Review of The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff

February 16th, 2021

The Lost Girls of Paris

by Pam Jenoff

performed by Candace Thaxton, Elizabeth Knowelden, and Henrietta Meire

Harlequin Audio, 2019. 12 hours on 9 CDs.
Review written February 16, 2021, from a library audiobook

I checked out the audiobook of The Lost Girls of Paris because I’ve discovered a new favorite female narrator in Elizabeth Knowelden, when I listened to her read The Guinevere Deception, after already being enchanted by her voice in Damsel. I was looking for an adult book to read after finishing my reading for the Cybils Awards at the end of 2020, and The Lost Girls of Paris was a lovely choice.

The main storyline of this book is set in New York just after World War II has finished. A young lady named Grace who lives and works in New York City discovers an abandoned suitcase in Grand Central Station and finds photographs inside of twelve young women. Then she discovers that the owner of the suitcase, Eleanor Trig, died that morning in a car accident. Grace wants to know who the girls are and what happened to them.

There are three narrators of this book. Grace gets one viewpoint, and the next narrator, the one read by Elizabeth Knowelden, tells Eleanor’s perspective, back during the war. She worked for Special Operations in London – and gets tasked with recruiting and deploying young women to go to occupied France to be radio operators.

The third perspective is that of Marie, who is one of Eleanor’s recruits. We see her train and then go to Paris.

It’s a good story, and gripping, and I like the way it’s told, going between the three perspectives and telling us things at different times. I’ll tell the reader right up front, though: Too many people I cared about died in this book.

Okay, it’s a book about war. It’s a lot more realistic to have people die. But I like a dose of triumph with death, and these deaths didn’t have that so much. If you want to read an amazing story about young women who worked in France for Special Operations during World War II, I’d rather refer you to the incredible Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.

That said, it was still a well-told story, with action, danger, and mystery. And I still love listening to anything Elizabeth Knowelden reads.

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Review of Child of St. Kilda, by Beth Waters

February 16th, 2021

Child of St. Kilda

by Beth Waters

Child’s Play, 2019. 72 pages.
Review written October 3, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 Children’s Nonfiction Picture Books

Here’s a lovely picture book for older elementary school readers. It tells about the remote island community of St. Kilda in northern Scotland. Conditions there were rugged and harsh, and the last settlers left the islands in 1930, after they had been inhabited for at least 4,000 years.

The story is told from the perspective of Norman John Gillies, who was born on the island of Hirta in St. Kilda in 1925. It tells what life was like on the islands as he knew it, and then how his life changed when the entire community moved away. Norman John was the last person alive who had lived on St. Kilda.

The book gives us painting of the wildlife and landscapes of the islands and tells about their rugged way of life. Some of the animals there aren’t found anywhere else in the world, because of how remote the islands are.

It tells about the community there and how they’d be cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time. They didn’t use money and paid rent in feathers, oil, and tweed. They worked together on various tasks for making food and clothing.

Here’s a story that came with a striking picture of the cliffs:

Between the months of March and November, collecting birds and eggs was the main activity.

The men climbed down the steep cliffs, using nothing but a simple handmade rope tied round their waist. They caught birds with a snare and also collected their eggs. Climbing barefoot gave a better grip, but it was still very dangerous work. It is said that the ankles of St Kildan men were much thicker than those of people from the mainland and their toes were much further apart.

The boys started climbing at about 10 years old, which must have been very scary! Norman John’s uncle, Finlay MacQueen, was the best climber of his day.

They would divide the catch among the whole community.

The book tells about school, church, and some interesting mail traditions.

But it was in the 1900s, when visitors began coming to the islands, that things began to change. As with other populations that met Europeans, the islanders didn’t have immunity to diseases that the visitors exposed them to, so many people died of illness. There was also the problem of young people deciding to move away where it wasn’t so hard to make a living. Some more disasters hit, and eventually, in 1930, when Norman John was five years old, the islanders were evacuated.

This book tells a story that’s fascinating and unusual. It does a good job of explaining why the people had to leave, while at the same time showing beautiful things about the rugged life on the islands. And it tells about Norman John’s years growing up on the mainland, happily remembering St Kilda.

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Review of Can You Crack the Code? by Ella Schwartz, illustrated by Lily Williams

February 15th, 2021

Can You Crack the Code?

A Fascinating History of Ciphers and Cryptography

by Ella Schwartz
illustrated by Lily Williams

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019. 118 pages.
Review written December 14, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 General Children’s Nonfiction
2021 Mathical Honor Book, Grades 6-8

I’ve always thought codes and ciphers are fascinating, from the time I was a kid right up to the present when I made some videos showing how to make interesting ciphers using mathematical concepts.

When I made the videos last Spring when the library was closed for the pandemic, I didn’t find too many current books on making codes, but that situation has been remedied. This book is a nice solid selection to fill in that gap. Written for elementary to middle school kids, it gives a history of encoded messages along with explanations of ciphers and codes the reader can use.

Each chapter has a message to decrypt, and the book ends with a message for the reader to solve and email the author if they figure it out. A few clues are given, and it’s a nicely appropriate historical code used.

The book starts with steganography – hiding a message in some way – and the Caesar cipher and continues with things like Benedict Arnold’s book cipher and Thomas Jefferson’s wheel cipher up through a puzzle encoded in a statue in front of CIA headquarters and the use of prime numbers in computer security.

Even when they get deep into the history of clandestine messages, they do give the readers chances to crack the codes.

There’s plenty here to get kids intrigued, and one thing I love about code-making is there are lots of jumping-off points from this book.

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Review of The Light in Hidden Places, by Sharon Cameron

February 15th, 2021

The Light in Hidden Places

by Sharon Cameron

Scholastic Press, 2020. 391 pages.
Review written October 24, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#10 General Teen Fiction

The Light in Hidden Places is a Holocaust novel, so don’t pick it up if you want something cheery. The book tells a true story, though, which gives you hope that the main character is going to come through. In fact, if I hadn’t known it was based on a true story, there was no way I would have believed the characters survived many of the things that happened in this book. If the author had invented them, I would have said it was way over the top with the danger.

The story is of Fusia, a Catholic teenage Polish girl who gets a job in the shop of a Jewish family in 1939 while living in town with her sisters. When the Russians come and her home is bombed, she ends up living with the Jewish family. But the Germans are next, and after awhile, they send the Jewish family to the ghetto. It seems like a safe place for them, and Fusia finds ways to get them food. No one really believes the rumors when some of them get sent on trains to work camps.

As the war goes on, Fusia tries to visit her family on the farm, and finds them gone (sent to a different labor camp in Salzburg), but her young sister Helena alone there and starving. She takes Helena back to the town. And then she gets asked to hide one of the brothers from her Jewish family, for just one night. One night stretches out. She ends up hiding more people. I won’t even say how many Jews she ends up hiding because it seems impossible.

As the war goes on, the chance that Fusia and Helena will be able to keep these people hidden – while also healthy and not starving – gets worse and worse. For some of the time, there are even Nazis living under the same roof. The tension is high, and once I got more than halfway through, I couldn’t stop reading. I kept thinking they couldn’t possibly get through the next crisis.

And the story is all true. Photographs and the Author’s Note at the back give us details. But the author makes it all feel immediate and gripping. This isn’t dry and dusty history at all.

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Review of The Magnificent Migration, by Sy Montgomery

February 14th, 2021

The Magnificent Migration

On Safari with Africa’s Last Great Herds

by Sy Montgomery
with photos by Roger and Logan Wood

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019. 162 pages.
Review written April 15, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This visually stunning book has taught me so many things about “the greatest of all mammalian migrations” – the wildebeests of the Serengeti. Who knew that the gnu is so hugely important to earth’s environment? I didn’t before reading this book, but I do now.

Here’s a small section from the Introduction:

Like no other event in nature, the wildebeest migration defines wild Africa. The extravagance of their number stupefies: one and a quarter million wildebeests, in separate herds of tens of thousands, all on the move at once, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles. It is the largest mass movement of animals on land.

The sheer number of so many animals in motion is a dazzling spectacle. It is a force like gravity, or rainfall – a force that transforms, nourishes, and renews both the land over which they travel and the other creatures who gather in their wake.

Sy Montgomery does insert herself into the book – this is basically the story of her safari to observe wildebeests, traveling with the world’s foremost expert on them. But that added a little drama to the story – would they find a large group of wildebeests, since they don’t travel the same route from year to year? And we learn so much about wildebeests and other animals of Africa along the way. In hearing where they traveled to find the wildebeests, we understood more about the migration and about rutting season for the animals and about all the other animals affected by the migration.

The photographs in this book, taken on her safari, are amazing. The format is extra large, with spreads big as a picture book. There are photographs on every page, but there’s also plenty of text. I ended up being surprised how long it took me to read, because it’s much more than a picture book. Those big pages, which are so nice for the photographs, also hold large amounts of text.

There are many sidebars throughout. They include information about other animals that migrate, other animals of Africa, and even information about a migration that once was even greater than that of the African wildebeests – the American bison. When that population was wiped out, it left a wave of devastation that would also happen if the wildebeests had to stop migrating. The migration itself has a huge effect on the lands and other animals of Africa, and the reader comes to better understand those interactions.

This book is for readers around middle school age. They have to have a long attention span to handle all that text. And they need to be able to handle plenty of information about animals mating and wildebeests rutting. On the very first page, we learn that a lion has tiny barbs on his penis, and lion sex usually ends with a swat and a snarl from the lioness. This is in the context of saying that wildebeests are far more interesting to watch than lions, even if they aren’t nearly as popular for tourists.

For a kid who sticks it out, there’s a very good chance they could end up fascinated by Africa and its wildlife. I learned so much I didn’t know I didn’t know by reading this book packed full of beautiful photographs and information about the animals and environment of Africa.

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Review of Mañanaland, by Pam Muñoz Ryan

February 13th, 2021

Mañanaland

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Scholastic Press, 2020. 247 pages.
Review written March 6, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#11 Children’s Fiction

This lovely book tells the story of a boy growing into the legacy of his family of helping people in need.

Here’s how the book begins:

Somewhere in the Américas, many years after once-upon-a-time and long before happily-ever-after, a boy climbed the cobbled steps of an arched bridge in the tiny village of Santa Maria, in the country of the same name.

He bounced a fútbol on each stone ledge.

In the land of a hundred bridges, this was his favorite. When he was only a baby, Papá, a master stonemason and bridge builder, had carved his name on the spandrel wall for all to see

MAXIMILIANO CÓRDOBA

Max is twelve years old and ready this year to join Santa Maria’s famous fútbol team. He also ready for more responsibility and more freedom, like going to another town for a free fútbol clinic with his friends, but his Papá is overprotective and won’t let him go. Papá is also full of secrets, and never talks about Max’s mother, who left when Max was a baby.

In this book, Max discovers many family secrets and is placed in a situation where he must rise to the occasion and follow the family tradition of helping others.

I like the little blend of fantasy in this book, with a beginning like a fairy tale. The setting is fictional, but there’s a country troubled by war and oppression over the nearby border. Max and his grandfather like to tell stories, though his Papá is more of a realist and doesn’t seem to believe in happy endings any more. But Max discovers that some of the stories are hiding important truths.

I also like the tower standing over the town, a tower like a giant queen from a chessboard. The picture on the cover added to Max’s thinking of her as a giant lady watching over the town and its people.

This book had just the right blend of mystery, danger, adventure, and hope.

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Review of Burn, by Patrick Ness

February 12th, 2021

Burn

by Patrick Ness

HarperTeen, 2020. 371 pages.
Review written December 28, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#10 Teen Speculative Fiction

Burn is set in 1957, just before the Soviets launched a satellite, in an alternate reality where dragons exist. As the book begins, Sarah’s father is hiring a dragon to do some work on their farm in Washington State, because that’s cheaper than hiring human labor.

Sarah is mixed-race, and her mother died two years ago. She has a hard time with the deputy sheriff, and so does her Japanese-American boyfriend. Unexpectedly, the dragon they’ve hired helps them out.

Chapters alternate to follow a mysterious teenage boy traveling across Canada toward Washington. Gradually, we learn that he’s a trained assassin, and he is a Believer who prays to the Mitera Thea, the Goddess of the dragons. The Mitera Thea is guiding him to fulfill a prophecy and kill a girl in Washington.

Meanwhile, the dragon on Sarah’s farm tells her about a prophecy that she will stop the destruction of the world. And that an assassin is coming to kill her.

In the middle of the book, these things collide in unexpected ways – and many characters wind up in a “nearby” parallel universe, one without dragons, one that very well might be our own. Things play out in interesting ways.

Now, I don’t actually believe in parallel universes. And I think that if they were possible, a universe where dragons exist would be entirely and completely different from – and be inhabited by completely different people than – a universe where dragons did exist. Technologies would be different, and pretty much all of human history would have played out differently. In addition, I have a problem with parallel universes in books, because if every possibility exists in a universe somewhere, why are you telling a story about this one? It seems like choices don’t matter as much.

However, with all that said, if you accept the premise that “nearby” parallel universes are possible, the author plays with interaction between them in a fun way. I enjoyed the explicitly ambiguous prophecy that no one knows how it will be fulfilled until it is – and the dragon acknowledging that’s the nature of prophecies.

This is a fun book about dragons and prophecy and trying to keep the world from being destroyed – and find love at the same time.

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Review of Overview: A New Way of Seeing Earth, by Benjamin Grant with Sandra Markle

February 11th, 2021

Overview

A New Way of Seeing Earth

Young Explorer’s Edition

by Benjamin Grant
with Sandra Markle

Crown Books for Young Readers, 2019. 150 pages.
Starred Review
Review written 02/20/2020, from a library book

This book reminds me of The Earth from Above, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, which I read and reviewed back in 2004. This is the same idea: photos of earth taken from above. But in the previous book, I believe the photos were taken by airplane. These are taken by satellite – but a satellite that can zoom in or out and still get detailed shots.

This book is packaged for children, with a text upper elementary kids can understand. The focus is the photos, so the text isn’t long, but does give some food for thought.

This book was revised by children’s nonfiction author Sandra Markle from a longer book for adults called Overview, and that book was based on an Instagram page showing satellite pictures.

There’s a foreword by retired astronaut Scott Kelly, where he explains how it can affect you to look at Earth from space:

From space, Earth looks like a peaceful place, without political borders. From orbit, astronauts get the sense that this is how Earth was meant to be viewed. This vantage point gives you a sense of oneness, an awareness that we are all part of the same humanity. Many people call this the Overview Effect, which is where this book gets its name. When astronauts experience the Overview Effect, we feel a greater connection to Earth, its people, and the environment that changes us forever.

The pictures in this book are stunning and amazing. Many of them are beautiful. With both manmade beauty and natural beauty. Many are disturbing – particularly ones of bright red polluted bodies of water. But this is a book you’ll enjoy looking at over and over again.

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Review of Try Softer, by Aundi Kolber

February 11th, 2021

Try Softer

A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode – and into a Life of Connection and Joy

by Aundi Kolber, MA, LPC

Tyndale Momentum, 2020. 245 pages.
Review written September 21, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Standout:
#5 Christian Nonfiction

I love the idea behind the title of this book. Here’s the author’s explanation from the Introduction, when her therapist supervisor John asked her if she could try softer instead of trying harder:

I’ve got to be honest: At first blush, John’s suggestion didn’t sound like an awesome option – because what did it even mean? All I had ever learned was how to try harder. If I didn’t push, everything would be terrible; everything would fall apart. The suggestion that there could be another way made my body feel tense with anger, a reflection of my twelve-year-old self – a girl riddled with the toxic stress of trying to keep everything together while her home life was constantly imploding. Sure, John, “trying softer” sounds nice, but trying harder is how you survive.

At the same time, I had to face the facts: Trying harder wasn’t really working for me anymore. The strategies I had been using my entire life – hustling, overworking, overthinking, and constantly shifting to accommodate the dysfunction that surrounded me – they had kept me alive, yes, but now they were taking their toll. I felt less in control, not more; worse, not better; weary, not wise. The danger from my past was gone, but the patterns remained – and they were keeping me from being able to be truly present and pay attention to what matters most.

The day that I sat with John in his office totally changed the trajectory of my life because John was right: Pushing isn’t always the answer.

Dear reader, there are truly times when the best, healthiest, most productive thing we can do is not to try harder, but rather to try softer; to compassionately listen to our needs so we can move through pain – and ultimately life – with more gentleness and resilience.

The author does speak as a Christian, but more than that, she speaks as a therapist, so I don’t think you have to be a Christian to appreciate the insights in this book. She tells us her own life story along the way, and weaves in concepts and techniques from therapy.

Toward the beginning, she talks about Big T Trauma and little t trauma and how the patterns we set from dealing with either one of those continue to affect us and are even held in our bodies. She talks about brain science and how both kinds of trauma affect our brains. She talks about attachment theory and how our attachment style affects our relationships. There are exercises to go with every chapter to help you grasp the ideas.

But after the background and the groundwork, the rest of the book is dedicated to practices to help us try softer, to help us be gentler with ourselves. She helps us to pay attention to and value our own bodies and our own emotions, to silence our inner critics, and to learn resilience.

She finishes the book with a prayer for the reader, and the last paragraph gives you an idea of what she’s trying to help you with in this book:

I pray you remember to be gentle with yourself as you grow, knowing condemnation never leads us onward but instead stunts the process. May you courageously continue on and move forward in your own story. And when you are weary, may you never – no, never – lose heart. May you know in an experiential, personal, and transformational way that the One who has called you is faithful.

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Review of This Is My Brain In Love, by I. W. Gregorio

February 10th, 2021

This Is My Brain in Love

by I. W. Gregorio
read by Diane Doen and Zeno Robinson

Hachette Audio, 2020. 9 hours, 30 minutes.
Review written November 16, 2020, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2021 Schneider Family Award Winner
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#9 General Teen Fiction

This book begins at the start of summer before Jocelyn Wu’s Junior year of high school. Her father tells her that their family restaurant is failing and they will have to move back to the big city where he worked for her uncle. Jos has finally made friends in Utica, and she is not ready to uproot everything and move back. She asks her father to give her a chance. If they can establish an internet presence and advertise at events, maybe they can turn things around.

Jos doesn’t think she has the expertise to turn things around by herself, so she convinces her dad to advertise for a summer intern. When Will Dominici applies, she doesn’t expect an attractive boy her age whose mother is Nigerian and father Italian. As they work together, they are more and more attracted to one another – which doesn’t go over well with Jos’s dad.

This is a delightful teen romance. The two narrators alternating Will’s and Jocelyn’s perspectives add to the fun. Something distinctive about this book is that both teens are dealing with mental illness. Will has been seeing a therapist for anxiety disorder since he was eight years old. He notices that Jos is awfully hard on herself and starts showing warning signs of depression, though she’s resistant to that idea. But the love story ends up being a natural frame for talking about mental illness and how it’s hard – but necessary – to ask for help.

I listened to this on eaudiobook, so I couldn’t renew as easily as a physical copy. But I didn’t even resent cramming in the last three hours to get it finished before it expired. Maybe it was a little unrealistic that two teens could turn the business around, and throwing in sinister developers who wanted to replace the family restaurant felt a little less realistic, but it’s actually kind of easy to believe that teens know more about internet advertising than immigrant adults. And it all adds up to a feel-good listening experience.

The narrators were excellent, and I appreciated that the narrator for Jocelyn’s viewpoint could quote her parents and Amah speaking Mandarin without missing a beat.

This book made me want to try some Potstickers.

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