Category Archives: book reviews

A collection of book reviews for lovers of fiction, nonfiction, and everything in between.

Hostage Book Review

In the summer of 1997, Christophe Andre, a humanitarian worker with Doctors Without Borders, was kidnapped in Nazran by men seeking a ransom.  He was blindfolded, driven to some unknown location, and locked up in a small room with nothing but a mattress.

In Guy DeLisle’s biography of Andre’s kidnapping, aptly titled Hostage, Andre’s story comes to life in simple illustrations and, with the highest form of complement intended, is pure torture to read.

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With little to no dialogue and illustrations that show Andre’s first-person nightmare, Hostage is based on DeLisle’s recordings of Andre’s accounts of the abduction and his attempts at escape.  What it lacks in action it makes up for in hundreds of pages of inaction…adding to the pure boredom, terror, and monotony that comes with being locked up in a room for months on end.

A limited color palate also helps add a dream-like feel to this story and in a sense becomes a character itself, helping us feel limited, enclosed, and claustrophobic.

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Over the course of four months, we sit patiently with Andre, eating…sitting…eating…sitting, just waiting for a rescue that may or may not ever come.  The only thing driving the story forward are the thoughts in his head…and as Andre’s story continues and races to a heart-quickening finale, Hostage becomes quite a page-turner and has an ending that will not leave you disappointed.

Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.

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Farm Anatomy Book Review

Call me crazy, but the thought of moving out into the country and owning a farm where I can grow my own produce and have a honey bee farm sounds like pure heaven.  I love the idea of living off the land and (slightly) off the grid, eating food you’ve grown yourself and having a job where you can get down and dirty working with your hands.

Realistic?  Maybe…but I’m not stupid.  I know farm life is hard work.  Your entire livelihood is dependent on the elements you can’t control….and there’s no calling in sick when work has to get done.  It requires expensive equipment, sometimes owning livestock, and apparently learning a whole new vocabulary of words I never even knew existed.

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In her beautifully illustrated book, Farm Anatomy, author Julia Rothman takes readers through various parts and pieces of country life, including layers of the soil, how to rotate your crops, how to make a barn (and what animals might come to occupy it), how to plow a field, how to grow seeds, how to make wine and spin yarn, as well as how to shear a sheep and identify the various cuts of pig, chicken, lamb, beef and rabbit.

The perfect book for budding farmers, Farm Anatomy aims to teach readers the bits and pieces that make a farm run, from reading the clouds to composting your waste.  Illustrated with amazing detail and filled with tons of tidbits about everything you’ve ever wanted to know about keeping bugs off your crops, this book is so fascinating and fun to read that you might even find yourself wanting to build a chicken coop in your own backyard.

Even if you’re not ready to go full Charlotte’s Web and start butchering pigs and collecting eggs, Farm Anatomy is a great resource for just living a simpler, more homemade lifestyle.  There are amazing recipes for carrot cake, buckwheat pancakes, and dill pickles, as well as helpful guides for how to can tomatoes, make bread and cheese, and how to cut a full chicken.

A colorful, fun, and entertaining coffee table book you’ll actually WANT to read, Farm Anatomy breaks down farming into manageable pieces, dissecting everything from the parts of a milking machine to the anatomy of a pig.  With witty illustrations and easy-to-follow instructions, this book is bound to turn city dwellers into country mice, one seed at a time.

Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.

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Devil in the White City Book Review

Chicago, 1893.  The city was still rebuilding after the fire that left 100,000 homeless and destroyed most of the wooden buildings that peppered the downtown area.  In an attempt to draw more people and revenue to the city, Chicago grew as a national retail center and produced a crop of brand-name business tycoons, including Marshall Field, Philip Armour, and George Pullman.  People began coming to the city to shop the best in (affordable) fashion and see the birth of a new type of architecture that would come to define and reinvent Chicago.

At the age of 26, a young man named Daniel Burnham joined the offices of Carter, Drake, and Wright, an architectural firm behind the Manierre Building, Lennox Building, Mercantile Library, New York Academy of Design, and Grant Park.  While there, he met a man named John Wellborn Root and, together, the two designed one of the first American skyscrapers: the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago.  Measuring 21 stories and 302 feet, the temple held claim as the tallest building of its time (but was ultimately torn down in 1939).

Right in the midst of their 15 minutes of fame for the Temple Building, Burnham and Root were asked to oversee design and construction of The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, named so to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage.  The duo accepted the challenge, but when Root passed away suddenly, Burnham was left to create a new team, bringing on such visionaries as Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, and Louis Sullivan to help him turn then-desolate Jackson Park into an amazing world’s fairground.

It was a feat.  A HUGE feat.  Financial panic and an extremely tight timeframe caused major stress on the architects, not to mention the fact that Chicago had to compete with the most recent release of the Paris World’s Fair: The Eiffel Tower.  And brewing under all the commotion surrounding the fair, tucked away in a small area away from the hustle and bustle, a murderer by the name of H.H. Holmes was plotting a most gruesome rouge to take advantage of the fair’s most delicate and feminine fair-goers…

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And so begins Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City.  The true story of the fair that changed America, this book is a captivating account of the trials and tribulations that came with designing the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Besides being about the building of the fair, this book also explores the life of H.H. Holmes, a charming murderer masquerading as a doctor to woo and attract young women, then ultimately torturing and killing them.

The two storylines exist independent of each other until the opening of the World’s Fair.  The massive draw of the exposition was all the motivation Holmes needed to construct his own hotel on the fairgrounds, for women only of course, where he could set up his own murderous torture dungeon, brimming right under the hype of the Columbian Exposition.

Told with amazing detail and captivating language, Devil in the White City brings the Chicago World’s Fair to life.  It puts you right in the heat of the action, takes you into the brainstorming room with Burnham’s team…into the hotel with H.H. Holmes, and into the streets of the fair that, from then on, defined architectural design.

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Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.

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Eleanor & Park Book Review

Ah, young love.  It’s confusing and random…built on the gravely foundation of one or two common interests that mean “we’re meant to be!”  It’s the flutter of seeing him in the hallway, the blushing that comes when he grabs your hand for the first time.  Notes passed in hallways, diary entries littered with hearts and monograms, stolen glances during class…For young lovers, those first few months are magical and breathtaking.  They’re filled with time spent exploring each other’s likes and dislikes, sharing favorite CD’s and books, and finding the small moments between chemistry and math to sneak away for a moment alone.

Set in the 1980’s among a background of comic books and great music (this book would be worth making into a movie for the soundtrack alone), Eleanor & Park is the story of two 16-year-olds, both outcasts in their own right, who find that where they best belong is with each other.   It’s a story about the innocence of young love, the naivete of believing it will last forever.  Much like the characters themselves, this book is cute on the surface, but the foundation of the story left me, well, unsatisfied.

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Meet Eleanor – a young new-to-town girl with fiery red hair and a personality to match.  Her style is frumpy, her body is unproportioned, and her attitude about the world has pretty much been ruined by her troubled family life.

Meet Park – a young Korean-American kid with beautiful green eyes, a great taste in comic books, and a quiet, reserved personality that makes him sexy in that soft mysterious way.  He’s not the most popular kid in school, though the popular kids have adopted him as one of their own, and most days his mind wanders among a soundtrack of 1980’s rock songs that pump out all the feels.

When Eleanor is practically forced to sit with Park on the bus one day on the way to school, an inevitable meet-cute happens, and the two begin a quiet, intimate courtship, fueled by a love of comic books and mix tapes.  I mean, how 80’s is that?

In the beginning, Eleanor and Park sit in comfortable silence, reading comic books together and listening to music.  Most of the dialogue is said in the characters’ heads, a detail I loved and found personally very relatable.  As they spend more time together on the bus and in school, a wonderful friendship begins to form that slowly, oh so slowly, transforms into something more.

It was at this moment that I stopped liking Eleanor & Park.

I wanted to like this book…I really did.  It wasn’t a traditional love story, which I liked.  The characters were flawed, which I also liked.  But at some point along the road to romance, I lost interest.  Eleanor began to frustrate me with her hot and cold personality and I became aggravated with how cold she was to Park at times.  Granted, her behavior is understandable considering what we learn about her background, but that really wasn’t even enough for me to like her.

Personally, Park made this book for me.  His kindness and understanding were traits beyond his years, and his adoration for Eleanor despite her insecurities made him an unlikely, albeit romantic, hero.  His moments of quiet where he talks about Eleanor in his head are enough to make every girl hope that some guy out there thinks of her that way…and his determination to make Eleanor happy at the risk of his own happiness gave Park’s character much more fluidity and growth than Eleanor who, in comparison, seemed rather flat.

Even Eleanor’s secondary plot with her step-father seemed out of place to me.  His actions didn’t seem justified…at least not enough.  After the reveal at the end (don’t worry, no spoilers!), I just felt cheated…like I missed something along the way that led to that moment.

Did I love Eleanor & Park?  No.  But, for the most part, I enjoyed it.  It’s a story that will churn up those feelings deep down that only arise when you rewatch Dawson’s Creek or Boy Meets World…it will remind you of those late-night talks, those stolen kisses before your parents get home, and that wonderful notion, however false it may be, that true love never ends.

Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.

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Kiss Me Like a Stranger Book Review

He was the music maker…the dreamer of dreams.  He brought some of our favorite characters to life, including Dr. Frankenstein, Willy Wonka, Leo Bloom, Sigerson Holmes, and Skip Donahue.  From his humble beginnings as a Shakespearean actor to his amazing collection of movies he made with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder challenged the comic genre.  He pushed himself, pushed his directors.  He poured himself into each project, owning and enveloping each of his characters with all the energy he could muster.  He may have been a simple Midwestern boy at heart, but Gene Wilder was nothing if not a believer in the extraordinary.

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In his very intimate and personal autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Wilder opens up and exposes his deepest secrets, talking about how his sick mother influenced his career path and his very real and emotional experiences with psychoanalysis.  He opens about his love affairs and marriages, including his sometimes tumultuous relationship with fellow comedian, Gilda Radner, and his difficult relationship with his adopted daughter, Katie.

While he does talk briefly about his projects and films, Kiss Me Like a Stranger is not a tell-all about a chocolate factory or a secret laboratory.  At its core, this book is about an actor’s search for truth, love, and acceptance.  It’s about mistakes and choices.  With eloquence and grace, it turns this larger-than-life comedian into a real person, a humble person.  A man who falls in and out of love, who struggles with raising a daughter not his own, and who – just like the rest of us – is just looking for love and fulfillment both personally and professionally.

Written about 10 years before his death, Kiss Me Like a Stranger is a frank, yet charming memoir that shows Wilder for what he truly was…a shy, gentle man who loved to make people laugh.  He was a dear friend, a doting husband, and a beloved actor who, like so many of his profession, had a series of serendipitous moments that propelled him, maybe unwillingly, into stardom.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.

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Becoming Unbecoming Book Review

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve had a privileged life, but I have been lucky in so many ways.  I grew up in towns that were safe and friendly.  I have a loving and supportive family that has my back no matter what.  I have friends that I love dearly and who have helped me through some very rough times…I have a roof over my head, food in my cabinets, and a wonderful, funny, and amazing husband.

I’ve had good jobs that have given me incredible life lessons…I had an amazing education and have teachers I STILL keep in touch with even 10+ years later.  Sure, there have been some difficulties, but overall, I can’t say that my life – so far, at least – hasn’t been too bad.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.  Some people are gravely ill, others don’t have the support network of family and friends.  Some never really find happiness and others are so afraid of giving themselves to someone that they forever remain alone.  Some are abused, neglected, ignored, raped or tortured…and, perhaps saddest of all, must carry that around with them for the rest of their lives.

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In Becoming Unbecoming, a young girl growing up in 1977 finds herself on the receiving end of a series of violent acts for which she feels she is to blame.  The girl, Una, experiences gender violence, rape, and depression and lacks the ability to talk about it or find the help she needs.  Through image and text, Una asks what it means to grow up in a culture where male violence goes unquestioned and challenges a nation that doesn’t know how to punish the accuser or deal with the victim’s hurt.

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This is a beautifully sad book that is so important for everyone to read, girls and boys alike.  It’s a journey into the head a victim, a diary of sorts that’s so personal, you might even find yourself looking over your shoulder to make sure no one catches you reading it.

Told with amazing illustrations that perfectly encapsulate what it’s like to be alone and sad, Becoming Unbecoming is maybe one of the most important books I’ve ever read…and will certainly stay with me for a long time to come.

I am in no way qualified to give Becoming Unbecoming the review it deserves.  I am not a victim of rape or abuse and can’t even begin to think what it’s like to live with something like that.  But I do know what it’s like to hurt…I know what it’s like to be depressed.  I’ve hit rock bottom and I’ve worked my way out of it and it’s a bitch of a journey.  I know what it’s like to be at a loss for words…to want to say something so badly but unable to say anything.  To feel a sense of emptiness that seems to seep out of your skin, surrounding you in a blanket of sadness…

Yes, I know what that’s like…and chances are, some of you do, too.  And for those of us who have had to deal with hurt, depression, or even more traumatic life experiences that so few may understand, it’s so important to know that we’re not alone.  There’s help out there.  There’s love out there.  And if you can’t find it, open yourself up and let it come to you.

If there’s one thing I learned in Becoming Unbecoming, it’s that healing – in whatever form it may take – is a journey.  It’s in no way perfect, and is often a battle we don’t have the energy to fight.  And when society starts blaming the victim for elements out of their control, it becomes impossible to heal, to accept.  We must change the way we deal with transgressors and their victims.  We must have the courage to speak up and out against those who hurt us, and must find the strength within ourselves to help those who find it so hard to barely hold on.

We’re all in this together…and we all have the power to make a difference.  Whether you take time to volunteer at a shelter or start by just checking this book out of the library, chances are you’ll benefit from it.

Una’s story is raw and emotional.  Her illustrations are real and tragic.  This is a book that will sit with you, that will put things into perspective.  Ironically, it’s a book that may even encourage discussion.  In a word, Becoming Unbecoming is veracious.  It puts the truth right out there in big bold letters…and it’s up to us, as a reader…as a society…to hear the message.  Otherwise, as Una says, we are only united by silence.

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Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.

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A.L.I.E.E.E.N. Book Review

A.L.I.E.E.E.N., or Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties, was another book I discovered via My Ideal Bookshelf, recommended by cartoonist Zachary Kanin.  A collection of vignettes about aliens, told in an alien language, A.L.I.E.E.E.N. may be from a galaxy far, far away…but the morals and lessons are recognizable by any human.

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In his letter to the reader, author Lewis Trondheim talks about how he happened to stumble upon this otherworldly collection of tales.  While vacationing in the Catskills, Trondheim and his family came upon a grassy area that had been burned and covered with debris.  They were about to turn around and go back, but then he spotted a tattered, beaten-up comic book on the ground.  The title, the artist, and the language were all new to him.  Was this comic from another planet?  Was the debris from something outside of planet Earth?  Did a space ship create this burned perfect circle in the grass?

After reading the book, Trondheim got in touch with a publisher and submitted what appears to be the very first comic strip for extra-terrestrial children ever discovered on our planet.

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A rare artifact written in an alien language, A.L.I.E.E.E.N. is a collection of interwoven tales that prove that some stories are indeed universal…no matter how weird or bizarre they may seem.  Regardless of how many eyes, legs, or tentacles they have, it’s comforting to know that aliens also cry, laugh, smile, poop, and develop friendships.  They fall prey to peer pressure, have a great sense of humor, try to do good, and learn from their mistakes.  You may not know exactly what these little guys are saying, but through images and expressions, us humans can try to understand the workings of this alien world…and perhaps find comfort in the fact that, in reality, these lovable creatures really aren’t so different from us, after all.

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Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.

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