Newbery Roundup: November 2017

In which I review the Newbery books I've read in November 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m still trudging my way through the older Newbery books. *sigh* I have to admit that most of the early Newbery books just don’t hold up very well, whether because writing styles have changed or acceptable treatment of different groups of people has. Still, I’m getting there–only about 75 books left to read. I’m getting close! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Floating Island

When the doll house they inhabit is shipped overseas as a gift, a terrible storm results in shipwreck on an uninhabited tropical island for the Doll family. This includes Mr. and Mrs. Doll, their children William and Annabelle, and Dinah the cook. The story follows their adventures with affection and humor.

I loved the feel of this book–the dolls’ adventures on a tropical island, the illustrations, the narrator who talks directly to the reader–but the casual racism made it so I can’t recommend this book to modern readers. I would love to have a modernized version of this book; I think that children who like an old-fashioned adventure story would really like it.

Rating: Good but Problematic

Chucaro

Pink certainly is an unusual color for a pony, and when Pedro spies Chúcaro grazing on the Pampa he can hardly believe his eyes. He just has to have that pony for himself. Unfortunately, the estancerio’s spoiled son is equally determined to own the pony. But the wisest gauchos know that ponies as special as Chúcaro can never truly be owned. Chúcaro alone will decide for himself which gaucho will have the privilege of riding him.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Although I don’t usually like books about horses, this short and sweet book with its great illustrations kept my interest. I also appreciated that the author, although Hungarian, seems to have a fair amount of knowledge about the Pampa and its residents, and the book never seems patronizing toward its own characters. (And yes, it’s sad that that was such a surprise!)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Shiloh

When Marty Preston comes across a young beagle in the hills behind his home, it’s love at first sight–and also big trouble. It turns out the dog, which Marty names Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers, who drinks too much and has a gun and abuses his dogs. So when Shiloh runs away from Judd to Marty, Marty just has to hide him and protect him from Judd. But Marty’s secret becomes too big for him to keep to himself, and it exposes his entire family to Judd’s anger. How far will Marty have to go to make Shiloh his?

I was also surprised at how much I liked this book (again, I’m not a huge fan of animal stories). The West Virginian Southern dialect is great, and Marty’s family is wonderful. Their love and support for each other and others in their community, despite the poverty of their region, makes the story sweet even during the painful parts.

(*spoiler alert* that I think you all will be happy to have: The dog doesn’t die in this book!)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Horsecatcher

Praised for swift action and beauty of language, The Horsecatcheris Mari Sandoz’s first novel about the Indians she knew so well. Without ever leaving the world of a Cheyenne tribe in the 1830s, she creates a youthful protagonist many readers will recognize in themselves. Young Elk is expected to be a warrior, but killing even an enemy sickens him. He would rather catch and tame the mustangs that run in herds. Sandoz makes it clear that his determination to be a horsecatcher will require a moral and physical courage equal to that of any warrior. And if he must earn the right to live as he wishes, he must also draw closer to family and community.

I was really bored by this book. 1) I don’t like books about horses (see above). 2) I’m about tired of books about Native Americans not written by Native Americans. And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this book. Unless you’re obsessed with horses, it’s probably not worth your time.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Reviews: 1942

I'm continuing my journey through the Newbery books with reviews of the 1942 Newbery winners. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s post covers the 1942 Newbery books, which are all historical fiction. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Medal Winner: The Matchlock Gun

In 1756, New York State was still a British colony, and the French and the Indians were constant threats to Edward and his family. When his father was called away to watch for a raid from the north, only Edward was left to protect Mama and little Trudy. His father had shown him how to use the huge matchlock gun, an old Spanish gun that was twice as long as he was, but would Edward be able to handle it if trouble actually came?

I have close to no memory of this book. I enjoyed it, as I did most of the historical fiction I read as a child. But I’m not sure if I would bother re-reading it now.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Little Town on the Prairie

The long winter is finally over, and with spring comes a new job for Laura, town parties, and more time to spend with Almanzo Wilder. Laura also tries to help Pa and Ma save money for Mary to go to college.

Yes, it’s another Laura Ingalls Wilder book. This one is slightly different from the other Little House books (they’re in a town!). As always when I review these books, I feel like there’s not a lot for me to say. Others have much sweeter memories of this series than I do, and all the books have kind of blended together for me. Still, it’s a Little House book! It’s worth reading at least once.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

 

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison

In this classic frontier adventure, Lois Lenski reconstructs the real life story of Mary Jemison, who was captured in a raid as young girl and raised amongst the Seneca Indians. Meticulously researched and illustrated with many detailed drawings, this novel offers an exceptionally vivid and personal portrait of Native American life and customs.

Of all the historical fiction I read during my childhood years, this one really sticks out in my memory. A young girl is kidnapped by Native Americans, and she and her family are both distraught–at the beginning. Over time, however, Mary becomes assimilated with the Seneca tribe and wants to stay with them, even when her family comes to rescue her.

I don’t remember much about the details of this book now, so I’d be interested to see how I feel about it now. I’ve read a huge amount of early Newbery books about Native Americans, written by everyone but Native Americans, and I have found that hugely frustrating. I’m never sure how accurate those stories are, or how insensitive. Still, I appreciate that this novel is at least based on a true event, and I might revisit it in the future.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Latest ARC Reads: November 2017

This post offers quick reviews of the latest ARCs I've read. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received these books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

River Rising

Weeks after his parents disappear on a hike, engineer Adam Carson, 27, searches for answers. Then he discovers a secret web site and learns his mom and dad are time travelers stuck in the past. Armed with the information he needs to find them, Adam convinces his younger siblings to join him on a rescue mission to the 1880s.

While Greg, the adventurous middle brother, follows leads in the Wild West, Adam, journalist Natalie, and high school seniors Cody and Caitlin do the same in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Like the residents of the bustling steel community, all are unaware of a flood that will destroy the city on May 31, 1889.

River Rising is the first book in a new series by John Heldt (whose previous books I’ve reviewed herehere, here, here, here, and here). In this series, the Carson siblings must travel back in time to the 1880s in order to rescue their parents, who are stuck in the past.

If you’ve read any of Heldt’s previous books, you’ll have a good idea of the flavor of this book. There is plenty of romance and peril as the family tries to blend into their new surroundings and track down their missing parents.

The book feels slow to begin, and everyone falling in love gets a bit too sentimental for me. But I liked how both the siblings and their parents are portrayed as they travel through time to try to find each other, and I especially enjoyed the historical fiction elements (the flood in Johnstown and its aftermath was fascinating and heartbreaking). If you’re looking for a sweet, escapist romance with a bit of history tucked inside, you might enjoy this book.

Another One Bites the Crust

Champagne and ball gowns, fairy lights and music… Oxford summer balls are one of the highlights of the calendar and tearoom sleuth Gemma Rose is looking forward to taking a break and slipping into something gorgeous for the evening. But when the night ends with a celebrity chef murdered by his own whisk, Gemma finds herself plunged into a new mystery—and the nosy Old Biddies keen to help with the investigation!

But trouble is also brewing at her quaint Cotswolds tearoom: between fighting claims that she’s serving “fake” custard tarts and stopping her little tabby, Muesli, from being catnapped, Gemma has her hands full—and that’s before she has to fend off an amorous Italian. To top it all, her boyfriend Devlin’s mother is coming to visit and Gemma is anxious to make a good impression… although Mrs O’Connor isn’t quite what she expected!

I really liked this installment in the Oxford Tearoom series (you can see previous reviews here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Gemma finally meets Devlin’s mother, who is much different than Gemma expected her to be, and tries to solve the murder of a famous chef who was electrocuted before a show at Oxford. Plus, there’s a lot of cute Muesli, Gemma’s mischievous cat.

This latest book in the series gives readers more of Gemma and Devlin’s relationship, which I love. The characters in this series make the stories shine, and I love the times when we get to zoom in on specific relationships. And as always, the mystery is interesting and engaging without being gory or scary. A wonderful cozy mystery to spend an afternoon with.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics

Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier is the book that got me into meditation in the first place, so I was excited to find out that he had written a new book filled with practical tips for meditating. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics offers helpful, practical ideas that will help overcome the reluctance of those who want to get into meditation but aren’t into the more “woowoo” aspects. 

Dan wrote this book with the help of his friend, meditation teacher Jeff, as they toured the country in a bus and talked to widely varying groups about meditation. Everyone from former juvenile delinquents to the military to news and radio personalities gets a mention, so no matter what your hangups about meditation, the authors have advice for you. The book is also filled with short meditations that you can try out for yourself.

I enjoyed this book, and if you’re interested in meditation but don’t want to get all mystical about it, you should definitely pick it up.

Comics Roundup

I don't usually read comics, but this is what I came up with when I ransacked my roommate's collection. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m not a big reader of comics, but my roommate has a huge collection, so one day I decided to explore a few of his comics. I’m offering these up as possible entryways into comics if you (like me) have no interest in the stereotypical superhero types. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Serenity, Vol. 1-4

If you enjoyed the show Firefly, I really do recommend these comics to you. They are able to bring back the characters of this beloved show, mostly in a way that feels true to who they were. Serenity also fills in some of the backstory for characters like Shepherd Book and River, which I appreciated. As far as I know, there are only these four volumes, but that’s better than nothing for Firefly fans!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Love and Wonder

Set in a 1920’s New York where Prohibition outlaws the brewing of spells, the story follows Vincent Byrde, a hard-boiled PI who struggles with a magic curse. After a long career hunting magic bootleggers, Vincent has become obsessed with the frustrating case of Jimmy Wonder: a young, up-and-coming spellrunner who keeps slipping out of the hands of the law. Their dance takes a complicated turn when Kitty Lovelace — well-known to be Jimmy’s main girl — walks out on Wonder and into Vincent’s life.

The first thing you’ll notice about this comic is the beautiful art, so if art is your main interest, you should check out Love and Wonder. This is a noir story based on the Prohibition of magic, and it takes all the cliches of the 1920s and puts a magical spin on them. I’ll admit, the story wasn’t really for me (and there is some sexual content, so be aware!), but again–that art!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1

London, 1898. The Victorian Era draws to a close and the twentieth century approaches. It is a time of great change and an age of stagnation, a period of chaste order and ignoble chaos. It is an era in need of champions.

In this amazingly imaginative tale, literary figures from throughout time and various bodies of work are brought together to face any and all threats to Britain. Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde and Hawley Griffin ( the Invisible Man) form a remarkable legion of intellectual aptitude and physical prowess: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

This well-known comic is a little more closely related to the stereotypical action/adventure comics. But instead of superheroes, this comic stars book characters such as Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Mycroft Holmes, who interact, argue, and get into trouble.

This is another comic that wasn’t exactly for me–at least, I don’t really have any interest in reading more of it. But it kept my interest while I was reading it, and I think it might be a good option if you’re looking to ease your way into comics.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mystery Roundup, October 2017

Today I'm reviewing all the latest mystery books I've read. It's a wide variety for different ages and settings. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m a big fan of mysteries of all kinds, and in today’s post I’m reviewing a wide variety of mystery novels. There are standalones and series; MG, YA, and adult books; and settings from Australia to London to Singapore. There’s something for everyone here! (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Aunty Lee’s Delights

After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could easily have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai,” an idle rich lady devoted to mah-jongg and luxury shopping. Instead she threw herself into building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean home cooking is graciously served to locals and tourists alike. But when a body is found in one of Singapore’s beautiful tourist havens, and when one of her wealthy guests fails to show at a dinner party, Aunty Lee knows that the two are likely connected.

The murder and disappearance throws together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson Mark, his social-climbing wife Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore, and an elderly Australian tourist couple whose visit-billed at first as a pleasure cruise-may mask a deeper purpose. Investigating the murder is rookie Police Commissioner Raja, who quickly discovers that the savvy and well-connected Aunty Lee can track down clues even better than local law enforcement.

I really enjoyed this mystery. A blog reader told me about this series when I asked for suggestions for diverse mysteries, and this book really fit what I was looking for. The Singapore setting is wonderful, and so is Aunty Lee. I know practically nothing about Singapore, so reading about their food, their culture, and their daily lives (with the addition of murder, of course) was fascinating. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Murder Most Austen

A dedicated Anglophile and Janeite, Elizabeth Parker is hoping the trip to the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath will distract her from her lack of a job and her uncertain future with her boyfriend, Peter.

On the plane ride to England, she and Aunt Winnie meet Professor Richard Baines, a self-proclaimed expert on all things Austen. His outlandish claims that within each Austen novel there is a sordid secondary story is second only to his odious theory on the true cause of Austen’s death. When Baines is found stabbed to death in his Mr. Darcy costume during the costume ball, it appears that Baines’s theories have finally pushed one Austen fan too far. But Aunt Winnie’s friend becomes the prime suspect, so Aunt Winnie enlists Elizabeth to find the professor’s real killer. With an ex-wife, a scheming daughter-in-law, and a trophy wife, not to mention a festival’s worth of die-hard Austen fans, there are no shortage of suspects.

I picked up Murder Most Austen on a whim (and because it cost fifty cents!). I was expecting something forgettable and bland, a mystery that covers well-trodden ground. What I found was surprisingly fresh and fun. There is enough Jane Austen here for fans to enjoy, but the novel never becomes stale by relying too heavily on Austen’s well-known stories and characters. This book isn’t as saccharine as many cozy mysteries are, but it’s certainly not scary or gory. If you’re looking for a light but interesting mystery with a bit of Jane Austen flair, this book might be for you!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Poison is Not Polite

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t about Daisy after all—and she is furious. But Daisy’s anger falls to the wayside when one of their guests falls seriously and mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. It’s up to Daisy and Hazel to find out what’s really going on.

With wild storms preventing everyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem—and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy begins to act suspiciously, the Detective Society does everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

It has been a long time since I read the first book in this middle grade series, but this is a good follow up. Poison is Not Polite takes the form of a classic English country house mystery (think Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles), but it feels fresh and new because of the main characters–two young girls who are spending their school holiday at the house. Daisy and Hazel, along with their two school friends, take it on themselves to solve the murder of the unpleasant man who was invited to the house. But the deeper they dig, the closer they get to digging up some family secrets that Daisy may not want to know, after all.

For a MG mystery, this book doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness of murder (or of the secrets that families sometimes try to hide, or of the casual racism that Hazel experiences). Still, it remains mostly lighthearted. I’m looking forward to seeing what mystery this Detective Society solves next.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Husband’s Secret

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

I read this for book club (because of course we read it), and honestly, I think everyone else disliked this book more than I did. I hated the book at first–there’s a lot of cheating, family drama, and of course secrets–and most of the characters are very unlikable. But once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down! Sure, there are some cheesy moments, and if you need a likable character in order to really enjoy a book, this one probably isn’t for you. Still, I can see how The Husband’s Secret became so popular. This would be a good beach read, I think.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Agency series

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

I read the first book in the Agency series a long time ago, and I remember really enjoying it. But when I re-read the first book, followed by the rest of the series, I felt kind of… meh about it. I forgot how sexist the love interest, James, is and how the writing isn’t very sharp. (To be honest, that’s not the kind of thing that usually bothers me, but there were several instances where I thought, this book could have used another round of edits.)

While I like the idea of this series–a young woman in Victorian London finds freedom in being an undercover spy, despite the restraints on women during that time period–it doesn’t work well for me as it plays out. If you’re going to give me a fictional spy agency which allows women to have more freedom, why don’t you give me at least a couple of characters who also believe in rights for women? This is particularly annoying with James. I think the author is trying to present him as a Darcy-esque character, but while Darcy eventually comes to admire Elizabeth’s quick mind and wit, James continually tries to keep Mary from doing her job in the most patronizing ways possible. I found it very irritating.

I did think that the last book was the best in this series. Mary and James have a much better relationship, and she is able to do more mystery solving than in any of the previous books. In my mind, these books are almost equally balanced between the poor writing and sexist characters and the fun of the mysteries, particularly the last one. I don’t think I’ll be reading this series again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Roundup, October 2017

The latest roundup of Newbery books I've read, both new and old. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Not only have I been working through the classic Newbery books lately, but I’ve also found a few more recent Newbery books in the archives that I read months (or years) ago and never reviewed (oops!). So in today’s Newbery roundup, you’ll find mini reviews of books from recent years and also some of the oldest honor books. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I love Jacqueline Woodson’s writing style, and this book, which shares Woodson’s own childhood in free verse form, is no exception. It’s a lovely, quick read that will stay with you even if you don’t generally like poetry.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Daughter of the Seine

This is a fictionalized biography of the French Revolutionary patriot and writer Jeanne Manon Roland de la Platiere (1754-1793), who became known simply by Madame Roland. She was the daughter of a Paris engraver who encouraged his daughter’s interest in music, painting, and literature. As a young girl, she told to her grand-mother: “I’ll call myself daughter of the Seine,” and as an adult she often said that the river was part of her soul. As a young woman she became interested in the radical ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the movement for equality. She shared these enthusiasms with her husband, whom she married in 1780. After the outbreak of the Revolution, she formed a salon of followers, who late became known as the Girondists. Under the constitutional monarchy, her husband became minister of the interior, a post he held after the monarchy was overthrown. Madame Roland both directed her husband’s career and influenced the important politicians of the period.

As with most of the historical fiction from this era of Newbery books, it’s hard to believe that kids would ever have enjoyed reading A Daughter of the Seine. This book is not as dry as others I’ve read, but it’s still pretty forgettable (and surprisingly long). I did learn some new things about this interesting historical figure, and I appreciated that the focus of this book is a woman, but I still wouldn’t really recommend it for modern-day readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Three Times Lucky

Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone’s business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she’s been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her “upstream mother,” she’s found a home with the Colonel–a café owner with a forgotten past of his own–and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

Full of wisdom, humor, and grit, this timeless yarn will melt the heart of even the sternest Yankee.

This book is wonderful! If you like small-town, Southern characters in the style of Lucky Strikes or even A Year Down Yonder, you’ll enjoy this book. There is a sequel which I still haven’t read, but I definitely plan to.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Dark Star of Itza

The story of a Mayan princess who lived at the time the ancient city of Chichen Itza fell under Toltec rule.

Why is this book so obsessed with adult themes (war, jealous love, and human sacrifices among them)? It’s a bit jarring in a children’s book. Despite that, I did like the character of Nicte, a princess and the daughter of the high priest in the ancient Mayan civilization. Like A Daughter of the Seine, this is one of the less offensive and dry historical fiction books from this period in Newbery history.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Heart of a Samurai

In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.

Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

This is an interesting fictionalized account of Manjiro, a Japanese boy who helped unite the US and Japan, ending Japan’s 250 years of isolation. Although I was slightly familiar with the story of Manjiro before reading this book, I still found myself feeling like these events couldn’t possibly have occurred–but they did! The author does a great job of fleshing out the actual historical events (including some of Manjiro’s own words from his letters and writings) with the thoughts and feelings a young man might have had. This book is a well-written, fascinating account of historical events that I actually would recommend for modern-day readers, whether children or adults.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Queer Person

Relates the experiences of an outcast deaf-mute Indian boy as he grows to adulthood and eventually becomes a great leader.

Here we go again… I find it very questionable that this white man (who, granted, seems to have spent a fair amount of time working with Native American tribes) has taken it upon himself to write about being a deaf Native American. In addition, the story (young deaf boy struggles to find his place in his tribe, finds out he has royal blood, magically becomes able to hear, wins the heart of the princess) is trite. I can’t really recommend this one.

Rating: Meh

The Great Fire

The Great Fire of 1871 was one of most colossal disasters in American history. Overnight, the flourshing city of Chicago was transformed into a smoldering wasteland. The damage was so profound that few people believed the city could ever rise again.

By weaving personal accounts of actual survivors together with the carefully researched history of Chicago and the disaster, Jim Murphy constructs a riveting narrative that recreates the event with drama and immediacy. And finally, he reveals how, even in a time of deepest dispair, the human spirit triumphed, as the people of Chicago found the courage and strength to build their city once again.

I love this kind of historical book, filled with photos and first-hand accounts. Murphy offers a historical view of the great fire in Chicago, including its causes, the destruction it caused, and the fallout. He also takes it upon himself to remind readers that the blame which fell on the poor, the immigrants, and the women who lived in the city was a product of its time and not an accurate reflection of what happened. This is fascinating reading, whether you’re a kid or an adult. (And if you like this book, you might also enjoy Jim Murphy’s other Newbery book, An American Plague.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Book Series I’ve Finally Finished Reading!

All of the latest book series I've finally finished reading (some of these are all-time favorites!). | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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There are so many book series that I’ve enjoyed and yet took forever to finish reading, and I’ve finally decided to make finishing some of those series a priority. Okay, some of these series are ongoing, but I’ve read all the books that have been published, so I think that’s close enough!

(Please note that, because I’m providing a quick summary of many or all the books in a series, there will be spoilers!)

Flavia de Luce

I’ve read a couple of these books previously (reviews here and here), and I was glad to pick them up again. Flavia is as precocious and irritating as ever, which depending on your point of view is either the whole charm of the series or the reason you hate it.

The latest books in this series are Speaking from Among the Bones, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, and Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d. I found Speaking from Among the Bones a particularly great continuation of the series, as Flavia actually starts connecting with her sisters, Feely and Daffy, as their lives start changing and Buckshaw is sold.

Unfortunately, I thought the quality of the series started to decline with As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Flavia is still a wonderful character, but (*spoiler alert*) the fact that she is sent to a girls’ boarding school that is secretly training her to be a secret agent feels like an unrealistic twist to a *mostly* realistic mystery series.

In Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia returns to England, where she finds her father in the hospital and a corpse hanging from a door, and the series gets back to normal. I’m hoping that further installments in the series will follow that trend, rather than the out-of-left-field twist in As Chimney Sweepers.

Incorrigible Children

This series is one of my favorite reads of 2017! Penelope Lumley, a young governess in Victorian England, is hired to care for three children with a unique problem–they were literally raised by wolves. Miss Lumley has high expectations for her pupils, and she lovingly guides them through learning both table manners and epic poems.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that someone is out to get the Incorrigible children, and possibly Miss Lumley, too. As the children and their governess (along with the oblivious Lord Ashton and his spoiled wife) travel throughout England and face various strange and hilarious perils, we uncover more and more of the mystery behind these children.

This series has been described as Jane Eyre meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t agree more. There’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of narration which is very charming, and the series puts a fun twist on Gothic elements. If you like silly, strange MG novels, you’ll like the Incorrigible Children series.

Miss Peregrine

I had to look up a synopsis of the first book before reading the rest of the series because it has been so long since I read it. In case you, like me, need a quick review, here it is: After the dramatic events of the first book, in which Jacob finds out that he is one of a group of peculiar children and discovers that he can see the hollowgasts that are trying to hurt him and his new friends, Jacob and his friends have to fight off hollowgasts and wights in order to get Miss Peregrine back to her human form.

Am I glad I finished this series? Yes, although I won’t remember these books a few months from now. The books are quirky and strange, and the photographs are always a highlight, but I wish they had been a bit more memorable. Still, the sweet ending was worth it for me.

Septimus Heap

Ahhhh I loved this series so much! After reading the first book years ago, I was finally inspired to read the rest of the Septimus Heap series, and I’m soooo glad I did! To me, this was a more lighthearted, MG take on a Harry Potter-esque series. But don’t let that scare you off–there’s enough of a difference between that series and this one that Septimus Heap doesn’t suffer from the comparison.

As the story progresses from Magyk, in which Septimus finds out who his true family is and becomes the apprentice to the wizard Marcia, we go through Flyte, in which Septimus has some growing pains as a wizard; Physik, when Septimus gets sent back in time and Jenna, Nicko, and Snorri attempt to save him; Queste, in which Septimus, Jenna, and Beetle have to rescue Nicko and Snorri from the House of Foryx (and Septimus gets sent on a deadly queste); and Syren, when Septimus, Jenna, Beetle, Wolf Boy, and Lucy all end up on an island with a syren and Tertius Fume tries to release an army of jinn.

So many things happen in those books that it’s difficult to provide a summary–you’ll just have to read them yourself! But the last two books were my favorites by far. in Darke, Septimus and his estranged brother Simon have to team up as a Darke Domaine takes over the Palace and tries to enter the Wizard Tower, despite Marcia’s best efforts. Merrin, Beetle, and many other characters from past books make an appearance as Jenna accidentally joins a witch’s coven and Septimus completes his Darke Week by exploring the Darke Halls and searching for Alther’s ghost. And finally, Fyre, the finale of the series. I loved having all the gang back together, and Septimus gets to finally resolve some of the plot threads that have been hanging for books.

If you like magic, dragons, quirky characters, and plot threads that continue throughout the series and are resolved in a most satisfying fashion, you have to read the Septimus Heap series. I can’t recommend it enough.

Jasper Fforde–Shades of Grey and The Fourth Bear

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

Shades of Grey

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Fourth Bear

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC: Witch Chocolate Bites

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the author. All opinions are my own.

When novice witch Caitlyn Le Fey heads to an outdoor cinema festival at a beautiful Cotswolds manor, the last thing she expects is for the evening to end in murder. But when a dead man is found with fang marks in his neck and her old vampire uncle, Viktor, is arrested, Caitlyn must use all her newfound magic powers to clear his name.

Sleuthing isn’t simple, however, with so many strangers arriving at her grandmother’s enchanted chocolate shop: there’s the secretive village tenant with creepy Goth tastes, the inscrutable new butler at Huntingdon Manor–and a charming Frenchman keen to win Caitlyn’s heart. And that’s before she has to master the art of making the perfect chocolate soufflé or deal with a Levitation spell gone horribly wrong! Still, at least she has the help of a friendly English mastiff and her naughty kitten, Nibs, not to mention her sassy American cousin and all the village gossips! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you’ve been following this blog for long, you know that I’m a fan of H.Y. Hanna’s cozy mysteries, and I’m lucky enough to be part of her review team. Witch Chocolate Bites is the latest in the Bewitched by Chocolate series (you can see my other reviews of this series here, here, and here), which features Caitlyn, a budding witch who has just discovered her talent for magic, along with a family she never knew she had.

I enjoyed this story more than the others in the series. As always, Caitlyn’s cousin Pomona is a lot of fun, and we got a lot more scenes with Caitlyn and James. Caitlyn’s budding relationship with James is so good, and I can’t wait to see it grow! The magic in this book was even more integral to the story than in the past, which I enjoyed.

If you like cozy mysteries with a touch of the supernatural (and a bit of romance too), you might want to check out this frothy, fun series.

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

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