Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia

Reviewed for Netgalley and free of Spoilers

I Was Anastasia is a thoroughly researched novel that explores the story of Anna Anderson, better known as the woman who staunchly claimed to be Anastasia, the only surviving daughter of Czar Nicholas of Russia, who, along with his wife and children, were murdered by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918.

Author Ariel Lawhon weaves fact, fiction, and fancy into this tragic story of a family destroyed by revolution and a woman desperately trying to establish her identity.

Lawhon employs a technique of shifting points of view. Anastasia’s chapters are in first person and are personable, honest, and engaging. Anna’s chapters are in third person, making her seem isolated and distant from the reader. Is this the author’s way of showing how much the terrible events of July 1918 changed Anastasia forever? Or is this Lawhon’s way of showing us that Anna is not who she claims to be? I am not going to tell you and neither is Lawhon…not until the very end, that is.

Despite its length, the story moves quickly and is quite the page turner. If I had one major grievance with it, it was the constant shifts in time. I grew extremely tired of the jumping around timeline-wise. While I can understand moving from the 1960s to 1917 or 1918, taking us back in time and then jumping back six months, then a month, then a week, then a day became frustrating and annoying to the point that I wanted to put the story down every time I swiped left and saw “one week earlier” or “seven months earlier.” If this was an attempt to heighten the suspense, it failed. Instead, I found myself trying to remember where in the sequence of events this was occurring. At times, it seemed as though I was trying to piece the story together myself. In her afterword, Lawhon admits that she enjoys “nonlinear timelines,” but after reading I Was Anastasia, I can honestly say I do not.

For those who know the history of the Romanovs, including the discoveries in 2007 and 2009, and who may hesitate to read the book because of that knowledge, I would say read it anyway. I was up to date on my Czar Nicholas history, and I still found I Was Anastasia to be an engaging and interesting spin on a well-known tale.

 

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K.R.Grace’s Her Book Boyfriend requires too much suspension of disbelief to be enjoyable

Reviewed for Netgalley – SPOILERS

I didn’t love this book and that is partly my fault. I read a blurb about it which left me thinking that it was a story about a girl who sets off to find herself a boyfriend based on the boys she loves in the books she reads. I was expecting lots of references to or excerpts from these books and examples of her “book boyfriends” verses the boys she is pursuing during her quest. I was very wrong. Unfortunately, what Macey actually does is use examples set forth in books by her favorite author to figure out how a girl can snag a guy with each method being more shallow and pathetic than the previous one.  We readers never see any of the fictional author’s words or meet any of the fictional author’s boys. Instead, we witness Macey make one stupid mistake after another. The way she goes about trying to land a guy is so ridiculous that I just couldn’t buy that a potential valedictorian would actually think her plan had any shot at succeeding.

The boys that Macey pursues while attempting to carry out said plan are so one-dimensional and clichéd that there is never any chance she will end up with one of them. There’s the in-the-closet guy who insults her fashion choices, the seeming sweetheart who just wants instant access to what’s inside her pants, and the overachieving nerd having a pre-college admission freak out. Perhaps the reason these boys are so undeveloped and forgettable is because it is clear from chapter one who Macey is going to end up with.

Her best friend Cam, who instantly goes from a total Man Whore to a lovesick puppy the minute he realizes his lifelong bestie is serious about finding a guy. And just like every other guy in this book, Cam is completely underdeveloped. He tells Macey not to be like him and not to get sucked into his “crap hole” (quite the way with words this future rockstar has) but never explains why he behaves the way he does or why his life is a crap hole. He’s spent time getting photographic evidence that his father is also a male whore with a whole other family on the side, so why on earth would he want to follow in slutty daddy’s footsteps? I don’t know because it is never explained. Of the two MCs, Cam is the more interesting one and, sadly, he too ends up being one-dimensional and ultimately disappointing.

Other things that were too unbelievable to swallow:

Cam is the class tramp, but has never actually slept with a girl and we’re supposed to believe that none of the girls who have “been with” him haven’t told others about this lack of getting any? Um, yeah, no. Not the way high school girls gossip.

Every guy who was a total jerk to Macey suddenly shows up and wants to take Macey to prom…even though most have not been mentioned since their chapter of “The Plan” concluded. So, a total wallflower gets five invitations to prom in one day?

Someone as whiny and bratty as Macey actually manages to have that many friends.

Cam and his band – they’re in high school remember – get offered a contract to open for the “hottest band in several decades.” They go from playing at their own prom to opening for the biggest band around? Didn’t realize this book was in the fantasy genre.

Overall, what could have been a cute read was just a mess. From the awful characters to the plot holes to the many grammatical errors, I was so frustrated that I struggled to read it the whole way through. I definitely don’t recommend this one.

Caterpillars Can’t Swim is a beautiful story of tearing down boundaries and building unlikely friendships

Reviewed for Netgalley

Caterpillars Can’t Swim…but they do eventually morph into beautiful butterflies just as the relationship between three high school boys changes from ugly and awkward into something beautiful that breaks down barriers and saves a life in the process.

Wheelchair-bound Ryan becomes a local hero when he pulls an unconscious Jack out of a river and saves his life, but what could have been an ending is only the beginning as Ryan becomes entwined in Jack’s secretive, unhappy life.

Liane Shaw deftly handled issues such as homophobia, physical disability, depression, and suicide and portrayed them in a way that was gripping without being preachy or clichéd. Her characters were fresh and managed to escape so many of the stereotypes that are usually present in books about high schoolers. Cody could have easily been a one-dimensional jerk, but he had layers that were at times chopped right off to reveal surprising truths about himself. He was abrasive and rude and charming and even sweet in his own way. It’s rare that a reader wants to hug and slap a character all in the same paragraph, but Cody was definitely refreshing and believable in his reactions to Jack. I also liked Ryan from the start. He was snarky and funny and genuine. He was a perfect mix of someone who had accepted his disability and someone who occasionally got completely pissed off about being stuck in a wheelchair. His discomfort and uncertainty about Jack were palpable and made him real to me.

The lack of an insta-friendship was a welcome change. I enjoyed seeing the friendship between Ryan and Jack build over time. Their comradery required honesty and a slow-building trust which wouldn’t have been credible if it had been rushed. And I loved the ending. Jack’s problems didn’t just disappear with a new friendship. Everything wasn’t neat and tidy. The ending was scary and messy and let the reader know that Jack has a long road ahead of him, but that road just might end in a happier place.

Caterpillars Can’t Swim is not your typical YA story, and that is something I really enjoyed about it. This was my first Liane Shaw book, but her writing style and her approach to topics that can be difficult to write about in a fresh, non-stereotypical fashion really appealed to me, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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Finding Home by Garrett Leigh

Reviewed for Netgalley

I am used to reading Garrett Leigh’s novels intended for adults, so it was a bit of an adjustment to read Finding Home, which is definitely directed at a YA audience. I liked Leo very much. He was a scared, messed up, damaged kid, who loved his baby sister fiercely despite the torture and horrors he had suffered.

I liked the other characters as well, especially mouthy Fliss and older bro Andy, but I wish Finding Home had been longer so that all of the characters could have gotten more ink and been developed more deeply. As a reader, I felt that parts of the story were rushed and could have used more detail, description or background.

Overall, it is a quick read and a nice story of young love overcoming a terrible past. I simply wish there had been more of it.

Finding Home will be published on October 9, 2017 by Riptide Publishing.

Kathy Kacer’s To Look a Nazi in the Eye, reviewed for Netgalley

To me, this book is divided into two parts: the good and the bad, so I will divide my review into two parts.

The Good…

To Look a Nazi in the Eye is a very important book for young people to read. The horror of the Holocaust cannot be adequately described in a book review, but it stands as the most atrocious act of genocide in the history of the human race. Our younger generations need to understand the level of cruelty, hate, and inhumanity that fed into the Holocaust. They need to know about the Nazi extermination campaign and the amount of planning that went into trying to wipe out entire populations for not fitting Hitler’s “preferred profile” of an acceptable human being.

The chapters that contain testimony and personal statements from both the perpetrator and the victims of the Holocaust are very important. I found myself examining Oskar Groening’s testimony, dissecting every sentence and trying to find an ounce of remorse or shame. I saw no evidence of either, but readers will have to reach their own conclusions on that just as the survivors who listened made theirs.

Testimonies from the victims are the most important part of the book. It is essential that younger generations understand the brutality and suffering endured by Holocaust survivors. They were beaten, starved, experimented on. Some lost every living relative. The suffering did not end when the war did, and trials such as Groening’s are their only chance for even the tiniest slice of justice. The book could have been much improved with the inclusion of more survivor testimonies and input.

The Bad…

Jordana. Everything having to do with that self-serving narcissist was intolerable.

I found her to be overdramatic, overly emotional, and selfish. Instead of coming off as an intelligent young woman in college, she came across as a bratty teen getting something she didn’t deserve. I see no purpose in her attending the trial. All I could think as I read was that she had taken a seat at the trial that should have gone to someone who had survived a concentration camp or lost a loved one to the Holocaust.  Someone who had a true purpose and right to be there.

She was terribly naïve and her reactions to the people around her were childish and ridiculous. She admits to being bored at the trial, as if the entire affair is for her entertainment purposes. With her inflated sense of self-importance, she somehow managed to make the trial all about herself instead of the real focus: a Nazi who helped murder hundreds of thousands of people and the survivors who came in the hope of seeing justice done. Her personality was a distraction to the important court case and overshadowed the bigger message of this book.

So, my advice is read the book for the survivors. Read the book for the trial and its outcome, but skip as much of Jordana as possible.

Burning is snuffed out by poor plot development

Burning by Danielle Rollins

Reviewed for Netgalley

SPOILERS

Sometimes when I am reading a book that just isn’t holding my attention, I start a premature review to collect my thoughts on why exactly I am not loving it. So here goes…

First impressions:

Angela Davis is three months away from being released from a juvenile detention center when a new inmate and some sketchy so-called philanthropists show up and strange, unexplained things begin to happen. With her safety threatened, Angela must find a way to free herself and friends before it’s too late.

“Readers will be rooting for Angela and her friends to find the truth and save themselves in this spine-tingling story rich with secrets and conspiracies.” (The book’s blurb) Yeah, that’s what I thought too. That I would be rooting for them to overcome the creeps and weirdness and save themselves. Except, so far, there is nothing to save themselves from because the pace of this book is glacial. I’m 80 pages in and still wondering when things are going to get interesting.

So far, new girl and possible paranormal presence Jessica has arrived, Angela has gotten some hard to explain burnt fingers, and Dr. Gruen and her Stepford-wife assistant have shown up on the grounds of Brunesfield with a paper thin cover story about some science program for gifted young girls. And here is the first major problem with the story. I have a bit of experience working with juvenile offenders, and I can tell you this: while some of them may not have “book” smarts, they all have street smarts. I don’t think a single one of these girls would fall for the SciGirls lies. Why would a program that seeks out exceptional young women start with girls in juvie? They wouldn’t. They’d start in colleges and prep schools and high school honor programs, and the characters in Brunesfield should know this. They are far too smart to fall for such obvious lies.

Final impression:

Burning is a hot mess. For a story that took so long to get going, it wraps up in a quick meltdown of clichés and underdeveloped plotlines. Makes me wonder if a pending deadline forced too many cuts in the writing. There were simply too many half-baked plot points. How can a girl make fire appear out of nowhere and then wield the flames as a weapon? There were hints of illegal human experimentation under Dr. Gruen and her SciGirls, then a claim that the ability is a contagious infection, but I guess we’ll never know.

Gruen is a predictable, stereotypical villain with no character development. In the end, she attempts to kill both Jessica and Angela, yet leaves before she confirms that they are dead. Sorry, but I am not buying that. This lunatic was hell bent on covering up her dirty, soot-covered tracks, yet she doesn’t make sure that her trap actually kills them? She isn’t that sloppy.

Why, when Angela’s brother is brought to the prison for a visit by Dr. Gruen, does she not warn him to stay away from Dr. Crazy? She knows at this point that the doctor is not who she says she is, yet she gives her beloved brother no warning whatsoever?

And where in New York are they that wolves are a huge threat and where a group of girls wearing orange prison clothes can walk through the woods for days without encountering another human being or a convenience store or basically any other lifeform but can find a working telephone in an abandoned shack? Bye-bye, reality!

Underdeveloped and disappointing. Skip this one.

The New Year is off to a bad book start

Happy New Year, Readers! Hope your 2016 is filled with happiness, adventure, and loads of good books. Thanks for following this blog. 2015 was a bit sporadic with posts, but I am hoping to do better in the new year.

So far, I am not off to the best start with my Netgalley picks, the first of which is Playing by the Book by S. Chris Shirley.

As I have mentioned before, I have a rule that if I am not completely hooked by the 50th page, then I toss the book in the Did Not Finish pile and grab another one. There are too many good books in this world to waste time on one that doesn’t hold my interest.

Unfortunately with Playing By the Book, I didn’t even make it to the 50th page. The main character, Jake, is so brainwashed by his religion that both his internal and external dialogue are offensive. No one who is 17 years old is this ignorant about social norms, kissing, sex, and how his narrow-minded religion would come off to LGBT people. Furthermore, the characters are total clichés. Jake’s preacher father is the overbearing family ruler whose word is law. His mother is the meek mouse counterpart. There’s a crazy aunt in the mix, and Jake is the country bumpkin who goes to the big city and is overwhelmed by all these sophisticated folk. No joke, when he meets his turban-wearing roommate Raj, his thought is, “I’d never seen a real live Muslim before.” As opposed to a fake dead Muslim?” Come on! There is sheltered and then there is this unbelievable character. And not to get on a soapbox, but turbans are not worn only by Muslims and do not always indicate a religious affiliation. Numerous religions and cultures wear turbans for different purposes. His reaction was just too much of a  “dumb, uncultured hick” stereotype for me to tolerate.

Then began the “hey, I’m attracted to a fellow student who is also a guy. I am such a filthy sinner. I better get out my engraved bible and read it until my soul is clean again.” Excuse while I choke on all the sanctimonious hypocrisy spewing from this guy’s stream of consciousness.

Jake’s ignorance was unbearable! In the end (or should I say the beginning since I didn’t make it anywhere near the end), I just couldn’t take all the preaching and bible thumping. Tossing this one on the DNF pile and reaching for another book.