Month: February 2014

Book Review: The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider


Rating: 4/ 5

Ezra Faulkner used to be the most popular student at his high school.  Making the varsity tennis team his freshman year, he’s ridden on his court skills and good looks.  Although he’s smart, he’s pretty much banking on a tennis scholarship for a state college.  Everything comes crashing to halt when one night at a party, his car is hit by a drunk driver.  His once promising tennis career ends abruptly with a shattered knee and a permanent limp.  None of his so-called friends visited him in the hospital, which makes him question who his true friends really are.  Cassidy Thorpe, a new girl, befriends Ezra, and makes him embrace his new life.

The Beginning of Everything is a pretty fantastic YA novel about the struggles of fitting in, and the challenge of dealing with an unexpected event which turns life upside down.  Ezra firmly believes that there is one singular tragedy that occurs, and from that point forward, everything important will happen. For his childhood best friend Toby, it is a tragedy at Disney World when they were kids.  For Ezra, it is the car accident that has left him without any prospects for an athletic scholarship and a drop on the social totem pole that is high school.

Cassidy Thorpe, though, helps Ezra realize how much better life could be if he put forth hard work and pursued his own interests, rather than doing what was expected of him.  There is an aura of mystery surrounding Cassidy; she’s known for being a debate champion, but has unexpectedly stopped participating in debate tournaments.  Unlike the majority of students at Eastwood who have not left the state, Cassidy has attended schools and lived in other countries.  She is extremely intelligent and worldly, and Ezra thinks that his life is made when they start dating, until Cassidy abruptly ends the relationship.

The Beginning of Everything is a bit quirky but wholeheartedly charming.  I loved Ezra,  and even though sometimes I found him frustrating, he is, after all, a high school boy.  Ezra also had a great group of friends to round out his story; the so-called “nerds” are refreshing, funny, and Ezra is lucky to have them as support.   This is a great book about figuring out who you really are, about rising up from personal tragedy, and about the power of good friends over superficial popularity contests.

In the End: I think readers who enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars will like this one.  It’s funny, sad, hopeful, and witty.


Book Review: Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel

thank you

Rating: 5 / 5

In Thank You For Your Service, David Finkel follows a group of soldiers at the end of their deployment, as they struggle to return to their post-service life.  America has millions of veterans, and a large portion of them return home with injuries.  It is somewhat easy to feel compassion and empathy for the visible wounds, the amputations and disfigurements that are readily discernible.  But what about the invisible wounds that are not readily apparent?  So many soldiers return home and suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injury, which can lead to depression, insomnia, and even suicide.  Although soldiers return home, the battle field experience has permanently scarred many of them.

Thank You For Your Service follows a small group from the US 2-16 Infantry Battalion that fought in Baghdad as they return back to home soil, and their attempts to re-integrate in the civilian world.  Finkel’s writing is intimate, and powerfully moving in its simplicity and realism.  Finkel doesn’t need to use hyperbole; reality itself is shocking and heartbreaking without exaggeration.  He writes with compassion While it is the soldiers that are sent abroad and risk their lives, the war also has profound effects on the spouses and children of soldiers.  It is simply heartbreaking to read about the wives and girlfriends who must adjust to mentally and physically scarred veterans. Most of the time the women are not capable of handling the change, and for all the discussion there is about soldiers getting the help needed to recuperate, there is definitely a lack of help or support system for families of soldiers.  

The number of suicides by veterans has been climbing over the decades, but there is not enough help or resources for soldiers.  There are programs available, but admission is highly bureaucratic and cumbersome.  Additionally, many veterans who need to be in such programs cannot go because they need to be holding down jobs.  General Peter Chiarelli has worked tirelessly to bring the staggering suicide rate to the forefront of people’s minds and obtain additional funding for recuperation programs, but his efforts seem futile at times, and progress at the hands of high powered politicians whom he had to wine and dine.  

Bottom line: Thank You For Your Service is a deeply moving and humbling account of what soldiers and their families struggle with on a daily basis.  This book should be read because it is important, current, and everyone needs to see what soldiers go through (even after they are discharged) so that we may live in freedom and prosperity.  

Book Review: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum


Rating: 5 / 5

Anna Schlemmer lived in Germany during the Second World War, and after she moved with her younger daughter Trudy, to America, she has refused to talk about those years.  While living with her father, Anna falls in love with the neighborhood doctor, Max, and runs away when her father discovers her secret and has the doctor arrested.  Anna apprentices with a baker, who knew Max, and it is there that she spends the war years, trying to survive and raise Trudy.

Trudy is now in her 50s, a well respected professor of Germany history.  Her mother has never spoken about Trudy’s childhood in Germany, and has never mentioned Max, or the SS Officer who took Anna in as his mistress. Inspired by a co-workers project to document the plight of Jewish survivors, Trudy begins her own project, interviewing Germans living in Germany during the war.  It is through this project that Trudy finally begins to understand what her mother went through, and begins to reveal the past her mother has refused to discuss.

The bottom line is that Those Who Save Us is utterly compelling and moving.  I’ve got a soft spot for WWII novels, and after reading my fair share of them, I’ve got to say that Those Who Save Us ranks as one of the best.  It’s different than most historical novels of this time period because it is from a German woman’s perspective.  Although they did not perpetuate the war or personally harm any Jews, middle to lower class Germans also suffered.  Not being an officer or affluent, they were on rations and struggled to make ends meet.  Anna’s story is particularly tragic as she didn’t have an opportunity to live her life.  She didn’t have the opportunity at a relationship with the man she loved, and didn’t have the opportunity to raise Trudy in a nurturing and civil environment. Although it might seem cold that she chose to keep her past to herself, it is understandable that she did so because that was the only way to move on.

Those Who Save Us moves between the past and the present, and the past is definitely more interesting and emotional.  This novel is an in-depth look at the atrocities of war, and the guilt that lingers with those who survived.  Those Who Save Us is also about duality of roles that people play; the people who saved Anna and Trudy.  On the surface, the Obersturmfuhrer is painted as a ruthless man, taking Anna as his mistress and doing to her as he pleased.  Invariably, though, he also saved her, for he made sure that Anna and Trudy were fed and clothed, and while they suffered immensely because of the war, they were better off than many of their neighbors.  Anna was looked down upon by her neighbors for sleeping with the Obersturmfuhrer, and when she moved to America, her new neighbors were no kinder than the women in Germany.  But everything Anna did, she did to save Trudy, to give Trudy a better future.

Those Who Save Us is complex, heartfelt, and deeply moving. I loved the way Blum weaved the two stories together, and while the book is heavy and sad, it was extremely well written.

Book Review: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai & Christina Lamb


Rating: 5 / 5

When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one man and his daughter refused to be silenced.  Ziauddin Yousafzai always had the dream to educate Pakistani citizen, and was a firm believer that education is the most important way to help people rise out of poverty.  He passed down his devotion and belief in educating all children to his eldest child, daughter Malala.   Ever since she was little, Malala has been passionate about schooling, especially the education of women, since many people in her region did not believe in education girls, or educating girls to a grade school level and then marrying them off.   An outspoken advocate, Malala nearly paid the ultimate price for her beliefs when the Taliban shot at her and her classmates on a school bus.   (more…)

Book Review: In the Blood by Lisa Unger


Rating:  4 / 5

Lana Granger is currently a psychology student at a small college in upstate New York.  With her trust fund almost depleted, she becomes a nanny for young boy, Luke.  Luke has behavioral issues, and has been known to manipulate his peers into doing harmful acts.  Lana has some experience with this, for she has a past that she’s hidden from everyone, and has told so many lies about her childhood that she’s not even sure what is real and what are lies. When one of Lana’s friends and roommate goes missing, and Lana is the last one to see her, suspicion is cast on Lana’s past, and everything she has tried so hard to hide. (more…)

Book Review: We Live in Water by Jess Walter


Rating: 4 / 5

We Live in Water is a collection of short stories, focusing on men battling various challenges, whether it be addiction, relationships ending, parental setbacks, or professional failures.  In general I’m not a fan of short stories because, well, they’re too short; I’ve always felt that I could never get entrenched and lost in a short story or its characters, but We Live In Water has proven me wrong.  The funny thing about Walter’s short stories are that many times the main character is not likable.  This ends up working very well for short stories because its fascinating to look at a snippet of a person’s life, but if the character is unlikable, it would be difficult to make him the center character in a novel.  I’m mainly talking about “Virgo” in which the main character is a features editor of a local newspaper, and uses his position to alter horoscopes to taunt and attempt to communicate with his ex-girlfriend.  (more…)

Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio


Rating: 5 / 5

August Pullman was born with an extremely rare genetic defect which has left his face disfigured.  Through the fourth-grade, he has been home schooled by his mom, but has agreed that fifth grade will be at a prep school a couple of blocks away.  While he considers himself normal, being a new kid in school with facial disfigurements comes with challenges and obstacles that Auggie isn’t sure he can handle. (more…)