Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers

Title: The Queen of Katwe
Author: Tim Crothers
Year Published: 2012

Genre: Adult non-fiction
Pages: 237
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2016 Google Reading map)Uganda (Russia, ... and other tournament locations)

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the back of the book): One day in 2005, while searching for food, nine-year-old Phiona Mutesi followed her brother to a dusty veranda where she met Robert Katende. A war refugee turned missionary, Katende had an improbable dream: to empower kids in the Katwe slum through chess--a game so foreign there is no word for it in their native language. At first, children came for a free bowl of porridge, but many grew to love the game that--like their lives--requires persevering against great obstacles. One girl stood out as an immense talent: Phiona.

By the age of eleven Phiona was her country's junior champion, and at fifteen, the national champion. Now a Woman Candidate Master--the first female titled player in her country's history--Phiona dreams of becoming a Grandmaster, the most elite level in chess. But to reach that goal, she must grapple with everyday life in one of the world's most unstable countries.

Review: I first read about Phiona in a newspaper Sunday magazine years ago. The story captivated me then and when I started hearing about the movie that is coming out soon, I knew I had to read the book.

I think Phiona's story is a fascinating one and the author does a nice job of telling us about all the people that make Phiona's life what it is. From her grandparents and parents (her mother in particular) to her chess coach, to the other kids playing chess, to the family who sponsors her school scholarship, all of these people have had an impact on Phiona's journey. Their kindness, compassion, poverty, and belief in her are all contributing factors to her success and struggles.

Life in a Ugandan slum is also detailed well in this book. The inhabitants of Katwe, the slum of Kampala, live without water or electricity and live with sewage and fear. They have many days without food and most of the children do not go to school. Phiona's mother cannot even picture a life outside Katwe, but Phiona has traveled to Sudan, Russia, Turkey, and the US thanks to chess and that gives her the opportunity to visualize options. This book makes me realize that options need to be shown to children in order for them to want to succeed.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Title: Symptoms of Being Human
Author: Jeff Garvin
Year Published: 2016

Genre: YA Fiction (LGBTQ)
Pages: 335
Rating: 5 out of 5

Location (my 2016 Google Reading map)USA (CA)

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the back of the book): The first thing you're going to want to know about me is: am I a boy, or am I a girl? Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is...Riley isn't exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection, the pressure--media and otherwise--is building up in Riley's so-called "normal" life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it's REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley's starting to settle in at school--even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast--the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discover's Riley's real identity, threatening exposure. And Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created--a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in--or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

Review: Another incredible YA book! Boy I am really on a reading streak this week--5 books and they were all good, what a great feeling. It's definitely because my daughter has left for boarding school so I have lots of extra time.

Riley is a really likable character and I think every reader can relate even if we don't understand what it means to be gender fluid. Riley is kind, polite, a good friend and student, and just wants to fit in. To blend in. To not make waves. But just by being gender fluid, even if no one realizes that's what's going on, Riley causes a stir. We all want to label one another, to put people in boxes that fit our preconceived notions and Riley just won't let us. And that's a good thing. I'll admit during the entire book I wondered if Riley was a boy or a girl based on anatomy. But we never find out and I think that's important because it doesn't matter. What matters is what Riley feels.

I have read some reviews that say that the events aren't realistic; that Riley's blog couldn't go viral and get so many followers so quickly. I beg to differ having been in the Hollywood industry for a couple years and watched kids get tens of thousands of followers seemingly overnight. I was caught up in Riley's life, the friends, the parents, and the events. Heck, I stayed up until 1:00am finishing this book and that is WAY past my bedtime.

I think this is an important book as well since it opens up another teen issue and tells a story without hitting the reader over the head with it's message. We just get caught up in Riley's life and we care.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

Title: The Bitter Side of Sweet
Author: Tara Sullivan
Year Published: 2016

Genre: YA Fiction
Pages: 299
Rating: 5 out of 5

Location (my 2016 Google Reading map)Côte d'Ivoire

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the back of the book): Fifteen-year-old Amadou counts the things that matter. And for two long years, what's mattered most to him and his little brother, Seydou, are cacao pods. The more they can chop down and collect in a day, the better their chances of staying alive, and maybe, just maybe, earning enough to buy their freedom to return home.

When the boys left their family in Mali to find work, they never imagined they'd end up as forced labor on a cacao planation in the Ivory Coast, but that's exactly what happened. And with each passing day, their resolve to keep going, to keep counting, grows even weaker. That is until Khadija arrives. The first girl they've seen at the camp, Khadija's a wild thing who fights every day to get away. She reawakens old impulses in Amadou to run, and when the unthinkable happens to Seydou, they realize that there's only one thing that truly counts--their freedom.

Review: Oh my. This book is so good and so important. And yes, a number of times while reading it I swore I would give up chocolate. I loved Tara Sullivan's first novel, Golden Boy, and knew that I would like this one, too. She tells a good story, but more than that, she tells important stories.

I liked Amadou and Seydou from the very beginning. They are likable boys that you just want to rescue and take care of, but you also know they are strong enough to take care of themselves. While they have never gone to school, they are street smart and love each other the way family should. We learn of their background slowly in amongst the current story of working on the cacao plantation. And the conditions are deplorable. There are many moments in the book that are painful to read, especially when you remember that, while this book is fiction, it is based on reality. Khadija is also a good character and brings in the issue or human trafficking.

The story moves quickly, is engrossing, and (no surprise) brought me to tears at various points. I felt so invested in the characters, their efforts to be humane, to survive against all odds, and to work to make their lives better. As I said above, I do think this is an important story to tell and Tara Sullivan tells it well.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: Who's that Girl? by Mhairi McFarlane

Title: Who's that Girl?
Author: Mhairi McFarlane
Year Published: 2016

Genre: Adult fiction (romance)
Pages: 535
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2016 Google Reading map)UK

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review

Summary (from the back of the book): What's the one thing you DON'T do at a wedding? When Edie is caught in a compromising position at her colleagues' wedding, all the blame falls on her --turns out that personal popularity in the office is not that different from your schooldays. Shamed online and ostracized by everyone she knows, her boss suggests an extended sabbatical--ghostwriting an autobiography for hot new acting talent, Elliot Owen. Easy, right?

Wrong. Banished back to her home town of Nottingham, Edie is not only dealing with a man who probably hasn't heard the word "no" in a decade, but also suffering an excruciating regression to her teenage years as she moves back in with her widowed father and judgy, layabout sister.

When the world is asking who you are, it's hard not to question yourself. Who's that girl? Edie is ready to find out.

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Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon Barnes & Noble

Author Links: Website and Twitter: @MhairiMcF
Review: This book definitely made me think of Bridget Jones' Diary for the first third. It is quirky, British, a young-sh (mid-30s) single woman who keeps messing up, but meaning well, drinks a bit too much some times, and likes the wrong guys.

At first I wasn't sold and thought I'd not make it through the 535 (!) pages, but all of a sudden I found myself really enjoying the book, routing for Edie, and figuring I knew how the plot was going to end, but not caring because I was having fun reading. I can definitely see this book as a movie. And it's a movie I'd see.

And then I got to about page 450 and emotions got the better of me! The tears flowed for both poignant and happy reasons. I raced to the end to see how things would turn out (and I won't tell you because I don't want to ruin the book for you). I was surprised, excited, and so pleased by the end of this book. I was pleased for Edie, who seems to have found herself and her worth, for her family, for Elliot, and for the messages that are contained in the characters as a whole.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: The Theory of Death by Faye Kellerman

Title: The Theory of Death
Author: Faye Kellerman
Year Published: 2015

Genre: Adult mystery
Pages: 436
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2016 Google Reading map)USA (NY)

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the back of the book): It has been a year since Greenbury's last murder. Peter Decker, a former lieutenant for LAPD, has enjoyed the slow pace of his new job with the sleepy upstate police department. All that changes when an unidentified, nude male body is found deep within the local woods.

It appears to be a suicide--single shot to the head, gun by his side--but until the coroner makes the final determination, Decker must treat the scene as a suspicious crime. The first thing he must do is identify the body--no easy task. But then Decker gets lucky. Tyler McAdams, a former Greenbury detective and now a first-year law student, calls Decker, and once he hears about the intriguing case, his attentions shift from statutes to corpses.

When the body is finally identified, Decker and McAdams must penetrate into indecipherable upper echelons of mathematics and mathematical prodigies at Kneed Loft College. It turns out to be a dangerous sphere of scheming academics, secret cyphers, and hidden corruption, where even harmless nerds can morph into cold, calculating geniuses. They will have to employ all of their wits to penetrate enigmatic formulas and codes to solve a dark, twisted tale created by depraved, evil masterminds.

Review: I am a real Faye Kellerman fan and think I have read all her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus books. This installment was no exception: good story, characters I like, and a fun read.

I really like a series where I get to know the characters, see them age and mature in real time, and get to know their families. She also has many repeat secondary characters (members of the police force, friends, etc) and that's fun, too. They are also all "normal." They have regular jobs and interests and family issues so they are relatable. The new characters, the ones involved in the crime are the ones who have the strangeness about them. I think it's a good balance.

And Kellerman writes a good detective story. I never quite figure it out and it never seems to end too quickly. I often find that with mysteries: the truth doesn't seem quite possible and the end is often rushed. Not so with Kellerman's books. I am always satisfied in the end, feeling like it is plausible and believable. And that's a good thing.