Newbery Books 2017

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

Wolf Hollow [Melanie’s review]

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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

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

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

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Inquisitor’s Tale [Monica’s review]

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Freedom Over Me [Monica’s review]

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Nonfiction Roundup, Spring 2017

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

Interrupted

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

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

Rating: Re-read Worthy

7

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

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

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

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Gift of Failure

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

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

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Daring Greatly

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Choose Your Own Autobiography

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stones into Schools

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Hidden Figures

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

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Anne Frank Remembered

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Year of Living Prayerfully

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

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

French Kids Eat Everything

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Symphony for the City of the Dead

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

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

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

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy

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

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

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

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

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

A review of Chris Cleave's "Everyone Brave is Forgiven"--everyone's talking about it for a reason. | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.

Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

If you haven’t heard about this book yet, well, you’ve probably not been paying attention. Everyone in the book world has been talking about Everyone Brave is Forgiven since it came out last year. After (finally) reading it, I can see why.

Like many summer blockbuster novels, the writing is beautiful. Cleave does a wonderful job of introducing sympathetic but deeply flawed characters–Mary is not a very good teacher, and she fights her family, her best friend, and even herself throughout most of the book for reasons that are often selfish (mild *spoiler alert*: Mary’s addiction to morphine made the second half of the book difficult for me to read); Tom can be wishy-washy and uncommitted; and Alistair’s time in Malta turns him into someone who’s willing to make poor, sometimes deadly choices.

The book focuses on the effects of war on individuals, particularly those on the home front. From the evacuations of school children to the minstrel shows that continue despite the bombings to time spent in subpar air raid shelters, we see every horrible detail of life in London during WWII. Alistair provides us with a look into military life, but that is by no means the focus of the story.

A lot of reviewers focus on the “witty banter” of the characters, and it’s true that the dialogue is just as sharply written as the narrative. Still, the author never lets you forget all the horrible things that happen. Children die, soldiers succumb to infection and starvation, drug addiction and racism abound. (On that note, I found this post by the author about his choice to include the n-word in his book really interesting.)

I enjoyed this book, although not as much as many other book reviewers did. Maybe it’s because my reading life has already been saturated with books about WWII–that’s why I put off reading it as long as I did–but for whatever reason, Everyone Brave is Forgiven just didn’t capture me. I’m glad that I read it, but I don’t foresee reading it again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Adult Nonfiction Roundup

Today's roundup is full of adult nonfiction reviews--memoirs, history, and parenting books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s roundup contains a significant number of nonfiction books I’ve read lately. Some were forgettable, but a couple made it to the top of my favorites list for this year!

Make Me a Mother

In Make Me a Mother, the author discusses the adoption of her son from Korea. It’s an interesting look at the challenges and joys that come with adopting a child of a different ethnicity.

As someone who looks forward to adopting children someday, I really wanted to enjoy this book. And I did, to some extent, but I wished there were more details included about how the author and her husband dealt with the difficulties they faced in raising their son. (Basically, I wished this book was a how-to guide, rather than a memoir.) I found it pretty forgettable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Why Not Me?

This is Mindy Kaling’s second humorous memoir. The first one, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, was pretty meh for me, so I was excited to find that this book is way better than her first. It contains great photos, a chapter following an average day in her life, advice for feeling confident and successful, and tons of laugh-out-loud stories about celebrities and life in Hollywood.

I have to admit that I didn’t always agree with Mindy’s advice (I am soooo not into her idea of success), but I definitely enjoyed reading it. Good for a laugh, especially if you like following the lives of celebrities.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Princess Problem

It’s no secret that little girls love princesses. Behind the twirly dresses and glittery crowns, however, sits a powerful marketing machine, encouraging obsessive consumerism and delivering negative stereotypes about gender, race, and beauty to young girls. So what’s a parent to do?

The Princess Problem features real advice and stories from parents educators, and psychologists, and children’s industry insiders to help equip every parent with skills to navigate today’s princess-saturated world. As parents, we do our best to keep pop culture’s most harmful stereotypes away from our kids, but contending with well-meaning family members and sneaky commercials can thwart us.

The Princess Problem offers language to have honest conversations with our kids and shows us how to teach them to be thoughtful, open-minded people. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I loved this book! I’m putting it on my mental shelf of books to re-read once I have kids, along with the wonderful book Untangled. The Princess Problem offers some really helpful tips for parents of young children, especially parents of little girls who are being subsumed by “princess culture.”

The author talks about being a pop culture coach, helping kids engage critically with movies, toys, and other areas of pop culture. I love this–you can’t protect your kids from all questionable media (although one of the earlier chapters walks you through creating a suitable media diet for your child), but you can give them the tools to deal with the hurtful messages our culture often presents. So important, so interesting, and definitely worth a read if you’re a parent or educator.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Tiny Beautiful Things

I don’t know much about Cheryl Strayed (I doubt I’ll ever read Wild), and I’d never even heard of the Dear Sugar advice column before I read this book. Still, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed Tiny Beautiful Things.

Even though I didn’t always agree with Sugar’s advice, I always found it thought-provoking and beautiful to read. It made me tear up on several occasions. There should be trigger warnings included here–everything from salty language to sexual content to abuse–but if you’re good with reading about all of that, this book is definitely worth a read.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Girls of Atomic City

The Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was created from scratch in 1942. One of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, it didn’t appear on any maps until 1949, and yet at the height of World War II it was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. Their jobs were shrouded in mystery, but they were buoyed by a sense of shared purpose, close friendships—and a surplus of handsome scientists and Army men!

But against this vibrant wartime backdrop, a darker story was unfolding. The penalty for talking about their work—even the most innocuous details—was job loss and eviction. One woman was recruited to spy on her coworkers. They all knew something big was happening at Oak Ridge, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb “Little Boy” was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Even though I spent my high school years living not far from Oak Ridge, I knew very little about this military installment before reading this book. The Girls of Atomic City offers a fascinating and eye-opening look into life on this top-secret installment.

This book succeeds mostly because the author was able to interview women who worked at the plant. Some mopped floors, some took coded notes, some adjusted dials, some worked as nurses, and some unclogged pipes, but none of them knew what they were really doing–enriching uranium to create the atomic bomb.

The book covers many aspects of life at Oak Ridge, from the suffocating secrecy surrounding every detail to the sexism that the (mostly female) workers faced to the emotions that the workers felt once the reasons and results of their work were revealed. This is a long read (at least it was for me; I had to keep putting it down and coming back to it later), but it’s an interesting look at a still little-known aspect of WWII.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

There seems to be a theme in today’s roundup: topics I know very little about. I knew very little about the Iranian revolution before I read this book. In fact, I kept having to put the book down and search Wikipedia for information on the events and parties that are discussed. I’m still not sure I completely understand the revolution’s causes and effects, but I do have a better grasp on how average Iranians felt about it at the time.

I loved the way the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran related the classic books she taught to her students (first at the university; later in secret to a select few female students) to the events in Iran. The memoir is written almost in a series of essays, which are sometimes academic and sometimes very personal. The treatment of women is, of course, horrifying, but I’m very glad I read this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Classics Link Up: Slaughterhouse-Five and A Room with a View

The latest classic books I've checked off my list: A Room with a View and Slaughterhouse-Five. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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You might remember the classic book challenge that I’m doing myself (and you are welcome to participate too! Just post your links in the comments below with your latest classic book reads). These two books are the latest on my list (I actually finished A Room with a View just before I created my list, which is why it doesn’t appear there).

A Room with a View

One of E. M. Forster’s most celebrated novels, A Room With a View is the story of a young English middle-class girl, Lucy Honeychurch. While vacationing in Italy, Lucy meets and is wooed by two gentlemen, George Emerson and Cecil Vyse. After turning down Cecil Vyse’s marriage proposals twice Lucy finally accepts. Upon hearing of the engagement George protests and confesses his true love for Lucy. Lucy is torn between the choice of marrying Cecil, who is a more socially acceptable mate, and George who she knows will bring her true happiness. A Room With a View is a tale of classic human struggles such as the choice between social acceptance or true love. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is sweet, reminiscent of Jane Austen. After a life-changing trip to Italy, Lucy has to decide which man to marry–Cecil, a protective and traditional man, or George, who refuses to live by society’s rules. I must say, I was confused about feminist overtones–I’ll admit, this is one of those classic books that I’m not sure I’m getting completely. Have any of you studied A Room with a View? I’d love your perspective on it!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

This is one of those classic books that I’m pretty sure everyone except me has already read. It’s actually an easy read, and the structure is interesting–Billy Pilgrim, the main character, thinks he has become “unstuck in time,” and his reminiscences shoot from one phase of his life to another, all centering on his experiences in Dresden during WWII.

Despite the ease of reading and the occasional humorous (or at least absurd) scene, the book tackles huge topics about the effects of war. It’s very reminiscent of Catch-22 (although it didn’t make me nearly as angry as that book did; Slaughterhouse-Five was more resigned and hopeless). It’s an unsettling look at the bombing of Dresden and its effects on the humanity of soldiers.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Have you read either of these books? What classics have you read lately? Don’t forget to leave your links in the comments!

2016 Newbery Books

The 2016 Newbery books are all incredible! Read as I team up with my sister to review this year's winners. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
Photo via Kaboompics.com

I was so excited when the 2016 Newbery books were revealed several weeks ago, and I immediately started checking them out from my library. I’ve recruited my sister Melanie (you can see her previous posts here, here, here, and here) to help me review them. (Spoiler alert: all of this year’s books are really, really good!)

Last Stop on Market Street
(review by Melanie)

I was surprised and impressed to discover that Last Stop on Market Street won both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. After reading it, I believe both awards are well deserved. The artwork is simple, perfectly integrated with the text to add details that immerse the reader in the story, rather than distracting from it. The story itself is uplifting without being preachy, as a grandmother teaches her grandson a new way of looking at life, gently changing his perspective of everything they encounter. In just a few pages, the author creates multidimensional, interesting characters that are both relatable and engaging. My favorite part was the ending, which inverted my expectations but was shown only through the illustration.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Echo
(review by Melanie)

Echo is uniquely structured as a frame narrative containing three distinct stories, with the connection between them revealed only at the end. Each story climaxes with the protagonist facing a seemingly overwhelming problem, and then immediately cuts to the next story. It felt almost like reading three half-novels, but fortunately all three characters are compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest in their story, even as you are preoccupied with the previous story.

The ending that brings all three stories together is satisfying, if a little rushed. The power of this book is that each story is engaging individually, but together they create something greater than the sum of their parts.

It is yet another book set in World War II (as Monica discussed), but with subtle inversions of the tropes typical of these books. The main character of the first story, set in pre-WWII Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power, is in danger not for being Jewish, but for having a facial birthmark, deemed a “physical deformity” by the Nazis. The second story is set a few years later in America, where two orphans are affected by the Great Depression, without even mentioning the War. The girl in the third story, set in California during the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, is not Japanese, but Hispanic, and faces racism against herself as well as her Japanese friends. Though World War II provides the context, each story focuses more on the specific struggle of the protagonists, rather than the wider consequences of the war. As a result, the stories are suspenseful, but much more lighthearted than many other YA books that focus heavily on the war.

(Side note from Monica: I also read this book, and I had many of the same thoughts about it. The ending is a bit too tidy, but if I had read this book at eleven or twelve, my mind would have been blown. Echo provides a refreshing look at the all-too-typical WWII story.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The War that Saved My Life
(review by Monica)

The other WWII-focused book in this year’s set couldn’t be more different from Echo. This dark yet hopeful story turns completely on the fact that it is set in WWII-era England. Ada is a 9-year-old girl with an untreated club foot, being alternately abused and neglected by her mother. Ada has rarely set foot outside of her London apartment and has barely learned how to walk when she sees her opportunity for escape. A large group of children from the local school is being evacuated to the countryside for fear of bombings in London, and Ada takes her younger brother and leaves with him. Although she is guarded and fearful and their new guardian is reluctant to take them in, Ada starts to open up and grow in her new surroundings. But with her abusive mother still in London and the war raging on throughout Europe, things are not as easy as they start to seem.

This book is a compulsive read, athough at times it is sickening to read about the abuse Ada had suffered and how her brother Jamie picked up on it. It’s a fascinating, disturbing, but ultimately hopeful look at a young girl’s growth against the dramatic backdrop of World War Two.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Roller Girl
(review by Monica)

I just realized that this graphic novel was written and illustrated by the same person, and I’m totally impressed. The story, which focuses on a young girl who decides to join the youth roller derby team just as her best friend seems to be distancing herself, is really good, and the illustrations are awesome. Astrid isn’t perfect, by any means; in fact, she’s one of the most flawed MG characters I’ve read in a while. She’s selfish and impulsive and vindictive, but that doesn’t make her unlikable. She’s just struggling to figure out how to grow up when her closest friends seem to be moving on without her. And the setting of roller derby, something I know very little about, was pretty cool, and I think a lot of kids (boys and girls) will agree.

(On a kind of silly side note, this book made me realize just how important it is to represent varied skin colors, backgrounds, and life experiences in our literature. When I saw the cover with Astrid’s blue-dyed hair, I was already predisposed to like the book because of my own blue braids. And I’m nearly 25 years old! Can we really deny the importance of diverse books, especially for MG and YA?)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Are There Too Many World War Two Books?

There is a glut of WWII books available for every age group. But how many are too many? Let's discuss. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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If you’ve been with me on this blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I love a good World War Two novel. Many of my favorite books from the past three years have been WWII historical fiction: Code Name VerityTo Say Nothing of the DogLife After Life, and Blackout and All Clear. Schindler’s List was a fascinating example of nonfiction about this era, and I very much enjoyed it as well.

I grew up reading books like The Book Thief, Number the Stars, The Upstairs Room, and The Hiding Place, but it wasn’t until I saw the 2016 Newbery books that I started to question the number of WWII books that have flooded my bookshelves. Two of the four books (Echo and The War that Saved My Life) are set, at least partly, during the time period of World War Two. As best I can figure, only seven of the previous Newbery books have been set during WWII, and with the popularity of recent books such as All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale (both of which are, I believe, currently on the NYT bestseller list), I’ve started wondering–do we have too many World War Two books?

I’ve often thought about the pull that we feel toward WWII and Holocaust stories. I think part of the draw is the very clear distinction between good and evil. It’s rare in real life to have a person or group of people that almost all readers will agree were in the wrong, and not just misguided but truly evil. WWII books make it easy to know who to root for, and this makes the reversal–books written from the perspective of Nazis–even more effective.

Another reason, I think, that these books are so popular is that World War Two is still very recent. It is fresh in our collective memory; there are still many people alive who witnessed the events of this time period firsthand. We are still making sense of something that was totally senseless, and our books are an important part of that. And maybe, to some extent, we are trying to discover how we can avoid another war like this. With the threat of war constantly looming around the world, maybe we’re looking for clues from the past to help us avoid repeating these events in the future.

But then again, maybe we’re just looking for a good story. The dramatic backdrop of worldwide war and horrific concentration camps offers a compelling setting for almost any type of story, whether it’s a thriller, mystery, coming of age story, time travel, or literary narrative. Even books that I found enjoyable but forgettable, such as The Sweetness or The Mine, are more memorable just because of their setting. It’s an easy way to catch our attention as readers, to signal that there is something important in this story, higher stakes than your average [fill in the blank] story.

Will I ever give up on WWII books? It’s not likely. Flygirl, A God in Ruins, and The Men with the Pink Triangle are still on my TBR list, and I am looking forward to reading the newest set of Newbery books. I sometimes wonder if writers have plumbed the depths of World War Two and Holocaust events so deeply that there is nothing new to say about them, and I have in fact read some WWII books that were derivative and boring. But then I pick up a book like Code Name Verity or Life After Life, and I realize that there are still fresh ways to look at this horrifying time period, something that will make me laugh and cry and feel more connected to humanity. And maybe that’s the best way to redeem such horrible events–to never forget them, but to use them as a catalyst for creating bonds with the rest of humanity.

Do you think authors have written too many WWII books lately? Let’s discuss!

Catch-22

In which I finally read and review Catch-22. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Catch-22 is one of those books that I “should have” read a long time ago but never did. And looking back, I’m glad I didn’t read this in high school. I doubt I would have gotten as much from the book as a teenager in comparison to what I got reading it now.

The basic premise of the book is this: Yossarian is in the U.S. military during World War II. The colonel in charge keeps raising the number of missions the men have to fly before they can return home. When Yossarian complains, he learns of Catch-22, which is that if you ask to no longer fly missions, you are sane and must fly them, but if you want to keep flying missions, you are insane. Yossarian spends the entire book dealing with situations like this one, in which the only sane thing to do is act crazy.

Catch-22 talks a lot about the absurdities of war. It’s no wonder that it became hugely popular during the Vietnam war. Heller is relentless in setting up hilarious yet disturbing scenes in which all the normal, logical rules of society no longer seem to make sense. The book is full of circular reasoning, paradoxes, and self-contradictory situations. One of the essays in the back of my 50th anniversary edition described the book as “humor that slowly turns to horror,” and I couldn’t think of a better description. At first, I was amused by the impossible situations and the fact that Yossarian seemed to be the only sane person in a group of lunatics, but by the end I was angry. “I see people cashing in on every decent impulse and every human tragedy,” one of the characters says, and the reader sees this as well. Those in charge seem to be running the war as a way to gain more power and prestige for themselves, rather than to free those who were crushed under Hitler’s regime or protect the men fighting, supposedly, for their country. (In fact, although this book is set during WWII, this fact is hardly ever mentioned.)

Although I really enjoyed this book, I do see some flaws in it (and I was glad to note from the essays in the back that other, more scholarly people do too). Women are treated merely as pawns, catalysts to move the story along, and they are often treated sexually (there is a high number of prostitutes in this book). Also, I found the book a bit too long. Many of the events run in the same vein, and I think the book would have been just as good, and probably better, if some of them had been cut.

I’m sure I’m missing something in this book (as I often do when I read something that’s considered a classic), but I’ve got the gist of it. War, the government, the military, and even our own life is often nonsensical and illogical. Sometimes the smartest thing to do seems insane to everyone around you. It’s kind of a disturbing thought, but well worth reading.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Schindler’s List

Schindler's List is an incredible read that totally lives up to the movie based upon it. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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If you haven’t yet seen the Oscar-winning Spielberg film Schindler’s List, you absolutely must. It’s a heart-wrenching story of a German who used his power, influence, and charisma to save over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust. This book by Thomas Keneally is the source for that fantastic movie, and I have to say that in some respects, the book is even better.

First of all, although Oskar Schindler’s story is told in the style of a novel, none of it is made up. Schindler’s flaws and virtues are equally discussed, and stories which may be apocryphal are noted as such. Keneally got his information from the group of Schindler’s Jews and from documentation of the time. I found this even more compelling than the movie, which (of necessity) had to add to and subtract from the facts in order to make the story flow.

Unlike the movie, this book didn’t make me sob. I did tear up a few times–who doesn’t, reading about the horrors of the Holocaust?–but it wasn’t quite as emotional. But I think that’s a good thing. Because the book sticks to the facts and doesn’t attempt to tell a sweeping story, the characters and events described get a chance to stand out individually. Schindler was a fascinating guy who used his charm and his connections with the black market to save people he had no connection with, and I loved getting to know him as a real person.

Some of the stories in this book just seem unreal. Many of the events are so brutal, so random, that it hardly seems like they could have happened in real life–but they did. Schindler’s List isn’t a fun read, exactly, but it is a fascinating and chilling and, in the end, hopeful look at one of the darkest times in history. Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, this book is worth a read.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

If you’re interested in fictional books about World War II, I’ve got you covered. Check out All the Light We Cannot See, Code Name Verity, and The Singing Tree.

Review Copy: Mercer Street

Mercer Street is a fun but forgettable novel filled with romance, drama, and time travel. #spon | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received a free copy of Mercer Street from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Weeks after her husband dies in the midst of an affair in 2016, Chicago writer Susan Peterson, 48, seeks solace on a California vacation with her mother Elizabeth and daughter Amanda. The novelist, however, finds more than she bargained for when she meets a professor who possesses the secret of time travel. Within days, the women travel to 1938 and Princeton, New Jersey. Elizabeth begins a friendship with her refugee parents and infant self, while Susan and Amanda fall for a widowed admiral and a German researcher with troubling ties. Filled with poignancy, heartbreak, and intrigue, MERCER STREET gives new meaning to courage, sacrifice, and commitment as it follows three strong-willed souls on the adventure of a lifetime. (Summary via Amazon.com)

I have read and reviewed a couple of Heldt’s books before, and they are always a pleasure to read. This book is the second in the series which began with September Sky, a book I really enjoyed. If you have read September Sky, some of the beginning, in which the professor explains how time travel works and guides his protegees in their adventure into the past, will be familiar to you. This is good news to brand new readers, though, because you don’t have to have read September Sky to understand and enjoy Mercer Street.

In this book, three generations of women who have recently experienced tragedy are taking a much-needed vacation when they come across the eccentric professor. They slowly begin to believe his incredible stories and decide to take the professor up on his offer to send them back in time. The women travel to New Jersey in the late 1930s, with war brewing across the ocean. As Elizabeth, Susan, and Amanda begin to settle into their new but temporary life in the 30s, they are each faced with difficult decisions about how their past will affect their futures.

I must admit that I did not enjoy this book as much as I did its predecessor. Although I love World War II fiction, I enjoyed the lesser-known events of the previous book in the series. I’m also not a huge fan of romance, which takes up a lot of space in this book. However, the characters were well-written and interesting, and as always, Heldt has a gift for making the reader feel present in whatever era his characters end up in.

If you’re a fan of time travel historical fiction and you don’t mind a bit of romance with your story, you will love this book! I’m definitely looking forward to the next installment in this series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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