Jasper Fforde–Shades of Grey and The Fourth Bear

My latest reads by a favorite author, Jasper Fforde. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I love Jasper Fforde‘s writing, especially his Thursday Next series, and recently I’ve been exploring some of his other novels. These books are both part of different series, and although I didn’t love them the way I love the Thursday Next books, I’m still glad I read them. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Shades of Grey

Part social satire, part romance, part revolutionary thriller, Shades of Grey tells of a battle against overwhelming odds. In a society where the ability to see the higher end of the color spectrum denotes a better social standing, Eddie Russet belongs to the low-level House of Red and can see his own color—but no other. The sky, the grass, and everything in between are all just shades of grey, and must be colorized by artificial means.

Stunningly imaginative, very funny, tightly plotted, and with sly satirical digs at our own society, this novel is for those who loved Thursday Next but want to be transported somewhere equally wild, only darker; a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey.

I enjoyed this book for Fforde’s sharp wit and creative world, but it’s much darker than his usual fare. Eddie is a young man growing up in a dystopian society in which your social status is based upon your color perception. There are the usual love across societal boundaries and discovery of governmental secrets that are so typical of dystopian novels, but I’m a fan of those tropes, so it worked for me. I did enjoy Shades of Grey, but I’m not sure I’m going to seek out the rest of the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Fourth Bear

The Gingerbreadman—psychopath, sadist, genius, and killer—is on the loose. But it isn’t Jack Spratt’s case. He and Mary Mary have been demoted to Missing Persons following Jack’s poor judgment involving the poisoning of Mr. Bun the baker. Missing Persons looks like a boring assignment until a chance encounter leads them into the hunt for missing journalist Henrietta “Goldy” Hatchett, star reporter for The Daily Mole. Last to see her alive? The Three Bears, comfortably living out a life of rural solitude in Andersen’s wood.

But all is not what it seems. How could the bears’ porridge be at such disparate temperatures when they were poured at the same time? Why did Mr. and Mrs. Bear sleep in separate beds? Was there a fourth bear? And if there was, who was he, and why did he try to disguise Goldy’s death as a freak accident?

A fun addition to the Nursery Crime series. As always, Fforde’s sense of humor will keep you coming back for more, even if the zany mystery doesn’t hold your interest (and it likely will). If you like quirky fairy tale retellings with a dash of mystery, you’ll probably enjoy this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Nonfiction Roundup: August 2017

In which I review the latest adult nonfiction books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s adult nonfiction roundup covers a lot of ground. There are fun how-to books, a biography (?), and some more serious fare as well. Whether you want to learn more about social issues or Jane Austen, there’s something here for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

$2.00 a Day

After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s — households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children.

Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? Edin has “turned sociology upside down” (Mother Jones) with her procurement of rich — and truthful — interviews. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge.

$2.00 a Day was fascinating and frustrating. The authors show how families across America are surviving on less than $2 per person per day. They explore welfare and other governmental assistance, attempts at getting and holding subpar jobs, and the role of abusive families in these people’s lives. If you don’t know much about these poorest of the poor in the U.S., this book will open your eyes. I found myself talking about the stories in this book for days, and I still think about the issues presented here whenever the discussion turns to poverty.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Jane Austen Education

Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.

In this unique and lyrical book, Deresiewicz weaves the misadventures of Austen’s characters with his own youthful follies, demonstrating the power of the great novelist’s teachings—and how, for Austen, growing up and making mistakes are one and the same.

A pretentious English major learns to love Jane Austen as he grows and applies her lessons to his life. I love Jane Austen, but I really disliked the author’s take on her works. He’s “too good” for Austen, and it takes a lot of work for him to appreciate the lessons she teaches in her novels. Sure, there are a couple of interesting points about Austen’s works which I enjoyed, but I’m never a fan of pretentious authors, and that really impeded my enjoyment of this book.

Rating: Meh

The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew provides an entree into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes–wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains.

In America today, upwards of forty thousand people are dead and unaccounted for. These murder, suicide, and accident victims, separated from their names, are being adopted by the bizarre online world of amateur sleuths. It’s DIY CSI.

The web sleuths pore over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead) and other online clues as they vie to solve cold cases and tally up personal scorecards of dead bodies. The Skeleton Crew delves into the macabre underside of the Internet, the fleeting nature of identity, and how even the most ordinary citizen with a laptop and a knack for puzzles can reinvent herself as a web sleuth.

The Skeleton Crew provides an interesting look at the “web sleuths” who are helping solve cold cases involving missing persons and unidentified bodies. There’s a surprising amount of drama surrounding the web sleuth community, but the real draw for me was the solving of cases the police have given up on. The author weaves several real-life cold cases that were solved by amateur sleuths into her book, and I found myself racing to the end so I could discover who the unidentified bodies turned out to be.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

We Should All Be Feminists

With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.

This succinct, insightful essay should be mandatory reading for all of us (cliche but true). If you or someone you know isn’t convinced that they are or should be a feminist, this essay is for you. It’s short enough that everyone can make time to read it. I’m certainly glad I did.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Little Book of Hygge

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.

Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress.

I like the ideas of hygge, but this book just rehashes a lot of things that are already familiar to many readers who have spent time on Pinterest. I feel the book would have worked better as a series of blog posts.

Rating: Meh

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

This book tells the interesting, upsetting, fascinating story of the woman whose cancer cells were stolen to create HeLa. HeLa became a line of cells that helped create polio vaccines, went into space, got blown up by nuclear bombs, and were experimented on in countless ways that advanced science and medical care by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Lacks’s family was never compensated for or even told of the HeLa cell line, and her descendants struggle to pay for their own medical bills.

The author goes on a journey to discover who Henrietta Lacks was, and along the way, she spends time with the Lacks family, medical researchers, and anyone else who has been affected by Henrietta’s cells. The book offers an exploration of ethics, racism, and law as they relate to medical research, and it made me think very differently about the research we do with human subjects. Although the book is part biography, part scientific exploration, it reads like a novel, even for those of us without a strong medical background.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla

A child’s concept of race is quite different from that of an adult. Young children perceive skin color as magical–even changeable–and unlike adults, are incapable of understanding adult predjudices surrounding race and racism. Just as children learn to walk and talk, they likewise come to understand race in a series of predictable stages.

Based on Marguerite A. Wright’s research and clinical experience, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla teaches us that the color-blindness of early childhood can, and must, be taken advantage of in order to guide the positive development of a child’s self-esteem.

This book was recommended to me as a useful book for people considering adopting a child of a different race, and although I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla was not written primarily with that focus in mind, I did find it very interesting for parents or teachers of any race who work with children of color. It offers Dr. Wright’s thoughts on how to raise healthy black and biracial children in our race-focused world, supported by dozens of stories and interviews from her own research on the topic. This book brought up a lot of points I wouldn’t have thought of, like the fact that children don’t see race/color the same way adults do, and that adults need to be careful not to impose our own racially tinted viewpoints on children.

I do wish there was an updated version–this book was published in the late 1990s, and I feel like there is more to say on this topic given the events that have taken place between then and now. Still, the book provides a lot of food for thought, and I’ll definitely reference it in the future.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

YA Reads: Summer 2017

I'm sharing my latest YA reads: the good, the bad, and the popular. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Summers are made for YA reads, and that’s exactly what I’ve been reading all summer. Some have been really fun; others have been disappointing. I’m sure you’ll find at least one book on this list for your summer YA reading needs! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Ana of California

Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California.

When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, and Emmett Garber is skeptical that this slight city girl can be any help on his farm. His sister Abbie, however, thinks Ana might be just what they need. Ana comes to love Garber Farm, and even Emmett has to admit that her hard work is an asset. But when she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.

This book was not as good as I had hoped. Ana, a foster kid running from her past, has to try to prove herself by working on a farm–it’s her last chance before being sent to a group home. I love the idea of having more MG and YA books focused on the foster care experience, but this book is filled with way more drama than necessary. I also wish Ana hadn’t spoken so poetically–no teenager talks like that, guys. I was hoping for a more realistic depiction of teenage life and foster families, and this book left me cold on both areas.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lucky Strikes

With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?

I loved Melia’s voice in this book. Her 1930s Southern accent comes across well without making the text unreadable, as written accents sometimes do. (There is a fair amount of swearing in this book, so be forewarned.) In Lucky Strikes, a motley family made of three children and a homeless man pretending to be their father attempt to keep Brenda’s Oasis from falling prey to the local petroleum baron after their mother’s death. The three children, especially Melia, are scrappy and resourceful, and even when they make mistakes (I don’t know any adult who would think Melia’s decision to force a stranger to become the father of the family was a good one) they are relatable and understandable. Unique and fresh, with a good balance between heavy moments and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris–until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all…including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?

Cute teen romances aren’t for me, apparently. Anna and the French Kiss was a fun, quick read, but I got annoyed at the characters for being so immature. (I know, I know, they’re teenagers in love… I was still annoyed.) I can see how I probably would have loved this book as a teenager myself, but reading it as an adult wasn’t my favorite.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stars Above

The universe of the Lunar Chronicles holds stories—and secrets—that are wondrous, vicious, and romantic. How did Cinder first arrive in New Beijing? How did the brooding soldier Wolf transform from young man to killer? When did Princess Winter and the palace guard Jacin realize their destinies?

Stars Above is so much fun! If you haven’t already read through the Lunar Chronicles, I highly recommend it, both on its own merits and because this book won’t make any sense without it. As someone who greatly enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles series, I loved seeing the characters I grew to love having new adventures (both before and after the events of the series). These short stories are a great continuation of the world Marissa Meyer has created.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

I feel I should warn you right away: This book is not for the fainthearted. It shows the very different paths of two Muslim sisters living in France. One becomes more religious and gets expelled for wearing the hijab (illegal in French schools); the other becomes more secular, wearing tight clothing, smoking, and drinking. One of these sisters has something horrific happen to her, and the other sister is left to consider where it all went wrong. This is a powerful book and I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to read it again.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Chasing Eveline

*Note: I received this book as a gift from the author. She did not request a review. All opinions are my own.

Sixteen-year-old Ivy Higgins is the only student at Carmel Heights High School who listens to cassettes. And her binder is the only one decorated with album artwork by 80s band Chasing Eveline. Despite being broken-up since 1989, this rock band out of Ireland means everything to Ivy. They’re a reminder of her mom, who abandoned Ivy and her dad two years ago. Now the music of her mom’s favorite band is the only connection she has left.

Even though Ivy wavers between anger and a yearning to reconnect, she’s one-hundred percent certain she’s not ready to lose her mom forever. But the only surefire way to locate her would be at a Chasing Eveline concert. So with help from her lone friend Matt—an equally abandoned soul and indie music enthusiast—Ivy hatches a plan to reunite the band.

I really wanted to like this book. A teenage girl tries to remember her mom by getting her favorite band back together–what’s not to like? Well, to start off with, Ivy is super irritating and immature. Her and her friend’s attempts at raising money to travel to Ireland and reunite the band include being a scam charity and making fun of homeless people during their attempts to be street performers, and I found this kind of gross. The book should have been more about Ivy dealing with her mom’s disappearance, but it was more about her achieving her ridiculous goal (and *spoiler alert* being disappointed in the results anyway). I’d give this one a pass, unless you have a much higher tolerance for irritating characters than I do.

Rating: Meh

1930s Newbery Reviews

Meggy Macintosh

Meggy MacIntosh had a gentle manner and an adventurous spirit inherited from her father who had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie. But there was no adventure in Edinburgh where Meggy was the neglected ward of her titled uncle, so she ran away to North Carolina to find her heroine, the celebrated Flora MacDonald. Meggy reached the Carolinas in March 1775 where she finally meets the Highlanders of her dreamson. (Summary via goodreads.com)

This book is an interesting historical fiction novel about a Scottish girl who makes the trek to America and becomes a Patriot. Meggy spends a lot of time adjusting to the new, wild environment of the New World, and she is torn between her childhood heroine (a supporter of the king) and her growing sense that America is worth fighting for. Sadly, there’s a fair amount of racism toward slaves and Native Americans contained within. I enjoyed Meggy’s story, but it was greatly marred by its racist content.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Garram the Hunter

Garram, son of the chief of the Hillmen tribe, is forced to flee his home when it is revealed to him that a planned usurping of his father’s position as chief will take place soon unless Garram goes into hiding. The journey that Garram subsequently embarks upon helps prepare him for the inevitable confrontation with his father’s political enemies that is sure to occur when he eventually returns home. (Summary via goodreads.com)

If you like hunting and fighting, you might like this book. That’s pretty much all that’s involved in the story. As you might expect, a white American man isn’t a very sensitive author to write about tribal Africa. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, but it certainly isn’t one I’d read again.

Rating: Meh

Middle Grades July Roundup

Quick reviews of my latest middle grades reads. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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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

Locomotion

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.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC Mini Reviews

Quick reviews of my latest ARCs, including Seven Days of Us. #spon | Book reviews by newberyandbeyond.com
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Note: I received the following books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. All summaries via Goodreads.com

A Tale of Two Kitties

With a well-placed paw on a keyboard or a pointed stare, Kathleen’s two cats, Hercules and Owen, have helped her to solve cases in the past—so she has learned to trust their instincts. But she will need to rely on them more than ever when a twenty-year-old scandal leads to murder…

The arrival of the Janes brothers has the little town of Mayville Heights buzzing. Everyone of a certain age remembers when Victor had an affair with Leo’s wife, who then died in a car accident.

Now it seems the brothers are trying to reconcile, until Kathleen finds Leo dead. The police set their sights on Leo’s son and Kathleen’s good friend Simon, who doesn’t have much of an alibi.

This is a cute cozy mystery about Kathleen and her vaguely magical cats who must attempt to solve a murder in Minnesota that might be connected to the small town’s past. There are all the usual cozy mystery aspects–a handsome police detective boyfriend, lots of small town friends, a local diner–so if you like cozy mysteries in general, you’ll probably like this one. I wished the magical cats had a little more to do with the plot. Maybe their walking through walls and vanishing abilities get more play in other books in this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief

For several years Miss Lane was companion, amanuensis, collaborator and friend to the lady known to the Psychical Society only as Miss X – until she discovered that Miss X was actually a fraud.

Now she works with Mr Jasper Jesperson as a consulting detective, but the cases are not as plentiful as they might be and money is getting tight – until a case that reaches across the entirety of London lands in their laps.

This book is like a supernatural version of Sherlock Holmes. Miss Lane, a former psychic researcher, has become disillusioned with the psychic world and joined forces with Mr. Jesperson to focus on more down-to-earth cases. But Miss Lane gets pulled back in when psychics around London start disappearing. The book focuses heavily on the supernatural aspects (yes, psychic powers are real in this book), which I didn’t care for myself. But if you’re interested in a mystery that combines psychic powers and Sherlock Holmes-like deduction, you might check this book out.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Seven Days of Us

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of being immersed in first-world problems.  As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive…

This book is packed with drama. There are secrets aplenty, relationship breakups, children from previous relationships, illnesses, deaths, and much more. These events draw a disparate family together during a Christmas quarantine. This book reminded me of Hello from the Gillespies, an old favorite of mine (honestly, I’d recommend that one over Seven Days of Us). Still, this was an enjoyable book, and if you’re looking for some juicy drama with a tidy (but not too tidy) ending, Seven Days of Us is for you.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: Witch Summer Night’s Cream

A quick review of A Witch Summer Night's Cream by H.Y. Hanna. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received this book from the author for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Caitlyn Le Fey is looking forward to celebrating Midsummer’s Eve in the tiny English village of Tillyhenge. But when a teenage girl is mysteriously murdered and a priceless love potion goes missing, she and her cousins are plunged into a puzzling mystery.

Is the girl’s death connected to the midnight bonfires at the ancient stone circle? What about the two strangers who recently visited the enchanted chocolate shop belonging to the “village witch”? With her naughty black kitten and toothless old vampire uncle – not to mention the dashing Lord James Fitzroy – all lending a helping hand, Caitlyn sets out to do some magical sleuthing.

But Midsummer’s Eve is fast approaching and spells are going disastrously wrong… Can Caitlyn use her newfound witch powers to find the killer – and maybe even mend a broken heart? (Summary via Amazon.com)

In the latest installment of the Bewitched by Chocolate series (you can see my previous reviews here and here), Caitlyn’s cousin is suspected of murder and Caitlyn has to use her wits and her magic to prove her innocence.

As in previous books, Caitlyn’s relationship with her cousin Pomona is hilarious. Whether they’re debating fashion or chasing murderers, they’re funny and supportive of each other, despite their many differences. There is less information revealed about Caitlyn’s birth family than I would have liked–when will she find out what happened to her birth mother? Why are her grandmother and aunt so reticent? But on the other hand, there is significantly more magic in this book, which was fun.

On the whole, I think this was one of the strongest installments in this series yet. It’s lighthearted and fun with interesting family relationships and a lot of magic.

Classic Books Roundup

Quick reviews of my latest classic reads, including Arabian Nights, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Murder at the Vicarage. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This just a brief check-in to let you all know how I’m doing on reading the classics. Unfortunately, these books aren’t the ones that have been on my list for ages; they’re just books that happened to cross my path. Still, I’m glad I read them.

Arabian Nights

This collection offers some interesting and strange stories. I’m not sure if my edition has all the stories of the original (I read the Amazon freebie version), but I enjoyed many of the ones contained within. The expanded story of Aladdin was definitely my favorite. (Caution: There are a fair amount of racist remarks within this book.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Grimm’s Fairy Tales

For almost two centuries, the stories of magic and myth gathered by the Brothers Grimm have been part of the way children — and adults — learn about the vagaries of the real world.

Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow-White, Hänsel and Gretel, Little Red-Cap (a.k.a. Little Red Riding Hood), and Briar-Rose (a.k.a. Sleeping Beauty) are only a few of the enchanting characters included. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’m pretty sure I’ve read this collection before–if not the whole thing, at least many of the stories within the collection. Grimm offers all the classic fairy tales you know (of course, with a darker twist than the Disney version), along with some very strange, lesser-known stories. I wouldn’t give this to a child, but if you’ve never read the original collection of German fairy tales, you should check it out.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Murder at the Vicarage

Murder at the Vicarage marks the debut of Agatha Christie’s unflappable and much beloved female detective, Miss Jane Marple. With her gift for sniffing out the malevolent side of human nature, Miss Marple is led on her first case to a crime scene at the local vicarage. Colonel Protheroe, the magistrate whom everyone in town hates, has been shot through the head. No one heard the shot. There are no leads. Yet, everyone surrounding the vicarage seems to have a reason to want the Colonel dead. It is a race against the clock as Miss Marple sets out on the twisted trail of the mysterious killer without so much as a bit of help from the local police. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

You know I love Agatha Christie, and while I don’t generally like Miss Marple, this first Miss Marple mystery was pretty fun. There are some great characters in this book–the vicar and his much younger and prettier wife, the artist and his lover, the disillusioned young woman searching for freedom, and of course nosy old Miss Marple. It’s not my favorite Agatha Christie, but I did enjoy it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Latest Newbery Reads

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

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Ood-le-uk the Wanderer

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

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

Rating: Skip This One

More MG and YA Book Reviews!

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

Who Could That Be at This Hour?

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Odd and the Frost Giants

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Strange Fruit

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Snicker of Magic

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

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

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

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

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

Rating: Meh

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