Tuesday, May 9, 2017

HEAVEN IS HERE by Stephanie Nielson (Memoir)

Sometimes you close the book and know that reading it has changed you. Sometimes you know half-way through. In the case of Heaven is Here, I felt drawn to the story before I even saw the book. Through my sister's word-of-mouth review, and a video I had seen on the internet about Stephanie and Christian wanting to name their first child Claire because it was the name both of them had loved as children, they felt like old friends to me already. I had heard about the plane crash that left Stephanie with scars and pain she struggled to live with. My empathy was piqued as much as my curiosity. 

My family was in a small plane crash when I was two, but we were blessed to get out before the inferno that always follows the crash. The pilot lost his life, and that was very sad, but I was two when it happened and all I knew was my own experience. The saddest thing that happened to me personally was that all our Christmas presents from grandma and grandpa went up in flames. Kind people worked to make that up to us in the months after the crash. Only my older brothers and parents had emotional trauma from the crash. We did not have an experience anything like Stephanie's, and yet I felt a deep empathy for her that went beyond the ordinary. Perhaps it is her beautiful voice in writing, the mix of romanticism and realism that doesn't sugarcoat things but ends up tasting sweet all the same. Perhaps it is the places she wrote about: Falcon Field airport, and Mesa, my old stomping grounds; Provo, Utah and the Y, my alma mater. Perhaps it is that we share the same faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the familiarity I felt throughout the story because of these things. But I think more than anything else, what I felt and why I felt it was triggered by Stephanie's remarkable and admirable passion for motherhood. From the beginning of her life story, she loves the idea of being a mother. And even when the reality of pregnancy includes vomiting while she makes dinner for her beloved husband, she somehow fulfills her favorite role with equanimity and patience. She never complains about the role of mother or wife, and only laments in the later chapters that she cannot fulfill the functions of motherhood, due to her injuries, to her satisfaction. This personal view she holds, glorifying motherhood and marriage, struck me in its uniqueness in the world of women's narratives. So much has been written about the plight of women, and it was refreshing to hear the voice of one who loved everything about her womanhood, especially that aspect of femininity that allowed her to be a wife and mother! Coming from where I do, having walked the long road to motherhood and resenting something about it all the while, whether it was the actual work or simply the way the world looked at us as mothers, I drank Stephanie's message about family like it was pure, spring water on a hot summer day. A few times my learned cynicism asked itself, Is she for real? But always came the feeling that yes, this was the most earnest narrative I had ever read. In a most fundamental way, with all we shared in common, Stephanie of the NieNie Dialogues, was different from me. We were different kinds of women. Her childhood and parentage had prepared her for a different kind of life, and besides that, there seemed to be something inherent to her beautiful soul that prepared her for a life mission centered around family. 

I found that I envied her.

And then the incredible journey of recovery began in Part 2, and envy receded in shame. She doesn't want my pity; that's clear from her narrative. But whose heart could be untouched in the face of so much internal and external suffering? I can tell you, there was much private sobbing throughout the night as I read, and I only stopped reading four or five times, to help a wakeful child find sleep again. 

How did Stephanie's story change me?

It taught me more deeply of the intrinsic connection between all of us, the people healing and the people serving; mothers and fathers and children; sisters and brothers and cousins and neighbors; doctors and patients and nurses; grocery store clerks and flight instructors and song-writers. None of us is as individual as we like to believe. And why do we want to believe it, when the connection we share is truly more beautiful and meaningful than any pretended self-reliance could ever be? 

Connection, purpose, faith, and joy are all at the center of Heaven is Here

For more about Stephanie and Christian, read her blog, http://www.nieniedialogues.com or watch videos at the same website. Her book is a New York Times bestseller and she has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey show, celebrating her indomitable spirit and dedication to motherhood.
Thank you, Stephanie Nielson.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

REMAKE by Ilima Todd

On Goodreads

The Blurb: 
Nine is the ninth female born in her batch of ten females and ten males. By design, her life in Freedom Province is without complications or consequences. However, such freedom comes with a price. The Prime Maker is determined to keep that price a secret from the new batches of citizens that are born, nurtured, and raised androgynously. 
But Nine isn't like every other batcher. She harbors indecision and worries about her upcoming Remake Day -- her seventeenth birthday, the age when batchers fly to the Remake facility and have the freedom to choose who and what they'll be.
When Nine discovers the truth about life outside of Freedom
Province, including the secret plan of the Prime Maker, she is
pulled between two worlds and two lives. Her decisions will test
her courage, her heart, and her beliefs. Who can she trust? Who does she love? And most importantly, who will she decide to be?

The Afterglow:

I've had my eye on this book for quite some time, ever since I first saw it at the local Deseret Bookstore. When I got it for Christmas, I was thrilled!

Gender is a hot-button cultural issue with many psychological and religious, even political, undertones. Thus, I was very impressed to see an author of faith had taken it on. That's brave. People of faith aren't politically popular right now, unless you're the Pope. And wearing it on your sleeve can earn you plenty of condemnation from your peers. Sure enough, when I went to rate this book FIVE STARS on Goodreads, I ended up exposed to plenty of negative, even angry, reviews. Fortunately, there are enough glowing reviews to land it very near to four whole stars cumulatively.

But this is an Afterglow Review, and this review blog is reserved for those books that wow-ed you, impressed you, or changed you, leaving you somehow better. Remake did that for me. I read it with my husband, which made me blush a bit in the particularly gushy parts, but definitely made the humor more fun. The mystery of it left us speculating and predicting throughout the book as we tried to figure out exactly why Nine is the way she is, so different from everyone else, and what the Prime Maker would do with her if she didn't do what was expected.

The part that impacted me, though, was the artful articulation of the true meaning and joy of FAMILY. It is, after all, what this book is all about. It ponders the questions, "Is family important? Necessary? Desirable? Or is it restrictive of freedom, oppressive of women, and inciting to revolution?"

For those of us who advocate for the continued protection of the natural family (I include myself as a homeschool mom who advocates for parents rights), family means something more to us than it seems to mean to those who believe a child is better off as a ward of the state. It means bundles of pride and joy, to be sure, but it also means mutual sacrifice, deep and abiding love, and an eternal sense of belonging that goes beyond all other affiliations in your life. Not everyone feels this way about family, and not everyone has had a beautiful experience in her own family. It can be difficult for family-lovers to articulate exactly why the family unit is worth protecting and proliferating.

Ilima Todd gently and with plenty of awkward humor, helps us discover the depth of meaning in the family pattern through the eyes of an androgynous girl without family who is fostered into a tight-knit, God-fearing, and hard-working family. From her new mother, she learns what a mother even is, that it's sometimes a painful role to play, and that her impact with a few whispered words can reach her children months later across an ocean. From her new father, she learns how fathers and mothers lead together, how the love of parents is the glue that binds the whole family together, and how to lead with love. From her new siblings, she learns that you can be happy no matter your circumstances, that complaining makes things a lot worse, and that everybody in the family has work they can do for the good of all.

Even though Nine is eased into this new life, it is still very alien to her, having grown up in a batch of genetically engineered children as the social pariah with only one best friend to protect her from ceaseless teasing. She weighs the good and the bad in what she sees, and struggles with concepts like freedom vs. loyalty or choice vs. acceptance of things that aren't easily changed. All she's ever wanted her entire life is to change who she is completely so she can be more like her best friend in every way, even down to his gender. She mistakenly believes that strength and courage are male traits. Right up to the last chapter, the reader must wonder what she will choose to be. Even if you disagree with the Biblical and historic definitions of family, this story will allow you to explore what a world would be like where children aren't considered their parents' charges and natural birth within families is not only discouraged, but illegal.

A good dystopia shows us ourselves in a fun-house mirror to make us think about the distortions and what the real picture is and should be. Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games forced us to realize the disgusting glamorization of violence in our entertainment by inventing a society where war and entertainment were one and the same. Ilima Todd has shown us our disregard for family stewardship, parents rights, and a child's need for the complementary and different abilities of both parents by inventing a society that isolates children from any constant caregivers, punishes parents for procreating and systematically sterilizes new citizens of a city ironically called Freedom 1.

In one particularly haunting conversation with the Prime Maker, Nine asks herself, "And what if I choose to be me?" 

Monday, January 11, 2016


On Goodreads

The Blurb:
It's one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It's quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School. 
Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners--and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine's, young ladies learn to finish...everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage--in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year's education.

The Afterglow:

 I absolutely loved Gail Carriger's adult series, The Parasol Protectorate, starting with Book the First: Soulless. With the light, witty tone of Jane Austen crashing into the clockworks and invention of Jules Verne, Gail Carriger has hit the sweet spot in her book universe. Set in the same delightful universe, her Finishing School series for teen readers explores a pair of unorthodox boarding schools for boys and girls: one for training up evil geniuses and the other for preparing female intelligencers to face the wild world of espionage and Picklemen.

I quickly fell in like with the main character of Etiquette & Espionage, Sophronia (love the name!) Temminnick, because of her intelligent fascination with how things work and her innate indifference to fashion and manners. I related to her because she comes from a large family, wears last season's dresses from her older sisters (though in my case it was a cousin), and can't help but be curious about everything! Even better, she doesn't come from a family steeped in the mystery of Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quali-tay. She's more like a scholarship case, referred to in the book as a covert recruit.

With her affinity for stable boys and indifference to gender or racial differences, Sophronia exudes goodness, despite her position at a school for would-be assassins and intelligencers. She is truly a main character to applaud.

While the many intriguing and mysterious characters come from diverse backgrounds and personalities, the school itself is a character. Its shape, its geographical location, and its propensity to float above the ocean all make the setting one of constant excitement and, yes, of course, danger.

While I haven't been a teenage girl for some time now, I do have a little anecdote which leads me to believe this book would be equally beloved by teen girls. Knowing my mom's love of good fiction, especially with a 19th century England setting, I gave her the book as soon as I finished it. She took it to work the next day and immediately lost it. Rather, it was stolen. Fortunately, she found it in the hands of one of her "troubled" girls who lives at the school where she works. The girl begged her to get the book approved so she, too, could read it. Apparently, she had read a few pages and was hooked. If that's not a glowing review, I don't know what is.

I'm waiting on amazon to bring me my sequel copy, Curtsies & Conspiracies.

Have you read Gail Carriger? Would you read her YA series? (Hint: The answer is yes!)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

LIFE AND DEATH: Twilight Re-Imagined by Stephenie Meyer

On Goodreads

This is why I love Stephenie Meyer! Her publisher contacts her and asks for a letter to put in the front of the 10th Anniversary Edition of Twilight. She says, That sounds boring. How about I rewrite Twilight, switching everybody's gender? 

Seriously, there are few authors so in touch with their fan base. From the apology in the front to the afterword in the back, she talks to fans like we're part of her family. (The apology is that this is not Midnight Sun, the much-hoped-for, unpublished volume of The Twilight Saga that tells the story from Edward's point of view. When that comes out, look for my Afterglow Review because I have already read a portion of it on her website and plan to love the whole thing!)

 First of all, I encountered this re-imagined version of Twilight in Wal-Mart, of all places, while grocery shopping with my family. I picked it up, saw that it was not some spoof but an actual re-imagining by the author herself, and immediately started chuckling like a giddy schoolgirl. My oldest son, who has aged seven years since I first read The Twilight Saga, asked what was so funny. All I could say: "I'm just tickled." 

Twilight came into my life when I was a brand new mom, living in a California apartment, and trying to figure it all out: how to balance my love of writing and reading with my new mom job. Stephenie Meyer became my hero when she showed me it could be done, and it could be fun. Shortly--very shortly--after reading her books, I began writing my own books again. 

You can imagine, then, that I picked up Life and Death with the intention of enjoying it, and I thoroughly did!

On Monday, October 26, my more scholarly write-up on this latest book will be up on Operation Awesome. Here, I intend to gush, so get ready.

I loved Beau and Edythe! I loved the way Beau made even more sense than Bella, and that Edythe was more Edward than Edward! From Edythe's calligraphic writing and love of classical music and her perfumed breath to Beau's clumsy height and gait and his tough-guy act and his wooziness from the smell of blood, they just clicked as characters. I can imagine that if I had never read Twilight, Life and Death would have been a hit on its own merits. 

All the elements of the story that I loved are there:

  • First love, the confusion, uncertainty, and electricity
  • Obsession tempered with the knowledge that obsession isn't healthy
  • The innate inequality of a relationship between a human and a superhuman
  • The irony of falling in love with your opposite, your kryptonite, your prey
  • Meyer's unique spin on immortality and the rivalry between vampires and werewolves
  • A hero (Bella/Beau) who would give her/his life for those she/he loves, and even for strangers: a true martyr
  • Charlie. He hasn't changed, love him.
  • A happy ending. Cliffhangers are so over-rated! And after all, Life and Death is a stand-alone.
Beyond that, the chance to play with gender roles and gender stereotypes is one not to be missed! Alpha werewolves that run in a matriarchal line? A Carine Cullen (the female counterpart of Carlyle) who is the father, so to speak, of the family? And Edythe, an incredible, musical, beautiful, hauntingly perceptive woman who happens to fall in love with her kryptonite: Beau. It's a delightful way to revisit our beloved Forks. 

Of course there were parts of the story that had to be altered because they wouldn't quite make sense with a man: biology mostly, but a few stereotypes. For instance, Beau didn't ever do ballet. He ducks into the men's room, not the ladies'. The attack on him in Port Angeles has more of a motive than simply being an easy target (and she sets that up early). But what's amazing is how much of the story didn't need to be altered at all, and it just works. 

My favorite scene in this version was the blood-typing fiasco in Biology and the aftermath. Beau's way of dealing with his embarrassment is just so endearing and different from Bella. In fact, Beau's voice, for me, was more fun to read. I hope Stephenie Meyer will consider writing first person from a male perspective more in the future. From what I've read of Midnight Sun and Life and Death, she can more than handle it. 

Have you read Twilight? How about this version? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson

The blurb:

(from goodreads)

Ten years ago, Calamity came. It was a burst in the sky that gave ordinary men and women extraordinary powers. The awed public started calling them Epics. But Epics are no friend of man. With incredible gifts came the desire to rule. And to rule man you must crush his wills.

Nobody fights the Epics...nobody but the Reckoners. A shadowy group of ordinary humans, they spend their lives studying Epics, finding their weaknesses, and then assassinating them.

And David wants in. He wants Steelheart - the Epic who is said to be invincible. The Epic who killed David's father. For years, like the Reckoners, David's been studying, and planning - and he has something they need. Not an object, but an experience.

He's seen Steelheart bleed. And he wants revenge.

The afterglow:

Any blurb I could find simply does not do Steelheart justice. I felt like I had died and gone to reader-heaven.

Sheer, utter, perfection lies within the pages of this book.

From a world that is brilliantly crafted and expertly comments on our own society, to characters that are incredibly unique with complex relationships, Steelheart is one of those don't-even-try-to-talk-to-me-I'm-reading type of books. Every page is filled with excitement. Set in Newcago - the villain, Steelheart's, solid-steel transformation of modern-day Chicago - it feels modern and futuristic at the same time. And with the unexplained and almost magical powers of the Epics, this book seamlessly mixes fantasy and science-fiction to create something that is truly extraordinary.

And the action! I have never, ever, wanted to see a book turned into a movie so bad. It was written perfectly - fast-paced and easy to follow, but also wildly creative and unlike anything I've ever imagined.

Just ... perfect.

If you want a book that will simultaneously break your heart, invigorate your mind, fill you with hope, and split your sides with a slew of hilariously bad metaphors, this is the book for you.

Actually, no matter who you are, this is the book for you. Seriously.

(When does the sequel come out??)


PS - I looked it up. Firefight comes out in January. Guess who's pre-ordering it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

Note: I thought I'd posted my gushing afterglow regarding this amazing book when I finished it a few weeks ago and, come to find out, I never did. How this escaped me until now, I don't know, but I wanted to share this because, not only is the story a great one and Katja's voice beautiful, but what happened with TSOT is the perfect example that self-publishing can lead down paths you never could have dreamed about (you can read about her story, here). And now, here's my review--copied and pasted straight from Goodreads. As usual, my excitement makes me sound a bit annoying, but that's the fangirl going on... the afterglow, if you will. ;)

The Sea of Tranquility


I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.

The Sea of Tranquility is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances.


“I know at that moment what he's given me and it isn't a chair. It's an invitation, a welcome, the knowledge that I am accepted here. He hasn't given me a place to sit. He's given me a place to belong.” 

It's official: I have found my readerly niche. The past few books I have absolutely loved are in the style of The Sea of Tranquility, and now I know why. There's something about a narrative where the MCs tell things like they are; where they let you in on their thoughts and their experiences without filtering or sugar-coating it or sounding completely unrealistic. This is the kind of writing that grabs me. (It's what I enjoy writing most as well, so maybe it's just a me thing, but when it comes to reading and loving books, that's a good enough reason.)

Because I am at a loss for words and there is so much that happens (and I'm sure others have already done a wonderful job of explaining that), I'm going to simply point out a few things I loved.

1) Neither MC was perfect. Neither claimed to be. Neither made all the right choices and, aside from one choice that I wanted to scream about, nothing annoyed me. (And you know how that is, when the MC drives you nuts because you cannot figure out what ON EARTH they are thinking and you want to knock them upside the head!) 

2) The secondary character/s (Drew especially) were made of gold, too. They had heart, they cared, they had reasons for being who they were, and I truly was just as invested in them as I was Nastya and Josh (oh man, JOSH!). That doesn't always happen for me. With TSOT, it *so* did.

3) Katja's writing is beautiful and perfect without overly trying, which is my favorite kind of writing. When things flow and move and ebb and you see and feel and hear it all, yet aren't so caught up in the prose that it keeps you from appreciating the experience, I know for sure that I will be reading the book again. And again. And begging everyone I know to read it. And that is definitely true for TSOT. Like I said. It is now on my favorites list. 

4) There are questions not being answered immediately as you read, but this never bothered me. I didn't feel strung along with meaningless events and conversations that kept me from getting somewhere. I was fine with it, because I didn't want the book to rush. I wanted to be in their lives. I wanted to stay there and help them. Some readers might think of TSOT as somewhat slow, but I didn't. I loved it. I feel that Katja played everything out very well. 

5) Did I mention that I loved this book? :)

If you want to read something that's quick and light, TSOT may not be for you. But if you want to get to know two souls who've dealt with way more than they should at their age, who have to learn how to love and accept things they cannot change (including themselves), and if you want to think about them days later because you felt so much of what they felt, then I highly recommend The Sea of Tranquility. I cannot wait to read what Katja writes next.

One last quote (because I'm a sucker for good quotes): 

“Josh isn’t in love with me and I’m not in love with him.”
“Sell it to someone who’s buying, Sunshine. Have you seen the way he looks at you?” I’ve seen the way he looks at me but I don’t know what it means. “Like you’re a seventeenth-century, hand-carved table in mint condition.” 

*Note: considering some situations and language, I would say The Sea of Tranquility is high-end YA

Add The Sea of Tranquility to Goodreads
Buy The Sea of Tranquility on Amazon
Katja Millay on Twitter and Facebook

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Couple's Review)

Add on goodreads


When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…

Afterglow by Bill:

Using the combination of action from a James Bond movie and the dialogue of an Adam Sandler movie, Lives of Tao is one of the most unique spy books you will ever read in your life.  The book tells the story of a man named Roen who never thought much of his life until an alien named Tao takes over his body after Tao's previous host dies during a mission.  The rest of the book shows the conflict between Roen and the voice in his head (Tao) who gives him the direction and the confidence to better his life and condition himself to become a spy in the fight to safe the human race.

The dialogue between Roen and Tao, which sometimes can turn serious, is mostly funny as they bicker with one another, as Roen complains about how he will never be a good agent and Tao, who continues to tell about all the men through human history that he was actually controlling.  The book contains action when you least expect it and an ending that you would never see coming.

Afterglow by Katrina:

A perfect date book! Action, comedy, romance, cool factor. Bill and I read this one together over the course of a month. Though we tried to pace ourselves, by the end we couldn't put it down. In my mind, Roen Tan is Kung Fu Panda, all gooey and lovably funny throughout. There's a stark difference between his first attempts at training and the missions he executes near the end. His personal transformation is incredible, yet believable.

The Lives of Tao is science fiction, but I'm seeing it called a mash-up because it reads a little like a spy thriller in parts. My favorite part, though, is what you can easily see in the synopsis: the funny.

Whether it's trying to escape a bar fight unscathed by his best friend's arm candy, or watching alien Tao maneuver a large, sleeping human Roen around the living room, the visual comedy is sublime. As Bill mentioned, the dialogue happening inside Roen's brain is also a treat to overhear. You'll end the book wishing you had a wise (and wise-cracking) alien like Tao in your head.

Who should read it? Teens to adults who like spies, which is pretty much everyone, right?


Buy on Amazon: The Lives of Tao