Monday, September 18, 2017

Brave Red, Smart Frog by Emily Jenkins, 2017

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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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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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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.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Wonderling by Mira Bartók, 2017

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Have you been unexpectedly burdened by a recently orphaned or unclaimed creature? Worry not! We have just the solution for you!

Welcome to the Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, an institution run by evil Miss Carbunkle, a cunning villainess who believes her terrified young charges exist only to serve and suffer. Part animal and part human, the groundlings toil in classroom and factory, forbidden to enjoy anything regular children have, most particularly singing and music. For the Wonderling, an innocent-hearted, one-eared, fox-like eleven-year-old with only a number rather than a proper name -- a 13 etched on a medallion around his neck -- it is the only home he has ever known.

But unexpected courage leads him to acquire the loyalty of a young bird groundling named Trinket, who gives the Home's loneliest inhabitant two incredible gifts: a real name -- Arthur, like the good king in the old stories -- and a best friend. Using Trinket's ingenious invention, the pair escape over the wall and embark on an adventure that will take them out into the wider world and ultimately down the path of sweet Arthur's true destiny.

Richly imagined, with shimmering language, steampunk motifs, and gripping, magical plot twists, this high adventure fantasy is the debut novel of award-winning memoirist Mira Bartok and has already been put into development for a major motion picture.
(450 pages)

This is the second book I've read in a row featuring anthropomorphic animals and talking mice, after Kristin Kladstrup's The Nutcracker Mice (the review of which, due to a fluke of scheduling, won't be up for another month). Besides those initial similarities, though, the two books don't really have much in common. Where The Nutcracker Mice is about ballet-dancing mice living in the Mariinsky Theater in 1892, The Wonderling features a semi-historical world in which there are humans, normal animals whose complex languages are indecipherable to all but our protagonist Arther, and the creatures like Arthur himself called "groundlings." These groundlings are mixtures between humans and animals, or two to three different animals, and they are treated like absolute scum by the humans they live alongside.

The book reminds me a little bit of the Redwall series, actually. It's got the whole "setting out from a walled-in building on a quest" thing and everything, though Arthur is escaping his oppressive orphanage rather than setting out to protect his abbey. And the plot of The Wonderling is definitely more original than the recycled plot that made up the backbone of every single book in the series. It's darker than Redwall, too. Maybe the fact that it's more similar to real European history makes it feel more serious.

Honestly, it's hard to pin down The Wonderling. It's a very beautiful book, with its elaborate world building and detailed descriptions of characters are extremely diverse both physically (the groundlings are fascinating!) and emotionally. And that simple description doesn't even include the fascinating implications of the socioeconomic differences between the groundlings and the humans.

I suppose I'm going too deep into this children's book, though. From a pure entertainment standpoint, I should mention that I didn't like the book quite as much as I'd hoped. I loved the premise and most of the execution, yes, but I didn't like everything that happened/was revealed in the conclusion. It was still a very interesting and exciting read, though, so I do recommend it. If you do decide to read The Wonderling, let us know in the comments sections what you think!

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

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Promise of Dawn by Lauraine Snelling, 2017

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When Signe, her husband, Rune, and their three boys arrive in Minnesota from Norway to help a relative clear his land of lumber, they dream of owning their own farm and building a life in the New World. But Uncle Einar and Aunt Gird are hard, demanding people, and Signe and her family soon find themselves worked nearly to the bone in order to repay the cost of their voyage. At this rate, they will never have land or a life of their own.

Signe tries to trust God but struggles with anger and bitterness. She has left behind the only life she knew, and while it wasn't an easy life, it wasn't as hard as what she now faces. When a new addition to the family arrives, Signe begins to see how God has been watching over them throughout their ordeal. But after all that has happened, can she still believe in the promise of a bright future?

(276 pages)

Going into reading The Promise of Dawn, I didn't really have a good idea what it would be like. I won it in a giveaway on LibraryThing, and when I entered I'd just kind of assumed it was one of those fluffy Christian romantic historical fictions. I thought it would be kind of meh, but still entertaining, so I took the two seconds to click "Request It."

It turns out that The Promise of Dawn is a lot more serious than I originally expected, and it's not really a romance novel since the main characters are already married with three sons old enough to work for Uncle Einar. It is indeed a Christian novel, though, but the religion in the book is not as cloying as it is in most from the genre. And it is definitely a historical fiction story–which is what I loved best about it!

You see, I'm nearly 1/2 Swedish by descent. My great-grandfather and his family moved from Sweden to Nebraska around the same time Signe and Rune's family move from Norway to Minnesota, so it's easy for me to read about this family's fictional struggles on the American frontier and imagine my own ancestors into their place. True, my great-grandfather was a farmer in a tree-less state while Uncle Einar  is a tree logger, but that's small potatoes. The comparison is still real to me.

Plus, I actually really liked watching Signe fight to bring orderliness and civility into a house that was truly disgusting when she first arrived. Gird is bed-ridden, miserable, and miserly when they arrive; Einar is curt, unpleasant, and solely focused on his tree-logging endeavors to the point of abandoning everything (and everyone) else. It's impossible not to cheer for Signe as she puts the house and farm to rights with the help of her two younger sons and begins the process of helping Gird regain her strength. I also loved watching the way her sons always obeyed her, even though they were growing big and tall and lived during a time when women weren't always given much respect. Seeing the give-and-take of Signe and Rune's relationship was also very satisfying. I also just really liked getting such a different angle on frontier life, focused on the individual struggles of the people making their lives on the frontier rather than on the more publicized "drama" of cowboys and Native American struggles/raids and the like. This is the authentic story of the West, because it's the story of the individual family.

Basically, if you're looking for an character-focused book about Scandinavians moving to the American frontier in the early twentieth century, then The Promise of Dawn fits the bill to a T. Let me know what you think if you read it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel through the BookLook Early Reviewers program.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Unreformed Martin Luther by Andreas Malessa, 2017

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Will the real Martin Luther please stand up?

After five hundred years of examining the life of the "father of the Reformation," we must surely know all there is to know about Martin Luther. But is that true?
Did he really nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door?
Did he throw an inkpot at the devil?
Did he plant an apple tree?
Did his wife escape her convent in a herring barrel?
German radio and television journalist Andreas Malessa looks at the actual history of Luther and concludes that many of the tales we know best are nothing but nonsense.
Diving gleefully into the research, Malessa investigates many of the falsehoods and fallacies surrounding the reformer, rejecting them in favor of equally incredible facts. Full of humor and irony, this book educates and entertains while demonstrating a profound respect for Luther's life and mission.

If you're looking for the truth of the man behind the theses, come discover his faith and influence--with the myths stripped away.
(168 pages)

First, I want to describe my background going into The Unreformed Martin Luther: basically, I am not a Lutheran and I don't really worship the ground Luther once walked on. I do, however, think he was a very important historical figure and that his life warrants historical examination. I'd read a biography about him in the past and learned a little bit about him in AP European History, but I had never even heard most of the rumors being debunked in this book until, well, the book said them right before debunking them.

But you know what? The middle ages were a very interesting time period. And people back then were . . . well, not exactly living up to the Victorian standard. Even Martin Luther, this Catholic priest and religious leader, was bawdy at times. And he also, apparently, liked to write in detail to his friend(s) about his constipation. Because oversharing was definitely a thing back then.

Speaking over oversharing, did you know that newlyweds in the Middle Ages had to have witnesses on their wedding night to make sure they were really consummating the marriage? They would slip away once things really started to get going, but still. That is yet another reason I am glad I don't live in the Middle Ages (ranked fourth after 1. they didn't have glasses so I would have been blind as a bat and 2. women were stuck making bread and raising babies and 3. everybody died young).

But honestly, some of these chapters were really cool. My favorites were probably the one on constipation (because I just think it's hilarious we know so much about the bowel movements of some guy from 500 years ago!) and the one about the origin of the "Here I stand" quote. It turns out that when Luther said "Here I stand" he was actually saying "Look, I've already given my speech in two different languages today and it's really hot and I feel sick and I can't do it a third time. All I can do now is stand here." The actual end to his speech was good too, but I can't remember what it was. Obviously not as memorable as "here I stand," I guess.

Before I end I suppose I should also add that, in keeping with the slightly vulgar nature of discourse back then, a few of the Luther quotes are rather lewd. I pretty much just took that in stride, though, because the whole point of the book is to show us the "unedited" version of who Martin Luther really was.

Basically, The Unreformed Martin Luther is a really funny and infomative book about a major historical figure and his time period. Whether you agree with his beliefs or not, you can't help but get a hoot out of reading this unfiltered examination of the real man behind the myths.

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