Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April 2015 Bookshelf

The Children's War by J.N. Stroyar
1168 pages (half read in March, half in April!)

Theoretical Physicist Stroyar spent 10 years researching for this book.  It shows and in all the best ways possible.  What an incredible story.  Written as an alternate history, Stroyar takes the reader into a world where Nazi Germany didn't lose but instead won.  What would the world look like with Nazi Germany as its ruling regime?
The world ruled by the Nazi Regime is experienced through the voice of Peter.  It's not his original name, not even the second name he's had, it's just one of many as he tries to survive the regime and fight it from the underground. Every part of the world Stroyar imagines under Nazi rule is so realistic that it isn't impossible to believe in its reality if Germany had succeeded. We meet Peter about 50 years after Europe has been governed by the regime.  He's spent a few years in the British underground seeking ways to undermine the Nazis and a few years in labor camps as a result of minor infractions. We meet him in a Nazi prison about to undergo a 'reeducation' in order to allow him back into society...as a slave or forced laborer. We experience life in a regime governed country through the eyes, feelings, and observations of a slave to the Party.  Peter, in an effort to retain some individuality, refuses to become a robot of the Party and jeopardizes his life often for that refusal. Digging deep he is able to tap into a hidden reserve of strength and escape the life of forced labor for the Nazi's to another kind of life, another kind of labor - that of the underground movement to destroy the regime from the inside out.
50 years ago the parents and grandparents of the underground members were fighting to keep Germany from winning World War II and now their children continue the war and battle cry for freedom but from secret and hidden places.
What a phenomenal read.  Lots of political observations and commentary weaved in but nothing that offended this particular reader.  America's role in the Nazi ruled Europe is so interesting and spot on for its role in the present with certain nations.  The regime is portrayed as holding back its countries and citizens a good 30 or so years from technological advances, it felt like Europe was stuck in the 1950's while America had kept moving forward. This portrayal seems extremely realistic given the control Nazi wants to have on its people.  The most interesting contrast and comparison, in my opinion, comes from that of the regime rule and the underground effort.  If you have read the Hunger Games series it is very similar to the contrast and comparison between District 13 and the Capitol. In the end there are more similarities between the two rather than differences.  I also found interesting the behavior and attitudes of the underground member toward Peter and those like him who had grown up under the thumb of the regime and been abused by it for so many years.  The isolation of the underground members bred a certain contempt for those who had to do whatever it took to survive and flee from the Nazi government and yet that is what they were supposed to be fighting for, freedom for all from that kind of rule. I don't want to say too much more because I don't want to spoil this amazing story for others.  Here's the last thing I will say.  Yes, it's a hefty and weighty read but it is worth every single word, every minute you spend on it.  There's a sequel, half the size of this novel, and I am anxious to read it.




Swahili for the Broken-Hearted by Peter Moore
352 pages

Peter, a travel book author, took his broken heart and traveled from one end of Africa to the other.  He gave himself 6 months to get from Cape Town to Cairo and to "get over" his most recent breakup.  As he travels Africa he shares his adventures in each country he visits, makes friends along the way, and demonstrates a flexibility that is a bit hard for this Type A reader to embrace. Moore didn't do Africa in posh and luxurious ways but rather on the cheap, or as cheap as he could.  I loved that part of his trip, he makes it do-able for those who don't have a lot of money to spend. In not romanticizing Africa, Moore manages to make it romantic. His honest stories of the people and the land might intrigue some and put off others.  Peter's travels also give us a glimpse of the authentic Africa and not the "tourist approved" parts and people.  He gives us a real look at what is rarely seen from a cruise ship or tour bus or the local Hilton. When I have spent time in Nairobi I have seen the real and the tourist version of Africa, they are quite different.  Moore gives us the real, which I enjoyed so much. I love reading travel books because through someone else I am able to visit places I might not be able to otherwise.  Moore has written others, I'm going to travel with him some more.




Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection by A.J. Jacobs
Audio Book - 11 hours

A.J. Jacobs is a writer at Esquire Magazine and a self-transformation geek.  This is his third, and hopefully final, transformation that completes his quest to improve his mind, spirit, and body. His previous two books highlight his efforts toward his mind and spirit, those only took a year, but the body doesn't respond as quickly as other parts of us so Jacobs spent two years on the body.
The audio book is read by Jacobs himself.  I don't do many audio books but I love when the non-fiction ones are read by the authors themselves, especially if they give it the life they did in their heads while writing it.
Each chapter of Jacobs book is devoted to a specific part of the body or aspect of health.  He tells unflinchingly honest stories about his own health checkups to prove the point of getting healthy, he includes his family where appropriate, and cites legit research to back up his efforts or other theories. He loosely weaves his 96 year old grandfather into the story and gives the reader a connection.  When all is said and done Jacobs is appreciative of the two years and what he's learned, he is committed to living a healthier lifestyle but not one that will make him obsessive or put space between he and his family.  His conclusions are reasonable and not that difficult to incorporate into daily life.
I love A.J. Jacobs style, his conversational writing is easy to follow whether reading or listening. He has a good amount of wit and doesn't hesitate to get honest.  At some point I'll need to read his book about improving his mind and then I will have vicariously taken the quest along with him.



Around the World in 50 Years: My Adventure to Every Country on Earth by Albert Podell
Kindle Edition 368 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Thomas Dunne Books for this free copy. In exchange I am providing an honest review. 

I got to about page 85 before I gave up. It's not that the book is poorly written or dull but it wasn't keeping my attention and I was preferring to do other things beside read it.  So as a nod to "so many books, so little time" I decided to move on.
Podell managed to touch down and visit every country in the world in 50 years. That takes a lot of planning, time, money, and in some case with some countries courage and persistence.  He had companions along the way and he went solo at some times.  Yes, I managed to get all of this from the first 85 pages. His stories and adventures recounted were interesting but not enough to keep me reading.





The Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness by Tim Chester
192 pages

I am very aware the pull of busyness has in my own personal life and in the lives of others.  In fact, it is easier to see it manifest in someone's life before I realize it in my own at times! Nothing that Chester shares is new to me but I thought this book was excellent nonetheless. It was a good, and perhaps timely, reminder of how seductive busyness can be in the life of not just a person but a believer. Having worked on a church staff I was subject to the argument that to be busy was to be Godly, to prove that I loved the Lord over anything or anyone else.  Huh. Chester says it much more diplomatically than I do but what a load of BS.  There is zero scriptural/biblical evidence to support that guilt inducing, at times abusive, statement. In fact, anger rises up when I think of all the guilt I personally was put through using that unbiblical argument and of all the people who still allow themselves to believe that lie. Yes, lie. Busyness "for God" is exactly the kind of lie the enemy would use because he has ascertained that we will buy it due to our desire to serve Christ.  I also liked Chester's discourse on the secular and the sacred.  As in there isn't a distinction, it is all under the eye of God. Busyness is a problem in today's world and in today's church.  This is a worth it read for sure. There are valuable reminders, and perhaps new information, for all believers.  Tim Chester is a great author, down to earth, loves God, and is brilliant at sharing it with others.




Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge
Audio Book - 9 hours

What would life look like if you woke up and remembered nothing but the people in your life remembered you? It would be scary, confusing, unnerving, frustrating.  Then as you got to know your former self as the new self it could be extremely disheartening and discouraging depending on what you learn. What if you got a true second chance, the slate of your life was literally wiped clean?
Lucie, two months from turning 40 and getting married, has just come to in the cold water of the Pacific. She's in posh clothes and has no idea who she is, why she's swimming in expensive clothing, and how she got to California.  In fact, maybe she lives in California and doesn't know it. Strangers rescue her and she's taken to a hospital until she can be identified.  A man named Grady shows up claiming to be her fiance. It appears to be true based on proof he provides, she wouldn't know. So she goes with him to their home in Seattle and is determined to regain her lost memories and life.  But what she begins to learn about herself versus who she seems to be now is unsettling both to her and Grady.  What does it mean for life moving forward and will she ever get her memory back and bring all the pieces of life together?
Shortridge's book about dissociative fugue was really interesting to think about.  The idea that it gives those who are stricken with it a true second chance and the choices of what to do with it are interesting.  At times I think it would be great to have all my memories wiped away and start over but I'm guessing its not as great as I would think.  To lose memories means to lose what has shaped life, character, personality, history.  The confusion it causes the people in life would be really hard also. I found it to be very thought provoking.
The audio version was okay.  I didn't enjoy the voice actor chosen to read the book.  Of course, that's a personal preference but it kept me distracted at times. But the story and its theme was enough to keep me listening and not give it up just for that reason.




Yesterday is Dead by Jack Lynch
Kindle Edition 220 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Brash Books for this free advanced readers copy. In exchange I am providing an honest review. 

Brash Books is re-releasing Jack Lynch titles and I'm super glad I have stumbled across them. I only wish Lynch had authored more.
In this title Peter Bragg travels to his childhood hometown, Seattle, to help a friend in trouble. Benny is a freelance writer who writes about a variety of topics but none that would get him death threats, or at least he didn't think so. Bragg can't really figure out why either but the death threats keep coming.  In the search for the reason for Benny's trouble Bragg uncovers loose threads that seem to be related to one another but it isn't clear how.  Along the way Peter reconnects with his ex-wife and tries to reconcile himself to the town of Seattle.  Should he think about hanging around?




Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova
Kindle Edition 352 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery Books for this free copy. In exchange I am providing an honest review. 

Just when you wonder if Lisa Genova can do any better she goes and does better.  This was an excellent read.  It certainly helps that I am a huge fan of Genova's anyway but then add in the storytelling she weaves into real life brain injuries and diseases and I'm hooked.  What I especially love about Genova is her ability to bring awareness to diseases and such that seem mysterious or under-researched and present them in a way that brings reality to them.  In this title Genova focuses on the relatively unknown disease, Huntington's.  In fact, until about 4 years ago I had never heard of it myself.  It was only when I was getting to know a new co-worker whose wife had died from Huntington's that I began to hear anything at all about it.  On the surface a lot of Huntington's symptoms and manifestations sound similar to ALS but reports, scientists, doctors, people all say the death from Huntington's is much much worse than ALS and we have received plenty of awareness about that disease so one can imagine.
Meet Joe O'Brien and his family.  A solid Irish Catholic family living in Charlestown, a suburb of sorts right next to Boston.  Joe is a proud member of the Boston Police Department. We meet Joe at age 36, for just a brief snapshot, and he can't remember where his service piece has been laid down in the house and he's late for work. Rage comes on very suddenly and that's how we meet Joe.  We catch up with him again 7 years later when unexplainable things keep happening to him. Finally his wife convinces him to just go to the doctor for a check up.  Joe does and that's when the O'Brien's get turned inside out and upside down.  Joe realizes the truth about his mother's illness and death when he was 12, he discovers what has been happening within him, and he is devastated at the genetic legacy he received and is passing along to his own children.  Genova takes us through the days and months of the O'Brien's and how they each have to come to grips with this disease and the changes it will make to their family, bloodline and behavior.
Lisa Genova is one of the most unlikely authors out there, or so some would think.  She is a Harvard-trained Neuroscientist but is able to speak to the masses about the brain at a level anyone will be able to follow.  I adore her books and her way of clueing me into things about the brain that I would never know about otherwise.  I cannot recommend this newest title, or any of her other titles, enough. She is amazing. And on the same, but different, note I am incredibly grateful that she chose such an obscure disease as Huntington's to bring awareness to.  What a horrible disease, more support for its research and potential treatments is definitely needed.




You Can Trust Me by Sophie McKenzie
Kindle Edition 336 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin's Press for this free copy. In exchange I am providing an honest review. 

I'm a sucker for a good psychological thriller.  This book by McKenzie fits the genre very well.  I have not read any of McKenzie's other titles but now I will look up her other books.
Livy and Will have been married for about 14 years.  They have had their ups and downs in marriage and have even recovered from betrayal. The most recent test to their marriage comes when Livy's best friend is found dead. Everyone but Livy is convinced it is suicide, Livy knows different and is determined to prove it.  But her determination is seen as obsession by everyone but Julia's, the deceased, boyfriend. But Livy, the more she discovers and experiences, can't trust anyone - not even her husband. Is she just extremely paranoid or are her suspicions legitimate?  As Livy stumbles closer and closer to the truth of not just Julia's death but the murder of Livy's sister 18 years prior someone is feeling threatened and tries to warn her off.  But there's nobody she can really trust except herself and desire for the truth about his sister and Julia is too strong to set aside.  Is there anyone she can trust?
I'm hit or miss on guessing the villain in these kinds of books. In this particular title I had it narrowed down to 4 people and felt convinced of the actual killer by the time it was revealed who it was.  This time I guessed correctly, next time I will be wrong.  But that's part of what I love about this genre of book if it is well-written.  And this one is.  McKenzie sheds just enough doubt on all the major characters to keep the reader guessing, speculating, confident and then guessing again.  Her character development was great, the mystery wasn't predictable, and the conclusion was - in that odd way of a thriller - satisfying.  Like I said, I'll be looking up and reading some or all of her other titles.




House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy
Kindle Edition 400 pages

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballentine Books for this free copy. In exchange I am providing an honest review. 

This story reminded me of a version of the appalachian myth of the sin eater. The author is a book editor who tried his own hand at writing, it was a good first title.  At first I thought it was a psychological thriller but the further I read the more I saw it for what it was. A recluse town held in bondage by a misunderstood belief.
Ben, Caroline, and their two boys have moved to Swannhaven from New York City. The house they purchased is a monstrosity that holds the history of the town Swannhaven and overlooks the village.  Their plan is to renovate the house and property and bring life back to the town through an inn.  However, they are having a hard time getting the close knit town residents to warm up to them.  There seems to be a secret that Ben and his family aren't privvy to. As the months pass and the seasons change the odd circumstances continue to build in frequency and intensity. What is going on? Once they figure it out the time is short to change the course of Swannhaven's history.
This was an okay read. There were some comparison's made to authors like Jennifer McMahon and I can see why but Duffy would have a ways to go to reach the level of McMahon.  But he should keep striving for it because he has a lot of potential in this genre.  His characters are interesting, he has creative storylines, and he writes in a very descriptive manner.




The Allure of Hope: God's Pursuit of a Woman's Heart by Jan Meyers
192 pages

Sometimes it is just too discouraging, scary, or exhausting to hope.  Especially when we feel let down by hopes that don't come to be or that get crushed.  And yet hope continues to pursue us, to call out to us, to draw us back to its embrace. Hope begins to feel risky, unsettling, soul sucking.  But hope is meant to be the opposite of those things.  It is meant to bring home, fill our souls, embrace us with joy. So much of life is driven by hope or the hope for hope.  Meyers, drawing from personal examples, discusses the allure of hope we need in our lives.  We might not want to hope in the face of disappointments but we need hope to continue on in life. Meyers discusses the life circumstances that can keep us from believing in the allure of hope and how we can overcome those circumstances to hope in the face of impossible emotions, etc.
Hope springs from a place deep within us that cannot be moved by the surface of life.  When someone is operating out of hope in the midst of devastation it is because they have discovered who they are and who holds them.
Meyers is a little flowery but then again most Christian women authors (and some men) are. The older I get the more turned off I get by the flowery speech of Christianity but I can weed through it to get to the heart of a message. I really enjoyed the first part of the book but about 1/2 to 2/3 through I started to lose interest.  Part of that is likely due to my lifelong relationship with God and having truly "been there, seen that, heard that." There indeed is not a lot new under the sun when it comes to things like this for me.  Meyers has wisdom to share and I thought of a couple of friends who would most likely glean from the wisdom she has to share.  It's a worth it read especially if hope has become a dirty four letter word to you. :)





A Change Of Regime by J.N. Stroyar
668 pages

The sequel to The Children's War which I finished earlier this month. At the beginning of this book Stroyar provides some information as to how she was able to write such a realistic story.  While it is a book of fiction due to the characters being fictional the events and personal histories are not fiction but real and have been lived by many people that she interviewed and read about. She took the events and histories and weaved them together to create the world the characters live in both in The Children's War and this book.  In her own words, "Some of the stories dated from the Second World War from Europe, some from the present elsewhere. They were all united by the common thread of individuals denied basic human rights and, to a greater or lesser extent, their humanity....As before [The Children's War], the setting within Nazi Germany is a convenience and in no way is meant to reflect upon modern Germany or its people. The Third Reich is used solely to provide the reader with a familiar and historical representation of any number of repressive governments, regimes, or authorities. It is a reminder, too, that no people, no matter how advanced their civilization, should take their liberties for granted."
Because The Children's War is so fresh in my mind I was immediately drawn right back in to a world where Nazi Germany has won and reigns.  The book picks up at the very moment the first book leaves off so there is no time to catch up on.  The war for human rights and equality continues as Peter makes bold moves and dangerous attempts to further the cause. A manhunt for him keeps him hiding in plain sight and at times he becomes reckless, not just with his life but with others. Trial and error continues as the Home Army continues on the inroads Richard has spent the last 20+ years creating.  Many times just when it seems it will all fall apart something happens and it turns around to continue creating hope for change.  Peter continues to be the main focus of all the characters and he feels the weight of expectations.  Slowly but surely members of the Home Army begin to recognize Peter's value to the cause and begin to use him in more strategic ways but could it be too late?  The Furher wants Peter's life and will do whatever he needs to in order to take it.  Peter is willing to give it if it means a future life free of the regime for his children.  The Home Army members struggle in this book with disillusionment over the many years of war with no noticeable changes, mistrust with one another and their methods in the fight for freedom, and maintaining the distance between their personas and who they really are...or were. Will a change of regime happen?  Can it happen?  If it happens then what does happen?  These are all questions members of the Home Army struggle to answer as they continue to make moves for freedom from the Third Reich.
This follow up to The Children's War was spot on.  Stroyar didn't stray from the characters and their missions, she stuck to the storyline that is so realistic and scary, and she once again drew a very reality based picture of the world under the regime of the Third Reich. Due to her brief explanation at the beginning of the book I saw more within her story of the various regimes, repressive governments, and authorities that she drew from for the story.  Her continued commentary of the role of America was still extremely accurate, in my opinion.  She exposed the false pride of regimes through their insistence that they are the greatest civilization on earth but yet so behind the rest of the world in technology, education, etc.  Which is happening still today in countries around the world. As with the first book there is so much to say that I can't, or won't, say much at all.  It is an excellent follow up and I was satisfied with the ending.  Another weighty read, although half the size of the first book.  Both books would make for excellent serious book club discussion.  If you can find the time to read both titles I highly recommend them.





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