Everyone Brave is Forgiven

A review of Chris Cleave's "Everyone Brave is Forgiven"--everyone's talking about it for a reason. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.

Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you haven’t heard about this book yet, well, you’ve probably not been paying attention. Everyone in the book world has been talking about Everyone Brave is Forgiven since it came out last year. After (finally) reading it, I can see why.

Like many summer blockbuster novels, the writing is beautiful. Cleave does a wonderful job of introducing sympathetic but deeply flawed characters–Mary is not a very good teacher, and she fights her family, her best friend, and even herself throughout most of the book for reasons that are often selfish (mild *spoiler alert*: Mary’s addiction to morphine made the second half of the book difficult for me to read); Tom can be wishy-washy and uncommitted; and Alistair’s time in Malta turns him into someone who’s willing to make poor, sometimes deadly choices.

The book focuses on the effects of war on individuals, particularly those on the home front. From the evacuations of school children to the minstrel shows that continue despite the bombings to time spent in subpar air raid shelters, we see every horrible detail of life in London during WWII. Alistair provides us with a look into military life, but that is by no means the focus of the story.

A lot of reviewers focus on the “witty banter” of the characters, and it’s true that the dialogue is just as sharply written as the narrative. Still, the author never lets you forget all the horrible things that happen. Children die, soldiers succumb to infection and starvation, drug addiction and racism abound. (On that note, I found this post by the author about his choice to include the n-word in his book really interesting.)

I enjoyed this book, although not as much as many other book reviewers did. Maybe it’s because my reading life has already been saturated with books about WWII–that’s why I put off reading it as long as I did–but for whatever reason, Everyone Brave is Forgiven just didn’t capture me. I’m glad that I read it, but I don’t foresee reading it again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Middle Grades Book Roundup

These three middle grades books are fun, diverse, and thought-provoking. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Last month I was in the mood for some light, fun reading, so I checked out a few middle grades books. They were fun, but they also explored some thought-provoking topics–and they’re much more diverse than the MG books of my childhood.

Liar & Spy

When seventh grader Georges (the S is silent) moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer’s first spy recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr. X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

With his mother gone, his dad out of work, and a brand new apartment to deal with, Georges is facing a lot of changes in his life. The kids at school make fun of him, so Georges ends up spending a lot of time with Safer, who always seems to have a new, crazy idea for Georges. As you read through the book, Georges’s and Safer’s secrets are revealed, and each has to deal with their own struggles.

Liar & Spy is by author Rebecca Stead, who wrote the 2010 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me. This story isn’t quite as nicely put together, but it’s still a cute book. (And, of course, it’s a bit tearjerky.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Murder is Bad Manners

Deepdean School for Girls, 1934. When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)

But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident – but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive.

Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is a great English boarding school mystery with, surprisingly, a Chinese MC. Hazel and Daisy are unlikely friends who decide to form a detective agency. But when they start investigating the mysterious death of one of their teachers, they have to struggle to find clues and stay out of trouble at the same time.

Hazel faces some racism (the story is set in 1930s England, after all), but this is treated in a gentle way. It’s an interesting mystery with some fun characters–this is a series I’ll definitely follow.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Out of My Mind

Melody is not like most people. She cannot walk or talk, but she has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She is smarter than most of the adults who try to diagnose her and smarter than her classmates in her integrated classroom – the very same classmates who dismiss her as mentally challenged, because she cannot tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by cerebral palsy. And she’s determined to let everyone know it – somehow. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is the most emotional of all the books I’ve reviewed in this post. Melody has cerebral palsy that leaves her unable to speak, walk, or care for herself. But trapped inside her body is an intelligent, curious mind. After years of repetitive, boring lessons with the rest of her special ed class, Melody receives a computer that helps her speak–and everyone is shocked at how much brain power she has.

Melody is a great narrator. Despite her cerebral palsy, she just wants to be a normal kid, eating meals with friends, wearing trendy clothes, and joining school clubs. It’s incredibly frustrating (for Melody and for the reader) when other students and even teachers underestimate what she can do. If you’re like me, you’ll tear up over the trials and triumphs that Melody faces. This book is a great, quick introduction for young teens to certain types of special needs.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: Tea with Milk and Murder

The next addition to the Oxford Tearoom cozy mystery series is just wonderful. #spon | A book review from NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free digital copy of this book from the author. All opinions are my own.

While at an Oxford cocktail party, tearoom owner Gemma Rose overhears a sinister conversation minutes before a University student is fatally poisoned. Could there be a connection? And could her best friend Cassie’s new boyfriend have anything to do with the murder?

Gemma decides to start her own investigation, helped by the nosy ladies from her Oxfordshire village and her old college flame, CID detective Devlin O’Connor. But her mother is causing havoc at Gemma’s quaint English tearoom and her best friend is furious at her snooping… and this mystery is turning out to have more twists than a chocolate pretzel!

Too late, Gemma realises that she’s could be the next item on the killer’s menu. Or will her little tabby cat, Muesli, save the day? (Summary via Goodreads.com)

The second book in H.Y. Hanna’s cozy mystery series is just wonderful. I recently read and reviewed the first book, A Scone to Die For, and many of the things I liked about that book returned in this one. Gemma, the tea shop owner, happens upon a murder at a party, and despite her best intentions, she starts to suspect her best friend’s boyfriend. Despite her elderly friends’ interference, her best friend’s anger, and her former flame and almost-boyfriend Detective O’Connor’s insistence that she stay out of things, Gemma is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery–even if it means relying on her mother’s help.

Again, one of the things I love most about this series is how fresh it feels as a cozy mystery. The fact that Gemma is continually stumbling across a murder feels natural rather than contrived. Her budding relationship with the handsome detective is sweet, but it doesn’t take over the entire story. Even Gemma’s overbearing mother is more relatable and three-dimensional in this book–she’s even working as the baker at Gemma’s tea shop! Each of the characters is well written and realistic, and the Oxford setting is great.

Overall, an interesting cozy mystery that feels fresh and fun. This book was a pleasure to read.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Casson Family Series

The tales of the Casson family are funny, sweet, and charming. | A book review from Newberyandbeyond.com
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When I was a kid, I read Saffy’s Angel, not knowing that it was the first book in a series. So when I discovered the rest of the series a couple months ago, I promptly checked them all out from the library and consumed them over the course of a few days. The Casson family series is comfort food in book form. This British family is delightfully silly and sweet, and despite their individual problems, they are each lovable in their own ways (with one possible exception…). I’m not going to review each individual book, since they’re all so short (and because there is a prequel that I have not yet been able to get my hands on!). Instead I’ll provide an overview of the Casson family, which beyond any plot or events that may happen is the real focus of these books.

  • Cadmium, called Caddy, is the oldest of the family. She’s a bit scatterbrained and can’t seem to stay focused on one thing, but she is the loving older sister (who just happens to let her hamsters and guinea pigs run wild through the house and yard).
  • Saffron, or Saffy, is the next oldest. She is sarcastic and fiercely protective of her crazy family. She and her friend Sarah take care of business, whether Saffy’s siblings want them to or not.
  • Indigo is the third child and the only boy. He is quiet and introspective, and he loves reading and music.
  • Rose is the baby of the family. She is artistic like her parents (although she tends to use unusual mediums and canvases for her work), and she is strong willed in a way that many readers dislike, but I don’t mind at all. Rose tends to cause trouble, so thank goodness her older siblings are willing to go to bat for her.
  • Eve is the mother. She is an artist who tends to be scatterbrained and sometimes lives in her painting shed for days on end. Despite her shortcomings and her utter lack of cooking ability, her children love her dearly.
  • Bill is the father, and he is the one character in these books who comes off as absolutely terrible. Bill is disdainful of his wife, her inability to cook or keep the house in order, his children’s escapades, and especially Eve’s art, which he deems “not exactly art” as compared with his own Art that he paints in London. Bill has basically deserted his family, only coming back on the weekends (and later in the books, not at all) and always being glad when he can leave his messy, crazy family. Later on in the series, some even more questionable information about Bill is revealed, and I think he is forgiven far too easily. What a jerk!

 

If you can get past Bill’s bad, irritating behavior, I think you’ll find a lot to love about this series and the family that populates it. Great for a rainy afternoon, a sick day, or anytime you want some sweet, comforting, slightly quirky characters to keep you company.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Blackout and All Clear

This book duo from Connie Willis blew my mind. A must-read. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Dear Connie Willis, I am so sorry I waited so long to read another of your books after reading To Say Nothing of the Dog. I loved that book, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up your 500+ page tomes until recently. And oh my gosh, they blew my mind.

Blackout and All Clear were apparently originally slated to be one book. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages total, I can definitely see why the author chose to divide her story into two books rather than one. But as I said in my top books of 2015, I only wish they could have been longer. These books take place in the same universe as To Say Nothing of the Dog, a world of time travel centered in 2060 Oxford, and they are sweet, funny, sad, and totally engaging.

In Blackout, we meet the main characters, all of whom are working as time traveling historians to WWII: Eileen, who is working with evacuated children; Michael, on a mission to find the everyday heroes of WWII; and Polly, who is posing as a shopgirl in the midst of the London Blitz. But when things start going wrong with their drops, the three must band together to survive the most dangerous part of the war and hopefully make it back to their own time. All Clear continues that story, watching as the friends band together, along with the courageous people of London, to survive without affecting the outcome of the war.

The story is fascinating, the characters are relatable, and the setting is fantastic. I’m a huge fan of any fiction related to World War II, and this book duo has taken its rightful spot near the top of my list. I laughed, I cried, I read with a hot cup of tea and drank in the utter Britishness of the book. There is nothing not to love about these books. They are a must read. I can’t wait to see what else Connie Willis has in store (Doomsday Book, I’m coming for you)!

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Newbery Review: 1924

A review of the Newbery award winning book from 1924. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Like 1923, the Newbery award was only given to one book in 1924.  Here is the medal winner for that year.

Medal Winner: The Dark Frigate; Charles Boardman Hawes

In seventeenth century England, a terrible accident forces orphaned Philip Marsham to flee London in fear for his life. Bred to the sea, he signs on with the “Rose of Devon,” a dark frigate bound for the quiet shores of Newfoundland. Philip’s bold spirit and knowledge of the sea soon win him his captain’s regard. But when the “Rose of Devon” is seized in mid-ocean by a devious group of men plucked from a floating wreck, Philip is forced to accompany these “gentlemen of fortune” on their murderous expeditions. Like it or not, Philip Marsham is now a pirate–with only the hangman awaiting his return to England. (Summary via Amazon.com)

I remember being surprised at how much I liked this one. I’m normally not interested in pirates or expeditions, but amazingly, I enjoyed this. Unfortunately, like many of the other Newbery books at the time, this one is pretty forgettable. I read it a few years ago, and I have no memory whatsoever of the plot, the characters, or the writing style. Reading the summary reminds me of this book, though… If you’re going to choose between The Great Quest and The Dark Frigate, I would definitely choose this one.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

P.S. Okay, I only just now noticed that Charles Boardman Hawes did, in fact, write both The Dark Frigate and The Great Quest. That explains the similarities…

Newbery: Good Masters, Sweet Ladies!

A realistic look at medieval life, as seen through the eyes of young people of the time. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Maidens, monks, and millers’ sons — in these pages, readers will meet them all. There’s Hugo, the lord’s nephew, forced to prove his manhood by hunting a wild boar; sharp-tongued Nelly, who supports her family by selling live eels; and the peasant’s daughter, Mogg, who gets a clever lesson in how to save a cow from a greedy landlord. There’s also mud-slinging Barbary (and her noble victim); Jack, the compassionate half-wit; Alice, the singing shepherdess; and many more. With a deep appreciation for the period and a grand affection for both characters and audience, Laura Amy Schlitz creates twenty-two riveting portraits and linguistic gems equally suited to silent reading or performance. Illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by Robert Byrd — inspired by the Munich-Nuremberg manuscript, an illuminated poem from thirteenth-century Germany — this witty, historically accurate, and utterly human collection forms an exquisite bridge to the people and places of medieval England. (Summary via Amazon)

This book was so neat!  Written for classroom use, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! consists of vignettes of young people in a medieval village.  Many of them are poems, and a few are written for two people.  All are made to be read aloud by young students, and they are perfect for that.

For anyone who wants to know what the daily life of the rich and poor in medieval times, this is the perfect book.  And the illustrations are a perfect fit!

A realistic look at medieval life, as seen through the eyes of young people of the time. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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Definitely check out Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!  It’s not sweet.  It’s realistic without being painful; it’s educational while still being fun.  And it’s great for kids with a dramatic side, since they can read it aloud, alone or in pairs.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Mini Review: Cold Comfort Farm

This classic book was more forgettable than funny. I feel like I'm missing something. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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In Gibbons’s classic tale, first published in 1932, a resourceful young heroine finds herself in the gloomy, overwrought world of a Hardy or Bronte novel and proceeds to organize everyone out of their romantic tragedies into the pleasures of normal life. Flora Poste, orphaned at 19, chooses to live with relatives at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex, where cows are named Feckless, Aimless, Pointless, and Graceless, and the proprietors, the dour Starkadder family, are tyrannized by Flora’s mysterious aunt, who controls the household from a locked room. Flora’s confident and clever management of an alarming cast of eccentrics is only half the pleasure of this novel. The other half is Gibbons’s wicked sendup of romantic cliches, from the mad woman in the attic to the druidical peasants with their West Country accents and mystical herbs. Anne Massey’s skillful rendering of a variety of accents will make this story more accessible to American audiences. Recommended for both literary and popular collections.

This Library Journal review, via Amazon.com, makes me think I missed something in this book.  Sometimes when I read classic books, I feel like I’m not really smart enough to get it, and this was one of those cases.  I found the book mildly enjoyable, but it certainly wasn’t “wickedly funny” like I had heard it would be.  I found Flora kind of irritating in the way she set out to model her relatives after herself.  Sure, she helped many of them a lot, but she also told one young, impressionable girl to stop writing poetry and being so smart and instead to wear proper clothes and act shy and stupid around men.  What??

I did enjoy this book, but I think I need a contextual refresher before I tackle it again.  Or maybe I’ll just watch the movie.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Life After Life

Truly, Life After Life is one of the best books I've read, ever. | A book review from Newbery and Beyond
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I can’t say enough good things about this book.  No, really, this post is going to be mostly exclamation points!  So please, just get this book.  Or borrow it from your library, which is what I should have done two years ago when I first saw it on the “new releases” shelf at my library but passed it up.  Either way, read it!  Nothing I can say will do justice to how incredible this book is.

So the premise of the book is that Ursula is, for reasons never explained, given unlimited do-overs in her life.  She’s born lifeless.  Then she is born and saved just in time.  She dies of the flu, of falling out a window, of countless other things; she lives through mediocre, wonderful, and horrific lives that branch off considerably from the various turning points she faces.  Most of the book takes place during World War II (yep, my favorite!), so we get to see her serve her country in England, end up married with a child in Nazi Germany, and see family members, friends, and lovers die or be saved in the nick of time.

I have never read a novel with this fascinating set up before, but I absolutely loved it.  Don’t we all wonder, at one time or another, how our lives would have ended up if we had made a different choice at some turning point–or even if some small detail would have changed our lives forever?  We get to explore this idea through Ursula’s many lives.  Although she and the other characters are never explicitly aware of this do-over effect, Ursula begins to suspect it and is able to help steer her life in a different direction the next time, as are other characters who never suspect a thing.  It’s fascinating.

This is my first Kate Atkinson book, but you can bet it won’t be the last.  If the rest of her books are even half as inventive, poignant, and powerful as this one is, I’ll be more than satisfied.

Rating: Re-read Worthy (no seriously, just read it!!)

Review Copy: Since You’ve Been Gone

This look at abuse and running from or facing your problems is mediocre at best. #spon | A book review by Newbery and Beyond
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Note: I received a free galley of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Summary from Amazon:

Is it possible to outrun your past? Fifteen-year-old Edie Fraser and her mother, Sydney, have been trying to do just that for five years. Now, things have gone from bad to worse. Not only has Edie had to move to another new school — she’s in a different country.

Sydney promises her that this is their chance at a fresh start, and Edie does her best to adjust to life in London, England, despite being targeted by the school bully. But when Sydney goes out to work the night shift and doesn’t come home, Edie is terrified that the past has finally caught up with them.

Alone in a strange country, Edie is afraid to call the police for fear that she’ll be sent back to her abusive father. Determined to find her mother but with no idea where to start, she must now face the most difficult decision of her life.

This book plays out the somewhat interesting idea of a teenage girl, transplanted from Toronto to London.  Her mom disappears, and since they’re on the run (it takes a while for the book to reveal that they’re running from her abusive dad), Edie doesn’t want to go to the police.  She gets help from a school friend, Jermaine, who is supposed to be a terrible guy but is actually just misunderstood (stereotypes, anyone?).

I was so irritated that Edie and her mother never went to the police!  They didn’t have to run; they could have talked to someone, either in Canada or in England!  Alongside this irritation, this was also a short and simplistic story.  I wanted more emotional punch from a book like this.  It could have been a powerful book, focusing on the issue of abuse and the fear of a teenage girl, alone in a foreign country, searching for her mother. Instead, this book could have been any other book, and Edie seemed more interested in getting to know Jermaine than in finding her missing mother.

None of the characters other than Edie and Jermaine were developed; schoolmates were introduced and immediately dropped. Neither Edie’s father nor her mother were really fully fleshed out, and neither of them got much screen time throughout the entire book.

The writing for this book was fine, but I found the plot boring, lacking emotion and originality. If you want a gripping story about abuse, check out Block the Plate (middle grades), Eleanor & Park (YA), or The Witness Wore Red (adult non-fiction) instead.

Rating: Meh

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