Monday, September 18, 2017

Brave Red, Smart Frog by Emily Jenkins, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Step into a wintry forest where seven iconic fairy tales unfold, retold with keen insight and touches of humor.
There once was a frozen forest so cold, you could feel it through the soles of your boots. It was a strange place where some kisses broke enchantments and others began them. Many said witches lived there -- some with cold hearts, others with hot ovens and ugly appetites -- and also dwarves in tiny houses made of stones. In this icy wood, a stepmother might eat a girl's heart to restore her own beauty, while a woodcutter might become stupid with grief at the death of his donkey. Here a princess with too many dresses grows spiteful out of loneliness, while a mistreated girl who is kind to a crone finds pearls dropping from her mouth whenever she speaks. With empathy and an ear for emotion, Emily Jenkins retells seven fairy tales in contemporary language that reveals both the pathos and humor of some of our most beloved stories. Charming illustrations by Rohan Daniel Eason add whimsical details that enhance every new reading.

(104 pages)

Like most people, I've always loved fairy tales. There's something really magical about reading the stories that have been honed through generations of telling and retelling, where magic exists and it usually teaches a lesson and bad people/decisions wind up in terrible trouble. I haven't read all the original tales, but I had a storybook when I was little that told the "true" stories in a pretty way without putting too much emphasis on the gore. I always liked those versions more than the Disney ones.

That's why I chose to review Brave Red, Smart Frog. I did indeed know six of them in some form or another (though my version of the woodcutter who gets three wishes involved a river spirit throwing increasingly-ornate axes onto the bank); the only one that was completely unfamiliar was "The Three Great Noodles," which was actually a really cool story. It may well have been my favorite from the collection, and not just because it was the only new one for me!

I do like these retellings; they stick with the original material but cut out the worst parts and very cleverly fill in some of the logic gaps left by the originals. They also feature familial relationships that are much more realistic than the ones usually described in the fairy tales (full of dysfunction, yes, but also love). However, I wish the stories were longer–they each take up about 13 pages or so, a shortness that I'm just not used to anymore. I suppose this is good for kids listening to the stories at bedtime, but it leaves me wishing for more!

If you like fairy tale retellings, then Brave Red, Smart Frog might be what you're looking for. I can't say that it stands head and shoulders above all the other fairy tale retellings out there, because it doesn't really, but I can say that I enjoyed it and I'm sure others will as well. It doesn't have many illustrations, which is a pity, but the stories are told very well. Jenkins put together a very nice collection!


Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Thief's Mark by Carla Neggers, 2017

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on Goodreads 
As a young boy, Oliver York witnessed the murder of his wealthy parents in their London apartment. The killers kidnapped him and held him in an isolated Scottish ruin, but he escaped, thwarting their plans for ransom. Now, after thirty years on the run, one of the two men Oliver identified as his tormentors may have surfaced.

Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan are enjoying the final day of their Irish honeymoon when a break-in at the home of Emma's grandfather, private art detective Wendell Sharpe, points to Oliver. The Sharpes have a complicated relationship with the likable, reclusive Englishman, an expert in Celtic mythology and international art thief who taunted Wendell for years. Emma and Colin postpone meetings in London with their elite FBI team and head straight to Oliver. But when they arrive at York's country home, a man is dead and Oliver has vanished.

As the danger mounts, new questions arise about Oliver's account of his boyhood trauma. Do Emma and Colin dare trust him? With the trail leading beyond Oliver's small village to Ireland, Scotland and their own turf in the US, the stakes are high, and Emma and Colin must unravel the decades-old tangle of secrets and lies before a killer strikes again.
(336 pages)

I know I've said this before, but I'm a huge murder mystery fan. Agatha Christie is my gold standard, but I'm always open to trying out new murder writers. That's why I jumped at the offer to participate in a TLC tour for Carla Neggers's Thief's Mark.

The one downside to starting my exploration of Neggers's books with Thief's Mark, however, is that it's actually the seventh book in the "Sharpe and Donovan" series. For you the review reader, this means that I need to warn you now: there are definitely going to be some spoilers for the earlier books in the series. For me as the reviewer, it means that my experience of the book was a little more . . . well, muddled than it was probably intended to be.

Because there are a huge amount of characters in Thief's Mark, not all of whom seem strictly necessary. I can tell that a lot of groundwork was laid in this story universe in the previous books, and that the author and readers have become indoctrinated and invested into all these different people/agencies, but as an outsider to the series I mainly just found them confusing. There were several times when I had to pause and do some calculations to figure out who a minor character was. Also, it's a very international book–set primarily in England and Ireland with characters from both of those countries as well as from America–but I didn't feel like Neggers did a good job separating out the different dialects. I kept forgetting which characters were supposed to have which accents, because they all just sounded American in my head. The author's American-ness probably didn't help with this.

As for the actual mystery, it's a very intriguing one (though I still don't quite understand the motive as it was explained in the end). And I did like the main characters who were investigating it. Two of them are on their honeymoon, which could have resulted in some icky scenes but was handled very tastefully. The third main investigator/suspect, Henrietta, actually provides the most sensual material in the book: she has one or two fairly-explicit daydreams about being in bed with one of the male main characters. I personally did not feel the need to read that.

As murder mysteries go, Thief's Mark is a very good one. It's definitely much more plot- and mystery-focused than most of the Christian murder mysteries I usually find myself reading (which often devolve into long character studies), so I may well pick up more of Neggers's books in the future. But I have to say that Agatha Christie is still, forever and always, my favorite crime writer.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in order to participate in a TLC tour.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Giant Pumpkin Suite by Melanie Heuser Hill, 2017

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on Goodreads 
Who are you, if you can’t be what you always expected? A moving coming-of-age tale of prodigy and community, unlikely friendship and growing things.

Twelve-year-old Rose Brutigan has grown seven inches in the last eight months. She’s always been different from her twin brother, Thomas, but now she towers over him in too many ways. The gap in their interests continues to widen as well. Musically talented Rose is focused on winning the upcoming Bach Cello Suites Competition, while happy-go-lucky Thomas has taken up the challenge of growing a giant pumpkin in the yard of their elderly neighbor, Mr. Pickering. But when a serious accident changes the course of the summer, Rose is forced to grow and change in ways she never could have imagined. Along the way there’s tap dancing and classic musicals, mail-order worms and neighborhood-sourced compost, fresh-squeezed lemonade, the Minnesota State Fair — and an eclectic cast of local characters that readers will fall in love with.

(448 pages)

Giant Pumpkin Suite
may not be a book for everyone, but I for one really liked it.

For students who are a little bit wary of reading, I will point out the 400+ page-count and acknowledge that there isn't much "adventure" in the traditional sense of the word. With its focus on Rose's self-perception issues and a neighborhood-wide quest to grow a pumpkin (complete with discussions of planting techniques and compost recipes), Giant Pumpkin Suite is not going to appeal to every reader.

But for those who do choose to enjoy the book, it really is a very nice read. My least favorite parts were probably those that focused on Rose's obsession with being prim and proper and grown-up (and the inevitable portrayal of her as an academically advanced yet emotionally stunted child, a stereotype that I find mildly offensive). It's not as bad as in many other books, though, and there's so much else to balance it out. Her twin brother Thomas isn't depicted as being mentally slow, but rather as just a very normal, typical twelve-year-old boy. Their quest to grow the pumpkin is interesting enough on its own, but it's the eclectic cast of characters from the neighborhood who join together to help them do it who really carry the day. My favorite neighbor was probably the Japanese woman across the street who donated leaves from her yard for the mulch and who provided a beautiful glimpse into the culture of her home country and also provided emotional support for Rose while she was going through some rough times.

It's a slow book, but it's an interesting one and a very diverse one. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks it might be interesting.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.