Latest Newbery Reads

In which I share mini reviews of the latest Newbery books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Lately I’ve been buried in reading projects other than reading through the Newbery books, so I only have a couple of Newberys to talk about in today’s review. (I hope to share my latest reading project with you all soon–I have many thoughts about it!)

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

Welcome to the night, where mice stir and furry moths flutter. Where snails spiral into shells as orb spiders circle in silk. Where the roots of oak trees recover and repair from their time in the light. Where the porcupette eats delicacies—raspberry leaves!—and coos and sings.

Come out to the cool, night wood, and buzz and hoot and howl—but do beware of the great horned owl—for it’s wild and it’s windy way out in the woods! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Dark Emperor consists of cute poems about the animals and plants that come alive during the night. I especially appreciated the notes from the author which offer more details about each plant or animal mentioned in the poems. The illustrations by Rick Allen are gorgeous as well. I can imagine this book being a great bedtime read for older children.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Ood-le-uk the Wanderer

Ood-le-uk, an American Eskimo boy, accidentally gets across the Bering Strait when his boat is swept to sea. After three years of wandering in Asia and having many exciting adventures, Ood-le-uk returns home and is instrumental in helping establish trade between his tribe and Siberian tradesmen. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Oh, the classic Newberys… This would have been an interesting survival story about living in Alaska and Serbia, but there’s a lot of old timey racism here. Despite the interesting stories about Inuit life, there is too much here that would make modern readers cringe for me to recommend the book. (If you want an updated take on children surviving in the wilderness, may I suggest my childhood favorite, Gary Paulsen?)

Rating: Skip This One

More MG and YA Book Reviews!

A big roundup of middle grades and YA book reviews. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I realized recently that I have a long list of middle grades and YA books (including a couple of ARCs that have since been published) that have been languishing on my “to be reviewed” list for way too long. As I went back through the list, I was surprised to remember how many of them I really enjoyed! I hope you find one or two books here to add to your list. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Who Could That Be at This Hour?

The adventure began in a fading town. Far from anyone he knew or trusted, a young Lemony Snicket started an apprenticeship for a secret organization shrouded in mystery and secrecy. He asked questions that shouldn’t have been on his mind. Now he has written an account that should not be published that shouldn’t be read. Not even by you. Seriously, we recommend that you do NOT ask your parents for this, the first book in his new ALL THE WRONG QUESTIONS series.

I read this book when I was sick as a dog with strep throat, and I actually found it pretty entertaining. It’s about young Lemony Snicket’s adventures, and it has Snicket’s trademark quirky, funny narration and weird circumstances. I’m not sure if I’ll continue reading this series, but you might give it a shot if you enjoyed Series of Unfortunate Events.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Armstrong & Charlie [Note: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.]

Charlie isn’t looking forward to sixth grade. After all, if he starts sixth grade, chances are he’ll finish it. And when he does, he’ll be older than his older brother ever was. Armstrong isn’t looking forward to sixth grade, either. This year, he’ll have to wake up at 5:30 to ride a bus to an all-white school in the Hollywood Hills.

When Armstrong and Charlie are assigned seats next to each other, what starts as a rivalry becomes a close friendship. Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Armstrong and Charlie is the hilarious, heartwarming tale of two boys from opposite worlds. Different, yet the same.

This book is set during the desegregation of schools in California in the 1970s. Armstrong is part of a small group of black students who are now being bused into white school districts. Charlie’s parents want Charlie to be involved in welcoming these students. Armstrong’s bullying, Charlie’s recent loss of his brother Andy, and ever-increasing racial tensions make these two unlikely friends, but they slowly grow to respect and stand up for each other.

I thought the author did a great job of portraying the sputtering friendship of these two boys as they both face the challenges of growing up, but it does make me a bit nervous that the author himself is white (The Help, anyone?). It seems like he did his research and was respectful of the real racial tensions of the 70s, but I’d love to hear the perspective of someone who is not white.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Odd and the Frost Giants

The winter isn’t ending. Nobody knows why. And Odd has run away from home, even though he can barely walk and has to use a crutch. Out in the forest he encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle – three creatures with a strange story to tell.

Now Odd is faced with a stranger journey than he had ever imagined.
A journey to save Asgard, City of the Norse Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. It’s going to take a very special kind of boy to defeat the most dangerous of all the Frost Giants and rescue the mighty Gods. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever. Someone just like Odd…

You know I’m going to read any children’s book that Neil Gaiman puts out. This is a cute story of Odin, Thor, and Loki and the boy named Odd who saved them from one of their mythical scrapes. It’s a fun book for kids who are into mythology.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life [Note: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.]

Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief.

Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

Be prepared to cry as Salvador, Sam, and Fito deal with death, addiction, and hate in their senior year of high school. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but be aware that this book deals with themes of ethnicity, homosexuality, addiction, neglectful parents, death, adoption, and the fear of growing up. Sounds like a downer, right? But there is a real joy in this book. Each of the friends, despite their broken, messy families, find a family with each other and with Sal’s father. They talk like teenagers and make mistakes that teenagers make, but they are always there for each other, respecting each other despite their differences.

I’d only recommend this book to older teens because of its difficult themes. But if you’re up for it, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life provides a sad but ultimately hopeful look at the lives of three teenagers struggling to grow up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit, Volume I is a collection of stories from African American history that exemplifies success in the face of great adversity. This unique graphic anthology offers historical and cultural commentary on nine uncelebrated heroes whose stories are not often found in history books. Among the stories included are: Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped from slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia; Alexander Crummel and the Noyes Academy, the first integrated school in America, established in the 1830s; Marshall “Major” Taylor, a.k.a. the Black Cyclone, the first black champion in any sport; and Bass Reeves, the most successful lawman in the Old West. Written and illustrated by Joel Christian Gill, the diverse art beautifully captures the spirit of each remarkable individual and opens a window into an important part of American history.

This graphic novel is filled with comics about real-life African American heroes. I had heard of only a few of these people, and I was fascinated to read these short comics about their lives and successes. Despite the title, which refers to the lynching of African Americans, this book is on the whole an uplifting exploration of some obscure but interesting, hardworking, and talented historical figures.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Snicker of Magic

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.

But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster.

Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

So sweet! Felicity meets a new and unusual friend named Jonah in Midnight Gulch, a magical place where she hopes her mother will finally settle down. If you need a lighthearted story which nevertheless explores themes of home and belonging (with a side of magic), this is the book for you.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

When Miss Eells gives young Anthony a job at the library, he thinks he’ll just be dusting shelves and filing books. Instead, he discovers a hidden clue leading to the treasure of eccentric millionaire Alpheus Winterborn. Miss Eells thinks the clues are a practical joke left by the odd, old Winterborn before he died. But then why do things suddenly start getting so strange? And terrifying?

I don’t remember who recommended this book to me, but my main thought as I finished the book was, “Well, that was weird.” Anthony has to outsmart the evil Hugo Philpotts in order to find the eccentric library founder’s treasure. I had heard it was supposed to be suspenseful, that the author was king of writing gothic and horror works for children, but I didn’t find it dark or creepy, just strange. Maybe it’s because the book seems a bit outdated; maybe it’s because the adults aren’t just incompetent but actually antagonistic; maybe it’s because Anthony himself is a bit of a brat (all the characters in this story are kind of jerks). Whatever the reason, this just didn’t work for me.

Rating: Meh

Top Ten Things on My Reading Wish List

I'm linking up to share the top ten things on my reading wish list. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m linking up with the Broke & Bookish for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday meme.

Today’s TTT prompt revolves around the things I’d like to see more books include. There are definitely some things that consistently trigger my “must read now” impulse, and I’m happy to share them here!

  1. Time travel historical fiction. This is why Connie Willis in particular is like candy for me. (See also here and here.) I love historical fiction in general, and the time travel aspect tends to keep things from getting too serious.
  2. MG books about quirky kids. No matter what time period, setting, or quirk the story has, I’m always up for a good middle grade novel with unusual characters.
  3. Mysteries. I mean, do I need to say more? I’m a sucker for a mystery novel of pretty much any kind.
  4. Books with a prominent narrator. I love books that have a narrator who inserts herself/himself into the story. Humorous asides are always welcome. (Lemony Snicket is a master of this.)
  5. Books that explore other countries. My reading on lesser-known countries in Africa, Asia, and South America is sadly lacking. I’d love an influx of books in translation or books by authors from these countries.
  6. Diversity! You guys know that reading diversely is important to me, and we still have a lack of characters who are POC, have a disability or mental illness, and so on. I always learn a lot by reading about people who are different from me, so more of that, please!
  7. More of every series Jasper Fforde has written. Yes, please.
  8. Books about Millennials that don’t hate on Millennials. This may be a kind of book that only I want, but as a Millennial myself, I’m tired of reading books and articles that either bash my generation for our stereotypical flaws or are written as “how to be a real adult” how-to guides (although I admit there are some books in that vein that I have read and enjoyed). I really want to see some books that describe my generation without being hateful or patronizing.
  9. Hate to love romances. Why does this always get me? It must be because of my formative experience with You’ve Got Mail.
  10. Modern/alternate fairy tale retellings. From Marissa Meyer to Shannon Hale to the recent Geekerella, I will always enjoy a good fairy tale retelling.

Which things would make your reading wish list? Leave your links in the comments; I’d love to check out your TTT posts!

Newbery Books 2017

In which my sister and I read and review all the Newbery books of 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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At long last, I’m teaming up with my sister Melanie in order to share our thoughts on the 2017 Newbery books! We had a lot of fun reading and reviewing these books–it’s a good selection this year.

Wolf Hollow [Melanie’s review]

This story takes place during World War II (again!), but in a small town in America that remains relatively unaffected by the war. Annabelle is trying to figure out what to do about being bullied by Betty, who is new in town, as Betty’s actions become increasingly violent. Betty soon targets Toby, a veteran of the first World War who wanders silently through the town, mysterious, but harmless. Annabelle tries to protect Toby from Betty’s false accusations, but soon she and her family are caught up in a web of lies, trying desperately to bring the truth to light.

One thing I really liked about this book was how much Annabelle’s parents listened to and respected her. The conflict doesn’t come from Annabelle’s parents not believing her, but from everyone’s inability to prove Betty is lying. Betty is sadistic and manipulative, and the worst part is that people believe her lies. Through various twists, Wolf Hollow examines themes of prejudice, the power and limitations of the truth, and the nature of evil. In this intense coming of age story, Annabelle learns that the truth doesn’t always win, and good people aren’t always vindicated.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Girl Who Drank the Moon [Melanie’s review]

The people of the Protectorate have always feared the witch in the forest, who demands a baby from them every year. They are entirely unaware that Xan, the witch they so fear, rescues the babies, not knowing why they are abandoned. When she accidentally feeds one baby moonlight instead of starlight, imbuing her with magic, Xan knows she must raise the girl herself. Luna grows up with a swamp monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon as her companions, completely oblivious of her intense magical powers bubbling just beneath the surface, threatening to break out uncontrollably. When Luna’s peaceful life inevitably converges with the Protectorate, the true villain is revealed, and Luna must use her magic to save those she loves.

I haven’t loved a book as much as this one in a very long time. The villain is unexpected, and the characters are engaging, with their own backstories and motivations. Xan is wise but realistically flawed, Luna is energetic and self-oriented yet absolutely devoted to her family. The story combines classic fairy tale elements in new ways, creating a complex, well-developed world. If you like fairy tales, you need to check this one out!

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Inquisitor’s Tale [Monica’s review]

On a dark, stormy night in 1242, travelers at an inn share stories about their interactions with a group of three miraculous children. Each character has a different perspective on these children–are they saints, or are they participating in witchcraft? The three children each portray a different group of people who were downtrodden during the Middle Ages: Jeanne, who can see visions of the future, is female; supernaturally strong William is the son of a Saracen; and Jacob the healer suffers persecution for being Jewish. These three children, along with a greyhound who was raised from the dead, make their way across France, meeting everyone from priests to dragons to royalty.

This story pulls real-life characters and events from the Middle Ages, and even though it explores themes of racism and religious persecution, it keeps the story light and even humorous at times. The author’s historical notes are also fascinating and offer a great starting point for more study about this time period. I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Freedom Over Me [Monica’s review]

This picture book contains lovely free verse poems and illustrations about the lives of American slaves who are being sold after their master’s death. It is sad and beautiful, as you would imagine. Although the names of these enslaved people come from a historical document, the details about their lives come from the imagination of the author. Bryan does a great job of painting a picture (both literally and figuratively) of these people as human beings with dreams and goals, a history and a future, rather than objects to be bought and sold, as the historical bill of sale implies.

This is an important and beautiful book, and it deserves a place in this year’s Newbery books. Despite the fact that it is a picture book, the subject matter might make you want to save this book for slightly older children.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

May Small Goals + What I’m Into

I'm linking up to share my May small goals and what I'm into lately. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I’m linking up with writes like a girl for my May small goals, and Leigh Kramer for my monthly what I’m into.

First, a quick review of my small goals from April:

  • Prep for all the concerts! Check! The Easter performance and the big recital were a lot of work, but they turned out so nicely.
  • Start volunteering. Also check! I’m volunteering at a local refugee services center, offering my expertise in speaking English to their ESOL class. So far so good!
  • Do a spending freeze. Sort of. I’m counting this one as half complete, because knowing that I was supposed to be doing a spending freeze kept me from several frivolous online purchases, but I still managed to put in one Amazon order and eat out more than I’d like.

2.5/3 is not too bad! Now for my May small goals:

  • Survive my dental appointment. I have many medically-related fears, so my first appointment with a new dentist is at the very bottom of my list of things I want to do. If I can make it through the appointment and any follow-up procedures without passing out, it’ll be a miracle!
  • Plan something fun for Memorial Day weekend. This year I get Memorial Day weekend off (a wonderful bonus, since I work Saturdays and Mondays during the rest of the year), so I want to plan a quick weekend getaway with my husband. (I’m hoping this will give me something to look forward to as I suffer through dental anxiety!)
  • Get all the free things to celebrate my birthday! I’m signed up for so many mailing lists just so I can rake in all the freebies every May when my birthday rolls around. There’s nothing I like more than free food, so this is always a fun part of my birthday celebration.

What I’m Into

Book challenge updates: I’m participating in several book challenges this year, and seeing as we’re almost halfway through the year (how??), I thought I’d offer a quick update on how I’m doing with them. So far I’ve read 34/75 points worth of Newbery books and 1/12 classics.

Books I’m looking forward to reading: The most recent Flavia de Luce mystery is sitting by my bed right now, waiting for me to get a spare moment to read it.

TV shows I’ve been watching: One night when my husband was out with friends, I binged eight episodes of Parks and Rec. Now I’m only a few episodes away from finally finishing the series!

Podcast I’m loving: I finally started listening to S-Town, and I can totally see why everyone is so obsessed with it. It’s not for the faint of heart–there’s a significant amount of coarse language, including racial slurs, as well as described violence–but I’m really enjoying it so far. The story is gripping, of course (I wouldn’t expect anything less from the creators of Serial), but what I’m enjoying most is what a clear picture the podcast paints of rural, small town Southern life. It doesn’t shy away from the quirks, the beauty, the surprisingly intelligent residents, or the horrifyingly ignorant and/or racist residents.

My favorite Instagram:

One of my students brought me flowers for the recital, and I was so happy!

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Christmas in April!

These lovely collections of Christmas short stories are both worth reading and will brighten your holiday season. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I did actually read both of these lovely Christmas short story collections over Christmas break, which should tell you exactly how long it can take me to review the books I read. Despite the fact that Christmas is now several months away, I hope this post will inspire you to pick up these collections in anticipation!

Miracle

As always, I’ll read anything Connie Willis writes! This book consists of a wide variety of fun Christmas short stories. Willis is very familiar with Christmas stories from It’s a Wonderful Life to the nativity, and she creates imaginative retellings and original stories, many of which have her signature SFF spin. Connie Willis discusses in the introduction how much she enjoys Christmas stories, and that shines through in each tale in this collection.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

I absolutely loved this huge collection of mysteries! I read a few almost every day in December; they just feel so festive. There are short stories from famous authors (of course Agatha Christie is represented here) and lesser-known authors alike, and the mysteries are organized by category, so whether you want something pulpy, something scary, something funny, or something traditional, there are stories here for you. If you are at all interested in mysteries and the Christmas holiday, I highly suggest picking up this book.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Review Copy: Four Puddings and a Funeral

A quick review of the latest H.Y. Hanna mystery, Four Puddings and a Funeral. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book from the author. All opinions are my own.

Business is going well at Gemma Rose’s quaint English teashop and she’s delighted about her first big catering job at a local village funeral… until the day ends with a second body and one of the Old Biddies accused of murder! Now the resourceful tearoom sleuth must find out which delicious pudding contained the deadly arsenic—and who might have wanted the wealthy widow dead…
But Gemma has other troubles to contend with, from her naughty cat, Muesli, running loose in her tearoom to an unexpected hedgehog guest in her home—and that’s before the all-important “meet the parents” dinner with her handsome detective boyfriend turns into a total disaster! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

The latest installment in the Oxford Teashop series (you can read my many other reviews of these books here, here, here, here, here, and here) finds Gemma involved in yet another murder investigation. This time, a much-hated woman is poisoned at her own husband’s funeral, and one of Gemma’s catered desserts was the chosen murder weapon.

As always, Gemma is reluctant to get involved in solving the mystery, but one of the Old Biddies, the nosy but sweet old ladies who sometimes help Gemma run her tea shop, is accused of the murder. Meanwhile, Gemma and her boyfriend, police detective Devlin, try to rebuild their relationship through a lot of trust issues.

Gemma and her friends are, as usual, fun characters to follow, and this murder mystery had a satisfying conclusion. I was glad, too, that Gemma and Devlin had a bit of personal resolution in this book (and an interesting set up for later books!). If you’ve enjoyed previous installments in this series, Four Puddings and a Funeral won’t disappoint.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Roundup: April

My latest Newbery reads--some old, some new. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing to slog through the backlist of Newbery books. Whether through ILL, Paperback Swap, or my own library’s collection, I’m slowly but surely working my way through. I’ll be honest–most of these older books don’t capture my imagination the way the newer ones do, so I’m going to keep these reviews short. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Pran of Albania

Pran is a daughter of the sturdy mountain tribes of Albania – old enough to be betrothed in accordance with the ancient tribal traditions. This is the story of Pran and her life in the mountains and the refugee barracks at Skodra; of her friend, the laughing blue-eyed Nush and his secret; of her adventures in war times and peace, of her betrothal and the strange vow she takes.

This book offers an interesting look at Albania and women’s roles there one hundred years ago. I have no idea how accurate Pran is in describing Albanian life or whether the author had any experience living in or studying Albania, so I’m not sure I can recommend it. The story itself is not super memorable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Zlateh the Goat

Chelm is a village of fools. The most famous fools—the oldest and the greatest—are the seven Elders. But there are lesser fools too: a silly irresponsible bridegroom; four sisters who mix up their feed in bed one night; a young man who imagines himself dead. Here are seven magical folktales spun by a master storyteller, that speak of fools, devils, schlemiels, and even heroes—like Zlateh the goat.

I actually enjoyed this one. It’s a cute, funny collection of folk stories about foolish characters doing silly things. Some of these stories will probably be familiar to you; others will be brand new. It’s worth a look if you like silly folk tales.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Journey Outside

Grandfather said they were headed for the Better Place, but Dilar suspected they were headed nowhere, simply following the dark underground river blindly. And so one night he leaped onto a shelf of rock and watched the flotilla of the Raft People disappear. And from there he found his way Outside, into a world so beautiful and strange he could only suppose he had died-a world of day, and sun, of trees and sky.

Weird is the only word I have to describe this book. It’s possibly an allegory about what kind of life will provide happiness, or possibly just a fantasy story about Dilar’s adventures Outside and the different people he meets. It’s well written, of course, but incredibly strange. It wasn’t for me.

Rating: Meh

Frog and Toad Together

Frog and Toad are best friends—they do everything together. When Toad admires the flowers in Frog’s garden, Frog gives him seeds to grow a garden of his own. When Toad bakes cookies, Frog helps him eat them. And when both Frog and Toad are scared, they are brave together.

So cute! I love the illustrations and the silly, sweet relationship between Frog and Toad. If you haven’t read any of the books in this series yet, you definitely should. You and your child are sure to love them too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Fine White Dust

How much do you have to give up to find yourself?When Pete first sets eyes on the Man, he’s convinced he’s an ax murderer. But at the revival meeting, Pete discovers that the Man is actually a savior of souls, and Pete has been waiting all his life to be saved.

It’s not something Pete’s parents can understand. Certainly his best friend, Rufus, an avowed atheist, doesn’t understand. But Pete knows he can’t imagine life without the Man. So when the Man invites Pete to join him on his mission, how can Pete say no — even if it means leaving behind everything he’s ever loved?

This is another Newbery book that was just weird. I’m not a fan of this story, which is about a boy who falls under the spell of an itinerant gospel preacher. I kept wanting to grab Pete by the shoulders and yell at him, “This is not what religion is about!!” It’s just creepy to think about the preacher wanting to spend so much time with this little boy and eventually trying to convince him to leave town and join him in his preaching. *shudders*

Rating: Meh

Incident at Hawk’s Hill

Six-year-old Ben is very small for his age, and gets along better with animals than people. One June day in 1870, Ben wanders away from his home on Hawk’s Hill and disappears into the waving prairie grass. This is the story of how a shy, lonely boy survives for months in the wilds and forges a bond with a female badger.

This is the story of Ben, a six year old who relates more to animals than to humans, spending an entire summer with a badger. You all know how I feel about animal stories (in general, I hate them), and this book is exactly why. I don’t pick up books to read about how a badger feels about life. If the animals don’t talk, I don’t care. If you do like animals or survival stories, you might enjoy this book. It just wasn’t for me.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Fiction Roundup

A huge review roundup of all the adult fiction novels I've read over the past four months. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve read a large amount of adult fiction novels over the past couple of months. Typically, children’s and MG fiction is more my style, but since joining a book club in December, my adult fiction consumption has gone through the roof. Several of the books I review in this post were book club reads. From historical fiction to fantasy, from mystery to comedy, there’s something for everyone in this roundup. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

Uprooted from their family home in the Dominican Republic, the four Garcia sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofia – arrive in New York City in 1960 to find a life far different from the genteel existence of maids, manicures, and extended family they left behind. What they have lost – and what they find – is revealed in the fifteen interconnected stories that make up this exquisite novel from one of the premier novelists of our time.

The Garcia girls each get a chance to tell their story, weaving from the present to the past and back again. Their lives in New York and in the Dominican Republic take very different paths, and each of them has to come to terms with what each culture means to them. There are some uncomfortable moments in this book, but on the whole it does a great job of taking you on a journey with the Garcia family.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Frida

Capturing the essence of a ferociously gifted woman, Frida is a daring and brilliantly inventive novel about one of the most celebrated female artists of the 20th century.

This was one of our early book club reads. I knew a small amount about Frida Kahlo before reading this book, but I learned so much more as I made my way through. Frida offers an interesting fictionalized look at Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and their politics and art as seen from Frida’s sister Cristina’s point of view. You will probably hate both sisters and Diego most of all (I certainly did), but the knowledge I gained about these famous artists, their work, and the political situation in Mexico at the time made my time reading worth it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Bees

Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. Then she finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire, as overwhelming as it is forbidden…

This book is so weird! It’s about a dystopian bee society in which Flora is created to be a sanitation worker but has special skills meant only for the upper classes of bees. She can talk and produce Flow, so she is sent to work in the Nursery. She meets the Queen, becomes a forager, and even starts illegally laying eggs. Everything in this book is seen from the viewpoint of bees, and according to the guy in our book club who has a fascination with beekeeping, the author does a great job of incorporating real bee behavior into the story.

If you’re looking for an off-beat dystopian novel, or if you’re really interested in bees, this is the book for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde’s bestselling Thursday Next series has delighted readers of every genre with its literary derring-do and brilliant flights of fancy. In The Big Over Easy, Fforde takes a break from classic literature and tumbles into the seedy underbelly of nursery crime. Meet Inspector Jack Spratt, family man and head of the Nursery Crime Division. He’s investigating the murder of ovoid D-class nursery celebrity Humpty Dumpty, found shattered to death beneath a wall in a shabby area of town. Yes, the big egg is down, and all those brittle pieces sitting in the morgue point to foul play.

I love every Jasper Fforde book I’ve ever picked up, and this one was no exception. This series is tangentially related to the Thursday Next series, but there’s no time travel here. Instead, we get a detective who investigates fairy tale crimes. This book has the same tongue-in-cheek humor and fun fantasy as all of Fforde’s books, and it features funny, great characters as always. Pick this up if you enjoyed the Thursday Next series, or if you’re just looking for a fun, quirky fantasy.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dead Man’s Folly

Ariadne Oliver, Queen of Crime Fiction, has been asked to devise a “Murder Hunt” for a fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs. But she begins to suspect that someone is manipulating the scenario of her game and fears that something very sinister is being planned.

She sends for her old friend Hercule Poirot. At first he is not inclined to take her very seriously but soon a series of events propels him to change his mind.

Then suddenly all Ariadne’s worst fears are realised when the girl playing the part of the murder victim is found strangled in the boat-house. For Hercule Poirot, the Murder Hunt has become a grim reality.

This Agatha Christie is a fun mystery set during a fete. Hercule Poirot must discover who took advantage of Mrs. Oliver’s murder hunt and why. It’s one of those classic Christie mysteries that will keep you guessing until the end. Not my favorite (that honor goes to one of these other Agatha Christies), but it was certainly enjoyable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Fans around the world adore the best-selling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its proprietor, Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective. In this charming series, Mma Ramotswe—with help from her loyal associate, Grace Makutsi—navigates her cases and her personal life with wisdom, good humor, and the occasional cup of tea.

I just started reading this series, and now I’m obsessed with it. It offers simple but lovely writing and small mysteries interspersed with backstory about life in Botswana. Mma Ramotswe is a wonderfully practical and kind detective, and the setting is one I have yet to get tired of reading about. If you enjoy the first book (and I bet you will), good news! There are currently 17 books in the series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Doomsday Book

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.

As always, Connie Willis is great. This book is sad–it’s about the Black Plague and a modern-day influenza epidemic–but still enjoyable. If you have read and enjoyed any of Connie Willis’s other historical fiction time travel series, you must add this one to your list.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Ruby Lennox begins narrating her life at the moment of conception, and from there takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an English girl determined to learn about her family and its secrets.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is one of my all-time favorite books, so it’s surprising that I waited this long to read any of her other work. Atkinson does an amazing job of intertwining the members of Ruby’s family, going back and forth from Ruby’s life to the history of her ancestors. Many are foolish, hurtful, or worse, but there’s a lot of humor too. The dark mysteries of deaths and disappearances are slowly revealed in such a way that you think you must have known it all along.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

(I’m sneaking this book on this list, even though it’s actually a memoir rather than adult fiction, because it was our latest book club read.) This book made me so angry! Jeannette’s alcoholic father and irresponsible mother let her and her three siblings starve, freeze, live in filth, and even be molested without giving up their vices of liquor, chocolate, and luxuries. It’s one of those memoirs that you can’t put down because it’s such a train wreck. Amazingly, Jeannette learns to rise above her upbringing and tells her story with grace and kindness, even toward her parents.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

American Gods (author’s preferred edition)

Locked behind bars for three years, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. But just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home, an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself.

Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver, and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined—it is a job that takes him on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. Along the way Shadow will learn that the past never dies; that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends, and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, he will discover that beneath the placid surface of everyday life a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and that he is standing squarely in its path.

This book has intimidated me for years, partly because of the length and partly because, in an aborted attempt to read it, I came across a weird sex scene that truly icked me out. This scene is still there (obviously), and there’s a fair amount of cursing, so please be aware if you decide to pick this book up.

Still, if you can get past that, there’s a lot to like. This has all of the rambling, strange, fantastical elements that Neil Gaiman is so good at describing. Shadow was an interesting character, as were all the gods. Even if you’re not familiar with all of the mythologies discussed in the book (everything from Norse gods to Hindu gods to gods I didn’t recognize), you’ll be drawn in as they map out the United States as their battleground. My favorite part was the Rock City battle, because Gaiman does such a good job of describing the beautiful and strange experience of being there.

I’m not sure how to recommend this book. Give it a shot for the first few chapters and see if it’s for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Meet Bridget Jones—a 30-something Singleton who is certain she would have all the answers if she could:

a. lose 7 pounds
b. stop smoking
c. develop Inner Poise

Bridget Jones’ Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget’s permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR.

This is a modern day classic, so even though I didn’t like the movie, I knew I’d have to pick it up someday. Honestly, I felt the same way about the book as I did about the movie–it’s sort of funny, but definitely outdated. I wouldn’t bother reading it unless you, like me, feel the need to experience this cultural touchstone for yourself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Review Copy: Jesper Jinx

Jesper Jinx is always getting in trouble! Whether at home or at school, Jesper always finds a way to liven things up. #spon | Review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are my own.

Jesper Jinx is eleven, and probably the unluckiest person in all of Puffington Hill. Everything he touches seems to end up in sweet disaster. Hence his nickname ‘Jinx’.

In this first book of Jesper Jinx’s wonderfully wicked adventures you’re going to meet Jesper’s family and Snowy the Cat. Also, there’s a mysterious new classmate with a moustache. And it’s up to Jesper to launch his famous Boredom Breaker.

As Jesper so frequently says, ‘What harm would it do to have a little fun?’ (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is the first in a series about Jesper Jinx, who is always getting himself in trouble. Each section in this short book covers a different misadventure Jesper finds himself involved in. Whenever things get too boring, Jesper kicks off a “boredom breaker,” which always ends up getting him and the people around him into some sort of shenanigans. Whether he is dying the cat’s fur red or playing pranks on his teacher, Jesper always finds a way of making life interesting. The story is cute, and the writing style is perfect for young kids.

Some of the scenarios Jesper encounters are a bit unbelievable, so I think this series is best suited to small children. They will be sure to love Jesper’s crazy adventures, which can liven up even the most boring rainy day at home.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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