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

Review Copy: Jesper Jinx

Jesper Jinx is always getting in trouble! Whether at home or at school, Jesper always finds a way to liven things up. #spon | 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.

Jesper Jinx is eleven, and probably the unluckiest person in all of Puffington Hill. Everything he touches seems to end up in sweet disaster. Hence his nickname ‘Jinx’.

In this first book of Jesper Jinx’s wonderfully wicked adventures you’re going to meet Jesper’s family and Snowy the Cat. Also, there’s a mysterious new classmate with a moustache. And it’s up to Jesper to launch his famous Boredom Breaker.

As Jesper so frequently says, ‘What harm would it do to have a little fun?’ (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is the first in a series about Jesper Jinx, who is always getting himself in trouble. Each section in this short book covers a different misadventure Jesper finds himself involved in. Whenever things get too boring, Jesper kicks off a “boredom breaker,” which always ends up getting him and the people around him into some sort of shenanigans. Whether he is dying the cat’s fur red or playing pranks on his teacher, Jesper always finds a way of making life interesting. The story is cute, and the writing style is perfect for young kids.

Some of the scenarios Jesper encounters are a bit unbelievable, so I think this series is best suited to small children. They will be sure to love Jesper’s crazy adventures, which can liven up even the most boring rainy day at home.

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: Assassination at Bayou Sauvage

A quick review of the latest Andy Broussard/Kit Franklyn mystery, Assassination at Bayou Sauvage. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of this book for review. All opinions are my own.

Andy Broussard, the plump and proud medical examiner for the City of New Orleans, is sitting almost in the kill zone of a too-close-for comfort and ‘in living color’ murder of his Uncle Joe Broussard at a family picnic in Bayou Sauvage – the largest urban wetlands park in the USA. Surprisingly, the murderer then immediately commits suicide.

After easily determining the killer’s identity from the driver’s license in his pocket, the only remaining task for Broussard and the police is to uncover the motive for such a heinous act. But suddenly, everything about the case takes a bizarre turn. Caught short handed because of an NOPD work slow-down, and needing someone to find out what happened to a young woman who has just been reported missing, Homicide Detective Phil Gatlin deputizes Broussard’s beautiful death investigator, Dr. Kit Franklyn, and assigns her to that case.

Shockingly, Kit’s efforts soon lead back to the murder of Uncle Joe. Sensing a plot of horrendous magnitude, Broussard directs his colleagues and friends in a race to uncover the truth behind the most audacious Andy and Kit mystery of the entire series. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I previously reviewed an earlier book in this series called Louisiana Fever, and this latest installment shares many of the same qualities. There’s a lot of exploration of forensics, which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how strong your stomach is, and the setting of New Orleans, which adds color to the characters’ investigations.

I was glad that we get to see more of Kit in this book. She is deputized in order to help with a missing person case while Broussard deals with a deeply personal murder, and because of this, she gets a lot more page time than she did in Louisiana Fever. Both characters get to grow in this book (Kit has a couple of close calls that make her and Broussard realize that something might be connecting the two separate cases), but I thought it was especially interesting to watch as Broussard tries to change his old habits and reconnect with his family in the midst of this tragedy.

If you’re into shows like CSI, I think you’ll enjoy this series. There are plenty of forensic details to keep you gruesomely entertained, and the characters and setting will keep you engaged until the very end of the book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Review Copy: Hannah’s Moon

Hannah's Moon is the final installment in John Heldt's time travel romance series. #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.

After struggling for years to have a child, Claire Rasmussen, 34, turns to adoption, only to find new obstacles on the path to motherhood. Then she gets an unlikely phone call and soon learns that a distant uncle possesses the secrets of time travel.

Within weeks, Claire, husband Ron, and brother David find themselves on a train to Tennessee and 1945, where adoptable infants are plentiful and red tape is short. For a time, they find what they seek. Then a beautiful stranger enters their lives, the Navy calls, and a simple, straightforward mission becomes a race for survival. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Hannah’s Moon is the last installment in the American Journey series (you can view my reviews of the other books in this series here, here, here, and here). This story follows Claire and her husband as they struggle to get pregnant and then, failing that, to adopt. Of course, time travel and romance ensue.

The characters are the strong point in this book. Claire and Ron are sympathetic, of course, but I really enjoyed following David’s adventures in 1945 and the professor’s life in the present day. Without spoiling anything, I think the ending of this book provided a satisfying conclusion to the series.

On the negative side, I had some of the same issues with the writing as in previous books, and I wished the historical drama (in this case, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis) had occurred earlier in the book. I loved the historical aspect of books like September Sky, and I found myself wanting more in this book.

If you have enjoyed previous installments in this series, or if you like historical romances and don’t mind some superfluous descriptors, you will most likely enjoy Hannah’s Moon.

(On a side note, if you or someone you know are looking into adoption, I’d highly recommend the Fund Your Adoption boot camp. It offers a ton of information on fundraising, grants, loans, and much more related to paying for your adoption.)

March ARC Roundup

In which I review all the March ARCs I've read this month. #spon | Book reviews from NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received each of the books below for free from the publisher or author. All opinions are my own. All summaries via NetGalley, unless otherwise noted.

I miiiiight have gotten carried away with the number of ARCs I requested in January! I’ve finally gotten around to writing quick reviews for each of them. Several of them are so good, and I can’t wait for you all to get the chance to read them!

Journey on a Runaway Train and The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll

This is a modern-day continuation of the Boxcar Children series. I loved this series as a child, so of course I picked up these two books, the first in a short series featuring Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny’s travels around the world.

I must say, I forgot how shallow the writing is for these books and how little adult supervision the kids get. Reading as an adult, it seems kind of ridiculous! Still, if I were a kid reading this, I’d enjoy the travel to different countries and the mysteries the children face. Don’t read it for nostalgic reasons, though–some memories should be left in the past.

Stormy Seas

This book is a beautifully designed middle grades picture book about real kids who became refugees and escaped their homeland by boat. These short stories, about children from Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, and more, are sad and encouraging and very timely. Stormy Seas would be a great conversation starter with your children.

Daughter of the Pirate King

When the ruthless Pirate King learns of a legendary treasure map hidden on an enemy ship, his daughter, Alosa, knows that there’s only one pirate for the job—herself. Leaving behind her beloved ship and crew, Alosa deliberately facilitates her own kidnapping to ensure her passage on the enemy ship. After all, who’s going to suspect a seventeen-year-old girl locked in a cell?

Then she meets the (surprisingly perceptive and unfairly attractive) first mate, Riden, who is charged with finding out all her secrets. Now it’s down to a battle of wits and will… Can Alosa find the map and escape before Riden figures out her plan?

If you’re into YA romance that focuses on pirates and sirens and spying and forbidden love, this is probably the book for you. I’m not a huge romance fan, but I enjoyed the half pirate, half siren protagonist Alosa and her budding romance with Riden as she finds herself taken captive on a rival ship.

Fly By Night

Mosca and Eponymous Clent are great characters who find themselves on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the powerful guilds. Mosca is a young, beaten-down girl who is pretty much alone in the world, so she attaches herself to conman Eponymous Clent. But Clent is entangled in some dangerous circumstances, and Mosca finds herself wondering who she can trust. This is the kind of fantasy I can get behind!

Real Friends

Shannon and Adrienne have been best friends ever since they were little. But one day, Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in class and the leader of a circle of friends called The Group. Everyone in The Group wants to be Jen’s #1, and some girls would do anything to stay on top . . . even if it means bullying others.

Now every day is like a roller coaster for Shannon. Will she and Adrienne stay friends? Can she stand up for herself? And is she in The Group—or out?

This is such a sweet story about growing up, making friends, breaking up with mean friends, and getting along with aggressive siblings. Shannon Hale is one of my favorite authors, and I loved hearing about her totally relatable childhood. Plus, this graphic novel is filled with lovely art by LeUyen Pham. Middle grades kids–especially girls–will love this one.

Witch Chocolate Fudge

Since arriving in the tiny Cotswolds village of Tillyhenge, Caitlyn is discovering that there are lots of perks to being a witch (although sadly, magic still can’t make your thighs thinner or stop you acting like an idiot every time you meet handsome “lord of the manor”, James Fitzroy).

But when the nasty housekeeper at Huntingdon Manor is murdered and Caitlyn becomes the main suspect, she finds herself surrounded by suspicious villagers. With the help of her sassy American cousin, a mischievous black kitten and a slobbering English mastiff – not to mention the old village witch and her shop of enchanted chocolates – Caitlyn sets out to clear her name. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I did enjoy the first book in H.Y. Hanna’s new magical cozy mystery series, but unfortunately this one is not as good as the first one. There are some strange plot points, and the murderer seems to come out of nowhere (and not in a good way). Still, I enjoyed the characters and the touches of magic (who wouldn’t want magical chocolate?), and I hope that in the next book, the plot will perk up.

The Other F Word

Milo has two great moms, but he’s never known what it’s like to have a dad. When Milo’s doctor suggests asking his biological father to undergo genetic testing to shed some light on Milo’s extreme allergies, he realizes this is a golden opportunity to find the man he’s always wondered about.

Hollis’s mom Leigh hasn’t been the same since her other mom, Pam, passed away seven years ago. But suddenly, Leigh seems happy—giddy, even—by the thought of reconnecting with Hollis’s half-brother Milo. Hollis and Milo were conceived using the same sperm donor. They met once, years ago, before Pam died.

Now Milo has reached out to Hollis to help him find their donor. Along the way, they locate three other donor siblings, and they discover the true meaning of the other F-word: family.

This book offers compelling characters in an interesting situation. Hollis and Milo begin to contact their half-siblings and search for their sperm donor (Milo enthusiastically, Hollis reluctantly), and almost despite themselves, they and their families begin forming bonds with these long-lost relatives. It’s a subject I’ve never read about before, and I really enjoyed it.

Close Enough to Touch

One time a boy kissed me and I almost died…

And so begins the story of Jubilee Jenkins, a young woman with a rare and debilitating medical condition: she’s allergic to other humans. After a humiliating near-death experience in high school, Jubilee has become a recluse, living the past nine years in the confines of the small town New Jersey house her unaffectionate mother left to her when she ran off with a Long Island businessman. But now, her mother is dead, and without her financial support, Jubilee is forced to leave home and face the world—and the people in it—that she’s been hiding from.

One of those people is Eric Keegan, a man who just moved into town for work. With a daughter from his failed marriage who is no longer speaking to him, and a brilliant, if psychologically troubled, adopted son, Eric’s struggling to figure out how his life got so off-course, and how to be the dad—and man—he wants so desperately to be. Then, one day, he meets a mysterious woman named Jubilee, with a unique condition…

Remember how I said earlier that I don’t really enjoy romances? Well, this book proved me wrong. Close Enough to Touch is a super sweet romance about Jubilee and her allergy to human touch, and her relationship with library patrons Eric and his son, Aja. Jubilee has to overcome her fears of being out in the world, while Eric comes to grips with the fact that he might be unable to keep Aja from harm.

Jubilee is a fun character who learns to love life and face her fears, despite her dangerous allergies, and she bonds deeply with Eric and Aja. This sweet romance will draw you in (and possibly make you cry).

Newbery Reviews: 1940

Unfortunately, the 1940 Newbery books were not really my favorites. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s time for another Newbery roundup! This time I’m retroactively reviewing the 1940 Newbery books that I read as a child. And I’m sorry to say there were no real winners from that year. (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)

Medal Winner: Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone was a farmer who couldn’t stay put. Something was always pulling him westward into new and mysterious lands, and when this pull got so strong that he could no longer ignore it, and his wife and children could not persuade him to stay, he just went, with his toes pointing into the West and his eyes glued to the hills.

As a child, I knew a fair amount about Daniel Boone. He lived an interesting life full of adventure, and any kid who enjoys adventure stories is likely to enjoy learning about Daniel Boone’s life. Still, I found this book just okay. It definitely shows its age, and despite the interesting material, it couldn’t keep my attention for long.

Rating: Meh

Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz

Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz is a children’s biography of the nineteenth-century paleontologist and natural scientist Louis Agassiz by Mabel Robinson. It tells his life story from his boyhood in Switzerland to his professorship at Harvard.

When I read this book as a kid, I found it pretty awful. It was dry and boring, as many children’s biographies were at the time. Unless for some reason your child has a fascination with Louis Agassiz (I don’t know any children who do), I’d skip this book.

Rating: Skip This One

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Laura and her family are head to the Dakota Territory for a chance to own their own land–and stop moving. The new town of De Smet is filling up with settlers lured west by the promise of free land, and the Ingalls family must do whatever it takes too defend their claim.

If you enjoy the Little House on the Prairie series, I don’t need to tell you about this book. I enjoyed it when I read it, but it kind of blurs together with all the other books in the series. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that these books are classics for a reason–if you or your kids haven’t read them yet, give them a shot!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

YA Roundup: February

This YA roundup is chock full of fun, new (and old) YA books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This week I’m posting a YA roundup of all the YA books I’ve read over the past couple of months. There have been some great ones that I’ve read recently, even though most of them are backlist–I’m slowly but surely working through my TBR list! (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)

I’ll Give You the Sun

Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.

This book was huge when it first came out, but it took me a long time to be convinced by the hype. Teen drama isn’t usually my thing (Everything, Everything is a notable exception). Still, once I finally picked up the book, I could see why it was so popular. I’ll Give You the Sun shows how Jude and Noah, twins who were once inseparable, play out the many ways you can hurt the ones you love the most.

There is a lot of drama here, and I found the book slow to start. Still, I thought the ending was nice. It tied everything together and, while it didn’t fix every problem, came pretty close to it. (For me, this is a good thing. Those who don’t like neat and tidy endings might have a problem with it.)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Young World

Welcome to New York, a city ruled by teens.

After a mysterious Sickness wipes out the rest of the population, the young survivors assemble into tightly run tribes. Jefferson, the reluctant leader of the Washington Square tribe, and Donna, the girl he’s secretly in love with, have carved out a precarious existence among the chaos.

But when a fellow tribe member discovers a clue that may hold the cure for the Sickness, five teens set out on a life-altering road trip, exchanging gunfire with enemy gangs, escaping cults and militias, braving the wilds of the subway – all in order to save humankind.

This dystopian novel was a fun addition to the long list of YA dystopian books I’ve read. A mysterious sickness kills everyone except teenagers, which keeps lifespans short and instability the norm. I loved Donna and Jefferson; the audio book that I listened to had great narrators for each of these main characters and provided two very different perspectives on the same event.

The plot–a mix between dystopian survival and coming-of-age road trip–kept me interested the whole time. The characters were fun and sympathetic, the love triangle that inevitably cropped up was short-lived and surprisingly mature, and the descriptions of the various gangs and tribes that developed throughout New York City added richness to the story. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a huge fan of the twist ending, and I probably won’t read the next book in the series. I’m content to think of this as a wonderful stand-alone novel.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dumplin’

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.

I loved the heck out of this book. There’s a distinct Texas flavor to Dumplin’, making the setting almost as important as the characters. And speaking of which, the characters are all amazing. There’s the usual teen drama, romantic missteps, and falling out with friends, but (unusually for a YA novel) the characters actually make decent, logical decisions most of the time.

The story itself is fun–Will (or Dumplin’, as her mother calls her) is content with her body, until a super sweet (and conventionally attractive) boy starts flirting with her. As she struggles to stay comfortable in her own skin, Will finds herself joining the local beauty pageant and leading a group of misfits almost against her will as she attempts to deal with her changing relationships and the loss of a beloved family member.

This is definitely worth reading. Whether or not you can relate to Will’s struggles with her weight, you will almost certainly relate to her attempts to stay true to herself and allow herself to change at the same time.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Egg & Spoon

Elena Rudina lives in the impoverished Russian countryside. Her father has been dead for years. One of her brothers has been conscripted into the Tsar’s army, the other taken as a servant in the house of the local landowner. Her mother is dying, slowly, in their tiny cabin. And there is no food. But then a train arrives in the village, a train carrying untold wealth, a cornucopia of food, and a noble family destined to visit the Tsar in Saint Petersburg — a family that includes Ekaterina, a girl of Elena’s age. When the two girls’ lives collide, an adventure is set in motion, an escapade that includes mistaken identity, a monk locked in a tower, a prince traveling incognito, and — in a starring role only Gregory Maguire could have conjured — Baba Yaga, witch of Russian folklore, in her ambulatory house perched on chicken legs.

This story sounds depressing at first glance, but there’s a humor to the writing which is really wonderful. Kat and Elena do a “Prince and the Pauper”-style swap, and Elena seizes the chance to better the lives of her family and friends. Meanwhile, spoiled, skeptical Kat meets up with Baba Yaga, the Russian witch.

I absolutely loved Baba Yaga! She was the funniest character throughout the book and the catalyst for a lot of the magical adventures the girls find themselves on. This is a fun fantasy for anyone with an interest in Russian folklore.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Review Copy: Dark Witch and Creamy

Dark Witch and Creamy is the first book in a fun cozy mystery series by H.Y. Hanna. #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.

Caitlyn is used to being the ugly duckling in her glamorous showbiz family… until the day she learns that she was adopted as an abandoned baby. Now, her search for answers takes her to the tiny English village of Tillyhenge where a man has been murdered by witchcraft – and where a mysterious shop selling enchanted chocolates is home to the “local witch”…

Soon Caitlyn finds herself fending off a toothless old vampire, rescuing an adorable kitten and meeting handsome aristocrat Lord James Fitzroy… not to mention discovering that she herself might have magical blood in her veins! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’ve loved all of the books in H.Y. Hanna’s Oxford Tearoom series, so I was excited to hear that she is starting a new cozy mystery series called Bewitched by Chocolate. This new series has, as you might guess, a bit of magic and a whole lot of chocolate!

On her search to find her birth family, Caitlyn finds herself in a small English town that has more secrets than you might think. Caitlyn befriends the local chocolate maker, a grouchy old woman who is thought of by many as the local witch, and does her best to defend her when the town tries to blame her for a recent murder. But Caitlyn soon finds out that there might be more truth to the rumors of magic than she wants to believe.

As with all of H.Y. Hanna’s works, this is a fun, lighthearted cozy mystery. Caitlyn is very different from Gemma, but she’s still an enjoyable, imperfect character to follow. I loved the small town setting and the quirky characters Caitlyn meets there, and I especially enjoyed the magic chocolate store! I hope we get to spend even more time there in future books.

If you like cozy mysteries with a bit of magic, or if you’ve enjoyed H.Y. Hanna’s other series, you should give this book a try.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Joint Review: Austenland

In this post, my sister and I write a joint review of Shannon Hale's Austenland series. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As promised, I’m doing a co-review with my sister! We both read Shannon Hale’s books Austenland and Midnight in Austenland, two romances that center on the fictional vacation place where visitors dress and act like characters from a Jane Austen novel. Rather than a formal review, we decided to discuss our thoughts about both books. So be forewarned: There are spoilers for both books ahead!

Monica: To start off with, have you read any other Shannon Hale books?
Melanie: Princess Academy, right? And Goose Girl?
Monica: Yes. I’ve read those and also Book of a Thousand Days, and the two graphic novels she wrote with her husband. I thought it was interesting because most of what I know about Shannon Hale is her YA/children’s fiction. She usually writes stories with strong but flawed female MCs that give a darker twist to lesser-known fairy tales. So I felt like these adult fiction books were really different!
Melanie: Yeah, it’s almost like these books (well, the first one anyway) were lighter than what she writes for children. I assume it was because she was going for an Austen feel?
Monica: Yes, which brings me to another question: What did you expect from these books, and how did that differ from what you read?
Melanie: I’ve read Austenland before, and it was pretty much what I expected, a light rom-com thing. So I had every expectation that Midnight in Austenland would feel the same way.
But I was very wrong…
Monica: So I had never read these books before, and I guess I was kind of expecting them to be a little more along the same lines as her YA books, a little darker maybe? Honestly, I really didn’t like the first one very much; I thought it was pretty cheesy.
Also, did you think the whole idea of Austenland a little creepy? I think I would have been good with the historical reenactment part if they hadn’t promised you a fake romance also…
Melanie: It was pretty cheesy, but I liked that about it. It was just a nice, sweet, entirely implausible book. It did seem a little emotionally manipulative of the women who came, though.
I just got frustrated with the protagonist in the first book because I felt like she really didn’t understand the dynamic between Lizzie and Darcy for the first half of Pride and Prejudice.
Monica: What do you mean? Like she expected to fall in love and have it be perfect immediately?
Melanie: No, like how she was so angry at Henry and thought he was such a jerk, and kept comparing him to Darcy at the end of Pride & Prejudice. Like, “Oh, he’s such a jerk, he’s not really a Darcy, he’s just rude.” It was like she didn’t see that he was being first half of P&P Darcy.
Monica: I guess the audience is supposed to see the parallels between him and Darcy when the MC doesn’t.
Melanie: Yeah, I guess it was to make the love story feel like P&P, but I felt like she should have been more self-aware, being such a huge fan of Austen. It was almost like she kept forgetting he was an actor playing a role.
Monica: Yes! That was the worst part to me, in both books. If you’re into historical reenactment, that’s awesome! It sounds super fun. But the idea that this was kind of a resort mostly for bored wives looking for romance felt really creepy. Like, you paid a ton of money to dress up and play pretend, why do you keep thinking this is real?
Melanie: Exactly! Like, in one scene, they’d be totally unable to get into character and feeling super awkward, and then in the next scene, you couldn’t even tell that they weren’t actually living it.

Monica: So my next question is basically book 1 vs. book 2. What did you think? I was surprised at how different they felt!
Melanie: Right? I really thought they’d only be as different as two of Austen’s books. I kind of thought that was the point. I think she was going for Northanger Abbey with the second one, but Northanger Abbey did not actually have a murder…
Monica: I actually liked the second one a lot better because 1) I thought Charlotte had a better grip on her life and 2) I’m addicted to mysteries and I liked that this book was a little less romance-focused.
Melanie: I think I liked the first one better. I felt like I could identify more with Jane than with Charlotte, because I know more about being obsessed with romances in books than I do about being cheated on and having kids. Also, I don’t think I like mysteries very much because I am a wimp. I kept getting creeped out in the second one. Basically any time Charlotte wandered the house by herself, and when she had to go to sleep in the dark and her door wouldn’t lock. I kept thinking of a Jane Eyre adaptation I saw once where Jane was laying in bed and then lightning flashed and then the insane wife was there.
Monica: It was kind of a big leap from straightforward romance to suddenly a dead body! And a murderer running around!
Melanie: That was the biggest problem for me. I just reading along, and then all of a sudden, wait! That murder was real! And there’s crazy people!
Monica: Reading the second book did give me a little more sympathy for Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice. Life as an upper class lady would have been pretty boring except for all the balls and social gatherings… and murders!
Melanie: That’s a good point. Although, what’s up with this “let’s put on a play!” “let’s play a game called Murder!” Jane got way cheated out of evening entertainment in her stay.
Monica: The one thing I liked less about the second book was the romance itself. Not that I disliked Eddie (or Reginald), but I felt a little strange about the deus ex machina ending where she had  to stay in the country because of the murder trial, and magically her kids were fine with it?
Melanie: I really liked the buildup to the romance in the second book. I thought it was sweet how they were friends during the whole time and everything. But yeah. It all worked out veeeeery conveniently in the second book. Like, she didn’t even have to see the crappy stepmom or anything!

Monica: So my last question/discussion is about the implications of Austenland. Would you go if there was a real one? Is the forced romance creepy? (spoiler alert: yes) Did you find it weird in the first book how Jane was so desperate to find love that her aunt died and left her a trip to Austenland?
Melanie: I think Austenland would be fun in real life if there were more guests and fewer actors. Like if the hosts were actors, but you could bring a group of friends, or your significant others, and just do historical reenactment, I think that would be more fun and less creepy.
Monica: That sounds great! I do like the idea of historical reenactment. I felt like Miss Charming was the epitome of the so-called “Ideal Client,” at least in a pessimistic way. Like she was so starved for affection and distraction that she was willing to live in a literal fantasy world, letting this gay guy fake fall in love with her for months on end. So I thought it was interesting that Jane and Charlotte came to heal their romantic wounds. I feel like in real life it would just be a bunch of Austen fangirls, not nearly so much drama!
Melanie: Yeah, I did appreciate that we got to know Miss Charming better in the second book and she got a nice resolution. That’s probably what all the other vacations were like, when the actors didn’t accidentally fall in love…

Monica: Any other thoughts about these books to wrap it up?
Melanie: Hmm. As I was reading Austenland, I thought it was really interesting how much Jane cared about everyone’s opinions. Even though she knew they were actors, she still really wanted them to like her.
Monica: Good point… It’s kind of a clue to her whole approach to life. Thanks for reviewing these books with me!
Melanie: Thank you! I never would have read the second one otherwise!

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