Review: The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story (Wonder, #1.5), by R. J. Palacio

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder StoryThe Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved ‘Wonder’ and think that everyone should read/listen to it at least once. However, with all of the different viewpoints offered, I felt like one of the most important POVs had been skipped. As much as I detested Julian in ‘Wonder’, I really wanted to know exactly what made him such a mean kid. How does a child learn to behave so hatefully?

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person that felt that Julian’s POV was needed. Immediately upon finishing ‘Wonder’, I went in search of Julian’s POV and I lucked out. The author wrote a separate short story to tell Julian’s side of the story. Of course, I dived right into Julian’s story right away and it proved to be a great decision.

I have to admit that as much as I wanted to hear Julian’s side of events and learn about what motivated him, I was a bit hesitant. Julian was a character that made me feel anger and rage at his actions. I had to keep reminding myself while reading ‘Wonder’ that he was just a child and that he probably didn’t fully grasp the impact of his words. Starting this book, I was worried that I wouldn’t find any redeeming qualities in Julian and that I would spend hours being upset by his callous behavior. Thankfully, my fears were unwarranted.

‘The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story’ takes place toward the end of the school year and the following summer. It begins when Julian is caught leaving mean notes for Auggie and Jack in their lockers. The Principal and school counselor are tipped off and are able to intervene, finding an especially cruel note before Auggie does.

While Julian’s actions were inexcusable, his family dynamics spoke volumes. I was immediately taken aback by his parents lack of concern for his behavior and their obsession with public image. It was clear to me that this is where Julian’s troubles really started. As a parent, I was appalled by these shallow individuals. Julian’s mother even went so far as to photo-shop Auggie out of the class photo! I just have no words.

Initially, Julian is defensive and doesn’t really grasp the severity of his actions. However, as the story progresses – and with no help from his parents – he comes to see the error of his ways. His grandmother, whom he spends his summer vacation with in France, is instrumental in this.

Julian’s grandmother tells him about a boy that she knew when she was younger. He was disabled and often treated cruelly by the children in the village because they were afraid of him. As a young Jewish girl, hunted by the Nazis, it was this boy that ended up saving her life. Despite the mistreatment that he had endured, he showed kindness and bravery. He risked his own life to save a girl that had never paid him much attention, except to avoid him.

After hearing his grandmother’s story, Julian is able to connect the empathize with Auggie. Finally, he feels genuine remorse for his actions and understands exactly what he did. It was like he turned a new leaf and I really liked this new Julian.

I’m very glad that I read Julian’s story. I was worried about what I would get when I started it, but it did not disappoint. I especially liked Julian’s grandmother. She provided the guidance and wisdom that Julian’s parents failed to.

On the flip side, I could not so easily forgive Julian’s parents. Yes, they too came around a bit at the end, but only with the grandmother twisting their arms. Some explanations were offered for Julian’s mother’s behavior, but I found them to be weak at best. Julian may have been a child, but his parents were not. They should’ve known better. I just couldn’t get past that.

Overall, this was a fantastic story. He isn’t an easy character to like, but this book serves as a reminder that even bullies are human. Despite his despicable behavior toward Auggie, Julian was only a child in need of some direction and positive role models. In the end, he becomes a better person. If you enjoyed ‘Wonder’, I would definitely recommend this one.

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Review: The Unbroken Line of the Moon (Sagan om Valhalla, #4; The Valhalla Series, #4), by Johanne Hildebrandt

The Unbroken Line of the Moon (Sagan om Valhalla #4; The Valhalla Series - English Translation Order #1)The Unbroken Line of the Moon by Johanne Hildebrandt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I purchased this audiobook based upon the recommendation of a friend. I didn’t realize at the time that this book was actually the fourth book in a series. That being said, I enjoyed it quite a bit and felt that it was easily read as a standalone. Of course, I can’t really know what I might have missed in the earlier books that might have enhanced my reading experience.

‘The Unbroken Line of the Moon’ is set in the tenth century, when the Vikings and Christians were battling over the Nordic lands that comprise present-day Sweden, Norway, Denmark and England. As this is a period of history that I haven’t spent much time reading about, I can’t speak to whether or not it was an accurate portrayal of this time period. For me, it was an interesting and entertaining introduction to the religious mysticism of that time.

The story opens with the heroine, Sigrid, learning that she is to be wed to Erik, the Swedish king. She doesn’t want to leave her homeland, but understands that it is her duty as a princess to marry in order to secure a better position for her father and her people. Sigrid has been chosen to serve the goddess Freya and has visions of the future.

On the way to meet her future husband, Sigrid meets Sweyn. She is immediately taken aback by the illegitimate son of Harald Bluetooth, the ruler of Denmark. Despite her upcoming nuptials, she and Sweyn have a brief, but intense, love affair.

Sigrid goes on to marry Erik, carrying Sweyn’s child. As Sweyn goes on to achieve success driven by his love for Sigrid, she does whatever she must to secure the safety of their child. Guided by her visions, she manipulates events to ensure that Sweyn lives to fulfill his destiny and claim his crown, even if it means pushing him away from her.

This story was brutal at times, as the Viking battles played out in vivid detail. The gods and goddesses were cruel and harsh often times, demanding bloody sacrifices. Trustworthy friends were in small supply, as Sigrid learned the hard way.

Although this story didn’t have as much romance as I usually prefer, there was enough of a love story to hold my interest. I found myself getting lost in this tumultuous time of the Viking warriors. It was brutal, but intriguing.

All in all, this was a great story and something a little different from my usual reading choices. My only complaint is that Sigrid and Sweyn’s story is not wrapped up completely with this book. I wanted Sigrid to get her HEA after everything that she had been through, but I will have to read further into the series in order to see if that happens or not. I plan to do that sometime soon.

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Review: And I Darken (The Conquerers Series, #1), by Kiersten White

And I Darken (The Conqueror's Saga, #1)And I Darken by Kiersten White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘And I Darken’ was the first book that I’ve ever read by Ms. Kiersten White, but it certainly won’t be the last. The first book in ‘The Conquerers’ series, it managed to completely captivate me. I am both intrigued, enamored, and at times appalled, by these characters and the turbulent world that they occupy.

Lada Dragwlya is an unlikely heroine. She’s unattractive, uncouth and at times, downright mean. She’s everything her father had hoped for in a son, but got in his daughter. Her only redeeming qualities are her love for her homeland, Wallachia, and her love for her younger brother, Radu.

By comparison, Radu is everything that Lada is not. He is soft-spoken and gentle, an utter disappointment to their father, the Prince of Wallachia. Immediately, Radu claimed a piece of my heart.

When their father trades Lada and Radu to the Sultan of Ottoman as pawns to guarantee his loyalty, they are left to fend for themselves in a hostile new world. Lada is determined to be strong and to plan for her eventual revenge on the Sultan and his countrymen. She refuses to show any weakness that might be used against her and Radu.

Unlike his sister, Radu soon takes to the ways of this new world. He never felt that he fit in in Wallachia and finds comfort in this new country. He is not resistant to the new teachings or the new religion, as Lada is.

After months living in the Ottoman Empire, Radu and Lada make an unlikely friend. Mehmed is the illegitimate son of the sultan. Before long, the three are inseparable. The line between friend and enemy blurs and loyalties are called into question.

From start to finish, I was completely captivated by this story. It has a little of everything. There’s plenty of action and battle scenes. There’s romance and angst. Kingdoms rise and are overthrown. The incredible highs are off-set by bitter betrayals.

I am completely and totally hooked on this story. It is the first book, in what I’m sue will prove to be an epic saga. The characters were certainly flawed, but that only made me love them more. As soon as the next book is released, I’ll be diving in again. I was left with a lot of questions and I’ll have to wait for the next book to get my answers.

I listened to the Audible version of this book and I thought that the narration was well done. I could easily distinguish between the characters and I thought the narrator did a great job of conveying the emotions and intensity. It was a fantastic audiobook choice for me.

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Review: An Exaltation of Larks, by Suanne Laqueur

An Exaltation of LarksAn Exaltation of Larks by Suanne Laqueur
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was absolutely spectacular! I am in awe of this author’s abilities. ‘An Exaltation of Larks’ was the first book I’ve read by Ms. Suanne Laqueur, but it certainly will not be the last. I’ll be adding all of her books to my TBR list ASAP!

From the opening lines, I knew that this was going to be a story that would stick with me…and it has. The writing is flawless and incredibly poetic. I could not pull myself away from this story, even falling asleep with my propped up on my chest at night. I was entirely consumed with the fascinating lives of these characters.

This story was so rich with history and emotion that I am still digesting everything I read days later. I loved the way that Ms. Laqueur was able to weave fact and fiction together so seamlessly. The end result was a superb story that ended up being enlightening and deeply touching, as well as highly entertaining.

At the onset of the book, I was sure that I knew what direction the story would head in. It had the ominous feel of danger, as a young Alejandro Penda hides in his parents closet in the days following the overthrow of Chile’s government by a military coup on September 11, 1973. The air was thick with the fear of Chile’s citizens, as many are rounded up and taken away, never to be seen again. His own parents had been taken, leaving a young Alejandro to fend for himself.

After days of being left alone, Alejandro’s father returns. He is able to get safe passage for Alejandro to the United States, to stay with an uncle. However, he cannot go with Alejandro. He decides to stay behind to search for his wife, who is pregnant with their second child. Alejandro watches his father walk away from the U. S. Embassy, never to see his parents again.

Although Alejandro can never completely move on, haunted by the unknown, he quickly assimilates himself into his new life. Going by the name of “Alex”, he is befriended by the children of his uncle’s friends, the Larks. Their son, Roger, becomes Alex’s best friend. One of their daughters, Valerie, becomes the object of his affections. They all grow up together in the peaceful community of Guelisten, NY, where the Lark family is practically a legend.

When Alex’s uncle dies several years later, the Lark family assumes guardianship of Alex. He is older, but still in school and too young to live independently. The dynamics of his relationship with Val change drastically, but the attraction is still there, just below the surface.

This book spans decades, from the time that Alex is a young child, well into his adult life. The story follows the characters through their childhoods, chronicles their struggles as college students and young adults, and later as adults with families of their own. This book sees the rise and collapse of governments as the political climate changes across the globe. In one word, this story is “epic”.

Along the way, we are introduced to Javier, a young man terribly abused and cast out by his own family. Forced as a teenager to make his own way on the streets of New York City, he is eventually introduced to work as an escort. Under the tutelage of his mentor, Gloria, he quickly rises through the ranks, becoming one of the most sought after male escorts in the city.

At first, I didn’t understand where Ms. Laqueur was going with Jav’s story. He seemed to be introduced out of nowhere, pulling me away from Alex and Val’s story. However, fate has plans for all of them. Soon all of their lives will intersect in life-changing ways.

I don’t want to give too much away, or spoil this story for anyone. It is a story that deserves to be read and savored individually. If you’re sitting on the fence with this one, read it.

This was a beautiful, multifaceted story. It is just the type of thought-provoking story that I needed to start my year off right. It was breathtaking and so much more than I had ever hoped it would be. I highly recommend this book. It is absolutely spectacular!

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Review: From Sand and Ash, by Amy Harmon

From Sand and AshFrom Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautiful, heartbreaking and inspirational. Loved it! Amy Harmon is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. Each of her books that I’ve read has been incredibly emotional and touching.

‘From Sand and Ash’ is a gripping account of true love in WWII-era Italy. This story held my attention from start to finish. I fell in love with the characters and the visually rich setting. This book was so beautifully crafted that the scenes were nearly tangible.

At the same time, the beauty was in stark contrast to the brutality of the Nazi regime. Although I knew at the onset where the story would lead, it was easy to see how the brutality of the time snuck up on the complacent and disillusioned Italian people. I could relate to the responses from many of the characters that refused to acknowledge the danger until it was too late. The shift was gradual and insidious.

This is undoubtedly one of the most compelling romances that I’ve read this year. The love between Eva and Angelo was unbelievable. They had the type of love that is incredibly intimate and real. They weren’t perfect, but they loved each other in spite of their imperfections.

If you love a forbidden love story, this is your book. Never has there been a couple with the odds stacked against them more than these two. They fought for each other and their love, refusing to give up no matter how hopeless their situation might have seemed.

This story was inspirational and heartfelt. I was deeply moved by Eva and Angelo’s story. Not only was this book highly entertaining, but it was the type of book that leaves a lasting impression. I will not be forgetting these characters and their plight anytime soon. I can only hope that it will be made into a movie at some point.

If you’re looking for a suspenseful, heartfelt story, this is a great choice. This is the type of book that feeds the soul. It is beautiful and inspiring. This is a new favorite of mine and one of my top reads for the year.

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Inspirational WWII-Era Story

Number the StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second of the books that we listened to on my recent multi-generational, girls road-trip, was ‘Number the Stars’. I could not have chosen better. This story was suspenseful, educational and deeply emotional. With an age range of 5 years-old to 88 years-old in the car, this book managed to hold all of attention.

Like most readers, I’ve read plenty of books set during the WWII era. Some were graphic and shocking in their descriptions of the horrendous acts that took place. Others, like ‘Number the Stars’ go a far more subtle route, choosing to leave much to your imagination, while providing just enough information so that the reader can figure out exactly what is going on.

With two children in the car, subtle and less graphic was an obvious benefit. However, I was amazed by the depth of understanding my 9 year-old had of the story that unfolded. I was incredibly impressed by the way the author was able to craft a story that appealed to such a broad audience.

Set in a German-occupied Denmark in WWII, ‘Number the Stars’ tells the story of a teenaged Annemarie Johansen. She and her family helped rescue her best friend, Ellen Rosen, and her family. The two girls had grown up together. Like their daughters, the parents were best friends also, having been neighbors for years.

When the German occupation becomes increasingly hostile, the writing is on the wall for the Jews. The Johansen’s are ordinary people that took extraordinary risks to stand against injustice in the only way they knew how. They become active in the resistance movement, helping to smuggle targeted groups of people to safety.

I don’t want to give too much away, because this is a story that I believe should be read and experienced by everyone. I will say that it was deeply sentimental and thought-provoking. There was plenty of action and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat, but nothing too terrifying or gory for children.

This is the first WWII book that I’ve read about the Danish resistance movement. I greatly enjoyed learning about the Danish culture and the role that Denmark played in WWII. The stories about the King of Denmark were especially inspiring.

Mostly, this story was inspirational. It is about everyday people that do incredibly courageous things when backed into a corner. It is about the strength of the human spirit. This is the kind of book that makes you reevaluate your values and what you consider important in life. Everyone needs a reminder every once in a while, especially as the holidays approach.

I loved every minute of this story. It is another one that should probably make the “mandatory reading” list for school-aged children, lest we forget the lessons of the past. The audio was fabulous as well. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

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Beautiful and Inspiring

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of those books that has been sitting on my TBR list forever. Finally, I decided to give it a go. Although it isn’t my usual type of book, I found it to be a beautiful story.

‘The Book Thief’ tells the story of a young girl, Liesel, growing up in Germany during WWII. After the death of her brother, she is put into foster care by her mother. Unlikely as it may seem, she goes on to form a close relationship with her foster father as she grows up in a nation inundated by the Nazi regime.

Along the way, Liesel forms a friendship with a neighborhood boy, Rudy Steiner. She falls in love with books and takes to stealing during that trying time. In so many ways, her childhood mirrored any other “normal” happy childhood. However, the over-bearing presence of Hitler’s Nazi influence loomed in the background. The fear and lack of control felt by Liesel and her community was palpable.

When her foster parents choose to hide a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg, in their basement, Liesel’s story becomes even more complicated. There is no denying the brutal reality of life under the Nazi regime. I held my breath, waiting for their secret to be discovered.

While some parts of the story were predictable, given that we all know how WWII ended, other elements of this story surprised me. I had put off reading this story for quite some time because I expected it to be rather bleak. While there were some depressing, gloomy topics that were addressed, I was glad to find that the book did not take on that vibe entirely. Mostly, I found the story to be enlightening and inspirational.

Overall, this was a fabulous book. I can see it becoming a standard “required reading” book for school-aged children. It’s definitely one that I’ll have my daughters read. This was a beautiful story that should serve as a cautionary tale and a reminder to us all.

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