ARC Roundup: April 2018

It’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to blog that a lot of really wonderful ARCs I’ve received lately have gone un-reviewed–until today! Today’s roundup includes books about friendship, science fiction, and (of course) murder mysteries.

Death at the Selig Studios

The next book in the Emily Cabot series is set in 1909 and involves the blossoming film industry. Interestingly, Emily is very judgmental of the actors and actresses, thinking that the films are tawdry and for the working class. When Emily’s brother Alden, who is involved in the movies (and possibly with one of the actresses), is accused of murder, Emily is torn between her desire to vindicate her brother and her desire to make him face the consequences of his choices.

I like how the historical setting in this book made such a difference in the characters’ actions and attitudes, making it different from many historical fiction mysteries I’ve read in which the time period stays firmly in the background. If you enjoy the combination of historical fiction and murder mysteries, you might want to give this series a try.

Strawberries and Strangers

Dumped by her cheating husband, Jenny King is trying to build a new life in the small seaside town of Pelican Cove. Locals are lining up at the Boardwalk Café for her tasty cakes and muffins. But when her aunt is accused of killing a stranger, Jenny is forced to set her apron aside and put on her sleuthing cap.

Jenny battles with the cranky local sheriff and quirky local characters to get to the truth. Aided by her new friends, she will move heaven and earth to find out who the dead stranger was and what he was doing in Pelican Cove.

If you like cozy murder mysteries with friendly small towns, scenic settings, yummy food and a touch of romance, you will like Strawberries And Strangers. (Summary via the author)

Romance and mystery abound on a small island on the East Coast. After a murder at one of the most exclusive parties in this small town, Jenny splits her time between wrangling with the sheriff, whom she can’t seem to meet without arguing, and trying to prove the innocence of her aunt.

I enjoyed the island setting–you know I love a cozy mystery with a good setting–and the interesting characters who populate the island. I’m usually not a big fan of romance, so I didn’t care much about Jenny’s love life in the book, but I am curious about where it will go in future installments. If you prefer a modern cozy mystery over a historical one, this is a light, relaxing read.

Belong

This book about friendship was lovely; much better than I anticipated. The design of the book is beautiful, and the advice contained within goes far beyond the usual tips for making friends. Agrawal suggests that you go IN first and gently deal with your own baggage, discovering what kind of friends you’re looking for and what kind of friends you need to distance yourself from, before you go OUT and find these people in the real world. Some of her advice wasn’t great (I couldn’t fathom why the author is so against identifying as an introvert or extrovert when this can be such a helpful tool in understanding personality, especially since both types clearly want and need friends), but on the whole, I greatly enjoyed the book. If you want a book about making friends that avoids cliches and has a lovely design, I highly recommend this one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Fresh Ink

I really enjoyed this collection of YA short stories. Some are SFF, some are stories set in the real world, and all feature diverse characters of all kinds by many wonderful authors. I would love to read some full-length books by these authors (and, in fact, I have several of their novels on my TBR list!).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Apple Strudel Alibi

This book is a fun addition to the Oxford Tearoom series, in which Gemma and the Old Biddies go to Vienna and must solve a murder which takes place in their hotel. I missed the usual Oxford setting (always one of my favorite parts of the books in this series), but it was fun to see Gemma and some of our other favorite characters in a new setting. As always, the mystery and the characters are fun and lighthearted. If you’ve enjoyed other books in this series, you’ll like this one too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bob

Bob is a fun, short story of a girl rediscovering a childhood friend–who might just be a zombie. But this middle grades book isn’t scary. It’s fun and sweet and heartwarming and a little magical. It hasn’t stuck with me, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inventors at No. 8

George, also known as Lord Devonshire, is living in a crumbling house with only an old manservant for company, after the unlucky deaths of both his parents. When he reluctantly tries to sell his grandfather’s map, he meets up with Ada (a young Ada Lovelace) and Oscar, who loves painting and adventuring with his orangutan. They go on a wild adventure across Europe in order to find George’s lost family treasure, find Oscar’s pirate father, and save Ada from the organization who wishes her harm.

I liked Ada and her flying machine, but I found both orangutan-owning Oscar and curmudgeonly George to be irritating. Still, the group’s adventure was fun, and their friendship despite the frequently insensitive or hurtful comments they made to each other was a lot more realistic than most friendships in MG books.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow was hugely popular when it came out a couple of years ago. It took me a while to get to it, as I knew it was going to be depressing, but I finally read it. It wasn’t exactly eye-opening for me–I knew a fair amount of this information already–but from the buzz around the book, it seems like a lot of people weren’t aware. Today I’ve teamed up with my husband to ask him about his thoughts on some of the things I found interesting from The New Jim Crow. Although he hasn’t read the book, he spent a year working as a correctional officer, and his insights on life in prison are helpful in light of the contents of this book. I’ve chosen a few of my favorite quotes and takeaways from the book, and he has responded to several of them. (My own notes are in italics.)
Prisons “create crime rather than prevent it” — What a lot of people don’t realize is that prison has this tendency to teach people to do what they can get away with in order to make their lives even a little easier, largely because the system isn’t designed to be worked within. For instance, the facility that I worked at had housing units with one central HVAC system that had a thermostat that only the maintenance personnel had access to (even I, as the unit officer, couldn’t access it to make it more comfortable for myself). Often the inmates who were really cold at night would block their vents with cardboard to make it warmer, even if it was against policy. During morning inspection, on a regular basis, I would hear inmates get caught with blocked vents, and they were told that they would get written up. Many of the non security personnel or lower ranked command staff would say something along the lines of, “Do what you need to do to be comfortable at night, but make sure it’s down by inspection so I don’t have to write you up.” That attitude doesn’t exactly teach or reward people for working within the system, rather the opposite, and it was just one of many things that I saw day to day that showed how counterintuitive the American idea of rehabilitation is.
“Many offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years, and then shuttled from their decrepit, underfunded inner city schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”  —  I began working as a correctional officer right after graduating college, around the age of 23. A surprising amount of inmates in my general population unit were my age or younger, and they often told me about how they were shuffled from extended families to juvenile detention to the foster care system, until they found themselves in prison. It always showed itself as a socioeconomic thing. I rarely heard a story of how someone had an upbringing of affluence and advantage and ended up in prison. (The New Jim Crow states that, ironically, the poor and black citizens of our country “find it increasingly difficult to obtain education, especially now that funding for public education has been hard hit, due to exploding prison budgets.” If you want to learn more about how socioeconomic status, race, and school zoning are interconnected in ways that make it hard or impossible for students of color to get ahead, you must read The Shame of the Nation, which covers this topic in depth.)
Charges associated with parole, probation, etc. can’t be paid by felons who can’t get a job, so they often end up back in prison, where almost all their wages go toward room and board in the prison.  —  As a housing unit officer, I was directly in charge of two housing units that held 54 inmates apiece, so I was in direct contact with 108 convicted felons on a daily basis. I would estimate that at least half of those inmates were up for parole or release within five years. The lucky ones would talk about living with a cousin or their parents for a while. One guy talked about how a family member had a used car lot in Knoxville, so he’d give selling cars a try instead of cocaine. A lot of them simply talked about how their family was either dead or wanted nothing to do with them, and most their friends were either dead or in prison as well. These people usually said they were trying to get into a halfway house that might let them stay for a couple months, but had nothing in the way of job prospects or contacts. Our facility didn’t have much in the way of job training. They closed down the HVAC school while I was there, the culinary program was really small and usually only populated by inmates on good behavior (i.e. those who were often down for long sentences), and the GED program was usually run by people who couldn’t cut it teaching in a real school (like so many non-security positions in our facility). For inmates without a support system after getting out, all I saw was desperation and apprehension. I’m not surprised at all that the recidivism rate is so high in America.
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The main thing I took away from this book is how flawed our entire justice system is. From the policies our representatives make (so many policies, like the five year time limit on TANF, requiring an ID for voting, etc. seem legitimate until you look at how they affect the disenfranchised) to the police who enforce them (did you know that police can confiscate property whether or not you are eventually charged with a crime?) and the judges who sentence them (it’s amazing how much lawyers and the Supreme Court rely on upholding former cases and laws, even if they are clearly flawed), every step on the path to prison is filled with issues that need to be solved.

And these issues disproportionately affect black people, which is, of course, why the author calls mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow.” If you need stats, these are the ones that I found most shocking:

  • “In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.”
  • The United States currently imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
  • “The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.”

If mass incarceration and racial disparity in our judicial system are topics that you want to know more about, this book will inform you and outrage you. Definitely recommended.

Newbery Roundup: March 2018

I’m continuing to request all the oldest Newbery books through our amazing interlibrary loan, but since it takes time to get each book shipped to my library system, it has been slow going. These three books are the latest (oldest) Newbery honors I’ve been reading.

Jane’s Island

I enjoyed Jane’s Island a lot more than I anticipated. Ellen is hired to care for Jane, a free spirited girl spending the summer with her family in a scientific community on the water. Their summer is full of adventure, swimming, fishing, exploration, picnics, and science experiments. If you like old-fashioned children’s adventures like The Penderwicks and Swallows and Amazons, you’ll enjoy this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Out of the Flame

This historical fiction novel was all right, but I must say it took me a while to get into the story. In fact, I thought it started out really boring. The book follows Pierre, a page in the French court, who goes on adventures and tries to befriend Prince Henri. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I knew more of the actual history behind Pierre, the young princes, and the royal family in general.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Boy of the South Seas

This one was… okay. This book covers the adventures and travels of a Polynesian boy, but these are not very exciting. After accidentally stowing away on a boat, the boy is dropped off on an island near Tahiti, where he makes his home and learns more about the ways of both the island’s colonizers and his own people. The book is short, and not much happens. I can’t see many of today’s children becoming engrossed in the story.

Rating: Meh

Fiction Roundup: February 2018

An eclectic assortment of fiction books I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading an eclectic mix of fiction over the past two months, and they’ve all been enjoyable in different ways. But if you want to find out which book actually captured my imagination and kept me turning pages, scroll down to the end of this post!

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

What do a dead cat, a computer whiz-kid, an Electric Monk who believes the world is pink, quantum mechanics, a Chronologist over 200 years old, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (poet), and pizza have in common? Apparently not much; until Dirk Gently, self-styled private investigator, sets out to prove the fundamental interconnectedness of all things by solving a mysterious murder, assisting a mysterious professor, unravelling a mysterious mystery, and eating a lot of pizza – not to mention saving the entire human race from extinction along the way (at no extra charge).

This mystery/ghost story/sci fi novel by Hitchhiker’s Guide author, Douglas Adams, is just about what you would expect it to be. The book is funny and bizarre, and although it is (mostly) centered on earth rather than on space, it still has that science fiction/supernatural element that Adams is known for. If you’re looking for a quirky, entertaining book that defies strict genre classification, you’ll probably like this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Little Elvises

LA burglar Junior Bender has (unfortunately) developed a reputation as a competent private investigator for crooks. The unfortunate part about this is that regardless of whether he solves the crime or not, someone dangerous is going to be unhappy with him, either his suspect or his employer.

Now Junior is being bullied into proving aging music industry mogul Vinnie DiGaudio is innocent of the murder of a nasty tabloid journalist he’d threatened to kill a couple times. It doesn’t help that the dead journalist’s widow is one pretty lady, and she’s trying to get Junior to mix pleasure with business. Just as the investigation is spiraling out of control, Junior’s hard-drinking landlady begs him to solve the disappearance of her daughter, who got involved with a very questionable character. And, worst news of all, both Junior’s ex-wife and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Rina, seem to have new boyfriends. What a mess.

I read the first book in this series a long time ago, and I finally got my hands on a copy of the second book. The Junior Bender series has a bit more grit and gore than the mysteries I typically read–think action movie complete with guns and car chases–but it’s nothing too intense. Just like in the first book, the characters are interesting, the writing is fast-paced, and the mystery will keep you engaged. I did find a fair amount of weirdness in this book (why does the 37-year-old character living in 2012 not understand how to use Google and YouTube? What’s up with Junior’s relationship with his ex-wife, his daughter, and women in general?), but I’m still looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

This book has some similarities to Life After Life, which you may recall is one of my favorite books ever. The kalachakra live the same life over and over again, with complete memory of all previous lives. Harry has to outwit his former friend Vincent, who is having kalachakra killed before they are born, destroying Chronus clubs, and trying to build a quantum mirror, no matter what the cost.

I think the fact that this book is similar to one of my all-time favorite books did it a disservice, as I kept comparing it unfavorably to Life After Life. The other main issue I had with the book is the torture scenes (yes, multiple). It was a little too intense for me, and I had to stop listening to the audio book and borrow an ebook version so I could skim the rough parts.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Maltese Falcon

Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and when Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby’s trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a treasure worth killing for, before the Fat Man finds him?

I don’t enjoy a detective story as much as other kinds of mysteries, but I can see why this book is a classic. Sam Spade is iconic as the hard-boiled PI, and I did enjoy reading about his adventures. The book is very well written, but (of course) filled with sexism. I have another Dashiell Hammett book on my TBR list, so I’m looking forward to more tight writing, well-crafted characters, and several sighs and eyebrow raises over the author’s treatment and portrayal of women and minorities.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Year of Wonders

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.”

This book is my favorite on this list, and honestly, one of my favorite books of 2018 so far. It provides a well-researched, heartbreaking look at a village who cut themselves off from the world when the plague started to ravage their residents. The novel looks not only at how the disease makes life difficult, but how residents sometimes turn on each other rather than supporting each other. It’s fascinating historical fiction, and the author’s note provides interesting information on how much of the story is based in fact. I highly recommend Year of Wonders whether or not you think you’re interested in the plague. It’s that good.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC Reviews: The Boy from Tomorrow and Seven Pets for Seven Witches

Quick ARC reviews of The Boy from Tomorrow and Seven Pets for Seven Witches. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received a free copy of these books from the publishers. All opinions are my own.

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Seven Pets for Seven Witches

Double, double toil and trouble…
The pets in these cozy paranormal short stories are stirring up nothing but fun—and maybe a dash of trouble—for the witches in their lives.

These short stories are fun, cozy mysteries about witches and their pets/familiars. It’s impressive how, although these stories are written by different authors about different characters, they all hang together so well–each has a similar feel. All the stories are silly and sweet. If you like cozy mysteries with a bit of magic, you’ll find plenty of new authors here.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Boy from Tomorrow

Josie and Alec both live at 444 Sparrow Street. They sleep in the same room, but they’ve never laid eyes on each other. They are twelve years old but a hundred years apart.

The children meet through a handpainted spirit board—Josie in 1915, Alec in 2015—and form a friendship across the century that separates them. But a chain of events leave Josie and her little sister Cass trapped in the house and afraid for their safety, and Alec must find out what’s going to happen to them. Can he help them change their future when it’s already past?

A girl from 1915 and a boy from 2015 are able to communicate through a talking board (basically a Ouija board), and what they say changes each child’s life. It’s both exciting and heart-wrenching to watch as Alec uses his resources–the library and the internet–to help Josie and her sister escape from their abusive mother.

At the beginning, this book seems like it’s going to be spooky and mystical. Both Alec and Josie initially think they’re communicating with spirits through the talking board. But when it becomes clear that the two kids are communicating across time, the story becomes much more interesting.

This book isn’t for everyone. I think younger kids are likely to be frightened by the spooky events, or by the abuse Josie and Cass suffer. But for older kids, this book has a fun twist on the typical ghost story.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1945

Quick reviews of the 1945 Newbery books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today we’re going back in time again, this time to review the Newbery books of 1945! (Book summaries via Goodreads.com)

Medal Winner: Rabbit Hill

It has been a while since Folks lived in the Big House, and an even longer time has passed since there has been a garden at the House. All the animals of the Hill are very excited about the new Folks moving in, and they wonder how things are going to change. It’s only a matter of time before the animals of the Hill find out just who is moving in, and they may be a little bit surprised when they do.

I remember this as a very cute animal story by Robert Lawson (and as longtime readers know, I usually don’t like animal stories). This is a fun book for younger kids, but I’m not sure I would re-read it as an adult.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Hundred Dresses

Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses won a Newbery Honor in 1945 and has never been out of print since. At the heart of the story is Wanda Petronski, a Polish girl in a Connecticut school who is ridiculed by her classmates for wearing the same faded blue dress every day. Wanda claims she has one hundred dresses at home, but everyone knows she doesn’t and bullies her mercilessly. The class feels terrible when Wanda is pulled out of the school, but by that time it’s too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda’s classmates, ultimately decides that she is “never going to stand by and say nothing again.”

In this Newbery classic, Wanda is constantly bullied and teased by her classmates, and it isn’t until she leaves the school that her classmate Maddie learns the truth about Wanda. This is a sad but sweet and touching story with beautiful illustrations. Eleanor Estes wrote several Newbery books, but I think this is her most memorable. I would definitely recommend you give this short book a read (or a re-read).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Reviews: 1944

Quick reviews of the 1944 Newbery winner and honor books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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[All summaries via Goodreads.com]

Medal Winner: Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain, a young apprentice silversmith, is caught up in the danger and excitement of 1775 Boston, just before the Revolutionary War. But even more gripping than living through the drama of Revolutionary Boston is the important discovery Johnny makes in his own life.

This historical fiction novel about a boy growing up during the Revolutionary War was one of my favorites from childhood. It’s well-written, interesting, and also very sad–I’ll never forget when Johnny pours liquid-hot silver over his hand and the excruciating recovery that followed. The rest of the details have faded from my memory, but I wouldn’t mind re-reading this classic sometime in the future.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

These Happy Golden Years

Fifteen-year-old Laura lives apart from her family for the first time, teaching school in a claim shanty twelve miles from home. She is very homesick, but keeps at it so that she can help pay for her sister Mary’s tuition at the college for the blind. During school vacations Laura has fun with her singing lessons, going on sleigh rides, and best of all, helping Almanzo Wilder drive his new buggy. Friendship soon turns to love for Laura and Almanzo in the romantic conclusion of this Little House book.

The main plot point of this book is the budding romance and eventual marriage between Laura and Almanzo. As a child, I was shocked at how young Laura was when she married! As always, although I enjoyed the Little House series, it doesn’t hold a nostalgic place in my heart as it does for many readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Fog Magic

Greta had always loved the fog—the soft gray mist that rolled in from the sea and drifted over the village. The fog seemed to have a secret to tell her. Then one day when Greta was walking in the woods and the mist was closing in, she saw the dark outline of a stone house against the spruce trees—a house where only an old cellar hole should have been. Then she saw a surrey come by, carrying a lady dressed in plum-colored silk. The woman beckoned for Greta to join her, and soon Greta found herself launched on an adventure that would take her back to a past that existed only through the magic of the fog.

Every time Greta steps into the mist, she is transported back in time. What’s not to like about that kind of adventure? I thought this book was fun (you know I love a good time travel story!), and again, I wouldn’t mind re-reading this one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Rufus M.

You’ve never met anyone quite like Rufus Moffat. He gets things done, but he gets them done his way.
When he wants to check out library books, Rufus teaches himself to write…even though he doesn’t yet know how to read. When food is scarce, he plants some special “Rufus beans” that actually grow…despite his digging them up every day to check on them. And Rufus has friends that other people don’t even know exist! He discovers the only invisible piano player in town, has his own personal flying horse for a day, and tours town with the Cardboard Boy, his dearest friend-and enemy.
Rufus isn’t just the youngest Moffat, he’s also the cleverest, the funniest, and the most unforgettable.

This is another cute Moffat family story. The family is sweet and loving, and it’s fun to read about the old-fashioned adventures the kids get into. I haven’t read the books in a while, but I bet they’d stand the test of time.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Nonfiction Roundup, January 2018

Quick reviews of my latest nonfiction reads, from the political to the religious to memoirs. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s time for another nonfiction roundup! It has been a while since I posted one of these, and part of the reason is that many of these books were kind of difficult, for one reason or another. Still, I think you’ll find some good ones here, covering everything from politics to religion to American culture.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Strong-willed and independent, Rachel Held Evans couldn’t sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment–a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

Pursuing a different virtue each month, Evans learns the hard way that her quest for biblical womanhood requires more than a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). It means growing out her hair, making her own clothes, covering her head, obeying her husband, rising before dawn, abstaining from gossip, remaining silent in church, and even camping out in the front yard during her period.

See what happens when a thoroughly modern woman starts referring to her husband as “master” and “praises him at the city gate” with a homemade sign. Learn the insights she receives from an ongoing correspondence with an Orthodox Jewish woman, and find out what she discovers from her exchanges with a polygamist wife. Join her as she wrestles with difficult passages of scripture that portray misogyny and violence against women.

I’m always a fan of Rachel Held Evans, and since feminism and religion are both things that are important to me, I was really excited to read this book. I found some of the things that Evans did a little bit… silly (and I questioned how she made it to the age of 30 without cooking, cleaning, or sewing on a button–no matter what your gender, I feel like these are basic skills that every adult picks up to some extent). But on the whole, I loved how she looked at groups from the Quakers to the Amish to the Jewish people and more to figure out how we have interpreted biblical womanhood in the past and how we can interpret it now.

Evans looks closely at the text and the way different Christian and Jewish traditions have interpreted the Bible’s teachings on women and invites us to do the same. Despite a little corniness that seems to come with any book that revolves around a year-long project, I really enjoyed this book. It gave me plenty of food for thought.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask

What have you always wanted to know about Indians? Do you think you should already know the answers—or suspect that your questions may be offensive? In matterof-fact responses to over 120 questions, both thoughtful and outrageous, modern and historical, Ojibwe scholar and cultural preservationist Anton Treuer gives a frank, funny, and sometimes personal tour of what’s up with Indians, anyway.

• What is the real story of Thanksgiving?
• Why are tribal languages important?
• What do you think of that incident where people died in a sweat lodge?

White/Indian relations are often characterized by guilt and anger. Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask cuts through the emotion and builds a foundation for true understanding and positive action.

This book answers a lot of questions about Native Americans that I never even thought to ask–everything from economics to education to history to politics to culture. It’s amazing (and depressing) how little I know about the present-day lives of the first residents of this country. (In case you’re wondering, Treuer, a member of the Ojibwe people, prefers the term “Indian” rather than “Native American,” “indigenous people,” or “first people,” for reasons that–again–never would have occurred to me.)

If you want to learn more about Native Americans/Indians and their culture, perspectives, and frustrations, this book is a great starting point. If any of you have suggestions about books by and about members of native tribes, I would love to hear them!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The View from the Cheap Seats

An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood.

This book offers a collection of speeches, introductions, and articles Neil Gaiman has written. I know some of the authors and awards; others were unknown to me, but they were all pretty interesting. It’s amazing how many famous and influential authors Gaiman has interviewed, worked with, or become friends with! I love listening to Neil Gaiman read his own work, so I recommend you listen to the audio book if this collection catches your interest.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

White Trash

Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society––where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility. Poor whites were central to the rise of the Republican Party in the early nineteenth century, and the Civil War itself was fought over class issues nearly as much as it was fought over slavery.

Reconstruction pitted “poor white trash” against newly freed slaves, which factored in the rise of eugenics–-a widely popular movement embraced by Theodore Roosevelt that targeted poor whites for sterilization. These poor were at the heart of New Deal reforms and LBJ’s Great Society; they haunt us in reality TV shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty.Marginalized as a class, “white trash” have always been at or near the center of major political debates over the character of the American identity.

I realized after I started listening to this book that the subtitle refers to “400 years of history,” and I strongly wish that weren’t the case. Although I did learn some new things about the history of class in America, I was not unaware that class is still an issue in our supposedly classless society, and the book seemed to drag on much longer than I thought necessary. The epilogue discusses how the issue of class affects us today, but I wish the whole book had been that, with only a little history interwoven. I know plenty of people have greatly enjoyed this book, and you might too. I just wanted less history and more modern-day application on this topic.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Wild

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.
Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

I finally read this book because my book club was reading it, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Cheryl faces outer and inner struggles (bears, aching feet, a too-heavy pack, the death of her mother, her divorce from her husband) as she traverses the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s an amazingly difficult trek, and it was satisfying to read about how Cheryl overcomes the obstacles that constantly pop up. Despite the questionable and sometimes outright dumb decisions Cheryl makes as she continues her journey, I found myself rooting for her.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mega Roundup: Kid Lit and YA

This mega roundup is jam-packed with all the kid lit, middle grades, and YA fiction I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I tend to get behind in my reviews over the holidays. But since I don’t stop reading (of course not!), I always have a few books to catch up on reviewing. Or in this case, a lot of books. If you like kids’ books or YA, with an emphasis on fantasy, today’s mega roundup is for you! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Howl’s Moving Castle

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

I can’t believe it took me this long to read a Diana Wynne Jones book. Howl’s Moving Castle is a very enjoyable, fun fantasy. It’s a treat to read. I needed some lightweight, quirky, sweet books to get me through the holiday season, and this book hit the spot. I can’t wait to read more DWJ now!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Vol. 2

You might remember my review of the first volume of rebel girls stories. This follow up is just as wonderful. It’s jam packed with lovely illustrations and tons of new, inspiring women and their stories. A great book for girls (and boys!) of all ages.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Josh Baxter Levels Up

Video game lover Josh Baxter knows that seventh grade at a new school may be his hardest challenge yet, but he’s not afraid to level up and win!

Josh Baxter is sick and tired of hitting the reset button. It’s not easy being the new kid for the third time in two years. One mistake and now the middle-school football star is out to get him. And Josh’s sister keeps offering him lame advice about how to make friends, as if he needs her help finding allies!

Josh knows that his best bet is to keep his head down and stay under the radar. If no one notices him, nothing can touch him, right? But when Josh’s mom sees his terrible grades and takes away his video games, it’s clear his strategy has failed. Josh needs a new plan, or he’ll never make it to the next level, let alone the next grade.

He’s been playing not to lose. It’s time to play to win.

Josh gamifies his life when his mom takes away his video games and forces him to focus on improving his grades, making friends, defeating a bully, and winning a video game competition at school (because of course).

I was worried this book would be gimmicky–or possibly not interesting for those of us who don’t play many video games–but it wasn’t. It was a fun MG novel with a video game spin, but its focus is on those timeless, relatable aspects of growing up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

First Class Murder

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are taking a holiday through Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. From the moment the girls step aboard, it’s clear that each of their fellow first-class passengers has something to hide. Even more intriguing: rumour has it that there is a spy in their midst.

Then, during dinner, there is a bloodcurdling scream from inside one of the cabins. When the door is broken down, a passenger is found murdered, her stunning ruby necklace gone. But the killer is nowhere to be seen – almost as if they had vanished into thin air.

Daisy and Hazel are faced with their first ever locked-room mystery – and with competition from several other sleuths, who are just as determined to crack the case as they are.

Hazel and Daisy are back, and their latest mystery takes place on the famed Orient Express. But this time, Hazel and Daisy’s investigations are hampered by Hazel’s father, who wants the girls to stay as far away from murder as possible.

If you’ve read and enjoyed the other books in this series, you’ll like this follow up. I missed Daisy and Hazel’s school friends, who are such fun side characters in the previous installments, but this is still a fun MG mystery.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

TodHunter Moon trilogy

Seven years after the events of the original Septimus Heap series, a young PathFinder named Alice TodHunter Moon—who insists on being called Tod—sets out from her seaside village to rescue her friend Ferdie from the malevolent Lady.

She receives help from ExtraOrdinary Wizard Septimus Heap and Ex–ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, but the Lady’s brother, the Darke Sorcerer Oraton-Marr, has a plan that will put everyone Tod holds dear in danger. To save her people, Tod must embrace her identity as a PathFinder and navigate the often dangerous Ancient Ways.

I was so excited to discover that Angie Sage had written a trilogy set in the world of Septimus Heap! This series picks up seven years after the events of the original series and focuses on Tod, a young PathFinder who discovers she has the ability to combine Magyk and PathFinding to explore the Ancient Ways.

We get to visit with Septimus, Jenna, Marcia, Beetle, Lucy and Simon, and several other characters from the original series, but the star of this spinoff series is definitely Tod. Tod and her friends (new and old) have to save the people from Tod’s village and eventually the Ancient Ways themselves.

This is a fun series, but I found some of the characters irritating, and I kept wishing we could see more of Septimus, Jenna, and Marcia. These books just didn’t grab me the same way the original Septimus Heap series did.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters

After a year at the king’s palace, Miri has learned all about being a proper princess. But the tables turn when the student must become the teacher!

Instead of returning to her beloved Mount Eskel, Miri is ordered to journey to a distant swamp and start a princess academy for three sisters, cousins of the royal family. Unfortunately, Astrid, Felissa, and Sus are more interested in hunting and fishing than becoming princesses.

As Miri spends more time with the sisters, she realizes the king and queen’s interest in them hides a long-buried secret. She must rely on her own strength and intelligence to unravel the mystery, protect the girls, complete her assignment, and finally make her way home.

This book is the final installment in the Princess Academy series. I’m always impressed with how Shannon Hale creates memorable, flawed, smart female characters in a stereotypical role, and the sisters in this book are no exception.

However. As much as I enjoyed the backwoods princesses and their unusual way of life, I was so disappointed in Miri! In the original Newbery book, Miri and her friends are set apart from the rest of the kingdom because of their mountain ways and rugged lifestyle. But in this story, Miri has apparently been softened by her time at the palace, and the princesses are constantly looking down on her fancy clothing and her inability to hunt with them. I wished we had more of Miri the mountain girl.

I’m not sorry I read this book, but compared to the first two books in the series, it was a weak finish.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Save Me a Seat

Joe and Ravi might be from very different places, but they’re both stuck in the same place: SCHOOL.

Joe’s lived in the same town all his life, and was doing just fine until his best friends moved away and left him on his own.

Ravi’s family just moved to America from India, and he’s finding it pretty hard to figure out where he fits in.

Joe and Ravi don’t think they have anything in common — but soon enough they have a common enemy (the biggest bully in their class) and a common mission: to take control of their lives over the course of a single crazy week.

This is a cute MG story about two boys, Ravi and Joe, who are having a hard time fitting in at school (Ravi is from India and Joe has a learning disability). Both are bullied and have to learn to band together despite their differences.

All of the events take place in just one week, so the scope of the story is small. Still, it’s sweet to watch Ravi learn humility and Joe learn to stand up for himself.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Last Dragonslayer series

I love Jasper Fforde’s writing, and his YA series is a bit less strange but no less wonderful than his adult fiction. I read the first book years ago, and I finally got around to reading the rest. The second book is great, but the third book in the Last Dragonslayer series pulls off something that I think is very difficult: introducing new lead characters into the mix that we don’t hate. The spoiled princess proves herself to be a surprisingly intelligent and sassy character, and Addie the 12-year-old tour guide is resourceful and reliable. Still, Jennifer and Perkins’ quest to find the Eye of Zoltar and figure out what the Mighty Shandar is up to takes center stage. With characters and a plot that continue to be fun and quirky, I can’t wait for the next book in the series to be released!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Witch’s Vacuum

Poor Mr Swimble is having a bad day.

Rabbits are bouncing out of his hat, pigeons are flying out of his jacket and every time he points his finger, something magically appears – cheese sandwiches, socks . . . even a small yellow elephant on wheels!

It’s becoming a real nuisance – and he’s allergic to rabbits.

His friends at the Magic Rectangle can’t help, but the mysterious vacuum cleaner he saw that morning may have something to do with it . . .

Fourteen fantastically funny stories from master storyteller Sir Terry Pratchett, full of food fights, pirates, wizards and crooks!

These funny, sweet, fantastical short stories are only my second foray into the works of Terry Pratchett (third if you count the book he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman). I enjoyed these quick stories, and they made me more excited to read some of Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

These Ruthless Deeds

England, 1883. Still recovering from a devastating loss, Evelyn is determined to use her powers to save other gifted people from those who would harm them. But when her rescue of a young telekinetic girl goes terribly wrong, Evelyn finds herself indebted to a secret society devoted to recruiting and protecting people like Evelyn and her friends.

As she follows the Society’s orders, healing the sick and embarking on perilous recruitment missions, Evelyn sees her problems disappear. Her reputation is repaired, her friends are provided for, and her parents are newly wealthy. She reunites with the dashing Mr. Kent and recovers the reclusive Mr. Braddock (who has much less to brood over now that the Society can help him to control his dangerous power). But Evelyn can’t help fearing the Society is more sinister than it appears…

I really enjoyed this sequel to These Vicious Masks. Mr. Kent’s power to make people tell the truth when he asks a question is used for great comedic effect, but Evelyn’s struggles to decide whether or not to work with the Society of Aberrations and whether or not to kiss Sebastian keeps things tense. Secret powers + romantic tension + possibly evil societies + Victorian England = a YA series I can get behind, even if I don’t usually like romantic tension or paranormal plotlines.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Wonder

Ten-year-old August Pullman wants to be ordinary. He does ordinary things. He eats ice-cream. He plays on his Xbox. He feels ordinary – inside.

But Auggie is far from ordinary. Born with a terrible facial abnormality, he has been home-schooled by his parents his entire life, in an attempt to protect him from the cruelty of the outside world. Now, Auggie’s parents are sending him to a real school. Can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, underneath it all?

So sweet and sad and wonderful! I can see why this is such a classic already. Auggie is a great character, and each of his friends and enemies are interesting and complex. There are a few cliche moments, but on the whole, this is a heartwarming story of a boy who faces bullying over his facial abnormality alongside typical school problems with courage and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Roundup: December 2017 (Part Two!)

It's the last Newbery roundup of the year! Here are all the Newbery books I read in December 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading a lot of Newbery books this month (you might have noticed) because I’m trying to finish reading 75 points worth of books for my Newbery book challenge. With the books in this post, I’ve just made it! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Abraham Lincoln, Friend of the People

Clara Ingram Judson presents Lincoln in all his gauntness, gawkiness, and greatness: a backwoods boy who became President and saved the Union. Judsons careful reading is enlivened by her visits to his home and vivid descriptions of the Lincoln familys pioneer life. She reveals the unforgettable story from his boyhood and days as a shopkeeper and lawyer, to Lincolns first elected offices and his election as president, the Civil War, and assassination.

This book was okay, but I, like most Americans, know a lot about Lincoln already. This is nothing special, although it’s perfectly acceptable as a children’s introduction to Abraham Lincoln.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Winterbound

The story of young people from the city adjusting to a winter in the Connecticut hills.

I really liked this story of four siblings making their way through their first winter in the country of Connecticut. The story is sweet and old fashioned–it reminded me of the Penderwicks. I would gladly read a sequel to this book if there was one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned 3 continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world’s most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

This book about the creation of the atomic bomb is interesting and informative, but also horrifying. I kept asking myself, Is this book really for kids? If you want to be terrified about the future of nuclear war (as well as learn some admittedly fascinating history of the international race to create the ultimate weapon), this book is for you–no matter what your age.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Perilous Gard

In 1558, while exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote castle known as Perilous Gard, young Kate Sutton becomes involved in a series of mysterious events that lead her to an underground world peopled by Fairy Folk—whose customs are even older than the Druids’ and include human sacrifice.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book! The beginning was slow, as Kate’s bubbly sister accidentally gets Kate sent to a country estate known as the Perilous Gard, but as Kate meets the mysterious residents of the castle and the surrounding village, she finds that there is something strange going on. Kate’s interactions with the Fairy Folk, who are treacherous and heartless, just get more and more enthralling as the book continues. If you like dark-ish books about magical beings, you might enjoy this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

One Crazy Summer

In the summer of 1968, after travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know, eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters arrive to a cold welcome as they discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp.

I read this book several years ago (for the Newbery challenge I participated in, it’s acceptable to re-read books you read as a child, and that’s what I did here). As I read through, I remembered most of the events, but I got even more nuance out of it than when I read it the first time. It’s a quick read about a family of sisters who spend a summer with their poet mother and the Black Panthers. Interesting and sweet.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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