endless, everyone had an oar in. Very few people walked away looking pure as snow, but this is baseball and America…we always bounce back.

You’re going to want to be a baseball fan if you pick up The Betrayal. It isn’t a book for everyone, more a book for every fan.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, the World Series is on and I’ve made some bets.

The Betrayal: How the 1919 Black Sox Scandal Changed Baseball by Charles Fountain

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 15, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199795134
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199795130


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April 20th, 2015

Days of Rage by Bryan Burrough

by Gwen



“During an eighteen-month period in 1971 and 1972, the FBI reported more than 2,500 bombings on U.S. soil, nearly 5 a day.”

I was born in 1971. So there were 2,500 bombings happening while I was, um, doing whatever it is that babies do. That number shocked me. It’s easy to fall back into thinking that terror in the U.S. started in the last say, twenty years; we’re wrong. The massive difference, that is important to point out, is that most of those bombings in the 70’s had few injuries and even fewer fatalities.

Being in diapers and learning my ABC’s, “the Underground” wasn’t on my radar as a kid and while I’ve heard the name Weather over the years, I certainly had no idea what they stood for or just what their point was before reading this. Burrough’s book gave me a better understanding of the period…and it wasn’t just about protesting the Vietnam War. In fact, it usually wasn’t about the war much at all. That was the big takeaway. I look back and figured that everyone was busy bitching about the war, but there was a lot more going on, like civil rights, Puerto Rican independence, and more.

Days of Rage is well written and breaks up the various underground groups well, really well considering some of these groups were overlapping or active during the same time periods. However, it is far from a flattering portrait and I’m pretty sure that that isn’t Burrough’s fault. The various underground groups were a ragtag bunch; some idealistic, some angry, some drug-addled, etc. It’s hard to fathom this period in our great history where things  were so freaking bad that groups of people thought they had to start bombing and planning to kill people just to get their point across. (with the exception of the obvious mainstream things like the Revolution or the Civil War)

The book was interesting and well done…the subject, or really that should be plural, was just lousy. Burrough’s says it well here…

“In the end, the untold story of the underground era, stretching from 1970 to 1985, is one of misplaced idealism, naiveté, and stunning arrogance.”

Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press (April 7, 2015)
  • ISBN-10: 1594204292
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594204296

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April 2nd, 2015

Game of Mirrors by Andrea Camilleri

by Gwen


A couple of years ago I stumbled onto this wonderful series thanks to my library’s audiobook collection. It was one of those, “Come on Overdrive, just have something good available now. I need a book for the drive tomorrow” moments. Those moments don’t always produce memorable results…Not so that time. I immediately fell in love with the Montalbano series and have kept up ever since.

Inspector Salvo Montalbano is a smart Sicilian cop in the fictional Vigata, with wry sense of humor and a somewhat rag-tag crew of people around him that he often enjoys messing with. Many might want to pigeonhole the mysteries as somewhat cozy, but they often confront many real social and political issues that your average cozy doesn’t touch. Montalbano gets results, but his methods aren’t always conventional or even strictly legal. He’s a smart ass with a heart of gold who gets the job done.  You can’t help love him for it.

Another things that sets the series apart is the language. Camilleri interweaves a whole heap of Italian and the Sicilian dialect into his books without leaving English speakers behind. I credit Camilleri (and Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti Series) with the wee grasp I have of Italian because he makes is natural and easy.

However, this is the first book in the series that I have read as opposed to listening to and there was a huge difference. Grover Gardner narrates the audiobooks and he pronounces all of the Sicilian that doesn’t roll off of your tongue easily. As I was reading this, I heard his voice in my head and would have been lost a few times if I hadn’t already heard him say some words in the prior books. I can’t think of another series or even standalone that I would suggest audio versions more strongly.

If you’re like me and have a yen for Italy, a sarcastic sense of humor, and like your mysteries served with a side of well hidden social commentary….check out Inspector Montalbano. You can start anywhere, but I always try to start series at the beginning for the full experience.


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