It’s been a while since I posted a review! Life has been crazy in the best ways (and also in some of the not so great ways) since I last posted, but I’m hoping to get back on a regular posting schedule now. I’m starting off with a quick roundup of my recent middle grades reads. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)
The Artsy Mistake Mystery
*Note: I received this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
Outdoor art is disappearing all over the neighbourhood! From elaborate Halloween decorations to the Stream of Dreams fish display across the fence at Stephen and Renée’s school, it seems no art is safe. Renée’s brother, Attila, has been cursing those model fish since he first had to make them as part of his community service. So everyone thinks Attila is behind it when they disappear. But, grumpy teen though he is, Attila can do no wrong in Renée’s eyes, so she enlists Stephen’s help to catch the real criminal.
This book is a cute follow-up to the previous mistake mystery. Stephen and Renee have to discover who has been stealing art from around the neighborhood and clear Renee’s brother Attila’s name. Just as in the previous book, The Artsy Mistake Mystery shows how Stephen gains control of his anxiety by counting his and others’ mistakes and by realizing that it’s okay to make them.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman
At first glance, Duncan Dorfman, April Blunt, and Nate Saviano don’t seem to have much in common. Duncan is trying to look after his single mom and adjust to life in a new town while managing his newfound Scrabble superpower – he can feel words and pictures beneath his fingers and tell what they are without looking. April is pining for a mystery boy she met years ago and striving to be seen as more than a nerd in her family of jocks. And homeschooled Nate is struggling to meet his father’s high expectations for success.
When these three unique kids are brought together at the national Youth Scrabble Tournament, each with a very different drive to win, their paths cross and stories intertwine . . . and the journey is made extraordinary with a perfect touch of magic. Readers will fly through the pages, anxious to discover who will take home the grand prize, but there’s much more at stake than winning and losing.
This is a fun story about kids participating in a Scrabble tournament. Each of them has a different backstory, from the boy whose father wants redemption for his own Scrabble tournament loss to the girl who feels left out of her super athletic family to the boy who can read the letters of the tiles with his fingertips. Even if you’re not into Scrabble, it’s interesting to watch as the kids (and some of the adults) struggle with ethical dilemmas, making friends, and of course memorizing words.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
When Lonnie Collins Motion “Locomotion” was seven years old, his life changed forever. Now he’s eleven, and his life is about to change again. His teacher, Ms. Marcus, is showing him ways to put his jumbled feelings on paper. And suddenly, Lonnie has a whole new way to tell the world about his life, his friends, his little sister Lili, and even his foster mom, Miss Edna, who started out crabby but isn’t so bad after all.
Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful poetry (mostly free verse, but also haikus, sonnets, epistles, and more) tells the story of a young boy whose parents died in a fire and whose sister is in a different foster home. Lonnie uses his poetry to deal with tragedy, find his voice, and find home. This book is sad but lovely, a quick read that will stick with you long after you put it down.
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, 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.
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.
This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures.
The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won’t they? One thing’s for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
This lovely series of four books follows the Penderwick sisters as they grow up. Responsible, serious Rosalind, stubborn Skye, dreamy and imaginative Jane, and little Batty give a sweet picture of how sisters relate to each other, whether on vacation or during enormous life changes.
Each book in this series is set in a different time in the Penderwick family’s life. The first book follows the girls, their father, and their dog Hound as they set off on a family vacation that introduces them to their new best friend Jeffrey (and gets the sisters in and out of a lot of trouble!). Following stories discuss the family’s school year at home, a summer vacation that reveals several surprises, and a spring semester several years later. Even though later books in the series have different perspectives, they all offer sweet sisterly relationships and fun adventures.
I found these stories reminiscent of Hilary McKay‘s flawed, rambunctious, loving families (with the added bonus that there are no truly hate-able characters like the Casson family’s father). Throughout the series, there are additions to the family (such as Jeffrey, who becomes almost like a brother to the girls), but the four sisters remain at the core of each story. Although there are revealed secrets, drama, and difficult life changes in each book, the stories remain fun and light, even as they discuss the difficulties of growing up.
I’d recommend these books to kids who feel at home reading timeless stories with a focus on family relationships and lighthearted hijinks. If that description appeals to you, you’ll probably enjoy this series no matter what your age.
Note: I received a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
The streets of Chicago in 1886 are full of turmoil. Striking workers clash with police…illness and injury lurk around every corner…and twelve-year-old Addie must find her way through it all. Torn between her gruff Papa—who owns a hat shop and thinks the workers should be content with their American lives—and her beloved Uncle Chaim—who is active in the protests for the eight-hour day—Addie struggles to understand her topsy-turvy world, while also keeping her family intact. Set in a Jewish neighborhood of Chicago during the days surrounding the Haymarket Affair, this novel vividly portrays one immigrant family’s experience, while also eloquently depicting the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots. (Summary via publisher)
This book covers the time period in Chicago when workers were striking for an eight-hour day and a safer work environment, a topic I knew little about. Addie and her family face tensions related to the strike, as well as illness, injury, and their immigrant experience. The characters in City of Grit and Gold are wonderful, especially Addie, our main character. She is curious and resilient, despite the fact that her father and brother are constantly arguing, her mother never leaves the house, and her uncle is living in danger on the streets.
The book captures many aspects of this time period, from the illnesses and injuries that we think nothing of now but were life-threatening then to the struggles of the poor to scrape by in a world run by the rich. Through it all, Addie keeps asking questions and fighting to help those who need her help–even when her actions meet with disapproval.
Middle grades readers who are interested in historical fiction will enjoy City of Grit and Gold. The characters and the setting are both wonderful.
Get ready for an enormous nonfiction roundup post! I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately–everything from history to parenting to religion to memoirs–and I haven’t had time to review them. Until today! Take a look at these short reviews if you’re looking to add to your nonfiction list. I’m sure you’ll find something to interest you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)
What happens when Jesus interrupts the average life? Interrupted encourages believers to ask if their lives bring integrity to the gospel. Follow the faith journey of author and fellow disciplemaker Jen Hatmaker and rediscover Jesus among the least of us.
This was my first Jen Hatmaker book, and I immediately fell in love. Interrupted is an amazingly powerful look at what Christianity can and should be like–giving to and serving the people in our communities and around the world. It will break your heart as you look at how privileged we are in the U.S., but it will also give you hope. Jen’s journey pairs statistics with stories in a way that made me feel slightly optimistic for the future of American Christianity.
Rating: Re-read Worthy
7 is the true story of how Jen (along with her husband and her children to varying degrees) took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.
Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. They would spend thirty days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for one month, adopt seven green habits, and observe “seven sacred pauses.” So, what’s the payoff from living a deeply reduced life? It’s the discovery of a greatly increased God—a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends social experiment to become a radically better existence.
I quickly followed up Interrupted with 7, an earlier Jen Hatmaker book. This one is a little less sweeping, as it focuses mainly on Jen and her family as they attempt to simplify and streamline their lives. The idea of living sustainably and simply as a way of following God is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and this book offers a lot of great ideas on how to simplify different categories of life.
Rating: Re-read Worthy
The Gift of Failure
This groundbreaking manifesto focuses on the critical school years when parents must learn to allow their children to experience the disappointment and frustration that occur from life’s inevitable problems so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.
You know I love books about learning well and parenting well, and whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or both, this book has some wonderful advice. The Gift of Failure looks at how failure and hard work is the best way for kids to learn how to succeed (in education jargon, it focuses on autonomy-supportive parenting and fostering a growth mindset). As someone who has seen the huge difference a fixed mindset or a growth mindset can make in my students, I loved this book. It made me even more confident in my decision to always praise hard work instead of talent, and I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it when I have kids of my own.
Rating: Re-read Worthy
In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.
Apparently I’m not a huge Brene Brown fan. Like the last book of hers I read, I found Daring Greatly well written but not super revelatory. (To be totally honest, I got bored about halfway through and remember very little about the book.)
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Choose Your Own Autobiography
Tired of memoirs that only tell you what really happened? Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. You will be born in New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp. You will get into a bizarre confrontation outside a nightclub with actor Scott Caan. Even better, at each critical juncture of your life, you will choose how to proceed.
Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song.
Apparently I’m not a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan either… The idea is awesome: You can live NPH’s life as if it were a choose your own adventure book, but I just didn’t care enough about his life to be completely sucked in. Of course, NPH is a funny guy, and his reflections on life in Hollywood and the paths his life could have taken are fun to read, but I was expecting something more than just a few laughs.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Stones into Schools
In this dramatic first-person narrative, Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003, recounting his relentless, ongoing efforts to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; his extensive work in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan after a massive earthquake hit the region in 2005; and the unique ways he has built relationships with Islamic clerics, militia commanders, and tribal leaders. He shares for the first time his broader vision to promote peace through education and literacy, as well as touching on military matters, Islam, and women-all woven together with the many rich personal stories of the people who have been involved in this remarkable two-decade humanitarian effort.
Stones into Schools is filled with fascinating stories of how the author and his team face danger (and bureaucracy) in order to build schools so girls in Afghanistan can learn. This book is packed with adventure, danger, humor, and tears. It offers a bit of history about the region in which Greg works, but this history is tied closely to the modern-day stories of the people who live there, so it never gets boring. If you’re interested in girls’ education in the Middle East, this book is for you (and no, you don’t have to have read Three Cups of Tea first).
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.
Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.
Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives – and their country’s future.
You’ve probably heard of this book, as it’s the basis for the recent blockbuster film of the same name. Hidden Figures offers a view on an interesting, little-known part of history–the African-American women who put Americans on the moon. Some of the book was a bit dry for me, unfortunately.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Anne Frank Remembered
The reminiscences of Miep Gies, the woman who hid the Frank family in Amsterdam during the Second World War, presents a vivid story of life under Nazi occupation.
This is a powerful look at Anne Frank by the woman who hid her family. I learned a lot about the events of WWII in the Netherlands; I hadn’t realized how much they suffered during the war. Miep describes her relationship with the Frank family and her struggles to stay alive and resist the Nazis even after Anne and her family were taken. It’s a tragic story, of course, but also fascinating. I love that we get to hear a piece of history from someone who witnessed it all first hand.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
A Year of Living Prayerfully
Jared Brock sensed that something was missing in his prayer life, so he embarked on a yearlong journey to rediscover the power of prayer (and eat some delicious falafel).
FOLLOW JARED ON A 37,000-MILE TRIP AROUND THE WORLD AS HE…
* Dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn
* Discovers the 330-year-old home of Brother Lawrence
* Burns his clothes at the end of the world
* Attends the world’s largest church
* Attempts fire walking (with only minor burns)
When I first picked up this book, I thought it might be gimmicky, but I was surprised at the depth the author sometimes reached. It gives an interesting look at prayer traditions from everyone from the Hasidic Jews to the Holy Land to Greek Orthodox to the Quakers to “outer fringe” people. As Jared meets Christians from around the world and from different faith traditions, he tries each of their prayer traditions in order to grow closer to God. Just be aware that this book is more of a memoir than a “how-to” book.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
French Kids Eat Everything
French Kids Eat Everything is a wonderfully wry account of how Karen Le Billon was able to alter her children’s deep-rooted, decidedly unhealthy North American eating habits while they were all living in France.
At once a memoir, a cookbook, a how-to handbook, and a delightful exploration of how the French manage to feed children without endless battles and struggles with pickiness, French Kids Eat Everything features recipes, practical tips, and ten easy-to-follow rules for raising happy and healthy young eaters.
The information this book offers on how French children are taught to enjoy foods of all kinds (and never snack or eat without an adult’s permission) was very interesting. I have a fascination with French parenting and plan on trying out some of their ideas with my own kids someday. However, I found the author whiny and inflexible and her kids spoiled. Despite her insistence on moving to France to be near her husband’s family, she refuses to help her kids assimilate to French food culture, and she herself is a very picky eater. I wish this book had been more how-to and less memoir, because I couldn’t stand the author.
Rating: Good but Forgettable
Symphony for the City of the Dead
In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.
This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.
This book is about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and work during Stalin’s rise to power and the Stalingrad siege. As a music major, I already knew a fair bit about Shostakovich’s music, so I found it fascinating to learn more about his life in Soviet Russia. I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and I loved that it interjects bits of Shostakovich’s music as they discuss it. Some parts are gruesome and horrifying, so although Symphony for the City of the Dead is geared toward a YA audience, be forewarned in case you (or your child) is not prepared to read about cannibalism.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Liar Temptress Soldier Spy
Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.
After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.
Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.
This book talks about the women soldiers and spies who were active during the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. Their stories are interesting, especially considering that during this time, women were not expected (or allowed) to do many of the things these women did. If you’re interested in the Civil War, this book will give you a new perspective.
Note: I received each of the books below for free from the publisher or author. All opinions are my own. All summaries via NetGalley, unless otherwise noted.
I miiiiight have gotten carried away with the number of ARCs I requested in January! I’ve finally gotten around to writing quick reviews for each of them. Several of them are so good, and I can’t wait for you all to get the chance to read them!
Journey on a Runaway Train and The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll
In this all-new very special mini-series, the Aldens have been recruited by a secret society to return lost artifacts and treasures to their rightful locations—all around the world! After finding a painted turtle figurine, the Aldens are introduced to the Silverton family and Reddimus Society, a secret guild whose mission is to return lost artifacts and treasures to the sites they were taken from. The Aldens board a private train to New Mexico to return the turtle to its original home, and they encounter enemies of Reddimus along the way! The trip is a success… but instead of returning home, there’s a last-minute change in plans. The Boxcar Children must continue the mission for the society and deliver more things, all around the globe!
This is a modern-day continuation of the Boxcar Children series. I loved this series as a child, so of course I picked up these two books, the first in a short series featuring Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny’s travels around the world.
I must say, I forgot how shallow the writing is for these books and how little adult supervision the kids get. Reading as an adult, it seems kind of ridiculous! Still, if I were a kid reading this, I’d enjoy the travel to different countries and the mysteries the children face. Don’t read it for nostalgic reasons, though–some memories should be left in the past.
The phenomenon of desperate refugees risking their lives to reach safety is not new. For hundreds of years, people have left behind family, friends, and all they know in hope of a better life. This book presents five true stories about young people who lived through the harrowing experience of setting sail in search of asylum: Ruth and her family board the St. Louis to escape Nazism; Phu sets out alone from war-torn Vietnam; José tries to reach the U.S. from Cuba; Najeeba flees Afghanistan and the Taliban; Mohamed, an orphan, runs from his village on the Ivory Coast. Aimed at middle grade students, Stormy Seas combines a contemporary collage-based design, sidebars, fact boxes, timeline and further reading to produce a book that is ideal for both reading and research. Readers will gain new insights into a situation that has constantly been making the headlines.
This book is a beautifully designed middle grades picture book about real kids who became refugees and escaped their homeland by boat. These short stories, about children from Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, and more, are sad and encouraging and very timely. Stormy Seas would be a great conversation starter with your children.
Daughter of the Pirate King
When the ruthless Pirate King learns of a legendary treasure map hidden on an enemy ship, his daughter, Alosa, knows that there’s only one pirate for the job—herself. Leaving behind her beloved ship and crew, Alosa deliberately facilitates her own kidnapping to ensure her passage on the enemy ship. After all, who’s going to suspect a seventeen-year-old girl locked in a cell?
Then she meets the (surprisingly perceptive and unfairly attractive) first mate, Riden, who is charged with finding out all her secrets. Now it’s down to a battle of wits and will… Can Alosa find the map and escape before Riden figures out her plan?
If you’re into YA romance that focuses on pirates and sirens and spying and forbidden love, this is probably the book for you. I’m not a huge romance fan, but I enjoyed the half pirate, half siren protagonist Alosa and her budding romance with Riden as she finds herself taken captive on a rival ship.
Fly By Night
Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. Mosca Mye was born at a time sacred to Goodman Palpitattle, He Who Keeps Flies out of Jams and Butterchurns, which is why her father insisted on naming her after the housefly. He also insisted on teaching her to read—even in a world where books are dangerous, regulated things. Eight years later, Quillam Mye died, leaving behind an orphaned daughter with an inauspicious name and an all-consuming hunger for words. Trapped for years in the care of her cruel Uncle Westerly and Aunt Briony, Mosca leaps at the opportunity for escape, though it comes in the form of sneaky swindler Eponymous Clent. As she travels the land with Clent and her pet goose, Saracen, Mosca begins to discover complicated truths about the world she inhabits and the power of words.
Mosca and Eponymous Clent are great characters who find themselves on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the powerful guilds. Mosca is a young, beaten-down girl who is pretty much alone in the world, so she attaches herself to conman Eponymous Clent. But Clent is entangled in some dangerous circumstances, and Mosca finds herself wondering who she can trust. This is the kind of fantasy I can get behind!
Shannon and Adrienne have been best friends ever since they were little. But one day, Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in class and the leader of a circle of friends called The Group. Everyone in The Group wants to be Jen’s #1, and some girls would do anything to stay on top . . . even if it means bullying others.
Now every day is like a roller coaster for Shannon. Will she and Adrienne stay friends? Can she stand up for herself? And is she in The Group—or out?
This is such a sweet story about growing up, making friends, breaking up with mean friends, and getting along with aggressive siblings. Shannon Hale is one of my favorite authors, and I loved hearing about her totally relatable childhood. Plus, this graphic novel is filled with lovely art by LeUyen Pham. Middle grades kids–especially girls–will love this one.
Witch Chocolate Fudge
Since arriving in the tiny Cotswolds village of Tillyhenge, Caitlyn is discovering that there are lots of perks to being a witch (although sadly, magic still can’t make your thighs thinner or stop you acting like an idiot every time you meet handsome “lord of the manor”, James Fitzroy).
But when the nasty housekeeper at Huntingdon Manor is murdered and Caitlyn becomes the main suspect, she finds herself surrounded by suspicious villagers. With the help of her sassy American cousin, a mischievous black kitten and a slobbering English mastiff – not to mention the old village witch and her shop of enchanted chocolates – Caitlyn sets out to clear her name. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
I did enjoy the first book in H.Y. Hanna’s new magical cozy mystery series, but unfortunately this one is not as good as the first one. There are some strange plot points, and the murderer seems to come out of nowhere (and not in a good way). Still, I enjoyed the characters and the touches of magic (who wouldn’t want magical chocolate?), and I hope that in the next book, the plot will perk up.
The Other F Word
Milo has two great moms, but he’s never known what it’s like to have a dad. When Milo’s doctor suggests asking his biological father to undergo genetic testing to shed some light on Milo’s extreme allergies, he realizes this is a golden opportunity to find the man he’s always wondered about.
Hollis’s mom Leigh hasn’t been the same since her other mom, Pam, passed away seven years ago. But suddenly, Leigh seems happy—giddy, even—by the thought of reconnecting with Hollis’s half-brother Milo. Hollis and Milo were conceived using the same sperm donor. They met once, years ago, before Pam died.
Now Milo has reached out to Hollis to help him find their donor. Along the way, they locate three other donor siblings, and they discover the true meaning of the other F-word: family.
This book offers compelling characters in an interesting situation. Hollis and Milo begin to contact their half-siblings and search for their sperm donor (Milo enthusiastically, Hollis reluctantly), and almost despite themselves, they and their families begin forming bonds with these long-lost relatives. It’s a subject I’ve never read about before, and I really enjoyed it.
Close Enough to Touch
One time a boy kissed me and I almost died…
And so begins the story of Jubilee Jenkins, a young woman with a rare and debilitating medical condition: she’s allergic to other humans. After a humiliating near-death experience in high school, Jubilee has become a recluse, living the past nine years in the confines of the small town New Jersey house her unaffectionate mother left to her when she ran off with a Long Island businessman. But now, her mother is dead, and without her financial support, Jubilee is forced to leave home and face the world—and the people in it—that she’s been hiding from.
One of those people is Eric Keegan, a man who just moved into town for work. With a daughter from his failed marriage who is no longer speaking to him, and a brilliant, if psychologically troubled, adopted son, Eric’s struggling to figure out how his life got so off-course, and how to be the dad—and man—he wants so desperately to be. Then, one day, he meets a mysterious woman named Jubilee, with a unique condition…
Remember how I said earlier that I don’t really enjoy romances? Well, this book proved me wrong. Close Enough to Touch is a super sweet romance about Jubilee and her allergy to human touch, and her relationship with library patrons Eric and his son, Aja. Jubilee has to overcome her fears of being out in the world, while Eric comes to grips with the fact that he might be unable to keep Aja from harm.
Jubilee is a fun character who learns to love life and face her fears, despite her dangerous allergies, and she bonds deeply with Eric and Aja. This sweet romance will draw you in (and possibly make you cry).
Note: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
He’s an up-and-coming movie star, set to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot of the cult classic, Starfield. She’s a Starfield superfan whose blog is the perfect place for her to vent about the choice of pretty boy Darien for the new reboot (and to escape her awful stepmother and stepsisters). These unlikely friends unknowingly begin a You’ve Got Mail-esque texting relationship, but what will happen when they both arrive at the same con?
As you might have guessed, Geekerella is a Cinderella retelling. Elle can’t wait to graduate so she can leave behind her horrible stepmother and her gorgeous, snooty twin stepsisters. Her one solace is Starfield, the TV show that brought her mother and father together and which her father taught her to love before he died. The ball she wants to attend is cosplay at the con her father started, and her fairy godmother is Sage, her coworker at an appropriately pumpkin-themed food truck.
Meanwhile, Darien is nervous about portraying his hero, Carmindor, on the big screen. He’s being harassed by Starfield fans (including Elle) for not understanding the deep cult following the show has–they don’t know that before he was famous, he liked nothing better than to roam ExcelsiCon with his (now former) best friend. Desperately lonely, when Darien texts Elle on the mistaken assumption that she’s in charge of the con he’s being forced to attend, they start to bond over their shared love of the show.
I’ve talked before about how much I love You’ve Got Mail. The book I reviewed that touted itself as a food-themed You’ve Got Mail didn’t quite live up to expectations, but Geekerella absolutely did. Elle and Darien turn to each other when the stresses in their lives become too much, not knowing that they’re actually supposed to hate each other. As they get closer to meeting, this ratchets up the tension–what will they do when they realize he’s famous and she’s the blogger who’s trying to take him down?
The Geekerella spin on the old Cinderella tale works well for the most part, too. My biggest complaint about the book is how straight-up evil Elle’s stepmother is. We’ve seen the evil stepmother before; can’t we have a more nuanced, realistic version? There are plenty of ways a stepmother can be unknowingly cruel without actually trying to be horrible, as Catherine does. The stepsisters get a bit more nuance than the stepmother, but I felt that Elle’s family relationships left something to be desired. Fortunately, her friendship with quirky seamstress Sage allows for more depth.
On the other hand, I absolutely loved how Darien (the Geekerella prince) got a lot more to do than the original Cinderella prince. He struggles with being famous for playing a part on Seaside Cove that’s not even close to who he is, and he wants to prove to himself and the other Starfield fans that he can do justice to an iconic character, even at age eighteen. Darien’s relationships with his pushy, calculating manager (and father), his slightly incompetent handler, and his stoic bodyguard are all wonderful as well.
This is one of those books that, once I got about halfway through, I knew I was going to stay up late to finish reading. Not only are the characters interesting and sympathetic, but the romance is super sweet. Anyone who considers themselves a part of any fandom, anyone who has attended (or thought of attending) a con, will definitely enjoy this YA romance.
This week I’m posting a YA roundup of all the YA books I’ve read over the past couple of months. There have been some great ones that I’ve read recently, even though most of them are backlist–I’m slowly but surely working through my TBR list! (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)
I’ll Give You the Sun
Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.
This book was huge when it first came out, but it took me a long time to be convinced by the hype. Teen drama isn’t usually my thing (Everything, Everything is a notable exception). Still, once I finally picked up the book, I could see why it was so popular. I’ll Give You the Sun shows how Jude and Noah, twins who were once inseparable, play out the many ways you can hurt the ones you love the most.
There is a lot of drama here, and I found the book slow to start. Still, I thought the ending was nice. It tied everything together and, while it didn’t fix every problem, came pretty close to it. (For me, this is a good thing. Those who don’t like neat and tidy endings might have a problem with it.)
Rating: Good but Forgettable
The Young World
Welcome to New York, a city ruled by teens.
After a mysterious Sickness wipes out the rest of the population, the young survivors assemble into tightly run tribes. Jefferson, the reluctant leader of the Washington Square tribe, and Donna, the girl he’s secretly in love with, have carved out a precarious existence among the chaos.
But when a fellow tribe member discovers a clue that may hold the cure for the Sickness, five teens set out on a life-altering road trip, exchanging gunfire with enemy gangs, escaping cults and militias, braving the wilds of the subway – all in order to save humankind.
This dystopian novel was a fun addition to the long list of YA dystopian books I’ve read. A mysterious sickness kills everyone except teenagers, which keeps lifespans short and instability the norm. I loved Donna and Jefferson; the audio book that I listened to had great narrators for each of these main characters and provided two very different perspectives on the same event.
The plot–a mix between dystopian survival and coming-of-age road trip–kept me interested the whole time. The characters were fun and sympathetic, the love triangle that inevitably cropped up was short-lived and surprisingly mature, and the descriptions of the various gangs and tribes that developed throughout New York City added richness to the story. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a huge fan of the twist ending, and I probably won’t read the next book in the series. I’m content to think of this as a wonderful stand-alone novel.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.
Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.
I loved the heck out of this book. There’s a distinct Texas flavor to Dumplin’, making the setting almost as important as the characters. And speaking of which, the characters are all amazing. There’s the usual teen drama, romantic missteps, and falling out with friends, but (unusually for a YA novel) the characters actually make decent, logical decisions most of the time.
The story itself is fun–Will (or Dumplin’, as her mother calls her) is content with her body, until a super sweet (and conventionally attractive) boy starts flirting with her. As she struggles to stay comfortable in her own skin, Will finds herself joining the local beauty pageant and leading a group of misfits almost against her will as she attempts to deal with her changing relationships and the loss of a beloved family member.
This is definitely worth reading. Whether or not you can relate to Will’s struggles with her weight, you will almost certainly relate to her attempts to stay true to herself and allow herself to change at the same time.
Rating: Re-read Worthy
Egg & Spoon
Elena Rudina lives in the impoverished Russian countryside. Her father has been dead for years. One of her brothers has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army, the other taken as a servant in the house of the local landowner. Her mother is dying, slowly, in their tiny cabin. And there is no food. But then a train arrives in the village, a train carrying untold wealth, a cornucopia of food, and a noble family destined to visit the Tsar in Saint Petersburg — a family that includes Ekaterina, a girl of Elena’s age. When the two girls’ lives collide, an adventure is set in motion, an escapade that includes mistaken identity, a monk locked in a tower, a prince traveling incognito, and — in a starring role only Gregory Maguire could have conjured — Baba Yaga, witch of Russian folklore, in her ambulatory house perched on chicken legs.
This story sounds depressing at first glance, but there’s a humor to the writing which is really wonderful. Kat and Elena do a “Prince and the Pauper”-style swap, and Elena seizes the chance to better the lives of her family and friends. Meanwhile, spoiled, skeptical Kat meets up with Baba Yaga, the Russian witch.
I absolutely loved Baba Yaga! She was the funniest character throughout the book and the catalyst for a lot of the magical adventures the girls find themselves on. This is a fun fantasy for anyone with an interest in Russian folklore.
These books/comics don’t really have anything to do with each other than that they’re all focused on the art. I’m not usually a fan of comics, and there are very few graphic novels I’ve read so far, but the last few months have found me reading more books in those categories than normal! (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)
If you don’t know anything about the Adventure Time TV show, I’m not sure I can explain it to you. If you have seen the show, this series of comics is actually based on the show, not the other way around, so I’m sure you’ll find plenty of in jokes and such to keep you entertained. If you haven’t seen the show, well, neither have I, and I still found these comics really fun.
The characters and the plot are bizarre, but in a good way. The cotton candy-colored post-apocalyptic world is always presenting strange situations based only on Adventure Time logic. If you can put up with some weird and wacky stuff, you’ll probably enjoy these comics. If you like your stories to follow some semblance of real-world logic, maybe give these a pass.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Castle Waiting graphic novel tells the story of an isolated, abandoned castle, and the eccentric inhabitants who bring it back to life. A fable for modern times, Castle Waiting is a fairy tale that’s not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil, but about being a hero in your own home.
This graphic novel is full of funny, fairy tale-esque stories. None of them are the classic Snow White or Cinderella tales (although there is a modified version of Sleeping Beauty here), so you get the feeling of those medieval tales with fresh stories. Very fun.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
Adulthood is a Myth
If you haven’t been following Sarah’s Scribbles, you’re really missing out. Sarah captures the emotions of many broke, introverted Millennials in her hilarious web comic, and this book is a collection of new and old comics. It’s pretty much guaranteed to make you laugh.
Rating: Pretty Darn Good
P.S. Do you have any ideas for the next graphic novel or comic I should read? Let me know in the comments!