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How To Vet a Charity Before Donating (Tip Tuesday)

January 31, 2017 2 comments

How To Vet a Charity Before Donating

Welcome to Tip Tuesday. A how to series where I give you quick tips to make your life easier. For all Tip Tuesday features, click here.

A new year often brings with it an interest in donating to charities, either for the first time or to new ones entirely. But how do you know a charity is a good one? There’s a quick and easy free resource that can help you out: Charity Navigator.

Charity Navigator rates charities on a star scale of 1 to 4 based on how well they are run, not on what cause they support. They give them an overall score, as well as scores for finances and accountability and transparency. They also tell you exactly where they get their money from and how they spend it, both in charts and in easy to understand visualized graphs. If you register for a free account, you can also see the charity’s tax forms.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the charity’s page, Charity Navigator also tells you similar charities. Do you like this charity’s cause but not their rating? Easily find another one.

What I look for when I select a charity is that it has a 4 star rating and spends a minimum of 75% of its income on programs.

Here’s a quick example of a charity that’s been in the news a lot lately. The ACLU has a 4 star rating on Charity Navigator. They spend 84.5% of their income on programs and 99.5% of their income is from contributions, gifts, and grants.

Thanks for joining me for Tip Tuesday!

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

January 29, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara DemickSummary:
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years–a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today–an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.

Review:
One thing the official blurb doesn’t mention is that all 6 of the North Korean escapees Demick interviewed were from the same town of Chongjin. This allowed for her to get multiple perspectives of life in the same town over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. I think this is key because it allowed her to, through their eyes, get a well-rounded sense of what life in Chongjin was like in those decades.

Since I had just read The Girl with Seven Names (review), the extent of the brainwashing North Korean citizens go through their entire lives and how difficult it is to escape (physically and mentally) were not revelatory to me. However, I do think this information is presented quite well by Demick, and there is added value in getting it from 6 different voices, instead of the one in the memoir I started out with.

What struck me the most as new information in this book was actually the famine in North Korea. I hadn’t heard of it, and every single person interviewed by Demick was touched by it. Some more than others. One of the people interviewed was a homeless child during the famine whose growth was permanently stunted by his starvation. For those wondering, the famine was the result of North Korea’s various trade agreements falling through after the fall of the USSR. Humanitarian agencies did send aid, but the North Korean officials intercepted it and either took it or sold it on the black market. Demick speaks at length how this incredibly long-lasting famine impacted not just people’s bodies but their psyche and can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t for survival.

Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.  (location 2109)

I already knew of the horrible gulags (prison camps) in North Korea but some of the people Demick interviewed had actually been in some of the less severe ones. They spoke of familial bribery and overcrowding as ways they got out. The crimes they commited to be sent to these concentration camp style prison camps, by the way, were things like smuggling goods and escaping to China. One new fact I learned about these prison camps that will haunt me for a while is this:

North Koreans have multiple words for prison in much the same way the Inuit do for snow. (location 2740)

Demick goes more in-depth into what happens to the North Koreans who do manage to escape to South Korea. How well do they acclimate? What are their lives like? She speaks about how many of them are struggling to save money to pay to have human smugglers help sneak their remaining family members out of North Korea. The most heartbreaking of these stories is the mother who escaped to China and had to leave her two children behind with their father who was still loyal to North Korea. Her children are grown now, and she’s still trying to get in contact with them to help them escape. In addition to the difficulties of trying to save remaining family members there’s the fact that capitalism is new to the North Korean escapees, and that South Korea really has a different culture at this point. There’s a lot of struggles to adapt to both that Demick does a good job demonstrating by letting her interviewees speak for themselves.

Demick did a wonderful job interviewing and assembling the stories of these 6 refugees. She both lets their stories speak for themselves and interjects at appropriate times with astute analysis. Recommended to those with an interest in North Korea who want some narrative story with critical analysis.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah MoskowitzSummary:
Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she’s too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?

Review:
Etta is a character I wish I had been able to find in fiction when I was a teenager. She’s unashamedly herself, even when it hurts or it involves some floundering. She’s from a small town with dreams of the big city. She just doesn’t fit in her small town. She is so very real because she is so many intersectional elements at once. Most important to me is that she’s bisexual (and she actually SAYS the word), but she’s also female, black, and suffering from Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOs), where the name of the book comes from.

What’s so great though is that, even with being all of these things, her main point of conflict actually has nothing to do with any of them. She desperately wants to live in NYC, and she sees a contest to get into a musical theater high school in NYC as just the chance to do that. She has a huge dream, and that is something any YA reader can relate to. So even if the reader happens to not relate to Etta on anything else (and honestly, who cares? kids like Etta have to reach really hard to relate to most of the literature out there so it’s about time the mainstream kids have to as well), but even if they don’t relate to her on anything else, they should be able to relate to her on this adolescent experience of The Big Dream.

I loved that Etta is allowed to be the person she is without speaking for All Bisexuals™. She very clearly presents herself as a bisexual person who is not representative of all bisexual people beyond the being attracted to more than one gender thing. I also appreciated that the complexity of the queer community is shown. Etta talks about being pushed into being an outsider by both the straights and the lesbians because both of them kind of just want her to “pick a side.” The book begins with the lesbians being angry at Etta for dating a boy. They’re acting like she was a “fake lesbian,” and this is how Etta feels about that:

And bi the way, I was never a lesbian, and I told the Dykes that all the time, but there isn’t a Banjo Bisexuals group or whatever. (location 54)

While a lot of the book eloquently deals with Etta’s sexuality, it also takes time to talk about race and racism. I lost the highlighted passage but essentially Etta is talking with a friend and discusses how hard it is to be part of so many minority groups and how she can never hide being black but she can hide being queer, and how that means she can never escape racism. On the other hand, she also points out how exhausting it can be to constantly be reminding people of her queerness. No one denies that she’s black but people keep trying to take her bisexual identity from her. It’s a non-preachy passage that introduces the complexities of intersexuality to a YA audience.

Finally, there’s the EDNOS. The best part about this is the book come in when Etta is in recovery. Most books about eating disorders come in during the downward spiral, but Etta has already gone to treatment and is working in recovery. We so often don’t get to see recovery and how messy it can be in literature, but we see it here. We get to see how mental illnesses don’t just go away, people just have strategies for staying in recovery.

There’s a ton that’s good about this book, but I must say that I did think the level of partying could sometimes be a bit over the top. While obviously not all kids are straight-edged I was a bit skeptical of the level of partying going on in Small Town USA (including high schoolers getting into a gay bar repeatedly). Perhaps what struck me as a bit less realitic, actually, was Etta’s intelligent and put-together mother who is clearly caring being somehow out of touch about the partying going on, whereas Etta’s sister is 100% aware. It wasn’t enough to truly bother me and I do think on some level some YA readers expect an unrealistic set of partying situations just for the interest level but in a book that had so much realistic about it, it just struck me as a bit out of place.

Overall, this is a great addition to contemporary YA with an out and proud main character and a timeless plot of a small town girl with big dreams. I requested it at my library to be added to the collection (and they did!), and if you can’t buy it yourself, I highly recommend you doing so as well. It bring so much different to the YA table.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Buy It

Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge #miarc
Specific Illness –> EDNOS

Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

January 22, 2017 3 comments

Book Review: The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story by Hyeonseo LeeSummary:
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

She could not return, since rumors of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.

Review:
I’ll never forget the first time I learned about North Korea’s terrifying dictatorship. I was discussing the horror of the concentration camps with someone as a young teen, and a person nearby said, “You know those still exist. North Korea calls them gulags.” I looked it up, and one of the first things I found was a child’s drawings of life inside. I later found out that we only have stories from the least bad of the gulags. The worst tier no one has escaped from to tell us what happens inside them. It’s really horrifying. Last fall, I decided it was time I learned more about North Korea, so I went looking and this book spoke to me as a place to start. I like first-hand accounts, it’s from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, and I liked the title. I got more than I had bargained for. While this memoir would be good regardless of the writing style because Hyeonseo’s life is just that interesting, her writing is articulate and insightful.

Hyeonseo does a wonderful job writing realistically and yet with empathy about herself as a child who had been fully fooled by the North Korean government. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how people can believe x, y, z but this book makes it easy to understand how it can happen and amazing that anyone manages to start doubting such an all-encompassing worldview.

One of the more surprising parts of the book to me was that at first Hyeonseo just wanted to see China. She had no intention of leaving North Korea forever. It’s just once she got out and visiting relatives in China she dragged her feet about going back until it was too dangerous for her to go back. (She would have been captured upon return and put in a prison camp for daring to leave at all). She now was in China with a totally different life path than she’d initially imagined. What was originally a vacation was now most likely a lifetime of being a fugitive. I think this part of the book is where Hyeonseo’s practicality and iron will first shine through:

Now that I was to stay indefinitely in China, I had to learn Mandarin. And I had the best teacher – necessity. You can study a language for years at school, but nothing helps you succeed like need, and mine was clear, and urgent. (location 1781)

I learned so much in this book beyond the horrors of what happens in North Korea. Like that China has an extradition agreement with North Korea which means that if any refugees are caught in China they are brought back to North Korea to face certain imprisonment and possibly death. I can’t imagine what it would be like to escape a dictatorship into the neighboring country and know at any moment you could be seized and sent back.

I also learned that South Korea has declared any North Koreans who make it to their land to be South Koreans and actually provide a lot of repatriation assistance but that the divide is growing between North and South Korean cultures the longer the divide is up, and some are concerned about how the two can ever be reunified once the North Koreans are freed from the dictatorship.

Hyeonseo provides a lot of insightful commentary about living under a dictatorship, human nature, brainwashing, and more. My favorite though was this:

There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless. (location 2368)

The only other thing I wish to say is that everyone should read this book.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Buy It

Book Review: Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Book Review: Made You Up by Francesca ZappiaSummary:
Alex fights a daily battle to figure out the difference between reality and delusion. Armed with a take-no-prisoners attitude, her camera, a Magic 8-Ball, and her only ally (her little sister), Alex wages a war against her schizophrenia, determined to stay sane long enough to get into college. She’s pretty optimistic about her chances until classes begin, and she runs into Miles. Didn’t she imagine him? Before she knows it, Alex is making friends, going to parties, falling in love, and experiencing all the usual rites of passage for teenagers. But Alex is used to being crazy. She’s not prepared for normal.

Review:
A YA book featuring a main character with schizophrenia has a lot of potential — both to be great and to go awry. While Alex is always written with empathy, something I appreciated, I ultimately found other elements of the story to be too detracting for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Alex, her battle with schizophrenia, and her parents’ attempts yet simulatneous inability to really deal with it fully, are all depicted well in this story. While I think the plot comes dangerously close to making Alex’s parents look like bad guys, ultimately enough other perspectives are shown that it does appear more like a mistake on their part, and a consequence of dealing with such a serious illness and situations for such a long time, rather than something truly mean-spirited or cruel. Alex has enough of a grip on reality to be relatable, while her struggles with aspects of her mental illness are heart-breakingly represented. So why so few stars?

First, while it may be part of her delusions, it’s never made clear if Miles’ grandfather was actually alive during WWII. Alex takes it as fact, and it’s not one that’s ever disputed the way others are. It’s a real stretch for someone Miles’s age to have a grandparent who was alive in WWII as anything other than a baby (and even then, that’s a stretch), particularly since this grandfather is through his maternal line, and women have less of a window in which to have children than men do. It may seem like a small issue, but it’s something that really bugged me. I’m ok with it if it’s ultimately part of one of Alex’s delusions but I do think that should be made clear somewhere in the book.

I also didn’t like the entire plot surrounding Miles’s mother. Essentially, his father falsely convinces the authorities that she’s crazy so that she’ll get locked up in a mental institution and not be able to leave her abusive marriage with her son. The fact that she’s been locked up for years and no one has noticed is just not something I believe could happen in this day and age. The initial mental health screening? Yes. A sane woman remaining in an institution for years against her will? No. It’s clearly established that this is a real thing that happens, not one of Alex’s delusions, and it just had me rolling my eyes.

The ending struck a sour note for me as well. Without giving anything away, Alex is presented as a strong young woman battling an equally strong illness and in the end she kind of just loses her gumption. While I think accepting help is good, the way she accepts it and the way she graduates from it both rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not sure about the message it’s sending to the YA audience.

So while I really appreciate the character of Alex and seeing schizophrenia represented to realistically and while the plot did keep me reading, enough sour notes were hit for me that I ultimately just found it to be an average read.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Buy It

Counts For: Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge
Specific Illness –> Schizophrenia

Book Review: Honeymoon Hotel by Hester Browne

January 15, 2017 2 comments

Book Review: Honeymoon Hotel by Hester BrowneSummary:
The Bonneville Hotel is the best-kept secret in London: its elegant rooms and discreet wood-paneled cocktail lounge were the home-away-from-home for royalty and movie stars alike during the golden age of glamour. Recent years haven’t been kind, but thanks to events manager Rosie, it’s reclaiming some of its old cachet as a wish list wedding venue. While Rosie’s weddings are the ultimate in romance, Rosie herself isn’t; her focus is fixed firmly on the details, not on the dramas. She lives with a professionally furious food critic and works tirelessly toward that coveted promotion. But when the hotel owner appoints his eccentric son Joe to help run Rosie’s department, she’s suddenly butting heads with the free spirit whose predilection for the unconventional threatens to unravel her picture-perfect plans for the most elaborate—not to mention high-profile—wedding the hotel has ever seen, a wedding that could make or break not only the hotel’s reputation, but also Rosie’s career.

Review:
Although not every Browne book is a hit for me, they often are, and this one was incredible. One of the blurbs says it’s in the vein of The Wedding Planner. My comeback would be it’s everything I thought The Wedding Planner was going to be but even better. It’s a story that showcases a woman building her career while craving a relationship and ultimately getting the next level of her career and the relationship she’d been dreaming of.

I often find that in chick lit I have to be willing to give up on either seeing a woman with ambition or a woman desiring a traditional relationship. You often don’t get both. Both is what I want out of my comfort reading, and both is what you get here. Plus, both the career and the love interest are something you want to root for. Rosie isn’t a heartless workaholic but she’s also not someone who’s just working until she nails down the guy. She wants everything, and she keeps wanting everything even when the going gets tough. And the tough going is realistic, both in the romance and in the career. The realism kept things relatable even with things ultimately working out great for her in both ways in the end. And you know what? I like that things work out in both ways. I like that hope. We all can use some more hope in our lives.

In addition, the setting is just stunning. It’s a hotel that had its height in the Art Deco era, and all of the beauty and splendor of it is eloquently described. It was a place I wanted to keep coming back to because it just felt so divine, even with seeing the behind-the-scenes of the staff rooms and the stress of running the special events.

One other thing I must mention is that yet again Browne does a great job of presenting positive female friendships. There’s more than one woman to women relationship that Rosie has where both women help each other out. Women are shown as having differences of opinions and other difficulties to work through but ultimately being there for each other. It might not always work out that way in real life, but I really like seeing female friendships validated and other women not being demonized just to make a scene work.

Overall, this features everything I like in the best Browne books with the added dash of a setting that really suited me. The final scene was so pretty I had tears in my eyes on public transportation, and that’s really saying something. Highly recommended to lovers of quality chick lit.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

Buy It

2017’s Accepted Review Copies!

January 12, 2017 Leave a comment

2017's Accepted Review Copies!

Here on Opinions of a Wolf, I accept submissions of review copies via a form between February and December.  The books I accept will then be reviewed the following year.  So, the books accepted for review here in 2017 were submitted in 2016.  You can view more about my review process here.  You may view the accepted review copies post for 20142015, and 2016 by clicking on the years.  I view the submissions I receive as my own mini-bookstore of indie books. I browse the shelves and pick up however many spark my interest.

This year there were 60 submissions, and I accepted 2 books. This means books featured on this post only had a 3% chance of being accepted.

I actively pursue submissions from women and GLBTQA authors, as well as books with GLBTQA content.

Before getting to the accepted books, I like to show the demographics of books submitted to me. This helps those submitting this year for review in 2018 see what I had an overload of and where they might stand a better chance of getting accepted. It also allows for a lot of transparency of my review acceptance process.

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-1-44-54-pm

Although there are still fewer women authors submitting to me than men, the proportion of women is up from last year’s 38.7%. I would really like it if this could hit at least 50/50 next year. Of the two books I accepted, one is by a woman author.

2017's Accepted Review Copies!

This went way down from last year’s 24.2%. I would very much appreciate any help getting the word out to LGBTQA authors that I’m actively seeking their submissions. Of the two books I accepted, one is by a GLBTQA author.

2017's Accepted Review Copies!

This also went down from last year’s 29%. One of my top three genres of books read last year was GLBTQA lit, so I obviously would hope for more of this in the future. Also of note: both of my accepted books have GLBTQA content.

2017's Accepted Review Copies!

The top three most frequently submitted genres were:
1) Fantasy (including urban) 31.7%
2) Horror 30%
3) Scifi 28.3%
Note that books fitting into multiple genres had all genres checked off on their submission. I actually didn’t accept any scifi or fantasy books so remember when submitting that the most frequently submitted genre doesn’t necessarily correlate to most likely to get accepted.

The review copies are listed below in alphabetical order by title. Summaries are pulled from GoodReads or Amazon. Both books will feature giveaways thanks to the author at the time of review. These books will be read and reviewed here in 2017, although what order they are read in is entirely up to my whim at the moment.

31415667

The Eighth Day Brotherhood
By: Alice M. Phillips
Genre: Historical Fiction, Horror, Mystery
Notable GLBTQA Content
Summary:
In Paris, 1888, the city prepares for the Exposition Universelle and the new Eiffel Tower swiftly rises on the bank of the Seine. One August morning, the sunrise reveals the embellished corpse of a young man suspended between the columns of the PanthEon, resembling a grotesque Icarus and marking the first in a macabre series of murders linked to Paris monuments. In the Latin Quarter, occult scholar Remy Sauvage is informed of his lover’s gruesome death and embarks upon his own investigation to avenge him by apprehending the cult known as the Eighth Day Brotherhood. At a nearby sanitarium, aspiring artist Claude Fournel becomes enamored with a mesmerist’s beautiful patient, Irish immigrant Margaret Finnegan. Resolved to steal her away from the asylum and obtain her for his muse, Claude only finds them both entwined in the Brotherhood’s apocalyptic plot combining magic, mythology, and murder.

Why I Accepted It:
It struck me as a queered up historical version of The DaVinci Code, and what’s not to like about that? Plus the excerpt was well-written.

31829144

Peacefully, In Her Sleep
By: Milo Bell
Genre: Mystery
Notable GLBTQA Content
Summary:
June Godfrey is a widowed crime writer living a well-ordered life in Barling, a village in Sussex, England. An anonymous letter, received by June’s friend Angela, reveals that the peacefulness of the quiet community may be illusory.

The letter’s author alleges that Angela’s aunt, Jacqueline Sims, was murdered. June is doubtful, yet when she begins a tentative investigation into the letter’s origins, she discovers that Jackie Sims was no sweet old lady. Jackie had been an unscrupulous blackmailer, and many could have wished her dead.

June uncovers startling secrets, and becomes entangled in the disappearance of an enigmatic teenaged girl. She crosses paths with the kindly, gentle Detective Inspector Guy Taverner, and when they join forces, they uncover a staggering and unexpected truth.

Why I Accepted It:
What struck me first was how well-written the excerpt was. When I saw that it’s a mystery set in an English village and had notable GLBTQA content, well, I had to read it.

Congratulations again to the accepted authors for 2017!

Interested in submitting for 2018? Find out how here.