BOOK REVIEW: The Hired Girl – by Laura Amy Schlitz

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Title: The Hired Girl
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction, Religion
First published: September 8th 2015
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Finished reading: July 23rd 2016
Pages: 400
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“But I think the most important thing those books gave me was a kind of faith. My books promised me that life wasn’t just made up of workaday tasks and prosaic things. The world is bigger and more colorful and more important than that.”

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The Hired Girl was my latest TBR jar choice and quite a fortunate pick, since I already planned to read it for the When Are You Reading? Challenge anyway because of its historical 1910s setting. I normally really enjoy reading historical fiction, but unfortunately I wasn’t impressed by this story by Laura Amy Schlitz. Most people seem to love The Hired Girl though, so I guess this will be yet another unpopular opinion review… First things first, I can’t deny the historical setting is well executed and I liked that the prose matched the era. The descriptions and prose in general show that the author has investigated the era thoroughly and used the terms appropriate for the 1910s. This was probably the strongest feature of The Hired Girl, because the rest didn’t manage to convince me. While the first part is interesting enough (even though the first chapters are a bit dull) and the descriptions are great, the story takes a strong religious turn later on. I don’t mind religion in a story as long as it doesn’t have a strong presence, but in The Hired Girl it was just too much for me to enjoy. The fact that I didn’t like the main character in general didn’t really help either. I know a lot of people seem to love Joan, but she was too naive and later on even whiny for me to grow closer to her despite her love for books. During most of the book this unlikeable character still wasn’t too much of a problem, mostly because of the interesting historical setting. Unfortunately the last part of this story was full of strongly religious dialogue and cheesy romance; ending up ruining the reading experience for me. I know I’m in the minority for not enjoying The Hired Girl though, so you might enjoy this historical fiction story a lot better than I did.

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After her father decided that his fourteen-year-old daughter Joan can attend school no longer because she is needed at home, Joan has no longer an escape from the hard work at Steeple Farm. Her mother died years ago and her father and brothers don’t exactly treat her well; the dreams of her mother (and Joan herself) for her to become a teacher seem to have evaporated. How will she ever escape the neverending and dull work at the farm? Miss Chandler used to be a teacher and gave her a diary, telling her she should write to practice. Joan pours her heart out into the diary and decided to seek a new and better life for herself despite better judgement. Maybe escaping the farm, traveling to the city and working as a hired girl cleaning and cooking for a family will finally help her improve her chances of a better future?

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The historical setting and well researched descriptions and prose are without doubt the best feature of The Hired Girl. I especially liked the Rosenbachs and what they added to the story; the descriptions of their household were really intriguing. I can’t say I liked the main character Joan though. I understand she is still really young, but instead of endearing I found Joan mostly annoying, naive and even whiny at points. And then I’m not even talking about the romantic blabbering and strongly religious dialogue in the last part… I really wanted to enjoy The Hired Girl, but this novel just wasn’t for me.

BOOK REVIEW: Hitman Anders And The Meaning Of It All – by Jonas Jonasson

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Title: Hitman Anders And The Meaning Of It All
Author: Jonas Jonasson
Genre: Fiction, Humor, Contemporary
First published: September 16th 2015
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Finished reading: June 25th 2016
Pages: 400
(Originally written in Swedish: “Mördar-Anders och hans vänner (samt en och annan ovän)”)
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“If only children could be free of all that crap previous generations had gathered up for them, he said, perhaps it would bring some clarity to their lives.”

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I should have been warned sufficiently by the low Goodreads rating, but I thought this would be one of those unpopular opinion books. Why? Because unlike most book bloggers out there, I absolutely loved Jonas Jonasson‘s other novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared and I was hoping of having a similar experience with this new book. I guess I was wrong. While The Hundred-Year-Old Man was interesting, fast-paced and laugh-out-loud hilarious, Hitman Anders And The Meaning Of It All was simply painful to read. In fact, I have been considering a DNF at various points in the story and decided to skim-read the last part because I just couldn’t take it any longer. Such a shame, because I really wanted to enjoy this book! Why is Hitman Anders nothing like his other novel? First of all: the story simply isn’t funny. Instead of laughing out loud, my eyebrows worked overtime as I became more and more annoyed by the plot and characters. Or should I say: lack of plot and character development. Seriously, the plot just doesn’t make any sense and the religious elements really started to get on my nerves. I mean, a former hitman finding Jesus and wanting to start his own church?! Sorry, that just isn’t doing it for me. I felt no connection whatsoever for the characters and the only reason I was able to finish this book is because I skim-read the last 40% of the book. As you might have guessed, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Make sure to try his other book The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared though!

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Hitman Anders has been having a problem with drugs and alcohol most of his life, making him quite violent and earning him a few prison sentences. Now he is fresh out of prison yet again, he decides to stay away from the hard stuff so he won’t end up right back inside… And then he meets a receptionist at a 1-star hotel and a female Protestant vicar who happens to be an atheist. The three get together and put together a very unusual business plan that is supposed to make them all very rich. It seems to work for a while, until their most important asset of all of a sudden finds Jesus. With Anders no longer wanting to do his job and focussing his day on his new religion and drinking ‘the body of Jesus’, the receptionist and vicar will have to find a new way to get their money… And the new plan is even more ludicrous than the last one. Will they be able to succeed against all odds?

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I really wanted to enjoy Hitman Anders And The Meaning Of It All despite the negative feedback, but unfortunately I will have to agree with the mayority on this one. Unlike Jonas Jonasson‘s other novel, this one didn’t manage to impress me and I even thought about DNFing it at some points. Both the lack of character development, the uncredible/poor plot and the fact that this story isn’t funny at all unfortunately just made me feel really disappointed by this book in general.

BOOK REVIEW: Where Things Come Back – by John Corey Whaley

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Title: Where Things Come Back
Author: John Corey Whaley
Genre: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction
First published: May 3rd 2011
Finished reading: March 30th 2016
Pages: 228
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“I wanted the world to sit back, listen up, and let me explain to it that when someone is sad and hopeless, the last thing they need to feel is that they are the only ones in the world with that feeling. So, if you feel sorry for someone, don’t pretend to be happy. Don’t pretend to care only about their problems.”

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This book by John Corey Whaley has actually been recommended to me various times over the last few years, so when I finally found a copy I was one happy camper. Not only is the cover basically a mix of everything I love (black&white, blue and pretty fonts), I was also intrigued by the blurb of Where Things Come Back. And it might just be because of those high expectations, but I ended up being mostly underwhelmed by this read. First of all, the two completely different storylines were quite confusing and almost too distracting from the main event. It took a long time to understand how the two stories connected and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Closely related to this is the sheer amount of religious elements in Where Things Come Back. I’m not religious myself and although I normally don’t mind a mild dose of religious talk in a story, in this case I felt it became too preachy. I know this is highly personal and I’m by no means saying this is a bad read because of it, but the religious talk did cause me to enjoy this story a lot less than I thought I would. I couldn’t really connect to the main characters either, but I have to admit that the pace was fast and the mystery around Gabriel’s disappearance intriguing. Would I recommend this book? Yet, but approach with caution for the reasons I mentioned above.

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Cullen thinks he is about to have another boring summer in his small and dull Arkansas town before he starts his senior year, but things turn out to be quite different. He goes through a rollercoaster of emotions as his cousin overdoses and his aunt doesn’t know how to deal with his son’s death… And his town is no longer dull as allegedly an extinct woodpecker seems to have reappeared near it. The whole town becomes obsessed with the little bird, with no exception of his fame-seeking neighbor. But the most shocking fact of all is that his sensitive and gifted younger brother, Gabriel, suddenly disappears one day. Cullen is desperate to find his missing brother and hold his fragil family together… All this while somehow finding an explanation to it all. What about the bird that everyone seems to be looking for? And what does a young and disillusioned missionary in Africa has to do with all of this?

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I had high hopes for Where Things Come Back and I’m starting to believe this book simply isn’t for me, because it isn’t necessarily a bad read. The story reads fast and the whole mystery around Gabriel’s disappearance is intriguing. I personally didn’t actually like the main characters, the fact that the two storylines didn’t seem to connect for too long OR the religious elements, but I can also see why others might really enjoy this story by John Corey Whaley. So if you were interested in this book before reading this review, make sure to give it a try anyway.

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl Of Fire And Thorns – by Rae Carson

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Title: The Girl Of Fire And Thorns
(Fire And Thorns #1)
Author: Rae Carson
Genre: YA, Fantasy, Religion
First published: September 20th 2011
Finished reading: October 15th 2015
Pages: 423
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God’s will. How many times have I heard someone declare their understanding of this thing I find so indefinable?”

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I’ve had a copy of The Girl Of Fire And Thorns collecting dust on my shelves for quite some time already and someone recommended it to me not that long ago, so I decided to pick it up. It was without doubt a very enjoyable read! Rae Carson writes in a way that sucks you immediately into the story and combined with a fast pace I was able to finish this read almost in one sitting. I was actually thinking of giving it an even higher rating, but decided not to because I there were a few things I wasn’t completely happy with. I do not consider myself to be a very religious person and although I normally don’t mind religion in stories (as long as it is not preaching), the many religious references in The Girl Of Fire And Thorns did start to bother me a little. Although they do make sense in the story, with the main character Elisa being chosen by God to be the bearer of the godstone and all… But sometimes I had the feeling Elisa was relying on her prayers a bit too much. Still, I more than enjoyed this story. The worldbuilding is very well done, the plot is interesting and the prose easy to read. I would have liked to see some of the characters developed more, but hopefully that will happen in the sequel…

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When a godstone appears in princess Elisa’s navel, everybody knows she has been chosen for greatness. Only once a century, God picks his chosen one and marks them with a godstone, giving them powers to fight magic. But Elisa doesn’t feel so special herself, having done nothing remarkable during the first fifteen years of her life and her perfect older sister to compare herself to. On her sixteenth birthday, she is married off to a king of another country. He seems to be in need of the chosen one to save his country, but what he doesn’t know is that Elisa doesn’t even feel comfortable in her own skin… And Elisa doesn’t realize she is is danger herself. King Alejandro wasn’t the only one looking for the bearer of the godstone, and soon Elisa will have to find a way to use her inner strenght to save both herself and the ones she cares for. Will the prophecy be fulfilled?

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The Girl Of Fire And Thorns is a fast and entertaining read full of action with an interesting worldbuilding. There are quite a few religious references, so if those bother you it is best not to pick up this novel by Rae Carson. Other than that, this novel is more than recommended if you are looking for a solid YA fantasy read. This is definitely a series I will have to continue soon!

BOOK REVIEW: The Lovely Bones – by Alice Sebold

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Title: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold
Genre: YA, Mystery, Crime, Drama
First published: 2002
Finished reading: June 1st 2014
Pages: 328
Rating 3

“Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day that I knew I wanted to tell the story of my family. Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained.”

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When I was browsing for new books to add to my readinglist a while back, I saw a lot of contradictory reviews of The Lovely Bones. People seemed to either absolutely hate or love this book by Alice Sebold, and it made me want to check it out for myself to see what all the fuss was about. And although I found the end to be not credible at all and even a bit fantastical, I was able to like the general idea of the story. Alice Sebold describes us her version of the afterlife, where its residents in Heaven can create the world they would have liked to live in when they were still alive…

The Lovely Bones doesn’t have a lot of action in it; the story is more about the different emotions and ways of cooping with such a terrible loss. Unfortunately the different characters are behaving in a stereotypical way, which made the story less original. A father blind with grief, a mother in the middle of a midlife crisis, a little brother who has an imaginary friend, a girl who is into ghosts and other dark stuff… Sure, the fact that Alice Sebold is telling the story through Susie is original, but the other characters just felt a bit flat and not credible. Especially with the mother Abigail I had serious problems; I felt her character wasn’t well described and I just couldn’t believe or understand why she would do and act the way she did. Sure, grief can make you to do strange things in order to take the pain away. But when I was reading what Abigail was doing during all those years, I couldn’t stop asking myself: Seriously?!

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The Lovely Bones introduces us to Susie Salmon, who was murdered one day walking back home after school. Her body was never found, but we as readers know exactly what happened to her because it is Susie who tells us the story from her own personal Heaven. Although the body was never found, there was no doubt left Susie was murdered. She follows her family she left behind as well as the killer and various others that were important to her, although she is unable to contact any of them directly.  Both the police and her father Jack are trying desperately to find the killer or at least more physical evidence, but they seem to fail… Jack thinks his creepy neighbor George Harvey did it, but he has no proof and the policemen quickly become tired of his phonecalls. Abigail drifts away from her family and the kids grow up mostly with their father and grandmother. Susie watches them struggle and grow up from Heaven, and seems to want to continue living through the lifes of the ones she loved. The killer was able to escape town, and the authorities try hard to find him. And next comes the end, the terrible end…

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The end for me destroyed a story that could have been so good, if only it would have been written differently. I’m not sure whether to recommend The Lovely Bones; the general idea is interesting, but for me it didn’t make up for the flaws I encountered. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the book. I just didn’t love it either.

BOOK REVIEW: American Gods – by Neil Gaiman

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Title: American Gods
(American Gods Series #1)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction, Mythology, Science Fiction
First Published: June 19th 2001
Finished reading: May 26th 2014
Pages: 592
Rating 4,5

“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.”

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I actually finished this book two days ago, but with the flue eating my brains during the last few days it’s hard to get any words on paper. But I’m going to give it a try… American Gods was recommended to me some time ago, and I’m always glad to find new authors and titles I haven’t heard of previously. And I must say I’m pleasantly surprised with the writing skills of Neil Gaiman. He’s able to both create a fantasy world you get sucked into and still giving us actual facts about different religions, cultures and myths without slowing down the story. Gaiman tries to explain that ‘nobody is really American, or at least not originally’, and that there is no limit to the amount of old and new Gods roaming the vast lands of America. Although he makes it clear through the words of the main character Shadow that it’s a ‘bad land for Gods‘… The story might get confusing sometimes, since it switches between the adventures of a man called Shadow and the stories of the different Gods and cultures that exist in America. But American Gods still is highly enjoyable.

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We start following Shadow when he is about to be released from prison. Instead of going back home to his wife Laura, he is told she died in a car crash together with his good friend (who she was having an affair with). A mysterious man called Wednesday then offers a job to him he cannot refuse, and soon he learns that Wednesday is a whole lot more than just mysterious. He is actually an ancient God called Odin the All-Father. He is on a mission to recrute old Gods for an epic battle between the old and new Gods of the internet and everything wired, and asks Shadow to help him.

They then start a road trip where they encounter all kinds of ancient cultures, myths and Gods from different places around the world people brought with them when they settled down in America. Shadow is forced to start believing, since a lot of strange things seem to happen as he is following Wednesday. His dead wife doesn’t cease to show up various times throughout the story for example, still quite dead and taking up the role as his protector various times. The new gods try to win Shadow to their side, sometimes with brute force. Shadow remains loyal to Wednesday though until the end. Even when he starts seeing the whole truth…

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I know it’s a kinda crappy summary of such a complicated book, but I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. There are a lot of events that change the story and will change the way you read the book, and I don’t want to spoil the fun. The best advice I can give is to just pick up your own copy of American Gods and start reading. If you ask me, it is definitely worth it. It’s an interesting story, well written and you can probably describe it both as a fantasy story and a informative way of learning about the different religions, cultures and myths that exist in throughout America. Definitely recommended!

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemist – by Paulo Coelho

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Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Genre: Classics, Fantasy, Philosophy
First published: 1988
Finished reading: March 18th 2014
Pages: 197
(Originally written in Portuguese: O Alquimista)
Rating 3,5

“We are travelers on a cosmic journey,stardust,swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share.This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.”

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I’ve been wanting to read the work of Paulo Coelho for while now, and I finally decided to read one of his most famous novels, The Alchemist. It was a shame I couldn’t find a version in Portuguese, but for now the English translation will have to do. I must be honest to say I didn’t know what the story was about before I started reading. (Which I call rather ignorant, but hey, I can’t be knowing every book can I?) So I was both surprised, awed and irritated by the deeper meaning of the story. It might be contradictory, but in a way the message of the story was a bit too religious for me. Still, the part of ‘following your dreams’ and ‘listening to your heart‘ I can really relate to. It is a relatively short novel and if you haven’t read it, I suggest you do… Who knows, it might inspire you!

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The Alchemist is about a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago who had the same dream twice. Both a gypsy and a man who calls himself king confirm that his dream was a vision, and convince him that he should follow his dream. There is a treasure waiting for him somewhere, and to find it he should cross the sea to Africa. The supposedly king tells him he will find the treasure near the Pyramids in Egypt, and he should follow his heart and read the omens send to him in order to get to his destination. Various obstacles cross his way, but they only help him grow and learn more about himself. Even love cannot stop him from his goal, and he opens his eyes to the Soul of the World… Until he finally understands.

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Although part of The Alchemist is too religious in a way, I do understand the overall message Paulo Coelho is trying to give. And while I may not agree with all of it, I still can relate to some parts like ‘following your dreams‘ and ‘listening to your heart’. I guess most people will be able to relate to some of the philosophical messages in The Alchemist, and it is without doubt and interesting read.