ARC Roundup: Mysteries

The latest mysteries and suspense novels for teens and adults--some great, some forgettable. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received free digital copies of these books from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All summaries are via NetGalley.com

My love of mysteries is no secret; N&B’s archives are full of cozies, thrillers, and whodunits. Thus, this collection of ARC mysteries and suspense novels. Some I recommend, but others are best left alone.

Love, Lies and Spies

Juliana Telford is not your average nineteenth-century young lady. She’s much more interested in researching ladybugs than marriage, fashionable dresses, or dances. So when her father sends her to London for a season, she’s determined not to form any attachments. Instead, she plans to secretly publish her research.

Spencer Northam is not the average young gentleman of leisure he appears. He is actually a spy for the War Office, and is more focused on acing his first mission than meeting eligible ladies. Fortunately, Juliana feels the same, and they agree to pretend to fall for each other. Spencer can finally focus, until he is tasked with observing Juliana’s traveling companions . . . and Juliana herself.

The idea of this novel is awesome. It’s touted as homage to Jane Austen and her spunky heroines, with a little bit of mystery thrown in as well. Unfortunately, the execution does not live up to the idea.

Juliana is supposed to be intelligent, unconventional, and impertinent, but mostly I found her bland and forgettable. Her and Spencer’s romance takes up most of the plot, rather than the mystery that you would expect from a “spy” novel. If the concept of this novel intrigues you, sit tight–one of the books below executes it in a much more interesting way.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Murder of Mary Russell

Mary Russell is used to dark secrets—her own, and those of her famous partner and husband, Sherlock Holmes. Trust is a thing slowly given, but over the course of a decade together, the two have forged an indissoluble bond. And what of the other person to whom Mary Russell has opened her heart: the couple’s longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson? Russell’s faith and affection are suddenly shattered when a man arrives on the doorstep claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s son.

What Samuel Hudson tells Russell cannot possibly be true, yet she believes him—as surely as she believes the threat of the gun in his hand. In a devastating instant, everything changes. And when the scene is discovered—a pool of blood on the floor, the smell of gunpowder in the air—the most shocking revelation of all is that the grim clues point directly to Clara Hudson. Or rather to Clarissa, the woman she was before Baker Street.

This book is the latest in Ms. King’s series of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell mysteries, and as I read it, I was startled to realize that I actually read the first book of the series (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) several years ago. Although I definitely don’t recommend that you pick up this book without having read the rest of the series first–there’s very little talk about Sherlock and Mary themselves, as the book mostly focuses on Mrs. Hudson’s backstory–it was still an enjoyable read.

The most frustrating part, to me, was the fact that so much of the book took place in flashbacks–most of the first half, in fact. Especially if you haven’t read the rest of the series first (see my note above), the book focuses very little on our two main characters, instead exploring the dark secrets of the housekeeper’s past. Once you get into the second half of the book, things move quickly, but the first half is a bit of a slog.

Verdict? If you’ve read and enjoyed the rest of the series, I see no reason why you would be disappointed with the latest installment. If you haven’t, start with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and then decide if you want to continue.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

These Vicious Masks

Evelyn has no interest in marriage and even the dashing Mr. Kent can’t make her want to live up to society’s expectations. She’d much rather assist her beloved sister Rose in achieving her radical dream of becoming a doctor. But everything changes the night she meets Sebastian Braddock – not only is the reclusive gentleman both vexing and annoyingly attractive, he’s also quite possibly mad, and his interest in Rose is galling. So when Evelyn wakes up to discover that Rose has disappeared, she immediately suspects Sebastian.

But then she discovers that Sebastian’s strange tales of special powers are actually true, and that Rose’s kidnappers have worse in mind for her than simply ruining her reputation. Surrounded by secrets, lies, and unprecedented danger, Evelyn has no choice but to trust Sebastian, yet she can’t help but worry that Sebastian’s secrets are the most dangerous of all…

I’ve been hearing good things about this book for months, and after reading it, I can see why. This is what Love, Lies and Spies (see above) should have been but wasn’t. Evelyn is, in fact, impertinent and unconventional, and she pulls this off without being irritating or bland. And the romantic subplot never takes over the story–something I greatly appreciate in a YA novel.

The science (or magic) of the special powers some of the characters have is never quite clear, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a fun story with interesting characters and a unique way of spicing up the Jane Austen era. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation

It’s the summer of love in late 1960s England. Basil D’Oliveira has just been dropped from the English cricket team before for a test series in apartheid South Africa; the war in Biafra dominates the news; and the Apollo 11 astronauts are preparing to land on the moon. In the midst of all this change, Sidney Chambers, now Archdeacon of Ely Cathedral, is still up to his amateur sleuthing investigations.

A bewitching divorcee enlists Sidney’s help in convincing her son to leave a hippie commune; at a soiree on Grantchester Meadows during May Week celebrations, a student is divested of a family heirloom; Amanda’s marriage runs into trouble; Sidney and Hildegard holiday behind the Iron Curtain; Mrs Maguire’s husband returns from the dead and an arson attack in Cambridge leads Sidney to uncover a cruel case of blackmail involving his former curate.

I requested this one on a whim after seeing that it has been made into a BBC series (I can’t resist the BBC!). Unfortunately, this is the fifth installment in the series, so I was a bit confused as to who each character was and how they knew Sidney, the archdeacon and amateur sleuth.

I was also disappointed that each chapter was a short story in itself. There was no overarching mystery to tie them all together, so most of them came off a little flat. Maybe prior installments were one long mystery, and they probably gave a better introduction to each character, but just based on this one book, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Rating: Meh

ARC Roundup: YA Novels

Today's ARC roundup is all about the latest YA and middle grades novels. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received the following books from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All summaries are via Goodreads.com.

This post, the latest in my series of ARC roundups, is focused on some of the YA and middle grades novels I’ve read lately. (There are more to come in a future post–be on the lookout!) Hopefully you’ll find a book in this list to enjoy.

The Girl from Everywhere

Sixteen-year-old Nix Song is a time-traveller. She, her father and their crew of time refugees travel the world aboard The Temptation, a glorious pirate ship stuffed with treasures both typical and mythical. Old maps allow Nix and her father to navigate not just to distant lands, but distant times – although a map will only take you somewhere once. And Nix’s father is only interested in one time, and one place: Honolulu 1868. A time before Nix was born, and her mother was alive. Something that puts Nix’s existence rather dangerously in question . . . Nix has grown used to her father’s obsession, but only because she’s convinced it can’t work. But then a map falls into her father’s lap that changes everything.

I’ve been seeing this book everywhere lately, and I must say, the cover is gorgeous. I haven’t read any other bloggers’ reviews of The Girl from Everywhere because I wanted to form my own unbiased opinion, so here it is: This is a fascinating YA novel. Although they are probably out there, I’ve never read a book with this kind of time travel via boats and maps, and I thought it was really interesting.

Nix is constantly battling with her father over his life’s obsession to find his way back to her mother. Nix knows that if they ever find the perfect map to take them back to that year, she might very well cease to exist, a fact which seems to escape her single-minded father. But when the crew of the Temptation end up in Hawaii just a few years after their intended date, Nix starts to learn more about her mother, her father, her crewmates, and herself–and she might even learn how to Navigate using maps, as her father does.

I loved the various places that Nix and the crew traveled, from 21st-century New York to 1800s Hawaii to lands only found in mythology. Nix’s best friend Kashmir, for example, is from the world of Arabian Nights, and the crew sometimes spends time searching for magical items (like a bottomless bag) to make their lives easier. But I also enjoyed Nix’s complicated relationship with her father and her growing romance with Kashmir. All the characters and settings were well drawn, and I’m definitely interested in seeing what other adventures the crew of the Temptation go on.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy

Amanda Lester wouldn’t be caught dead going into the family business. Her ancestor, Sherlock Holmes’s colleague Inspector G. Lestrade, is a twit. Nevertheless her parents refuse to see his flaws, and she’s going to a secret English detective school for the descendants of famous detectives whether she likes it or not.

When Amanda arrives at the dreaded school, she considers running away–until she and her new friends discover blood and weird pink substances in odd places. At first they’re not sure whether these seeming clues mean anything, but when Amanda’s father disappears and the cook is found dead with her head in a bag of sugar, they’re certain that crimes are taking place. Now Amanda must embrace her destiny and uncover the truth.

The book opens with Amanda and her dreams of becoming a filmmaker. These dreams, however, are interrupted when her parents tell her the family is moving to England so Amanda can attend a prestigious (but secret) school for detectives. Amanda pouts her way through the first few days of school, trudging her way through classes about how to create a good disguise, the psychology of criminals, and how to create a detective “mystique.” But Amanda starts seeing weird things around the school, and she’s not sure if they are part of a school project or if they have something to do with the sudden disappearance of Amanda’s father.

This book definitely leans more toward middle grades level than YA. The mystery is silly, and Amanda creates a lot of problems for herself by being super stubborn and not open to criticism. Your pre-teen may enjoy it, but it’s definitely forgettable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Bad Luck

At Earth Ranch, things can get a little magical (some might say strange). Intrepid readers will discover a runaway boy, fishy cruise ship, strange cave paintings, dragon-like footprints, and other mysteries that Clay and his friends need to solve. Danger, adventure, mischief, mystery, llamas, and a delightfully irreverent and hilarious narrator make bestselling author Pseudonymous Bosch’s anticipated new novel irresistible.

This book is the second in the Bad Magic series, and I have not read the first book. Still, I wasn’t too lost to enjoy the book. If you’ve read any of Pseudonymous Bosch’s other books, you’ll already have a good idea of what to expect from this one–silliness, magic, over the top villains, and precocious kids. (I think this series is tangentially related to the author’s previous series, but I haven’t read enough of that series to know for sure.)

This is not a bad choice if your kid loves crazy, silly, over the top stories with a bit of magic thrown in. I’m interested to see where this series goes next.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Ready Player One

Ready Player One is an exciting novel filled with video gaming, 80s references, and a race to find the ultimate Easter egg. | Review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Normally, Ready Player One isn’t the kind of book that would catch my eye. A dystopian world built around a video game? No thank you. But I’d heard enough good reviews about this book that when I saw it on my roommate’s shelf, I picked it up. And I’m so glad I did.

In the near dystopian future, 17-year-old Wade has found that life inside OASIS, a virtual reality world that has taken over video gaming, is much better than his real, outside life. So when the creator of OASIS dies and offers his massive fortune to the first person who can find all the Easter eggs and solve the puzzles he has hidden in the world, Wade is one of the most committed egg hunters (or gunters, as they become called). Interest fades until Wade finally stumbles upon the first key–then the race is on between him, his friends, and an evil corporation who will do whatever it takes to win the prize.

This book is jam-packed with references to 80s pop culture, from video games to movies to music and beyond. But even if you’re not super familiar with the 80s (I’m not), you can still enjoy this book. The creative and incredible worlds that are created within OASIS are fantastic, and the challenges that the gunters attempt to solve are pretty cool, too. Wade is also a fun character. He doesn’t always make the wisest choices–what teenager does?–but he does the best that he can, along with the help of his in-world friends.

To summarize, if you’re at all interested in a fun and exciting romp through a virtual world, filled with pop culture references and creative puzzles, you’ll enjoy this book. Even if you know nothing about video games.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC Roundup: February Edition

The good, the bad, and the ugly of this month's ARCs. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received the following ARCs from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All summaries via NetGalley.com.

I’m still working through the huge amount of ARCs and review copies I got from NetGalley at the beginning of the year. I’m like a kid in a candy store with requesting books–everything looks so good! So which ones satisfied my sweet tooth, and which ones just gave me a stomachache? Read on to find out.

Radical Self-Love

Have you ever dreamed of a life full of laughter, love, and sequins … but felt totally clueless about how to make it happen? You’re not alone. Best-selling author and speaker Gala Darling spent years in soul-sucking jobs, battling depression, an eating disorder, and a preference for chaos and disaster—simply because she didn’t know how to create the life she dreamed about.

In Radical Self-Love, you’ll discover exactly what makes you so magnificent, and you’ll gain a litany of tools and techniques to help you manifest a life bursting with magic, miracles, bliss, and adventure! Featuring fun homework exercises and cool illustrations, this book will take you from learning to fall madly in love with yourself, to loving others, to making your world a more magical place through style, self-expression, and manifestation.

So, I admit, I’m not sure why I expected something different from this book than what I got. I wanted a book filled with inspiration, if not actual practical advice, something that would make me look at life differently. But really, this book was way too “woo-woo” for me. I dropped it after the first two chapters.

Rating: DNF

The Art of Being Normal

David Piper has always been an outsider. His parents think he’s gay. The school bully thinks he’s a freak. Only his two best friends know the real truth: David wants to be a girl.

On the first day at his new school Leo Denton has one goal: to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in his class is definitely not part of that plan. When Leo stands up for David in a fight, an unlikely friendship forms. But things are about to get messy.

As David prepares to come out to his family and transition into life as a girl and Leo wrestles with figuring out how to deal with people who try to define him through his history, they find in each other the friendship and support they need to navigate life as transgender teens as well as the courage to decide for themselves what normal really means.

I requested this book because I’m doing my best to diversify my reading even more this year, and I don’t think I’ve read even one fiction book about transgender teens before this one. The book was interesting, but it didn’t go very in depth into the issues it presented, as I had hoped. I wanted it to be thought-provoking, but it was pretty forgettable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Restaurant Critic’s Wife

Lila Soto has a master’s degree that’s gathering dust, a work-obsessed husband, two kids, and lots of questions about how exactly she ended up here.

In their new city of Philadelphia, Lila’s husband, Sam, takes his job as a restaurant critic a little too seriously. To protect his professional credibility, he’s determined to remain anonymous. Soon his preoccupation with anonymity takes over their lives as he tries to limit the family’s contact with anyone who might have ties to the foodie world. Meanwhile, Lila craves adult conversation and some relief from the constraints of her homemaker role. With her patience wearing thin, she begins to question everything: her decision to get pregnant again, her break from her career, her marriage—even if leaving her ex-boyfriend was the right thing to do. As Sam becomes more and more fixated on keeping his identity secret, Lila begins to wonder if her own identity has completely disappeared—and what it will take to get it back.

Lila is a former businesswoman and mother of two, and she is going crazy taking care of her kids full time. Her husband, Sam, is in love with his job as a restaurant critic, and to protect his identity, he has requested that his wife quit her high-profile job and not make any friends in their new town. This book absolutely drove me insane. I totally identified with Lila’s desire to have an outlet for meaningful work and adult friends in addition to raising her children–it’s the same impulse that makes me cringe whenever a well-meaning acquaintance implies that of course I will quit my job and become a full-time stay at home mom when I have kids. Being a full-time, at-home parent is a tough job, and it’s not for everyone. Lila is one of those people who can’t handle it, and her husband is forcing her into that role for the sake of his own career.

Now, I will say that the author does a masterful job of making Sam a well-rounded character. He does things for Lila and the kids that are truly sweet, and the reader never gets the sense that he is putting Lila in this position because he doesn’t care about her or her needs. Still, this book stressed me out, and I wanted more of a resolution than it offered.

Rating: Meh

The Urban Boys #UBTour

The Urban Boys: a book about friendship, responsibility, and mysterious new superpowers. #spon | A book review from NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: This post is sponsored by Masquerade Tours in exchange for an honest review.

The Urban Boys: Discovery of the Five Senses is an action-adventure story about five teen boys who are mysteriously exposed to a foreign energy source that gives them extremely heightened senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell become hypersensitive gifts that forever change the world. The story chronicles their effortless interrelations and later exposes the testing of their deep bonds. It introduces the reader to an array of supporting characters who alter the boys’ lives forever. The Urban Boys offers young and mature readers central themes of loyalty, responsibility, honesty, fear, and triumph, which become artfully integrated with cinematic-level action and high drama. The story twists, turns, and grinds through elements of paranormal and action-adventure in a diverse, exciting, edge-of-your-seat narrative!

This book isn’t my usual fare, but the description sounded pretty cool, so I thought I’d give it a try. As it turns out, there were some things I really enjoyed and some things I didn’t, so I’m going to present this review as a list of pros and cons.

Pros:

  • The dialogue is very good. I really enjoyed listening to the teenagers talk to each other. Smith did a great job of capturing the voice of a teenager throughout the book. I just wish there was even more dialogue!
  • The plot is an interesting one. Sure, we’ve all seen the “teenager gets superpowers” trope before, but this feels fresh and new. First of all, we have a group of friends who all get superpowers, rather than a lone teenager, and second, some of the superpowers are just bizarre. It was interesting (and sometimes hilarious) to see what supertaste or superfeeling would be like as a superpower.
  • I kind of wanted the book to be about Mason, the little brother of one of the teenage boys. In fact, almost all of the supporting characters are given their own backstory and personality, which I really appreciated.

 

Cons:

  • The writing style is contrived. There is just no way around this. It was my biggest obstacle to reading an otherwise interesting plot with fun characters. Though the dialogue is pretty spot-on in terms of the way teenagers actually speak, the rest of the writing doesn’t sound like something a teenager would ever say or think. Unfortunately, it just sounds like it’s trying too hard to be fancy.
  • I really wish there had been some female characters. The very few that were involved in the story hardly got any lines or actions, and I think the story would have benefited from their presence.

 

So there you have it! The pros and cons for The Urban Boys. Check it out if you’re interested in teens with superpowers and how their friendships might change as a result of their newfound powers.

The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles is a fantastic YA book. Seriously, just read it. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, 11-year-old Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life–the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

The Age of Miracles is one of those books that I didn’t expect to enjoy nearly as much as I did. When I was overseas, my husband and I took a train from Budapest to Vienna for a day trip. The journey takes about three hours each way–just long enough to spend some quality time with a book. The Age of Miracles is the book I chose for this journey, and I enjoyed it so much that I could hardly wait to get back on the train at the end of the day and finish it.

Even if you’re not normally into apocalyptic novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one. It’s a coming of age story as much as it is a story about the end of the world, and it’s crazy how quickly the longer days and nights become a matter of fact. It’s a fascinating concept, and Julia is a lot of fun to follow into this strange new world. There’s not much more I can say about The Age of Miracles, other than read it! It’s definitely worth your time.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

ARC Roundup: January Edition

The latest and greatest (and maybe not so great) from NetGalley this year so far. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Note: I received the following ARCs from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All summaries are via NetGalley.com.

I mentioned to my newsletter subscribers (not one of them? You can sign up here) that I recently went a little crazy requesting and reading a bunch of NetGalley books. I’ve read and enjoyed a bunch of them already, so I’ve rounded up a few of my most recent reads in these mini reviews. Hopefully you’ll find something that will get your 2016 reading off to a good start!

Under the Dusty Moon

Victoria Mahler is the sixteen-year-old only daughter of rocker Micky Wayne, whose band, Dusty Moon, took the world by storm when Micky was just a teenager. The band broke up under mysterious circumstances, but, after years spent off the road being a mom, Micky’s solo career is finally starting to take off.

Will Vic be able to maintain her newfound sense of self amidst the building thunder of Micky’s second chance at stardom? And through it all, will Micky still really be her best friend?

Victoria, daughter of the lead singer of cult favorite band, Dusty Moon, is just trying to live a normal life. Get together with a new boyfriend, work on a summer project with her best friend, and get along with her mom, if possible. But she feels the need to keep her life compartmentalized–her mom is too famous in certain circles, and Victoria wants to be known as her own person. Micky is a quirky and fun character, and despite Victoria’s numerous missteps and Micky’s sometimes too carefree outlook on life, the mother-daughter pair gets along pretty well and is a lot of fun to read about. Their relationship is a bit reminiscent of Lorelai and Rory on Gilmore Girls, if Lorelai was a world-traveling, almost-famous singer and Rory was a bit less straight-laced.

A fun read, if you don’t mind a bit of (briefly described) teenage sex and experimentation with alcohol.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Blue Bottle Mystery

This graphic novel version of Kathy Hoopmann’s best-selling Blue Bottle Mystery brings this much-loved fantasy story to life for a new generation of readers. The hero is Ben, a boy with Asperger Syndrome (AS). When Ben and his friend Andy find an old bottle in the school yard, little do they know of the surprises about to be unleashed in their lives. Bound up with this exciting mystery is the story of how Ben is diagnosed with AS and how he and his family deal with the problems and joys that come along with it.

I am passingly familiar with Asperger Syndrome because of my college education classes, and as far as my limited knowledge goes, this book does a great job of depicting a kid who has AS. Ben really wants to please his family, his teacher, and his classmates, but he seems to be constantly misunderstanding them and doing things wrong. When he and his friend Andy find a bottle at school, strange things start to happen. Ben has to adjust to new things along the way, and his family learns better ways to help him with the transition.

It sounds kind of preachy when you describe it, but the graphic novel format keeps the book from being a thinly disguised manual for kids. It’s short and sweet, pretty fun on its own merits, but even better because it teaches about a group of kids on the autism spectrum who are often misunderstood.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Finding Hope

Hope lives in a small town with nothing to do and nowhere to go. With a drug addict for a brother, she focuses on the only thing that keeps her sane, writing poetry. To escape, she jumps at the chance to attend Ravenhurst Academy as a boarding student. She’ll even put up with the clique-ish Ravens if it means making a fresh start.

At first, Ravenhurst is better than Hope could have dreamed. She has a boyfriend and a cool roommate, and she might finally have found a place she can fit in. But can she trust her online boyfriend? And what can she do after her brother shows up at the school gates, desperate for help, and the Ravens turn on her? Trapped and unsure, Hope realizes that if she wants to save her brother, she has to save herself first.

Yeesh, this book was intense. Hope lives in a tiny town where she is continually overshadowed by her brother–a former star hockey player and a meth addict. Throughout the book, the author alternates between Hope’s POV and her brother’s. We see Hope as she enters a new boarding school and is almost immediately alienated by her fellow students, and we watch her brother do desperate and disturbing things to feed his meth addiction and try to forget about the reason he became an addict in the first place.

Although I’ve never been close to a drug addict, this book taught me some of what it might feel like, to struggle between loving and wanting to give the person what they need and trying to provide the tough love to straighten that person out. This book is not for kids, in case that wasn’t clear. Besides the meth addiction descriptions, there is also a large amount of swearing, a bit of sex, and a lot of just plain disturbing situations. Still, if you’re up for it, it’s a pretty powerful look at addiction and the effects it has not only on the addict but on the people around them.

Rating: Good but Forgettable (or rather, Good with Caveats)

Saving Montgomery Sole

Montgomery Sole is a square peg in a small town, forced to go to a school full of jocks and girls who don’t even know what irony is. It would all be impossible if it weren’t for her best friends, Thomas and Naoki. The three are also the only members of Jefferson High’s Mystery Club, dedicated to exploring the weird and unexplained, from ESP and astrology to super powers and mysterious objects.

Then there’s the Eye of Know, the possibly powerful crystal amulet Monty bought online. Will it help her predict the future or fight back against the ignorant jerks who make fun of Thomas for being gay or Monty for having lesbian moms? Maybe the Eye is here just in time, because the newest resident of their small town is scarier than mothmen, poltergeists, or, you know, gym.

This was a pretty fun book, if a bit offbeat. Montgomery is the daughter of two lesbian moms, and she is constantly on guard against those who might make fun of her, especially the new kid at school. She and the other members of her Mystery Club, which explores unexplained phenomena, are the oddballs of their school, and as the book goes on, Montgomery starts feeling isolated even from them. I found Montgomery a bit moody and annoying at times, but teenagers, I guess? Your enjoyment of this book will probably hinge on your views on homosexuality, since that is the crux of the book, or possibly on whether Montgomery is a rightfully angry, mostly normal teen or a moody, irritating kid who pushes everyone who loves her away.

Rating: Good but Forgettable (or, again, Good with Caveats)

The Greatest Zombie Movie

After producing three horror movies that went mostly ignored on YouTube, Justin and his filmmaking buddies decide it’s time they create something noteworthy, something epic. They’re going to film the Greatest Zombie Movie Ever. They may not have money or a script, but they have passion. And, after a rash text message, they also have the beautiful Alicia Howtz- Justin’s crush- as the lead.

With only one month to complete their movie, a script that can’t possibly get worse, and the hopes and dreams of Alicia on the line, Justin is feeling the pressure. Add to that a cast of uncooperative extras and incompetent production assistants, and Justin must face the sad, sad truth. He may actually be producing the Worst Zombie Movie Ever…

This was silly, but a lot of fun. Justin wants to make the best zombie movie ever made, but on a budget of $5,000, he and his friends are struggling to make it just okay. From writing the script to casting the movie to finding places to film, everything that can go wrong eventually does. It’s pretty hilarious. Not something I’ll revisit in ten years or push on all of my friends, but certainly something I enjoyed reading.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

A Scone to Die For

When an American tourist is murdered with a scone in Gemma Rose’s quaint Oxfordshire tearoom, she suddenly finds herself apron-deep in a mystery involving long-buried secrets from Oxford’s past.

Gemma sets out to solve the mystery—all while dealing with her matchmaking mother and the return of her old college love, Devlin O’Connor, now a dashing CID detective.

But with the body count rising and her business going bust, can Gemma find the killer before things turn to custard?

This is the only “adult” book on this whole list, and of course it is a cozy mystery. And I really enjoyed it. Cozy mysteries are often all the same–likable but single female MC, murder taking place nearby MC’s home/place of work, often involves food or baking, almost always a pushy mother trying to set up her almost-ineligible daughter with some well-meaning but boring doctor or lawyer–but somehow this book put a new spin on a worn formula.

Gemma is a lot of fun to follow, and her romance (of course) with her first love (now a detective) doesn’t move too fast. The setting, I think, has a lot to do with making this mystery seem fresh. I’ve read many mysteries set in England, but never one that took place specifically in Oxford. I loved all the scenes when Gemma explored her old college stomping grounds and explained some of Oxford’s old traditions. Definitely worth a look if you’re into cozies.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

 

Book Pairing: Holes and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The books in this book pairing focus on a boy who is under a family curse and on his struggles to rise above that curse. | A review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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This is my final book pairing of the year! I’ve really enjoyed participating in the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge this year (despite the fact that I procrastinated on actually writing the posts!). If you’ve missed all my previous book pairing posts (you can see them herehere, here, here, here, and here), here’s the deal. I’m taking part in the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge based on this BuzzFeed article.

The last pairing I’m going to review is Holes by Louis Sacher and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Here’s the connection, according to BuzzFeed:

Both Holes and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao read as modern mythology, featuring two curse-afflicted protagonists who can’t catch a break. They’re tales of misfits and survival, and the cruelty that Oscar faces as an overweight Dominican-American teen obsessed with sci-fi is just as harsh and alienating as that of Stanley Yelnats’ prison camp.

Holes

Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.

It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I absolutely loved this book as a kid. It’s a fun, interesting story, told in chapters so short (two or three pages, typically) that I read it compulsively, almost in one sitting. There are flashbacks to Stanley’s ancestors which are interwoven into the present-day narrative in a way that I found fascinating. I enjoyed the movie as well–it’s the main reason why I can never actually hate Shia LaBeouf. Louis Sacher is great at writing slightly off-kilter setups for his relatable characters, and this book is one of his best.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the fukú — the ancient curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still dreaming of his first kiss, is only its most recent victim – until the fateful summer that he decides to be its last. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Oscar is also part of a family that has been cursed for generations, and like Stanley, Oscar is feeling the weight of his ancestor’s mistakes. He’s overweight, awkward, and can’t get a girl to save his life. As the chapters go by, we see the family history, including Oscar’s sister, mother, and grandparents, that has led to this point. (Sometimes, though, I found myself getting confused about who was narrating or who the chapter was about–context doesn’t always make it clear.) The book has a fair amount of cursing, sex, and violence, so please be aware before you check out this book!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

I wouldn’t have thought to put these two books together, but when I think about it, they both have a main character who can’t seem to catch a break. There’s some sort of curse upon each boy’s family that makes it impossible for them to get ahead. Oscar Wao has a lot more adult themes, from sex to violence to cursing (in Spanish and English), but the concept is the same. That said, the feel of each book is very different. Oscar Wao is told in a casual manner, from the viewpoint of one of the minor characters in the story, while Holes is narrated in a more typical way. Still, they’re both interesting books and a pretty good pairing as well.

Have you read either of these books (or book series)? How do you think they stack up to each other? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Happy New Year, everybody!

Book Pairing: Anne of Green Gables and The Country Girls

A well-matched book pairing, but incomplete if you don't read the whole series. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Okay, so I think the book pairing in this case should be the whole series, rather than just the single book. Although I’ve read the whole Anne of Green Gables series (many years ago), I have only read the first book of the Country Girls trilogy, and this will probably skew my perspective in the reviews and comparison below.

If you’ve missed all my previous book pairing posts (you can see them herehere, here, here, and here), let me explain. I’m taking part in the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge based on this BuzzFeed article.

In today’s pairing, we’ve got Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. Here’s the connection, according to BuzzFeed:

Kate and Baba of The Country Girls are like bosom friends Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, but if Anne and Diana eventually made their way out of the country and into the city. In this controversial trilogy, the girls — romantic, adventurous, and rule-breaking — leave their idyllic hometown for Dublin, where they pursue their passions side by side.

Anne of Green Gables

Everyone’s favorite redhead, the spunky Anne Shirley, begins her adventures at Green Gables, a farm outside Avonlea, Prince Edward Island. When the freckled girl realizes that the elderly Cuthberts wanted to adopt a boy instead, she begins to try to win them and, consequently, the reader, over. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Of course I read Anne of Green Gables as a kid, and I really enjoyed it. It was never a series that I wanted to read over and over again, but I did like reading about Anne’s misadventures. She’s a fun, enthusiastic character who really carries the whole series, and her family and friends are quite fun to read about too. The books are pretty tame, and (with a few notable exceptions) nothing ever goes disastrously wrong for Anne.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Country Girls

Meet Kate and Baba, two young Irish country girls who have spent their childhood together. As they leave the safety of their convent school in search of life and love in the big city, they struggle to maintain their somewhat tumultuous relationship. Kate, dreamy and romantic, yearns for true love, while Baba just wants to experience the life of a single girl. Although they set out to conquer the world together, as their lives take unexpected turns, Kate and Baba must ultimately learn to find their own way. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

On the other hand, things do go terribly wrong for Caithleen and Baba. Cait is still pretty young when her mother dies, leaving her to be raised by her alcoholic father and her on-again, off-again friend Baba’s family. The two girls are sent to a convent school, which they hate, and they have to find a way to cope, or escape. There is also a romance which I strongly disapprove of! The book is well-written, and it’s interesting to read about life in Ireland a few decades ago, but this book has some major issues in my mind. Unlike Anne of Green Gables, which runs along the lines of fun, enjoyable, and generally harmless, The Country Girls has some great moments balanced by some terrible flaws.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

These books are a very well-matched pairing, but neither is my favorite book I’ve ever read. I was never that dreamy kid who daydreamed about romance and about stepping into a new life, and that’s what both Anne and Caithleen are. If you decide to read this book pairing, though, it’s probably best if you commit to the entire series. I think you’ll get a lot more out of it that way.

Have you read either of these books (or book series)? How do you think they stack up to each other? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Book Pairing: Are You There, God? and The Girls’ Guide

A fun book pairing by two authors who explore the topics of love and growing up. | A book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m back from my blogging hiatus! I’ve been unable to post recently because of the chaos in my personal life, namely, my sister’s wedding! Everything went off without a hitch, and now I’m back home, settling in for the holidays and ready to kick off my end-of-year reviews with this book pairing.

Most of my last reviews of the year will be posts for the Reading to Distraction book pairing challenge (you can read the previous posts here, here, here, and here). Apparently, I couldn’t get it together to read these pairings until the last minute!

The books in this pairing are Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume and The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank. As always, here’s the BuzzFeed connection:

The troubles that Margaret Simon experiences in the Judy Blume classic — romantic anxiety, body confusion, the awkwardness of fitting in with new friends — are especially potent in the preteen years but by no means limited to them. Melissa Bank proves this as she follows protagonist Jane Rosenal from age 14 to her mid-twenties in a series of hilarious and heartbreaking stories of navigating love, work, and life.

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret

Margaret Simon, almost twelve, has just moved from New York City to the suburbs, and she’s anxious to fit in with her new friends. When she’s asked to join a secret club she jumps at the chance. But when the girls start talking about boys, bras, and getting their first periods, Margaret starts to wonder if she’s normal. There are some things about growing up that are hard for her to talk about, even with her friends. Lucky for Margaret, she’s got someone else to confide in… someone who always listens. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I have to admit, I never read this book as a kid, although I certainly heard about it. Now, reading it as an adult, it’s not nearly as risque as my childhood friends thought it was. The book is a bit dated, but Judy Blume really knows her stuff. Times may have changed, but the insecurities and frustrations of being a preteen girl certainly haven’t.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing

Generous-hearted and wickedly insightful, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing maps the progress of Jane Rosenal as she sets out on a personal and spirited expedition through the perilous terrain of sex, love, and relationships as well as the treacherous waters of the workplace. With an unforgettable comic touch, Bank skillfully teases out issues of the heart, puts a new spin on the mating dance, and captures in perfect pitch what it’s like to be a young woman coming of age in America today. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is a quick read, and the first thing that will strike you about it is the beauty of the author’s writing. She is able to write a sentence that will make you look at ordinary things in a new way. You get the sense that Bank knows the people she is writing about, and she makes you know them, too. So my problem with this book wasn’t the writing or the characters, which are by turns humorous and heartbreaking, but the plot itself. Namely, that there isn’t much of one. The story is told in a series of vignettes, almost, and they are only loosely connected. Most are told from the viewpoint of Jane Rosenal, but a couple are not, and although all the sections center around the topic of love and heartbreak, I wish they worked together better to create a more cohesive whole.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

I can definitely see why these books make a good pairing. Both present the story of a girl who is growing up and exploring the subject of love–with mixed results. Although neither book was exactly my cup of tea, I’m glad to have read them both. Judy Blume and Melissa Bank both know how to write amazingly sympathetic MCs and draw you into their lives.

Have you read either of these books? How do you think they stack up to each other? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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