Book Reviews: The Alter Girl and The Boy From Reactor Four

Two on Tuesday–     Good Morning!   I am really excited to bring you the following Book Reviews mainly because I loved this series.  I read all four books in a row back to back in May, and my husband will tell you I lost a lot of sleep because I could not put these down at night.  I started reading The Altar Girl by Orest Stemach after Amazon Prime gave me a choice of four books to read for free.  I had never heard of this author, but each month I get a first look at new books coming out and get to pick one of four to read for free.  I knew very little about the Ukraine other than the incident at Cherynobyl, so this series immediately peaked my interest, especially considering everything that had been going on with Crimea over the last few years.  Technically, I read these books out of order.  The Alter Girl was actually the last of the four books published, but it is the prequel to the other books.  I am glad I read them this way because Nadia Tesla is such a strong character and The Altar Girl gave me a foundation to begin the other books from the series:  The Boy from Reactor Four.

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“There’s an old Ukrainian proverb: He who licks knives will soon cut his tongue.”
Orest Stelmach, The Alter Girl: A Prequel

      The daughter of uncompromising Ukrainian immigrants, Nadia was raised to respect guts, grit, and tradition. When the events around the seemingly accidental death of her estranged godfather don’t add up, Nadia is determined to discover the truth—even if she attracts the attention of dangerous men intent on finding out what she knows through any means possible.

Her investigation leads her to her hometown and to the people least likely to welcome her back: her family.

In this thrilling prequel to the Nadia Tesla series, Nadia must try to solve the mystery surrounding her godfather’s death—and his life. The answers to her questions are buried with the secrets of her youth and in post–World War II refugee camps. What Nadia learns will change her life forever.

–     Other than good writing and character development there are three main reasons I recommend this book.  First, the historical richness.  I am a history/government/law teacher so when I come across a book that teaches me about an area in history that I know little about I get pretty excited.  My students and I had been closely monitoring the Crimea situation over the last few years and this book gave me context.  I had very little knowledge about Displaced Persons during and after WWII.  I also had no idea about Americas involvement with those individuals and Stalin’s policies.  Although I know this is a work of fiction, it led me to research several topics in the book.

–    Second, it is a very suspenseful mystery.  I worried for Nadia, she is kidnapped in the beginning of the book showing present danger, but the book also flashes back to her upbringing and all that she was taught as a child, sometimes at the cost of her own safety. At the beginning of the book you get the sense that Nadia, now a New Yorker has done much to distance herself from her upbringing and failed marriage.  It is her heritage that leads me to my last reason for you to purchase this book, it is fascinating.  You can see the remnants of a past time and how it impacted all the adults in Nadia’s life as they try to teach her as a kid what it really means to survive and be Ukrainian.  From the amazing sour cherry dumpling recipe that her mom cooks, to the way she knows how to communicate properly with others from her homeland, reading this book becomes a lesson in cultural competency and opens a huge doorway to the rest of Orest Stelmach’s series.

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–     Once I became obsessed with everything that is Nadia Tesla, I immediately moved on to The Boy From Reactor 4 and the books that followed.  I was thrilled to see that all of these books were free to Kindle Unlimited Subscribers. 

“May I ask you a question?” “Of course.” “If I offered you ten million dollars or a clear conscience, which would you take?” He considered the question. “Both,” Victor said. “I am a thief.”
Orest Stelmach, The Boy From Reactor Four

     Nadia’s memories of her father are not happy ones. An angry, secretive man, he died when she was thirteen, leaving his past shrouded in mystery. When a stranger claims to have known her father during his early years in Eastern Europe, she agrees to meet—only to watch the man shot dead on a city sidewalk. With his last breath, he whispers a cryptic clue, one that will propel Nadia on a high-stakes treasure hunt from New York to her ancestral homeland of Ukraine. There she meets an unlikely ally: Adam, a teenage hockey prodigy who honed his skills on the abandoned cooling ponds of Chernobyl. Physically and emotionally scarred by radiation syndrome, Adam possesses a secret that could change the world—if she can keep him alive long enough to do it. A twisting tale of greed, secrets, and lies, The Boy from Reactor 4 will keep readers guessing until the final heart-stopping page

–     The first book in the series centers on Nadia’s nephew “Adam”, a survivor, not without scars, of the Chernobyl disaster.  The book takes you on a thrilling ride as the pair tries to bring Adam safely to the United States, while protecting a secret formula that can revolutionize the world’s treatment of those with radiation poisoning.   Stelmach’s haunting depictions of the exclusion zone that surrounds the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor give readers an intimate glimpse into a part of the world that has endured far too much suffering. His portrayal of Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev, and the way he skillfully weaves the history and culture of Ukraine into the story, is magnificent. As the novel circumnavigates the globe, his insights into Siberia and the people that live there spark even more interest and depth to the story.  This is one series you do not want to miss.

Once finished check out the other two books in the series:

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Two on Tuesday Book Reviews: Paper Towns and Crooked Little Lies

Two on Tuesday

–     A few weeks ago I ran across the book Paper Towns in my Kindle Recommendations and requested a sample. I was reading so many books at the time I did not give it a second glance, saving it for a future date.  I did however, notice that Cara Delevingne was on the cover of the book and that it was about to become a motion picture.  I like to read books before I see film adaptations.  A few days after that initial encounter, I was reading the July Vogue and there was a several page spread on Cara and her transition from injured teen to being a top model.  She is depicted as a big personality that takes her work seriously.  In the interview she discusses how she is ready to begin a new chapter as an actress.  After reading about Cara I was intrigued and began to read the first few chapters. I immediately understood why they would cast her as Margo.  The sample hooked me and I read this book in about three days.

“As long as we don’t die, this is gonna be one hell of a story.”

Book One:  Paper Towns by John Green

Kindle Edition: $3.99                                                Paperback $5.72

Hardcover: $11.16                                                      Audio $14.95

     Quentin Jacobsen has spent a lifetime loving the magnificent Margo Roth Spiegelman from afar. So when she cracks open a window and climbs back into his life—summoning him for an ingenious campaign of revenge—he follows. When their all-nighter ends and a new day breaks, Margo has disappeared. But Q soon learns that there are clues—and they’re for him. Embarking on an exhilarating adventure to find her, the closer Q gets, the less he sees the girl he thought he knew.”

–     There is so much to say about this book but I promise I will keep it short and let you explore on your own.  Right from the beginning this book is unusual, then it turns a bit fun as the reader gets to know Margo and Quentin in a very adventurous way. You can see that Quentin also known as “Q” is absolutely awestruck when it comes to Margo, so much that he is willing to risk his future.   The second part of the book is focused on solving the mystery that is Margo.  At times there were moments I just had to stop and think.  The words on the page just jumping at me.  Was she alive?  Why did she leave? Does Q have any idea who or what he is dealing with?

Here are a few of those moments: 

You know your problem, Quentin? You keep expecting people not to be themselves. I mean, I could hate you for being massively unpunctual and for never being interested in anything other than Margo Roth Spiegelman, and for, like, never asking me about how it’s going with my girlfriend – but I don’t give a shit, man, because you’re you. My parents have a shit ton of black Santas, but that’s okay. They’re them. I’m too obsessed with a reference website to answer my phone sometimes when my friends call, or my girlfriend. That’s okay, too. That’s me. You like me anyway. And I like you. You’re funny, and you’re smart, and you may show up late, but you always show up eventually.”

“I’m starting to realize that people lack good mirrors. It’s so hard for anyone to show us how we look, & so hard for us to show anyone how we feel.”
–     There are many more moments that made me pause.  The ending was a bit anti-climatic, but I still would read this book again.  I noticed in the movie trailer they had changed quite a few things from the book, I am so glad I read this first.  I will definitely go see the movie.
Book Two:  Crooked Little Lies by Barbara Taylor Sissel

Kindle: $4.99

Paperback: $7.83

–  I received Crooked Little Lies from Amazon Prime.  Once a month they send out an email offering you one of four books, your choice.  I have found some amazing authors through this feature.  My husband actually became concerned as I read this book, because I would not go to sleep.  I had to know what happened to Bo and what in the world was going on with Lauren and her sister Tara.

On a cool October morning, Lauren Wilder is shaken when she comes close to striking Bo Laughlin with her car as he’s walking along the road’s edge. A young man well known in their small town of Hardys Walk, Texas, Bo seems fine, even if Lauren’s intuition says otherwise. Since the accident two years ago that left her brain in a fragile state, she can’t trust her own instincts—and neither can her family. Then Bo vanishes, and as the search for him ensues, the police question whether she’s responsible. Lauren is terrified, not of what she remembers but of what she doesn’t.Unable to trust herself and unwilling to trust anyone else, Lauren begins her own investigation into the mystery of Bo’s disappearance. But the truth can prove to be as shocking as any lie, and as Lauren exposes each one, from her family, from her friends, she isn’t the only one who will face heart-stopping repercussions.”

–     I love books that take a reader on a mysterious journey.  Lauren was a bit scattered at times but that was the point.  I wouldn’t say this book was fun, but it reaches down and lights a fire inside of you.  You need to know what is going on, you want closure for Annie, Bo’s sister.  The characters are written in a way that they could be people you know and love, they touch you, and you begin to become invested.

“When a terrible thing happened, life just charged at you, running full out, clobbering you, usually from behind. You were down then. You were left sick in your stomach and broken in your heart, trying to pick up your wits, your scattered pieces, and when you looked back, you saw that you didn’t have a clue, not one inkling.”

Paper Towns and Crooked Little Lies are two books that will engage readers and leave a little something behind. Highly recommend both!

–  J

Book Reviews: Things You Won’t Say and Eight Hundred Grapes

Two on Tuesday–    The selection process for this weeks book choices was fairly easy. Both books have content that is engaging and great for summer reading; the first book due to current events, and the other emphasizes  wine.  I am a sucker for both topics, especially considering my infatuation with Keanu Reeves and A Walk in the Clouds many years ago.

–     The first book centers on a police officer named Mike and his family.  While coping after a shooting that almost killed his partner, Mike pulls the trigger and finds himself charged with the murder of a young Hispanic boy, sending his whole family into a tailspin.  The second reading is also about family dynamics, and making decisions that impact not only your future, but everyone around you. Did I mention this book is all about wine too?

Things You Won’t Say by Sarah Pekkanen

“Every morning, as her husband Mike straps on his SIG Sauer and pulls on his heavy Magnum boots, Jamie Anderson tenses up. Then comes the call she has always dreaded: There’s been a shooting at police headquarters. Mike isn’t hurt, but his long-time partner is grievously injured. As weeks pass and her husband’s insomnia and disconnectedness mount, Jamie realizes he is an invisible casualty of the attack. Then the phone rings again. Another shooting — but this time Mike has pulled the trigger.

But the shooting does more than just alter Jamie’s world. It’s about to change everything for two other women. Christie Simmons, Mike’s flamboyant ex, sees the tragedy as an opportunity for a second chance with Mike. And Jamie’s younger sister, Lou, must face her own losses to help the big sister who raised her. As the press descends and public cries of police brutality swell, Jamie tries desperately to hold together her family, no matter what it takes.”

–     Things You Won’t Say seemed like the perfect choice for this week’s book review since it focuses on what appears to be the current social and media frenzy, police brutality, racism, and the lives it touches.   The book is well written and comes together, but that is part of the problem.  Racism and excessive force are serious concerns and the author chooses to neatly gift wrap a happy ending for her audience, which does not feel genuine.  Somehow the book just seems shallow, but then again it is a summer read with strong character development, not a true to life text.

–    You will get to know the female characters as they are the heart of the storyline.  We have a stay at home mom (Jamie), who is fighting to hold her family together,  her husband the police officer (Mike) who is unraveling, the “baby mama” (Christie) who comes across as self-interested and vain, as she seeks the affections of her ex, and Jamie’s little sister (Lou), who is complex but at times leaves the reader not sure where she fits into the whole story.  Maybe an outsider looking in on the situation?  Not quite sure.  I did like Lou though, there is something very special about a woman who gives up a career to work for pennies with animals at the zoo.

–     Overall I would recommend the book, it was an easy read, interesting and relevant.  The happy ending will appeal to many.  This is not a book I would read again though.  I found the dialogue between Mike and Jaimie painful at times.  It is probably because I have multiple kids, and I felt that Jaimie was being taken for granted. Sometimes Mike just seems downright cruel.  His reasoning at the end also did not seem acceptable, but Jaimie buys into it and they live happily ever after. The book is not going to leave you with a thorough understanding of the current political climate regarding the police and the use of excessive force.  The author, just like stay at home mom Jamie, just tidies everything up at the end.

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave

“You have to grow, mold, squish about eight hundred grapes to get just one bottle of wine. If that isn’t an argument to finish the bottle, I don’t know what is.”

–     The opening quote instantly draws the reader in and even though you are unsure as to what adventure lies ahead of you, you realize there will be lots of wine and beautiful grape vines, and that my dear readers, is enough reason to snag a copy of this great summer read.

There are secrets you share, and secrets you hide…

Growing up on her family’s Sonoma vineyard, Georgia Ford learned some important secrets. The secret number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine: eight hundred. The secret ingredient in her mother’s lasagna: chocolate. The secret behind ending a fight: hold hands.

But just a week before her wedding, thirty-year-old Georgia discovers her beloved fiancé has been keeping a secret so explosive, it will change their lives forever.

Georgia does what she’s always done: she returns to the family vineyard, expecting the comfort of her long-married parents, and her brothers, and everything familiar. But it turns out her fiancé is not the only one who’s been keeping secrets…

–     There are so many moments while reading this book that I found myself taking a step back and just reading a sentence several times.  The author not only has an intricate story that gives a reader insight into a family on the edge, the writing itself just leaves you spellbound.  Here are a few examples of some of my favorite quotes:

“Synchronization. Systems operating with all their parts in synchrony, said to be synchronous, or in sync. The interrelationship of things that might normally exist separately.

In physics: It’s called simultaneity. In music: rhythm.


In your life: epic failure.”

“I stopped paying attention to her. I stopped doing the things that someone does for the person he loves. Because I was tired. Because other things always seems to matter a little bit more…That doesn’t happen overnight, you know. It happens slowly. You should be careful of that. You should be careful not to take the person you love for granted. Not only because they’ll notice. But you’ll notice too. You’ll think it means something it doesn’t…Like that’s how much you care.”

–     Beautifully written, this book can be a bit predictable at times, but then again there are some big surprises, and they will help you overlook the mundane.  I strongly recommend this book with a glass, no, a bottle of your favorite wine.

–   J

Book Reviews: Luckiest Girl Alive and Dietland

Two on Tuesday–    I read incessantly and I just finished several books, but these two are my current stand outs.  Both books tackle serious women’s issues with some dark twists and turns. Neither book is for the faint of heart.  If you jump in and pick one up, please feel free to leave your thoughts or perceptions in the comments.  I would love to discuss each of these with you.   Enjoy!

 

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll:

–     Gone Girl meets Prep is how many are describing Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive, and I could not agree more. Ani FaNelli, (pronounced ah-nee, not annie) appears to have it all:  beauty, a top job in a women’s magazine, a gorgeous rich fiance,and the admiration of many around her. She has worked hard to create the perfect life and has left her tragic high school persona, TiffAni (real name) behind. The book takes you on Ani’s journey as she prepares to both say “I Do” to a man she considers stabbing in the first few pages of the book, and film a documentary about the tragic turn of events during her high school years.  The book does not have a shocking end or turn of events, but it is a great read, I finished it in two days.

Fight Club for Women: Why ‘Dietland’ is Not Another Chick Lit Novel

Dietland by Sarai Walker:

–     I consider this book a complete ruse, in a good way.  You think this is a chic lit summer read and then all of a sudden you recognize that there is a much richer, deeper, hidden message that you will not be able to overlook.

–     Plum Kettle is walking through life trying to be invisible.  At over 300 lbs, she plans on becoming a new woman after her stomach stapling surgery is complete.  Every day she walks to her local cafe and answers teenage girls self-help questions as a ghost writer for her “perfect” boss and editor Kitty.  She reads about all sorts of teenage angst and tries to help ease these young girls pain with her files of advice.  Plum believes that her own pain will be erased as her dress size decreases.  She even begins to purchase all of those gorgeous outfits that she will fit into soon. Boyfriend, husband, baby, perfect body,  can all be yours after you undergo a life threatening surgery.  For Plum, this is not a problem.

–     When Plum suspects that a young girl in colored tights and combat boots is secretly following her, she has no idea that her life is about to go into a tail spin.  With the help of various women, Plum begins to look at her life through a different lens.  Is the problem with Plum and her weight or is it with the way society treats women as a whole?   Enter JENNIFER, an underground group of woman trying to change the world through extreme means and you have one heck of a book.  I could not put this down.

Note:  Both books can be a bit graphic at times.  Subjects discussed include but are not limited to pornography and rape.

Stay tuned for our next Book Reviews:

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave

Things You Won’t Say by Sara Pekkanen

Happy Summer Reading.

–J

October 2014 Formal Book Review: Trim Healthy Mama

Trim Healthy Mama
Serene Allison and Pearl Barrett
October 2014 Book Review

Trim Healthy Mama (THM) is my first formal book review on this blog, but I should explain that I have reviewed books since I was eighteen, some for money, others for education and many for fun. I also have a few published works, nothing too exciting, and more on the academic end. Over the years I have acquired a cookbook collection that is in the 400 book range, many pages marked from use, and have attended numerous cooking classes from around the world.  I love to cook for family and friends, but unfortunately after six pregnancies I have to be discerning in terms of what I eat.  Aging, lack of healthy lifestyle, gestational diabetes with five pregnancies, a removed gall bladder and the the need for community led me to discover Trim Healthy Mama, a common sense guide to satisfying cravings and energizing your life.

Boneless Buffalo Chicken Bites p. 324

—I originally approached this book from an academic standpoint; is it safe, does it work, is there any credible quantitative data that backs up what the authors’ purport?  I even contacted the authors’ several times. and they gave me some insights into the choices they have made when it came to the creation of THM.  There is a level of freedom that comes with this book that makes it hard to evaluate.  Different individuals take the plan and shape it in to what they feel is safe (sugar replacement choices) and really it comes down to stabilizing your blood sugar, in very simple terms, the elimination of white sugar and high carb meals. diet.

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A enjoying a THM snack.
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Peanut Squares (S) p. 377

—As I began to discover the pro’s and con’s that come with the THM lifestyle, I discovered something that I felt was even more important, a recognition that I am not living in a way that is consistent with my priorities. I have always believed that health needed to be the top goal for everyone and yet I have not stayed on that course.  I am a busy woman, and I often take care of others and their needs with no recognition that my own health is slipping through the cracks.  I am not budgeting my time or my money in a way that is consistent with my priorities and beliefs.  It is in this spirit of understanding that I wrote the following review.

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Pearl’s Chili (S) or (S helper) Feeds Large Family p. 328
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B eating Pearl’s chili. She did eat the whole bowl.

—The most wonderful part of trying out THM was that I did lose weight (6 lbs) and felt more energetic while just doing the lifestyle part-time. I can’t even imagine what is going to happen next month when I try to do this book full-time.  My husband and I made breakfasts and dinners from the book for over two weeks.  Believe it or not, I usually skip breakfast and lunch, drinking nothing but coffee with sugar laden creamers.  Once I started eating breakfast again I did find I had more energy and I really wanted to eat lunch.

—Trim Healthy Mama begins with a prologue from the author’s husbands.  I actually knew from the way I smiled through their husbands’ words, that I would enjoy the book.  It is written in a very informal tone and I can only describe the book as “real”.  This is real life, written by real people who have been trying to live healthy for years.

Breakfast Quinoa

—The authors are sisters, and you can clearly tell they have similarities, but are also very different people.  They even share their recipes; the same recipes but their very own versions.  Pearl hates exercise, Serene keeps her on track and so on.  There are funny drawings of the two throughout the book, and in a way you feel like you get to know them both through the pages.

Serene’s Fantastic Meat Loaf heading in to the oven (S) (p. 316).

—The first few chapters examine different women and their lifestyles.  I actually found in some ways I fit in with all four, just depends on the day.  One of the best features of the book is you identify your downfalls (too much takeout) and they give you ways to change (quick and easy recipes so that you are not too tired to cook).

–Another interesting item worth mentioning is the THM community.  It is huge!  I subscribed to their Facebook page and different Forums while reviewing this book, and was so surprised at the amount of good ideas not to mention yummy recipes that were offered.  If you do purchase this book, I strongly suggest you go to their Facebook page and find a community.  They really have amazing success stories and organization and budget friendly ideas.

—I am going to condense the rest of the book into pros and cons.

Pros:

  • The Pizza Crust Recipe!!!!!  I felt like I was eating deep dish Chicago Pizza.  We made this several times and everyone in the house loved it.  I used organic pizza sauce without sugar and turkey pepperoni.
  • THM is user-friendly and readable.  The authors are charming and appear very authentic.  They approach leading a healthy lifestyle from a Christian perspective and interweave bible passages and their faith into the text. As an educator I value any text that opens me up to different perspectives and respect that you do not have to believe what others do, but it is important to learn and create dialogue.
  • The recipes are good, really good.  I have a list of favorites at the end of this review.  They are not time consuming and once you cook it for the first time, it really becomes a breeze to do again.
  • The lifestyle works! After having a bit of sugar withdrawal on days three and four (at least that is how it was for me) you will begin to crave sugar less and when you do eat something with sugar it tastes way too sweet.

Concerns, not necessarily cons:

  •   The safety of the sweeteners (taste, calories etc).  I am not an expert on Stevia or sweeteners so I would encourage readers to do a bit of digging.  I did, and there are a lot of claims but very little credible scientific evidence.  If the sweeteners are going to keep you from looking at this book or lifestyle, I would suggest that you do what others have done; consider replacing stevia/truvia with coconut sugar, maple (grade B) or honey and look at the plan from a whole foods approach.
  • You will spend a bit of money restocking your pantry, but, a little does go a long way.   I keep telling myself I am worth the expense and if that doesn’t convince me….my family is most definitely worth the expense.
  • Lack of measurements and portion sizes in recipes. I am a bit torn on whether this is a concern or actually a positive because for some the freedom will be much appreciated, for others that are more black and white, it may prove to be an obstacle. I actually contacted the authors for an explanation as to why they do not give exact portion/serving sizes and their response was a bit of a surprise as it was clear there was a lot of thought in to their design.

We don’t like to assign portions to our meals, since portions tie in with legalism and we don’t like legalism in our plan. We are about food freedom. We’ve found that as you stay on plan and your insulin levels balance that your hunger hormones also balance, which make portion sizes unnecessary.

—I found that my recipes turned out very well even when I was not sure how much of an ingredient to use.  My recipes always had leftovers and I have a large family.  I think the authors are trying to get people to figure out what is best for their families.  I listed this under cons because in the beginning it may be a bit overwhelming for some but it appears this is purposeful and the author’s are attempting to help readers develop their own unique imprint on recipes.

Neither a pro or con:  My kids were very picky as to what they would and would not eat on this plan.  The little ones ate everything, the teenagers not so much.  I wish I had started them out younger.

Some of our favorite recipes:

Muffin in a Mug:  My new quick go to for lunches and breakfasts.  Easy and very yummy.

Breakfast Quinoa:  I already eat homemade oatmeal and quinoa.  The kids are not big fans but I really like it on a cold day.

Creamy Crockpot Chicken (S) p.314

This was actually delicious and so easy to put together with just a few ingredients.  My husband and I enjoyed it.

Pearl’s Chili:

The little ones love chili and we had a lot of leftovers for lunches during the week.  The beans are a little tough when you do not have a gall bladder but once in a while it is okay to eat.

Pumpkin Pie Smoothie (from their Facebook page).  My husband was a sweetie and made these for me several mornings.  It was a perfect fall treat and helped me stay on track.

—I really do believe this book is a game changer in the healthy diets department.  Mainly because it has family friendly recipes that are quick and easy, and the authors help parents get back to what they really value.  There is so much more I could write, and I strongly encourage you check this book and the success stories out on your own.

—J