Monday, September 24, 2018

Book Review: Jane Austen

Jane Austen (Little People, Big Dreams, #11)Jane Austen by Mª Isabel Sánchez Vegara

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This series from Frances Lincoln Children's Books is absolutely wonderful! Featuring famous women from history we are treated to the life, challenges and successes of one woman per book in the Little People, Big Dreams series. This edition is #11 in the series and it features Jane Austen. How perfect for a book to be about Jane; given that she gave us some of the most beloved stories ever.
I like how the drawings and words are sophisticated enough without being too difficult for even a 4-year-old to enjoy when read to. It's particularly great that the book points out how Austen was not allowed to do the things her brothers did and did not put her name on her books. I think the average little girl will ask why to the reader, so be prepared to answer why Jane didn't use her real name.

Overall this is a lovely little book. And I look forward to more of the books in this series including those on Lucy Maud Montgomery, Marie Curie or Amelia Earhart. There are so few women in history that our little girls can truly look up to, and it can be difficult for children to understand how different the world was before, or even is now depending on the ethnicity, race, class, etc. that the child is born into. These books are an excellent way to inspire children to be anything they want to be; even if someone tries to tell them they can't.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: Anna at the Art Museum

Anna At the Art MuseumAnna At the Art Museum by Hazel Hutchins

This is a beautiful, brilliant and creatively educational children's book. I love that almost everyone can likely appreciate Anna's boredom in the art museum. I personally wouldn't be bored in an art museum but take me to a car show and I'm bored beyond belief (and feel just like Anna!).
While the things Anna does and gets in trouble for are very relatable; what is truly brilliant about Hazel Hutchins story is that you can teach (or learn for yourself) some art at the same time! All the pieces shown throughout Anna's Art Museum are famous and notable to some degree. Not every notable artist is in here (it lacks Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, to name a few) but there are enough that even an art history student might learn to recognize a painting or two!

I love how all the art themes on each page are relevant to how Anna is feeling or what she (or others) is doing in the museum. This is a clever way to show kids that art is reflective of real life. The key to this book, especially if you're reading it to an older child (8+), is to teach the child the names of the art and the artist as you go through the book. Don't worry you don't need to know them all yourself there is a handy index of each piece of art at the back of the book.
So brush up on your art history and dive into Anna at the Art Museum. You and the child(ren) you read to might learn something from this adorable book.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: School for Psychics

School for Psychics (School for Psychics, #1)School for Psychics by K.C. Archer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to review if only because a lot of people are going to be put off by the topic in general. Do we really need another book about kids that go to a magical school no one knows about?
The answer here, for me, is yes!

The Writing
K.C. Archer has done a beautiful job of writing a fast-paced, interesting and well put together novel in School for Psychics. It would be unfair to say that this isn't original because Archer's school is very different from those I've read about in the past. Additionally Archer has a way of drawing the reader in. I didn't want to put this book down!

One of the best written awkward teenage romances I've read in awhile. I love how you think maybe it will be one way, and then it's not. It's not insta-love; it's insta-lust at times; but that is real and does happen. Especially to teenagers. There are both sweet and awkward moments between our lead gal and the primary love interest. Just like in real life.

Lead Gal is a "Bad Girl"
I love our lead gal and her genuine bad girl status that is established right away in Chapter one. She has an authenticity that spoke to me. I was, personally, far from the best teenager (lol). I got in trouble, a lot, not just from my parents; but from law enforcement and at school. So I connected with our lead gal. I also sympathized with her as it was clear that many of the things happening to her were, perhaps, not all her fault. Many were just a 'side effect' of her psychic ability being erratic. I think for many teens, whether it's psychic ability or hormones, it's difficult to really figure out the world around you. And events can be experienced in such a vivid way, when you are a child/teen, that they tend to be overwhelmed. This confusion with the world, inability to trust anyone and difficulty fitting in is all brilliantly portrayed by Archer in School for Psychics. It doesn't matter 'triggers' or 'creates' the feelings you have (be it ESP or not) because at the end of the day these feelings manifest in the same way. Archer does a great job of correlating this urban fantasy book with real life situations.

School for Psychics is a clear example of why you can't judge a book by it's troupe. Just because you've read something similar before doesn't mean that the book in front of you isn't just as good, or even better, than the five books you read this year with a similar theme. And let's face it, we all love the kids going to a special school troupe. Why? I think it's often because we wish we were special enough to be pulled from our current existence into a magical world where we are important. Let's face it, it's all about standing out (in some way, shape or form) and feeling critical to events and people around you. Archer captures all this and more in her characters and intricate plot. I just need the second book now!

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars

The Map of Salt and StarsThe Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some books where words will never be able to adequately express the power and feelings within it's pages. The Map of Salt and Stars is one of these books. There feels like so much to say about how incredibly emotional this book is; and yet I struggle to find the words.

The Set-up
Split into two stories, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar tells us the story of a girl in the past who overcomes prejudice and hardships to become a great warrior. This story is mythical in that it includes the magical Roc and giant snakes(from One Thousand and One Nights stories). At it's core this story is about the journey to map the world and our three travellers who are trying to do so (including our warrior girl).
The second story is the one that will break your heart more-so than anything. It is the story of a Syrian family, who lost their husband/father the previous year and so have limited means to survive to begin with. Then their home is bombed to nothing and they fight to cross the borders of four different countries, in perious ways, in order to find some sort of sanctuary.

Our Lead Girl
There is always something poignant about hearing a story of destruction and death from the words of a child. Our lead gal is a pre-teen whom has to find her both her inner and outer strength to survive what is to come. This is the plight of a refugee. And one that everyone in a first world country should read. It is a story that will break your heart and also give you hope. Of all the things it will do however is make you feel like you are this little girl. I connected with her in a way I have trouble expressing outloud.

Syrian Refugee Crisis
The obvious point of Joukhadar writing The Map of Salt and Stars is to bring awareness of the Syrian people's dire situation. For those of us who live in places where our homes are not at risk of being bombed, where our government (mostly) protects us, and where no one carries machine guns around just because; this may be a hard thing to come to terms with it. One day any one of us could be in a situation where we have nothing and our only hope is aid in a different country. I hope that doesn't happen, but if it does we'd want the support and help from others. So why is it that so many people today (who have means to help) begrudge these destitute people?
I believe it to be a lack of understanding. This book definitely gives a better understanding of what it means to lose everything, to have nothing and nowhere to go.

It's always unfortunate that our world has these types of stories. However it is reality. Pretending it doesn't exist or isn't 'our problem' is the wrong attitude; because if the tables were flipped I know each of us would expect aid from those that could.
I recommend everyone read this book to gain some perspective and find some new-found compassion within themselves to better understand the circumstances of people. At the end of the day we are all the same; we are all just people trying to survive.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Book Review: Thunderhead

Thunderhead (Arc of a Scythe, #2)Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
Book # 2 of Scythe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think it's important to know that I loved Scythe. Loved it so much that I told everyone I know to read it and it is one of my favourite books of the last few years. So going into Thunderhead I had big expectations. The problems with expectations is that they are often not realistic or even sensible.

There is quite a bit of political posturing and plot in Thunderhead. Much like in Scythe the internal politics of the Scythdom continue to spiral out of control. There was a point just past halfway where I got bored. It was a lull; and normally I'd have just powered through that lull. Instead, because I'm so behind in reading other books I actually read a couple books instead of powering through Thunderhead. That was probably a mistake in terms of continuity. However, once I got back into it a week or two later I found that only a couple pages ahead of where I had stopped was a massive plot twist in which the story just cascades down from. So if you hit a small glitch in your excitement with Thunderhead just keep going because it doesn't last long.

The Thunderhead
Almost all of the snippets or journal entries at the beginning of the chapters are the internal thought of the Thunderhead. As an AI that 'runs' the whole world I expected the Thunderhead to be very practical and have no emotional responses at all. Except that it does. Neal Shusterman has taken the idea of an AI made from human construct and really challenged how it would be. The idea here is that it would be flawed because it was created by humans. And that it can be 'tricked' by the humans who set-up the server connections... This was a hard thing for me to really accept until near the end of the book when events really allowed me to see (not just be told) what that might look like. Shusterman is brilliant at making readers eat up his logic by showing them a scenario in which his logic works.

I don't want say a lot here for fear of spoiling something. But let's just say all the characters we've come to know, love and hate in Scythe are back in Thunderhead (in some way shape or form). Much of the story is told from Scythe Anastasia's (Citra's) point of view.

Yep, you guessed it. Just like Scythe, Thunderhead ends with a major cliffhanger. This kills me as I am now dying to read the next book (not out yet at time of this writing) and makes it hard to get into new books for me sometimes. I get why it's done this way. Marketing hype is a hard thing to generate if people aren't dying to know what happens next. But sometimes I wish for the 'sort of ending' that we always got with Harry Potter or Narnia. Just sayin'.

Definitely this deserves a spot on my print bookshelf and this series continues to be one of the best in the last couple years, in my opinion. I love how sophisticated it is; while still being a teen novel. I wish there had been books like this when I was a teen! I think this shows how much we have changed as humans in just the last 20 years. We are able to be a little more critical of society; and we've certainly learned a lot (good and bad) about social media and mob mentality. Thunderhead does a good job of taking the society we know now and making his Scythe/Thunderhead future relatable.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: The Upside of Falling Down

The Upside of Falling DownThe Upside of Falling Down by Rebekah Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Contemporary teen books and I are not usually friends. I still read them because when I like one it is often amazing. The Upside of Falling Down is an unusual situation as I didn't love it or hate it. It was okay. I find I don't have any strong feelings one way or the other.

Easily the best part of this book is the plot. Rebekah Crane takes us on a journey with our lead gal who has temporary amnesia. And while she has all the correct supports in place; she still runs away because in her mind she isn't the girl everyone at the hospital thinks she is. I can absolutely see myself as a teen doing exactly what our lead gal does. The twisting road the anmesia leads us on as readers is interesting. We only know what our lead girl knows; which means we have an unreliable narrator that may not be giving us all the details in the right order or even accurately. As the reader we also don't know what our lead gal is leaving out. What details is she not seeing or choosing to ignore. If you're a smart reader you'll actually focus on what she isn't telling us more than what she is.

Love Interest
Here's where The Upside of Falling Down looses me a bit. Yes there is an obvious, in your face love interest; and of course he's attractive, rich and without the 'constraints' of parents being present in his life. The perfect scenario for our lead girl to fall into. *rolls eyes*
The thing is that the actual lust/love aspects of the story are quite genuine. The first time is a bit glossed over but overall the interactions between the two feel genuine and reminded me of my own stumbling teenage years and relations with boys. So while the scenario may be convenient I'll give Crane props for making our teens act like teens.

There is a fun twist to this book that all goes back to our unreliable lead gal whose telling us the story. I liked how by the end I was ready for what happened and felt it made good sense. For some it may seem far-fetched but I didn't feel that way. With the exception of some convenient moments in the plot and characters I overall felt this was a well put together contemporary teen novel. And from this pessimistic teen literature reviewer that is actually a pretty good compliment.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Book Review: West

WestWest by Carys Davies

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The most notable thing about West; it was short. The writing is good, the pacing is okay and our characters are interesting; yet the plot didn’t really feel like enough for me.

The Plot
Set in the early days of Europeans settling in the West of North America, shortly after Lewis & Clark’s expedition, Carys Davies tells us a story of two people. A father and a daughter. One who goes off to find “gigantic creatures” whom he believes may be somewhere alive. And the other only 10 years old and left with an uncaring Aunt and little means to change her lot in life.
So the plot is around him travelling and her waiting. Except I never felt like we were going somewhere. Of course time was moving forward but it didn’t feel like to am ultimate goal. Maybe because we know (it’s really obvious) that these creatures he seeks are dinosaurs and cannot be found alive? Or perhaps because we know the girl is unlikely to fall into good fortune? Either way I just never felt like I was reading for any reason other than to finish the story. Which is not enough for me. I want to care about what happens next.

North American and the Settlers
I don’t think anyone, anywhere in the world needs to be reminded that (for many of us, including me) our ancestors were awful to the Native Americans. This is neither news, nor surprising. It was however very sad to read of the lose/lose situations the Natives were given by the European settlers. I felt a melancholy over this story that can’t not, and should not, go away.
While none of us can ever change the past, and likely no amount of anything will repair the harm done, it is a good reminder that they invaded what is now Canada and USA like a plague. Not because our ancestors didn’t care, but because they saw opportunity or because he were forced out of our own countries. This is no excuse. However, there is nothing any of us can do to change the past. However it is good to be reminded that the Natives were (mostly) kind and just trying to get back; same as everyone else.

I think the main theme that Davies is going for with West is to speak about hopelessness. As the reader we know that the inevitable overtaking of Native land happens and that there are no living dinosaurs to be discovered or found. And so the stories of our characters are tragic in their own way.
If you wish to know a little more about the terrain and conditions that Lewis and Clark May have encountered on their travels; or want to know how an abandoned 12-year-old girl manages then you may want to read this. Otherwise I’m not sure I see a lot of merit in West; even if it’s well written.
Truly the best thing going for West is that it’s short.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Book Review: Foe

FoeFoe by Iain Reid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those science fiction stories that is meant to try and trip you up. Where everything is not quite as it seems and your narrator may be unreliable.
It's hard to write much about Foe without giving away too much detail. Essentially it's only 200 pages, it's a great read and if you like a good mystery you'll probably enjoy it.

Set in the not too distant future, Ian Reid sets us up with a scenario where an isolated couple on a farm have had the man chosen for a colony off-plant; but not the woman. What ensues is the couple trying to come to terms with this plan; while a representative of the company sending the man invades their lives. The book setting remains at the farm on earth. For those afraid of too much science-y stuff; there is not a lot of it in this book. Although the science-y things that are present are very important.

It's obvious from the beginning that something is not quite right. The real question is what is the truth and what is not. And who can you trust.
I don't want to say anymore... just read it!

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Saturday, September 8, 2018

Book Review: Emergency Contact

Emergency ContactEmergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF 20% 

Ugh. Need I say more?
I read 20% of this book (which is under my normal guideline to read at least 30% of any book). I didn't need to read anymore of it to know that I was never going to be interested.
Things that drove me crazy in Emergency Contact:
1) She covets her phone like it's sacred. It's an important device, I get that but it doesn't need to be worshipped or be anyone's "precious".
2) I know lots of young girls say these things, but I don't care how authentic it is. It's never okay to greet friends as "hey bitch" or "hi whore". Desensitizing ourselves to these words helps no one.
3) Typical cliche characters. Neither our gal or guy were anymore than a stereotypical teenage kid. I like my characters to have personalities thanks.
4) The writing is really poor. I'm sorry to say but it felt stilted and boring. I never once felt like I got an impression in my mind of the characters or what was happening. It was like reading random words on a page that I was desperate to make mean something.
5) Did I mention the phone thing?

I honestly don't have much more to say about this book as I didn't read it all. But I will say that given how many trustworthy reviews I've seen give it a poor rating I'm glad I could DNF it early on and move to better novels.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: A Wicked Deep

The Wicked DeepThe Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This goes from a creepy, intriguing beginning to a disappointing climax. The concept is cool but the overall execution is meh. I wish that the tone and style of writing that happen in the opening chapters, and the very last chapter, was throughout the whole book. Regardless, the ghost story plot is clever and I did like the setting of a fairly isolated town on the coast. Plus the addition of our lead gal and her Mom living on an island near the main town added some ambience and opportunity that Shea Ernshaw capitalized on. I mean who doesn't think an old, but still functional, lighthouse isn't a great locale for ghosts to inhabit other girls bodies.

The Characters
So the real downfall of The Wicked Deep is the characters themselves. Perhaps not their actual personalities or actions; but certainly the awkwardness with which their dialogue and interactions are told to the reader. The lead gal has some great moments in the introduction; but as the pages flipped by I felt like she became awkward and stilted. Not only in her dialogue but even her internal narration lost something. Essentially as the out-of-town boy, who is of course the love interest, showed up it felt too forced. I liked the overall character of the mysterious boy but his dialogue and actions were awkward and made me feel uncomfortable while I read.

The Twist
From the blurb The Wicked Deep it is apparent that there is likely to be a twist. And yes there is one. I had three theories at one point on what the twist would be. One of them was mostly true. That didn't, surprisingly, take away from the reveal for me. Usually guessing the outcome is not as fun; but in this case there was still so much to happen in the story that I didn't mind I'd figured out the twist early. Unlike many horror or ghost stories the reveal is about 75% in and not at the very end. This allowed for a lot more exciting climactic plot and some additional softer moments between our characters to transpire.

I didn't dislike this book; but I didn't love it. Were someone to ask me if I'd recommend it I'm likely to ask how intrigued they are by the blurb on the back. If they say it's intriguing but their not sure; I'd likely recommend they pass on it. However, for those who love ghost stories, are okay with summer fling love interests and don't mind a few cliche moments, then they are likely to get a satisfactory read from The Wicked Deep.

PS...those who've argued there is a rape scene in this book are reaching, a lot, in my opinion. I didn't even think of it this way until I read someone's comments about it possibly being classified as rape. It's a ghost story where the spirits of dead girls inhabit those of living ones. If you want to insinuate that it's creepy the way one scene plays out I'll say 'okay'. However, in no way do I think Ernshaw made any connection to the scene in question being considered rape-esque. I am hoping that only a small percentage of people actually think this book requires a trigger warning. I do not believe it needs one; nor do I write this note because I think it's at all an offensive scene. Instead I write this to acknowledge that I am aware of the controversy. I'd like to think that most people aren't so negative and pessimistic that they twist an innocent ghost story into something else. This is my personal opinion on the matter and you can, of course, disagree with it.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, September 3, 2018

Book Review: A Fist Around the Heart

A Fist Around the HeartA Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short novel that has many interesting facts in it. My personal favourite fact was that Avon originated as the California Perfume Company. Unfortunately A Fist Around the Heart reads less like a novel and more like a biography. Now if that appeals to you then you may find this an interesting book. However if you are looking for a mystery or thriller, like the blurb implies, you should head elsewhere.

The Story
Set predominantly in New York Heather Chisvin tells the story of two sisters. One whom is our narrator and the other whom is the older sister to the narrator. As I suspected it starts out with our narrator as a child. There's always something unreliable about a child narrator...
Our story progresses quickly to tell about the adult lives of the women. One (our narrator) that runs away to New York; and the other who chooses to stay in Winnipeg, where her parents (presumably) sent her and her sister as children. While there is a mystery to be solved here, did the sister in Winnipeg commit suicide or not, this is really the story of a New York girl and her struggles with being a single, childless Russian woman. She has hardships, but preservers during a time when so many fall destitute, that of WWII. It's an interesting perspective on women's rights and struggles prior to receiving the vote and to the Nazi's attempt to take over the world. I have nothing but huge respect for the women who came before us that worked so hard for the rights women deserve including: voting, birth control, abortion, marriage, and more.

Medical Interest
There is a point late in the story, where there is an interesting medical condition presented to the readers. I really enjoyed this part. I can't give anything away for fear of spoiling the mystery; but I can say that it's an interesting concept and makes me wonder if more people don't have this condition than we currently believe. I am also not sure what this condition is called today; or what it might be treated with. So more research is needed for me.

Like I said in the intro, the mystery here is really not the focus of the story. It's more used to move the main narrative forward; to tell the story of our narrator. Not to say that it isn't intriguing; but I found the jumping back and forth between current day (in the book) to the past a little bit annoying. While I usually love books with this set-up; here it felt a bit too stilted and the progressions were lacked the smoothness I desire. That said, it was always obvious to me, even without headers declaring the historical moment, what the time period was.

I feel like there is more that could be done with this story. As this is Chisvins first fictional piece, she's a journalist, I can see why the book is written the way it is. Instead of giving more elaboration to the events and adding some juicy, literary descriptions; Chisvin focuses on facts. Very much like a journalist is required to do. There is obviously a lot of autobiographical material in A Fist Around the Heart and so I cannot in any way criticize the story; and I wouldn't anyways. The story is solid, it's the execution that is unusual. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy reading this. Just to say that it reads differently than your average historical fiction; or fiction book in general.
It would be interesting for this story to be told one of two ways in the future. First choice is as an actual autobiography of Chisvin. I'm interested to know what is really truth and what she developed into the fiction. Second as a true mystery story. With more developed setting, descriptions and literary devices used. The concept, story and outcome in the hands of a well-developed mystery writer could easily be a huge hit; and still bring a lot of light to the circumstances of the time periods portrayed. I'd definitely read another version of this if it was re-written in either way listed above.
And yet, I did really enjoy this story. It taught me things; from small facts (like Avon) to larger issues (like the medical condition) and afterall I usually just want a book to teach me something and entertain me. A Fist Around the Heart did do both of these to different degrees.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: Sofie & Cecilia

Sofie & CeciliaSofie & Cecilia by Katherine Ashenburg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a literary, fictionalized biography. As such it does not have a climax. It is even and true to life throughout. This makes it possibly boring for many people. However, if you understand that the author, Katherine Ashenburg, normally writes non-fiction then you can perhaps come around to the genius of this story.

The Story
As opposed to plot this is more of a character study. Ashenburg bases her main two women (and their husbands) on two women who actually existed. While the names, some of the details and events are fictionalized; the core storyline is based on actual events and people. The story is split into two perspectives Sofie first, and then Cecilia. It's a little tedious at times to experience the same event from both sides; but Ashenburg limits the number of times that happens.

This is not a fast-paced story. Instead it's very lyrical and literary. The way the art is described, the people, the situations and the thoughts of our characters are all done with a gorgeous literary style that I admire. Ashenburg did not lightly write this story and while the pacing is a bit slow; the overall artistry of the story matches up well with the main topic of Swedish art.

This is an odd book that overlaps part of it's timeline with World War II. Odd in that the war is a relatively small factor. Our main characters mostly live in Sweden which is a neutral, unengaged country. It was interesting to me to feel what many in the neutral countries might have felt while the whole world was at war. This was a very different way to see the war for me and I, while it's a small part of the overall story, it made a large impact on me.

If you are interested in Swedish culture or Swedish art then you are likely to enjoy this book. If you don't mind a character study as opposed to exciting events this this is for you. Sofie & Cecilia is a different type of book but that doesn't make it a poor read. I found it to be an interesting read and would merely want others to be aware of what they are getting into at the forefront.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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