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

An Exploration of Christian Books

Today's post takes a deep dive into the Christian books I've been poring over recently. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In an attempt to better understand where I am in my faith and to reconcile the things I believe about Christ with the things I see many Christians doing and saying, I’ve been drowning myself in books about the Bible, modern Christianity, and Christianity in the US in particular. This post is meant to give you a taste of some of the most interesting and influential books I’ve read on this topic, so if you’re not into reading about Christian books, today’s post is not for you. But if you are also interested in exploring diverse views on faith, read on! I have some amazing books to share with you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Biblical scholars Brandon O’Brien and Randy Richards shed light on the ways that Western readers often misunderstand the cultural dynamics of the Bible. They identify nine key areas where modern Westerners have significantly different assumptions about what might be going on in a text. Drawing on their own crosscultural experience in global mission, O’Brien and Richards show how better self-awareness and understanding of cultural differences in language, time and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and unexpected ways. Getting beyond our own cultural assumptions is increasingly important for being Christians in our interconnected and globalized world. Learn to read Scripture as a member of the global body of Christ.

If you’re only looking for the highlights, this is one of my two “must reads” on this list. (I’ll let you know when we get to the other!) Misreading Scripture illustrates the “things that go without saying” in our own Western culture, in non-Western cultures around the world, and in biblical cultures, and explains how that affects our reading of the Bible. This book has made a powerful difference in the way I read the Bible, especially the stories and parables that are so familiar to those of us who grew up in the church. The book is not meant to explain every part of the Bible (although I sometimes wished it would!) but rather to give modern, Western readers a framework for understanding Scripture in the way it would have been understood by its original readers.

In college I did some cross-cultural studies in preparation for time spent overseas, so you would think I would be able to make the leap concerning the shame/guilt dichotomy or the individualist/collectivist societal differences on my own, but no, I was not. Understanding how these very different, deeply ingrained ways of being and thinking change the way Western readers understand verses written for a collectivist society is one of the most powerful things I took away from this book. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry; the authors do a great job of explaining these concepts. Because the authors have both spent time living, working, and ministering in cultures very different from the US, they have first-hand accounts and stories to illustrate their points.

If you’re serious about studying and understanding the Bible and are concerned that you’re missing something because of our very different culture, you must read this book. This book is compulsively readable (at least it was for me) and steers clear of technical jargon that theological books often fall into, so whether you have a ministerial degree or are simply trying to learn how to read the Bible better, you will get something out of Misreading Scripture. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Everything Must Change

How do the life and teachings of Jesus address the most critical global problems in our world today?

In “Everything Must Change, “you will accompany Brian around the world on a search for answers. Along the way you’ll experience intrigue, alarm, challenge, insight, and hope. You’ll get a fresh and provocative vision of Jesus and his teachings. And you’ll see how his core message can infuse us with purpose and passion to address the economic, environmental, military, political, and social dysfunctions that have overtaken our world.

This book offers an interesting look at Jesus as a political figure. The author talks about the “peace insurgency” and how Jesus thinks about social justice, global warming, violence, and other hot button issues that we normally think of as political. I certainly didn’t agree with all of his theology (in fact, I found this book the most theologically questionable of the group), but I wish more of the church would read his conclusions.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Searching for Sunday

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

Reading this book was a bit surreal for me. I’ve never met Rachel Held Evans, but her father was a professor of mine in college, and I know almost every school and church in the tiny town that Rachel grew up in. I felt like Rachel’s journey–her frustration with the church over social and political issues–was very close to mine. As with most of these books, I don’t agree with all of Rachel’s viewpoints, but I resonated deeply with her experiences. This book is more of a memoir than most of the other books on this list, but I think it could be very helpful if you are also feeling the disconnect between your faith and your social beliefs. It certainly made me feel less alone.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Reconciliation Blues

What is the state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches today? Are we truly united? In Reconciliation Blues journalist Edward Gilbreath gives an insightful, honest picture of both the history and the present state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches. He looks at a wide range of figures, such as Howard O. Jones, Tom Skinner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and John Perkins. Charting progress as well as setbacks, his words offer encouragement for black evangelicals feeling alone, clarity for white evangelicals who want to understand more deeply, and fresh vision for all who want to move forward toward Christ’s prayer “that all of them may be one.”

This book, written by an African-American writer in the evangelical Christian world, talks about the many ways Christians have messed up in regards to creating a multicultural, multiracial church. To me, as someone who has thought and read a fair amount about this, the author’s tone sometimes seems too gentle. I wanted Gilbreath to leave less room for white Christians to say, “Oh, this doesn’t apply to me.” Still, I think this gentle tone is a good way of talking to people who need to hear this message and maybe haven’t been exposed to it before. Definitely an important read for white Christians, though I’m sure Christians of all races and backgrounds will get something out of it.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Ragamuffin Gospel

Many believers feel stunted in their Christian growth. We beat ourselves up over our failures and, in the process, pull away from God because we subconsciously believe He tallies our defects and hangs His head in disappointment. In this newly repackaged edition–now with full appendix, study questions, and the author’s own epilogue, “”Ragamuffin” Ten Years Later,” Brennan Manning reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. The Father beckons us to Himself with a “furious love” that burns brightly and constantly. Only when we truly embrace God’s grace can we bask in the joy of a gospel that enfolds the most needy of His flock–the “ragamuffins.”

This is a classic in the Christian world, and I can’t believe I had never read it before now. I loved Manning’s emphasis on God’s love and grace, even during his darkest times. This book is powerful, and I definitely suggest reading it if you’re feeling far from God or stuck in your faith.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The 7 Experiment

Do you feel trapped in the machine of excess? Jen Hatmaker was. Her friends were. And some might say that our culture is. Jen once considered herself unmotivated by the lure of prosperity, but upon being called rich by a child who was living in poverty, evidence to the contrary mounted, and a social experiment turned spiritual journey was born. This study will lead you through this same experiment, at whatever level you choose, in seven key areas: food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress.

What s the payoff for living such a deeply reduced life? It s the discovery of a greatly increased God a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends a social experiment to become a radically better existence.

This book is Jen Hatmaker’s Bible study follow up to 7. If you want to enact some of the things Jen did in her original book, you should check this one out. It provides a clear and sometimes painful look at how our levels of consumption are causing people around the world to suffer, but it also gives concrete ideas on how to change the way you think about your time, money, possessions, food, technology, waste, and more. Jen backs everything up with biblical passages and discussion questions for your Bible study group.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Irresistible Revolution

Many of us find ourselves caught somewhere between unbelieving activists and inactive believers. We can write a check to feed starving children or hold signs in the streets and feel like we’ve made a difference without ever encountering the faces of the suffering masses. In this book, Shane Claiborne describes an authentic faith rooted in belief, action, and love, inviting us into a movement of the Spirit that begins inside each of us and extends into a broken world.

Shane’s faith led him to dress the wounds of lepers with Mother Teresa, visit families in Iraq amidst bombings, and dump $10,000 in coins and bills on Wall Street to redistribute wealth. Shane lives out this revolution each day in his local neighborhood, an impoverished community in North Philadelphia, by living among the homeless, helping local kids with homework, and “practicing resurrection” in the forgotten places of our world. Shane’s message will comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable . . . but will also invite us into an irresistible revolution. His is a vision for ordinary radicals ready to change the world with little acts of love.

If you’ve been waiting for the other book on this list that I consider a “must read,” this is it. This book is a breath of fresh air for anyone who feels stifled by traditional Christianity, for those who are tired of only hearing about orthodoxy and want to talk about orthopraxy. Shane’s views may rub some people the wrong way, but his idea of being an “ordinary radical” and showing great love to everyone is powerful. He spends time with Mother Teresa and the lepers in India; he travels to Iraq only a short while after 9/11; he opens his home to the homeless. And while this might sound extreme to some readers, Shane argues that this is the Christian life that Jesus wanted us to live.

To be completely honest, I’ve been struggling more and more with how much American Christianity has become intertwined with American politics, patriotism, and war. I’ve thought and talked and prayed about how we can return to the simple, painful path of radical generosity and love that I believe Jesus modeled for us. Even though I disagree with a few of Shane’s ideas, I was captivated by his vision of that radical love, and it has influenced my thinking on how to spend my time and money and skills. If you are at all disillusioned with the modern American church, you need to pick up this book.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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

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: The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles is the latest funny but dark installment in the Warlock Holmes series. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are my own.

The game’s afoot once more as Holmes and Watson face off against Moriarty’s gang, the Pinkertons, flesh-eating horses, a parliament of imps, boredom, Surrey, a disappointing butler demon, a succubus, a wicked lord, an overly-Canadian lord, a tricycle-fight to the death and the dreaded Pumpcrow. Oh, and a hell hound, one assumes. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

The Hell-Hound of the Baskervilles is the second installment in the Warlock Holmes series, and I was excited to get my hands on it. The book opens where the last book left off–with Warlock Holmes in a deathlike state and Watson doing his best to revive him. Once the pair are back in action, they face a variety of paranormal and demonic enemies, using only Watson’s logic and Holmes’s magic. I’m not familiar enough with the Sherlock Holmes canon to remember if each of the stories in this book are based on those original stories, but certainly the title story (which takes up about half the book) is.

This book is really funny, but it’s darker than the first. It’s amusing to watch Watson as he uses deductive thinking and logic to solve problems, while Holmes uses whatever magical means–however ridiculous–are available to achieve the results he wants.  But eventually Warlock Holmes has to confront his past and the fact that his magic may be tearing apart the world he lives in.

Packed with hilarious characters, paranormal events, and callbacks to the original Sherlock Holmes stories, this book is a great choice if you’re into paranormal retellings of the classics.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Man Called Ove Review

A quick review of the recent bestseller, A Man Called Ove. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

A Man Called Ove has been super popular for the last several months, so I was glad that my book club recently decided to read it. Some of us loved it, others thought it was cheesy (so be forewarned if you dislike books that wrap up too neatly!).

I thought the book was a lovely, sweet story about an old, grumpy, suicidal man who reluctantly befriends the new pregnant neighbor and her family. It reads like a fairy tale at times, as Ove and the people around him are often archetypal figures, but I didn’t mind that.

As the story progresses, we get to see what experiences made Ove the man he is today–a strict rule-follower (and -enforcer) who nevertheless has a tender heart–and we also get to watch him slowly become more connected to the people who surround him. If you want a sweet, sad, fluffy story and don’t mind things being a bit too neat and tidy, I think you’ll enjoy A Man Called Ove.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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

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