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 Now he has written an account that should not be published that shouldn’t be read.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

Newbery Books 2017

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

Wolf Hollow [Melanie’s review]

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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

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

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

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Inquisitor’s Tale [Monica’s review]

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Freedom Over Me [Monica’s review]

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Christmas in April!

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

Miracle

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries

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

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Review Copy: Four Puddings and a Funeral

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Newbery Roundup: April

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

Pran of Albania

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Zlateh the Goat

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Journey Outside

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

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

Rating: Meh

Frog and Toad Together

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Fine White Dust

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

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

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

Rating: Meh

Incident at Hawk’s Hill

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Fiction Roundup

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

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Frida

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Bees

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Big Over Easy

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dead Man’s Folly

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

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Doomsday Book

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

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Glass Castle

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

American Gods (author’s preferred edition)

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Bridget Jones’s Diary

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

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Penderwicks Series

The Penderwicks is such a wonderful, timeless children's series. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This summer the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures.

The icy-hearted Mrs. Tifton is not as pleased with the Penderwicks as Jeffrey is, though, and warns the new friends to stay out of trouble. Which, of course, they will—won’t they? One thing’s for sure: it will be a summer the Penderwicks will never forget. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This lovely series of four books follows the Penderwick sisters as they grow up. Responsible, serious Rosalind, stubborn Skye, dreamy and imaginative Jane, and little Batty give a sweet picture of how sisters relate to each other, whether on vacation or during enormous life changes.

Each book in this series is set in a different time in the Penderwick family’s life. The first book follows the girls, their father, and their dog Hound as they set off on a family vacation that introduces them to their new best friend Jeffrey (and gets the sisters in and out of a lot of trouble!). Following stories discuss the family’s school year at home, a summer vacation that reveals several surprises, and a spring semester several years later. Even though later books in the series have different perspectives, they all offer sweet sisterly relationships and fun adventures.

I found these stories reminiscent of Hilary McKay‘s flawed, rambunctious, loving families (with the added bonus that there are no truly hate-able characters like the Casson family’s father). Throughout the series, there are additions to the family (such as Jeffrey, who becomes almost like a brother to the girls), but the four sisters remain at the core of each story. Although there are revealed secrets, drama, and difficult life changes in each book, the stories remain fun and light, even as they discuss the difficulties of growing up.

I’d recommend these books to kids who feel at home reading timeless stories with a focus on family relationships and lighthearted hijinks. If that description appeals to you, you’ll probably enjoy this series no matter what your age.

 

Rating: Re-read Worthy

ARC: City of Grit and Gold

City of Grit and Gold is an interesting middle grades book about the labor strikes in Chicago in the 1880s. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

​The streets of Chicago in 1886 are full of turmoil. Striking workers clash with police…illness and injury lurk around every corner…and twelve-year-old Addie must find her way through it all. Torn between her gruff Papa—who owns a hat shop and thinks the workers should be content with their American lives—and her beloved Uncle Chaim—who is active in the protests for the eight-hour day—Addie struggles to understand her topsy-turvy world, while also keeping her family intact. Set in a Jewish neighborhood of Chicago during the days surrounding the Haymarket Affair, this novel vividly portrays one immigrant family’s experience, while also eloquently depicting the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots. (Summary via publisher)

This book covers the time period in Chicago when workers were striking for an eight-hour day and a safer work environment, a topic I knew little about. Addie and her family face tensions related to the strike, as well as illness, injury, and their immigrant experience. The characters in City of Grit and Gold are wonderful, especially Addie, our main character. She is curious and resilient, despite the fact that her father and brother are constantly arguing, her mother never leaves the house, and her uncle is living in danger on the streets.

The book captures many aspects of this time period, from the illnesses and injuries that we think nothing of now but were life-threatening then to the struggles of the poor to scrape by in a world run by the rich. Through it all, Addie keeps asking questions and fighting to help those who need her help–even when her actions meet with disapproval.

Middle grades readers who are interested in historical fiction will enjoy City of Grit and Gold. The characters and the setting are both wonderful.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Nonfiction Roundup, Spring 2017

There are a ton of wonderful books of all kinds in this quarter's nonfiction roundup! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Get ready for an enormous nonfiction roundup post! I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately–everything from history to parenting to religion to memoirs–and I haven’t had time to review them. Until today! Take a look at these short reviews if you’re looking to add to your nonfiction list. I’m sure you’ll find something to interest you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Interrupted

What happens when Jesus interrupts the average life? Interrupted encourages believers to ask if their lives bring integrity to the gospel. Follow the faith journey of author and fellow disciplemaker Jen Hatmaker and rediscover Jesus among the least of us.

This was my first Jen Hatmaker book, and I immediately fell in love. Interrupted is an amazingly powerful look at what Christianity can and should be like–giving to and serving the people in our communities and around the world. It will break your heart as you look at how privileged we are in the U.S., but it will also give you hope. Jen’s journey pairs statistics with stories in a way that made me feel slightly optimistic for the future of American Christianity.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

7

7 is the true story of how Jen (along with her husband and her children to varying degrees) took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence.

Food. Clothes. Spending. Media. Possessions. Waste. Stress. They would spend thirty days on each topic, boiling it down to the number seven. Only eat seven foods, wear seven articles of clothing, and spend money in seven places. Eliminate use of seven media types, give away seven things each day for one month, adopt seven green habits, and observe “seven sacred pauses.” So, what’s the payoff from living a deeply reduced life? It’s the discovery of a greatly increased God—a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends social experiment to become a radically better existence.

I quickly followed up Interrupted with 7, an earlier Jen Hatmaker book. This one is a little less sweeping, as it focuses mainly on Jen and her family as they attempt to simplify and streamline their lives. The idea of living sustainably and simply as a way of following God is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and this book offers a lot of great ideas on how to simplify different categories of life.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Gift of Failure

This groundbreaking manifesto focuses on the critical school years when parents must learn to allow their children to experience the disappointment and frustration that occur from life’s inevitable problems so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.

You know I love books about learning well and parenting well, and whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or both, this book has some wonderful advice. The Gift of Failure looks at how failure and hard work is the best way for kids to learn how to succeed (in education jargon, it focuses on autonomy-supportive parenting and fostering a growth mindset). As someone who has seen the huge difference a fixed mindset or a growth mindset can make in my students, I loved this book. It made me even more confident in my decision to always praise hard work instead of talent, and I’m sure I’ll be re-reading it when I have kids of my own.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Daring Greatly

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.

Apparently I’m not a huge Brene Brown fan. Like the last book of hers I read, I found Daring Greatly well written but not super revelatory. (To be totally honest, I got bored about halfway through and remember very little about the book.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Choose Your Own Autobiography

Tired of memoirs that only tell you what really happened? Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. You will be born in New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp. You will get into a bizarre confrontation outside a nightclub with actor Scott Caan. Even better, at each critical juncture of your life, you will choose how to proceed.

Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song.

Apparently I’m not a huge Neil Patrick Harris fan either… The idea is awesome: You can live NPH’s life as if it were a choose your own adventure book, but I just didn’t care enough about his life to be completely sucked in. Of course, NPH is a funny guy, and his reflections on life in Hollywood and the paths his life could have taken are fun to read, but I was expecting something more than just a few laughs.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stones into Schools

In this dramatic first-person narrative, Greg Mortenson picks up where Three Cups of Tea left off in 2003, recounting his relentless, ongoing efforts to establish schools for girls in Afghanistan; his extensive work in Azad Kashmir and Pakistan after a massive earthquake hit the region in 2005; and the unique ways he has built relationships with Islamic clerics, militia commanders, and tribal leaders. He shares for the first time his broader vision to promote peace through education and literacy, as well as touching on military matters, Islam, and women-all woven together with the many rich personal stories of the people who have been involved in this remarkable two-decade humanitarian effort.

Stones into Schools is filled with fascinating stories of how the author and his team face danger (and bureaucracy) in order to build schools so girls in Afghanistan can learn. This book is packed with adventure, danger, humor, and tears. It offers a bit of history about the region in which Greg works, but this history is tied closely to the modern-day stories of the people who live there, so it never gets boring. If you’re interested in girls’ education in the Middle East, this book is for you (and no, you don’t have to have read Three Cups of Tea first).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hidden Figures

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space.

Among these problem solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly these overlooked math whizzes had shots at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia, and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the space race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades as they faced challenges, forged alliances, and used their intellects to change their own lives – and their country’s future.

You’ve probably heard of this book, as it’s the basis for the recent blockbuster film of the same name. Hidden Figures offers a view on an interesting, little-known part of history–the African-American women who put Americans on the moon. Some of the book was a bit dry for me, unfortunately.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Anne Frank Remembered

The reminiscences of Miep Gies, the woman who hid the Frank family in Amsterdam during the Second World War, presents a vivid story of life under Nazi occupation.

This is a powerful look at Anne Frank by the woman who hid her family. I learned a lot about the events of WWII in the Netherlands; I hadn’t realized how much they suffered during the war. Miep describes her relationship with the Frank family and her struggles to stay alive and resist the Nazis even after Anne and her family were taken. It’s a tragic story, of course, but also fascinating. I love that we get to hear a piece of history from someone who witnessed it all first hand.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Year of Living Prayerfully

Jared Brock sensed that something was missing in his prayer life, so he embarked on a yearlong journey to rediscover the power of prayer (and eat some delicious falafel).

FOLLOW JARED ON A 37,000-MILE TRIP AROUND THE WORLD AS HE…
* Dances with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn
* Discovers the 330-year-old home of Brother Lawrence
* Burns his clothes at the end of the world
* Attends the world’s largest church
* Attempts fire walking (with only minor burns)

When I first picked up this book, I thought it might be gimmicky, but I was surprised at the depth the author sometimes reached. It gives an interesting look at prayer traditions from everyone from the Hasidic Jews to the Holy Land to Greek Orthodox to the Quakers to “outer fringe” people. As Jared meets Christians from around the world and from different faith traditions, he tries each of their prayer traditions in order to grow closer to God. Just be aware that this book is more of a memoir than a “how-to” book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

French Kids Eat Everything

French Kids Eat Everything is a wonderfully wry account of how Karen Le Billon was able to alter her children’s deep-rooted, decidedly unhealthy North American eating habits while they were all living in France.

At once a memoir, a cookbook, a how-to handbook, and a delightful exploration of how the French manage to feed children without endless battles and struggles with pickiness, French Kids Eat Everything features recipes, practical tips, and ten easy-to-follow rules for raising happy and healthy young eaters.

The information this book offers on how French children are taught to enjoy foods of all kinds (and never snack or eat without an adult’s permission) was very interesting. I have a fascination with French parenting and plan on trying out some of their ideas with my own kids someday. However, I found the author whiny and inflexible and her kids spoiled. Despite her insistence on moving to France to be near her husband’s family, she refuses to help her kids assimilate to French food culture, and she herself is a very picky eater. I wish this book had been more how-to and less memoir, because I couldn’t stand the author.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Symphony for the City of the Dead

In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.

This book is about Dmitri Shostakovich’s life and work during Stalin’s rise to power and the Stalingrad siege. As a music major, I already knew a fair bit about Shostakovich’s music, so I found it fascinating to learn more about his life in Soviet Russia. I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and I loved that it interjects bits of Shostakovich’s music as they discuss it. Some parts are gruesome and horrifying, so although Symphony for the City of the Dead is geared toward a YA audience, be forewarned in case you (or your child) is not prepared to read about cannibalism.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.

This book talks about the women soldiers and spies who were active during the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. Their stories are interesting, especially considering that during this time, women were not expected (or allowed) to do many of the things these women did. If you’re interested in the Civil War, this book will give you a new perspective.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: Geekerella

Geekerella is a fun YA romance where Cinderella, You've Got Mail, and geeky fandoms meet. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

He’s an up-and-coming movie star, set to play Federation Prince Carmindor in the reboot of the cult classic, Starfield. She’s a Starfield superfan whose blog is the perfect place for her to vent about the choice of pretty boy Darien for the new reboot (and to escape her awful stepmother and stepsisters). These unlikely friends unknowingly begin a You’ve Got Mail-esque texting relationship, but what will happen when they both arrive at the same con?

As you might have guessed, Geekerella is a Cinderella retelling. Elle can’t wait to graduate so she can leave behind her horrible stepmother and her gorgeous, snooty twin stepsisters. Her one solace is Starfield, the TV show that brought her mother and father together and which her father taught her to love before he died. The ball she wants to attend is cosplay at the con her father started, and her fairy godmother is Sage, her coworker at an appropriately pumpkin-themed food truck.

Meanwhile, Darien is nervous about portraying his hero, Carmindor, on the big screen. He’s being harassed by Starfield fans (including Elle) for not understanding the deep cult following the show has–they don’t know that before he was famous, he liked nothing better than to roam ExcelsiCon with his (now former) best friend. Desperately lonely, when Darien texts Elle on the mistaken assumption that she’s in charge of the con he’s being forced to attend, they start to bond over their shared love of the show.

I’ve talked before about how much I love You’ve Got Mail. The book I reviewed that touted itself as a food-themed You’ve Got Mail didn’t quite live up to expectations, but Geekerella absolutely did. Elle and Darien turn to each other when the stresses in their lives become too much, not knowing that they’re actually supposed to hate each other. As they get closer to meeting, this ratchets up the tension–what will they do when they realize he’s famous and she’s the blogger who’s trying to take him down?

The Geekerella spin on the old Cinderella tale works well for the most part, too. My biggest complaint about the book is how straight-up evil Elle’s stepmother is. We’ve seen the evil stepmother before; can’t we have a more nuanced, realistic version? There are plenty of ways a stepmother can be unknowingly cruel without actually trying to be horrible, as Catherine does. The stepsisters get a bit more nuance than the stepmother, but I felt that Elle’s family relationships left something to be desired. Fortunately, her friendship with quirky seamstress Sage allows for more depth.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved how Darien (the Geekerella prince) got a lot more to do than the original Cinderella prince. He struggles with being famous for playing a part on Seaside Cove that’s not even close to who he is, and he wants to prove to himself and the other Starfield fans that he can do justice to an iconic character, even at age eighteen. Darien’s relationships with his pushy, calculating manager (and father), his slightly incompetent handler, and his stoic bodyguard are all wonderful as well.

This is one of those books that, once I got about halfway through, I knew I was going to stay up late to finish reading. Not only are the characters interesting and sympathetic, but the romance is super sweet. Anyone who considers themselves a part of any fandom, anyone who has attended (or thought of attending) a con, will definitely enjoy this YA romance.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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