Saturday, December 31, 2016

Child of the River by Irma Joubert, 2016 (DNF Review)

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Persomi’s dreams are much bigger than the world of poverty and deprivation that surround her in the Bushveld of the 1940s and 1950s in South Africa.

Persomi is young, white and poor, born the middle child of illiterate sharecroppers on the prosperous Fourie farm. Persomi’s world is extraordinarily small. She has never been to the local village and spends her days absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world around her. Her older brother, Gerbrand, is her lifeline and her connection to the outside world. When he leaves the farm to seek work in Johannesburg, Persomi’s isolated world is blown wide open. But as her very small world falls apart, bigger dreams become open to her—dreams of an education, a profession, and of love. As Persomi navigates the changing world around her—the tragedies of WWII and the devastating racial strife of her homeland—she finally discovers who she truly is and where she belongs.

A compelling coming of age story with an unlikely and utterly memorable heroine, Persomi’s English language publication solidifies Irma Joubert’s important place in the canon of inspirational historical fiction.

(400 pages)

Okay, yeah, this isn't going to be a really long review. It's not much of a review at all, because I quit about fifty pages in. Why, you ask? Because that's when a rather convoluted, subtle description of Pérsomi's father's trial confirmed once and for all that he'd repetitively raped and actually impregnated his own daughter (her sister).

Ew. Ew, ew, ew. I don't know whether this is a good book or not (and I actually suspect it might turn out to be a great book, in a hard-hitting literary sort of way along the lines of Cry, the Beloved Country) but it is so not what I want to be reading about during my limited relaxation time. I can handle a certain amount of oppression and horror, which is why I picked up this book about a South African girl during WWII in the first place, but I have to draw the line somewhere and I think a sexual abuse from parents is as good a place to draw it as I'm going to find.

So don't take my word for whether Child of the River is a good book. It very well might be, I honestly don't know. But the truth is that I don't really care because I am just not up for reading past such a depressing/disturbing start to a novel. If you want to read this with me as part of an English class, go ahead–in an academic setting, I relish tackling complex moral dilemmas and the throes of human misery. In my own time, though? Nope. I'm not going there. So unless someone comments below and tells me the rest of the book is mild enough for a twelve-year-old to read, I think I am done with Child of the River for a long, long while.

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

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Impossible Clue by Sarah Rubin, 2017

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Math whiz Alice Jones has already cracked a mystery or two. She's smart and she's fearless, so who else would her classmates turn to? But when a famous local scientist vanishes from a locked room, Alice and her detective skills graduate to the big leagues.

Dr. Learner had been working on a top-secret invisibility suit that everyone wants. Rumor has it he's disappeared under suspicious circumstances . . . literally. But is wacky science really behind his vanishing? Or is it something more sinister? Alice won't stop until she knows the truth . . .

(304 pages)

I'm a huge sucker for mystery novels, always have been and always will be. That's why I was very pleased to have The Impossible Clue show up on my doorstep a few weeks back–it looked so perfect, like exactly the sort of absorbing and fun read that I needed.

And I was right, for the most part. This was definitely an entertaining read, and–for all my years of reading mystery novels–the plot continually took turns that I legitimately didn't see coming. At the same time, though, I had a hard time growing to like the main character Alice. She's a really smart math geek who loves puzzles and museums and all things logic. That's all great, and I can totally connect with her on a certain geeky level (even though I'm still not as good at math as she is at just twelve). The trouble, though, is that Alice is extremely sure of her own abilities . . . and aware of how they compare to everyone else's. Right from page one she's constantly judging the people around her, deciding who is worth her time, and then basically ignoring everyone else. I really felt bad for Sammy, the emotionally needy and slightly thick boy who introduces her to the case. He practically worships Alice, but she is constantly running to avoid him and tuning out when he's talking and giving him throwaway errands to run. She's flat-out rude to him many times, and even though she recognizes toward the end that she might be hurting his feelings she never seriously considers treating him more respectfully.

While I'm being negative, I'd like to also point out that I don't really think much of Alice's supposed devotion to logic and certainty. She's constantly making snap judgments about people and situations, and her deducement of what was actually going on (though certainly very clever) hinges almost entirely on shrewd guesswork. She had no proof for almost anything, so the dramatic ending is slightly ridiculous. I for one am still putting the pieces together and figuring out why her announcement even makes sense.

Now that I've got the negative bits out of the way, I'll be the first to admit that I devoured the book–flaws and all. Like I said, I adore mystery books of all shapes and sizes. This one was a fun brain-twister that kept me guessing and kept the suspense up. I thought the family dynamics were very well done, and that Alice's father was particularly realistic. He's an actual human being, just for starters! In too many middle-grade novels the parents are simply cardboard cutouts who sit in the background and let their kids run around all they like. Having him be a reporter who loved his children deeply but got incredibly wrapped up in pursuing his stories was a really good touch.

All in all, this isn't the most memorable mystery novel I've ever read but it's certainly not the worst. I quite enjoyed reading it, and I appreciate the hours of excitement it provided me. I may keep ahold of my copy and re-read it sometime just to see how it reads a second time through. If I do, I'll be sure to come back and add a postscript if I come out with a wildly different opinion!

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited ARC of this novel from the publisher.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Heroines of the New Testament Coloring Book by Betsy Karounos, 2016

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Now coloring enthusiasts will enjoy an uplifting way to unplug, de-stress, and engage their creative passions with Betsy Karounos' coloring book featuring wonderful women from the New Testament. Based on their biblical stories, each unique section features symbolic, intricately-detailed pictures to color and reflect upon. Scenes depicting the miraculous journeys of Mary, the Samaritan woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, and many other women whose lives were transformed when they encountered Jesus, will inspire all. These artistic illustrations for grown-ups and talented teens enable hours of peaceful contemplation and coloring enjoyment with narrative scenes, geometric patterns, portraits, botanical designs, artist tips, and more!
(80 pages)

I'll be the first one to admit that I'm not the most artistic person on the planet. That hasn't stopped me, though, from jumping into the adult coloring book trend along with everyone else. Every so often the coloring bug strikes and I wind up coloring a few pictures in one of the many coloring books I've gotten over the past few years. So many of them are very complicated and ornate, though, and take forever.

I'm happy to say that there's a really great mix of pictures in this coloring book. My favorites are the simple ones, like the one below, which are pretty and elegant and don't take me forever to do. I don't have a lot of coloring stamina, sad to say.

There are also more medium-level pictures, like this next one. I especially enjoyed coloring it beause I had fun doing different shades for her hair:

Then there are more complicated ones, with room for experimenting with lots of different colors. I don't really like these, because I struggle to make a picture look good if I'm using more than about four colors on a page, but for those of you who want more of a challenge you might like something like this:

The main downside to this coloring book, though, is definitely paper quality. Heroines' paper isn't really the right quality for coloring: it feels like regular white paper, a bit thicker than most novel pages but still rather flimsy. I used markers for the first picture I tried, but quit when they started bleeding through:

The backside of the right-hand page of the
"Elizabeth" spread (note the red bleeding through
in the corners and the water-stain wrinkles)
I've used those markers to color in the past in several coloring books and never had a problem with them, but here they not only bled through but they actually made the page so wet that it got that crinkled water-stain look. Not so great. It works perfectly with colored pencils, though, so if that's your primary coloring utensil then the paper quality should be fine for you.

Anyway, despite the flimsier paper, I do really like the pictures in this coloring book. I'm keeping ahold of it for the next time the coloring bug gets ahold of me!

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

Friday, December 23, 2016

Famous Friends by Jennifer Castle and Bill Spring, 2017

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Did you know that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, friends and political rivals, died only hours apart from each other on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Or that famed magician Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle were besties until a séance gone wrong ruined their friendship? Famous Friends explores fascinating stories like these to find out what happens when someone who is really famous becomes friends with someone ELSE who's really famous.

From the original "bromance" to Taylor Swift's #squadgoals, get ready to learn about the coolest friendships of all time in Famous Friends!
(112 pages)

When this slim, brightly-colored book showed up on my doorstep a few weeks ago my first reaction was "wait, seriously?" The unsolicited ARCs I get from Scholastic are usually YA fictional novels, often on the grittier side and not really the sort of books I would usually pick up. This, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of book I don't pick up for a very different reason: it's a cartoony-looking flimsy book claiming in colorful letters to be about "famous friends from history!" while displaying very prominent pictures of Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, and Lorde. I've read my share of "documentary" booklets like these over the years (including several about Taylor Swift, I'm ashamed to admit), and developed quite a distaste for them as a result.

Once I actually cracked it open, though, I realized I'd misjudged. I fell into the usual trap of judging a book by its outward appearance! The contents are actually really interesting, and I enjoyed reading them. Taylor Swift and co. don't actually show up until the very last entry, because they're entered in chronological order, so I got to read all the way from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart before getting to the description of Taylor's "girl power" squad–and actually, I was pleasantly surprised even there: while her latest romantic hijinks aren't included (perhaps they took place after the ARCs were printed?), the possibility that her high-profile friendships are just publicity stunts or trophies is acknowledged and discussed. It's not nearly as saccharine a description as I'd thought it would be.

But honestly, Taylor Swift is more a footnote in this book than anything. The real magic comes from the rest of the friendships, many of which I knew nothing about before reading Famous Friends, that are given their own spotlights. There are fifteen completely separate friendships included in the collection, each of which get about six pages devoted to them. Every one of these full-color spreads features a plethora of full-color photos of the individuals (or at least all the individuals who lived in a time that had cameras), descriptions of the basic plot points of both of their lives, a sketching of the major moments of their friendship (when they met, how they stayed in touch, if/how they ever fell apart, etc.), and some interesting facts about one or both of the friends. My favorites chapters were probably Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini (they got in a fight because Houdini refused to agree with Doyle in the supernatural!), C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (who were also friends with Lloyd Alexander, though this book doesn't mention it), and Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (because seriously, who can't love those two?!). Some of the other friendships included in this book are Lewis and Clark, Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. All of the sections were really good, and very educational. I'm actually taking AP US History this year, a college-level course, and this little kid-oriented book still taught me some really interesting facts about people I'd already studied!

Basically, if you're interested in random facts about history or you like reading about high-profile friendships, then this is the book for you. Never mind that it's short and looks like a little kid book, its looks are definitely deceiving (they deceived me, that's for sure!). Similarly, I think this is a great book for kids–and I'm actually glad that its cover makes it so glossy and appealing to a younger audience, because that means it will be able to draw in their attention the way a more traditional historical trivia book wouldn't. Either way, if you read Famous Friends definitely let us know in the comments section below what you think!

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited ARC of this book from the publisher.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rhythms of Rest by Shelly Miller, 2016

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Sabbath-keeping not only brings physical refreshment, it restores the soul. God commands us to "remember the Sabbath," but is it realistic in today's fast-paced culture? In this warm and helpful book, Shelly Miller dispels legalistic ideas about Sabbath and shows how even busy people can implement a rhythm of rest into their lives--whether for an hour, a morning, or a whole day. With encouraging stories from people in different stages in life, Miller shares practical advice for having peaceful, close times with God. You will learn simple ways to be intentional about rest, ideas for tuning out distractions and tuning in God, and even how meals and other times with friends and family can be Sabbath experiences. 

Ultimately, this book is an invitation to those who long for rest but don't know how to make it a reality. Sabbath is a gift from God to be embraced, not a spiritual hoop to jump through.
(224 pages)

Oh, the irony. Here I am sitting here on a Sunday afternoon–the only slow time I get all week, because I have two midterms due in the next six days–reading and reviewing a book whose entire purpose is to convince me to take time off for myself. If I wanted I could try to argue that I'm working on my blog because it's relaxing to me, but the truth is that I feel compelled to do it. If I had unlimited time to do whatever I wanted today, I would totally be reading a brand-new fiction novel or re-watching a favorite episode of Doctor Who or even agreeing to go with my Star Wars-obsessed sister to see Rogue One. I certainly haven't got anything against Rhythms of Rest, but it's not the sort of book I normally read on a Sunday afternoon. I've just been so busy lately that I didn't have time to read it until the day before my review was due.

So yes, I'm definitely feel the call to take more breaks. At the risk of being like one of the women Miller quotes in the book, though, I'm afraid I have to postpone my Sabbath-taking until things have died down a little. The good news is that the holidays are nearly upon us: once I take my physics midterm this coming Saturday, I'll have a week off to celebrate Christmas and recharge my batteries. Once the school year starts again, I'll focus on being more intentional about giving myself time to unwind.

Anyway, enough about me. Moving on to a discussion of the book itself! I think Miller has a lot of excellent points, and that she makes them relatively well. I enjoyed reading the anecdotes she shared about her own family and their experiences practicing Sabbath, though some of the letters she shared from other women participating in the practice felt like slightly random additions. There were a few times when she was telling about something, whether in her own life or that a friend had told her, when it would be confusing at first to figure out what was going on. I don't think she always kept things quite in chronological order, which muddied the waters some, but what really made things hard to decipher at times was her use of first-person present narration. At some points I thought she was telling the reader "this is something I do regularly," only to realize that she was actually just describing in first-present tense something that had happened to her in the past.

Anyway, I still enjoyed reading the book (especially since I completely empathize with Miller's calling to live in Great Britain). Though I didn't always agree with Miller's interpretation of events in her friends' lives (especially when she said a young woman miscarried her baby because she wasn't in the right spiritual place to have a child–that gets dangerously close to implying the baby was punished for its mother's sins by losing its life!), I did like her overall points. They were just what I needed to hear right now, as my life is so hectic and stressful right now. Has anyone else read Rhythms of Rest or spent some time devoted to carving out free time on a weekly basis? If you have any tips for decreasing stress through relaxation, please do share them in the comments section below!

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

Snakes & Stones by Lisa Fowler, 2016

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Twelve-year-old Chestnut Hill’s daddy stole her and the triplets away from their mama. At least, that’s how Chestnut remembers it.

It’s 1921, and after nearly two years on the road with his traveling elixir show, Daddy’s still making no move to go back to Kentucky and buy Mama that house. So Chestnut is forced to come up with her own plan to get home. At night, when Daddy and the triplets are in bed, she draws up flyers with the name of the next town they’ll be traveling to. Before they leave each town and hoping her mama will see them, she nails up the flyers, leaving Mama an easy trail straight to her children.

When that doesn’t work, Chestnut is forced to try something bigger. But when her newest plan lands Daddy in jail and Mama has to come to the rescue, Chestnut discovers that things are not always as they seem. Written with a wonderful mountain hillbilly voice, Snakes and Stones has a mystery at its heart and lovable, strong, and complicated characters.

(240 pages)

My life has been so crazy lately between applying to college, doing my regular schoolwork, and traveling to visit colleges (and then making up for those trips by working even harder to catch up in school). I'm so busy lately that I literally had to schedule time for blogging into my to-do list! This is the first time in a long time that I've actually had to force myself to make time for reading, and it's not really so great.

Anyway, I'm happy to report that I really enjoyed reading Snakes & Stones. Quirky Southern-flavored novels don't always work for me, but this one did for the most part. If I were a little less tired right now I might take issue with how naiive Chestnut is about the truth that's so clearly right in front of her. I might also express concern about the fact that the one African-American character (who grew up in the exact same town as Chestnut's father) has a dreadfully stereotypical "impoverished black person" accent. I might also complain a little bit about the lack of communication going on between Chestnut and her father, and about the fact that her father feels more like a theoretical character than an actual person.

The truth, though, is that I can look past those things and enjoy this debut novel for the interesting and heart-tugging story that lies at its core. Chestnut's struggle to understand her past, her urgent need to lay the blame for the fracture of her family at her father's feet, feels real to me. In fact, Chestnut feels very real: she's flawed and quirky enough to be a real human being, but not so out-of-this-world quirky that she has to have been made up. In fact, I think this is one of the few books which give me the feeling that I could legitimately meet the protagonist walking down the street.

I have to say, though, that my favorite parts of the book were definitely the ones with her three younger siblings. The triplets were so cute, very full of personality and heart! They all three reminded me of my own younger siblings at some point or another. I know from experience how hard it can be to care for small children, even if they are your own flesh and blood, so I admired Chestnut for taking such good care of them throughout the book.

I don't think this is the best book of this type that I've read, but if you're out of other books to read in the quirky-and-meaningful genre or you're aching for some good father-daughter relationship struggles, then this is the book for you. If you do read it, et me know what you think in the comments section down below!

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

Monday, December 12, 2016

Earning My Spots by Mark Eastburn, 2016

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Sam and his family are the only werehyenas in their town, and they do their best to keep up their cover in front of the humans while the other more aggressive shifters mock the werehyena family for being weak and passive. But Sam sees no other life for himself, as he believes what he is told: he is inferior to the other shifters.

One night, a pack of shifters raids Sam’s house and takes his family, leaving him all alone. With the help of some new friends, Sam sets off on a journey from Vermont to South America to rescue his family. Along the way, he meets various shifters who aid him on his quest. He even meets a tribe of werehyenas in Louisiana who teach him how powerful his kind actually is and how far his ancestry goes back. From them, Sam learns he has a great destiny to fulfill.

As Sam draws closer to finding his family, he begins to understand how different the world of shifters is that exists outside of his small hometown. Shifters are tired of humans destroying their homes, and they want not only revenge but also to force humans into submission. It becomes clear that Sam is the only one who can stop a war that’s on the brink of erupting.

Fans of the Spirit Animals and Warriors series will enjoy accompanying Sam on his quest as he discovers not only that his destiny and inner strength are greater than he thought, but also that being a werehyena is not as laughable as he assumed.

(288 pages)

Okay, when the description said Earning My Spots was for fans of the Spirit Animals series, I thought that meant it would be one of those fun middle-grade novels about kids with cool powers who go on a quest to save the world and discover they're way secretly extraordinary.

And I guess on a certain level that's exactly what Earning My Spots was, but it was just so much more bizarre and, well, strange than anything I would have expected. In this case, that's not really a good thing.

I have to admit, when I had to set the book down at the 75% mark I wasn't even sure whether I would pick it back up. Things get really, really weird when Sam meets the other werehyenas and starts tapping into his heritage. At first, it was actually really cool that he's white in human form while the other werehyenas are black (which happened because his black ancestry was diluted through intermingling with white families). It's neat to watch Sam discover that he has ancestors from an entirely different continent from the one he thought was descended from, and to learn about the culture that was passed down in his blood. It makes me a little jealous because I think it would be so meaningful to have more than just European blood running through my veins!

Anyway, things took a turn for the weird when the other hyenas gave Sam some magical items to help him on his journey and provided him with spirits to protect him. I don't want to spoil too much of what happens after that, but let's just leave it at the fact that things are very mystical and strange. I don't believe in mysticism, and I was a little uncomfortable with the whole "spirits passed down from our ancestors" concept. I also thought it seemed a little forced: Sam himself didn't really undergo any character development. Instead, the spirits and "instinct" seemed to alter his personality just enough to be convenient in whatever scene he was currently in. I would have liked him to gain his own backbone, rather than just relying entirely on the beliefs and customs of a bunch of shifters he'd never met before who just happened to turn into the same animal that he did.

Also, Sam's mother and sister were pretty horrible to him during the small snippets we get of them in the beginning of the book. He claims that they actually were nice to him sometimes, but doesn't offer any concrete examples; I'm a little skeptical of his driving need to rescue his family when the only times he ever thinks of them are when he's thinking about how mean the females were to him. Love is about companionship and sacrifice, not just beating each other up all the time!

So yeah, this one's definitely going to the Little Free Library. I feel bad because I still think the basic concept could have been really cool and meaningful. There's so much meat buried in there, about cultural heritage and finding your place in the world and protecting the environment and about a million other things, but they're obscured by the weird plot developments and just plain strange scenarios that I'm gonna have to call this book a solid miss.

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

Friday, December 9, 2016

An Extra Seat by Shmuel Herzfeld, 2016

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This children's book, based on Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld's personal story growing up in 1970's New York, focuses on the plight of the Jewish Zionist prisoners brought to the world's attention by the highly publicized arrest of Anatoly Sharansky. Herzfeld's mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, plays a central role, encouraging his congregation to see the refuseniks (whose simple aim was making aliyah to Israel) as brothers and sisters whose rights should be fought for with unremitting public protest. The two child protagonists, Sarah and Joseph, experience the reward of these efforts as they witness Sharansky's remarkable release, nine years into his 14-year sentence. The book provides a message of hope especially to children who are encouraged to see the value of their ideals, values and actions.

This book is has as its central premise human and Torah-based Jewish values, such as:

While it may not be our job to complete a task, we are obligated to try.

We have the greatest responsibility to help our own family. All of the Jewish people are one family. Thus we are all responsible to help each other.

(32 pages)

I'm going to preface this review by saying that I'm not Jewish and I'm not a little kid. Right there I think I miss being in either of the two target demographics for this book. I entered to win it anyway, though, because many of the nicest people I know are Jewish and I've been wanting to learn more about their culture. I figured An Extra Seat would be a fun place to start.

So as the description says, this is just 32 pages long. Every two-page spread features a few sentences and background art that goes along with the theme of the text. Most of the artwork is done in pretty pastel, with what I think are watercolors (but could be something else since I know next to nothing about art). Two of the spreads, though, feature completely different artwork with black backgrounds and snapshots of what looks like figures made out of modeling clay representing the focus of their pages. I didn't really like the clay pictures because they felt a little harsh and slightly bizarre coming right in between the muted pastel pages. Also, I'm not even a fan of claymation movies so that tells you how enthusiastic I am about characters being cast in clay in general.

Anyway, that just about sums up every observation this art novice can make about the pictures in the book. Now on to the writing itself. I have to say that it's been a while since I read a picture book, so I was definitely very frustrated with the sparse text and limited explanations that the book provided. I wanted a little more historical and cultural context for Sharansky's arrest in the Soviet Union, and a little more explanation about the advocacy work done to get him out of jail. We read about two rallies the kids went to, and some bracelets they wore on their wrists out of solidarity with their Jewish brothers being kept in Soviet prisons, but the explanation of how Sharansky was actually released by the Soviet government goes something along the lines of "after a few years, the main characters got the news out of the blue that Sharansky had been freed. They were ecstatic, and they took to heart the realization that even children can make a difference if they put their minds to it!" That's a great lesson, of course, but I still don't see how the kids actually convinced the Soviet government to change its mind.

Okay, I decided to google it. According to Wikipedia (a trusty resource, I know), Sharansky wasn't imprisoned by the Soviets just for trying to move to Israel as the picture book claims; rather, he was accused of being an American spy and . . . um, something to do with messing with the process of Jews getting visas to leave the country. I'm still a little confused. Anyway, the reason he was eventually released early was because of a "larger exchange of detainees" between the USSR and America. Apparently, the advocacy on his behalf was important because it made him famous enough that American politicians actually cared enough about him to ask for his release as part of the exchange. So I suppose in a way the efforts of the kids really did save him, even if things weren't quite as straightforward as the book suggests.

But then, maybe I'm just trying to read too much into a children's book. I'd be interested to hear someone else's thoughts on An Extra Seat. Let me know in the comments below if you have any fresh light to shine on the story or whether you've ever used the picture book with your kids!

Disclaimer: I won a complimentary Early Reviewers copy of this book from Library Thing. I was encouraged, but not required, to write an honest review. All thoughts are my own.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Larger-Than-Life Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall, 2016

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This isn't about me. This story, I mean. So already you got a reason to hang it up. At least that's what Mrs. Smith, our English teacher, says.
But the story 
is about ten-year-old Laney Grafton and the new girl in her class--Lara Phelps, whom everyone bullies from the minute she shows up. Laney is just relieved to have someone else as a target of bullying. But instead of acting the way a bullied kid normally acts, this new girl returns kindness for a meanness that intensifies . . . until nobody remains unchanged, not even the reader.

In a unique and multi-layered story, with equal parts humor and angst, Laney communicates the art of storytelling as it happens, with chapter headings, such as: 
Character, Setting, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax. And she weaves an unforgettable tale of a new girl who transforms an entire class and, in the process, reveals the best and worst in all of us.
(176 pages)

I've been a long-time casual fan of Dandi Daley Mackall's books ever since I picked up a copy of her the first Winnie the Horse-Gentler book at a yard sale a few years ago. I was getting rather sick of horse books at the time because I was realizing they all had the same rather vapid and predictable plot lines, but the book reinvigorated my passion for horse novels. I also later loved Mackall's Starlight Animal Rescue series, which is connected to the Winnie books, and loved them even more. Mackall has a gift for blending realistic characters, hard facts about life, and inspirational messages all together and offering them to her readers in slim, engaging novels. That's why I leaped at the opportunity to review Larger-Than-Life Lara: it looked like a very different book than the other ones I'd read by Mackall, but I was pretty sure she'd still be able to pull off a great story.

And she did. I really enjoyed reading Lara, it felt kind of like a grittier version of The Hundred Dresses. Actually, now that I think about it, I would be surprised if Mackall got the inspiration to write Lara from Dresses. Since I always loved Dresses growing up, that is a very good impression for me to come away with.

The narration in Lara comes from Laney, who has to be on of the best narrators I've read in a while. She's writing the "true" story down the way her teacher taught her to, using all the tricks they learned in school. Every chapter is titled with exactly what it introduces (Villain, Setting, Dialogue, etc.), and Laney prefaces her plot devices or narration decisions with funny, candid explanations like this one:
Mrs. Smith says stories have a beginning, middle, and end. They should get told in a chronological order, which is a fancy way of saying making stuff happen like it did in real life, without jumping back and forth in time like some kind of time traveler. I tried to do that, which is why you can find words like first and next and then, if you go back looking for them in this story.
But I can't figure out how else to tell this one conflict without time traveling backwards. So Mrs. Smith, if you're reading this, I just apologize for this.
Isn't that just so cute? I don't know what it is, but I just really love this sort of fourth-wall-breaking narration style.

Anyway, moving on. Laney is a really great character, not just a fun narrator, and I definitely felt for her. The situation at her home is not so great (think three older brothers, no mother, and an alcoholic/likely abusive father), and she is constantly covering for her family at school and hiding her school life from her family. It's not good, at all, and I felt terrible watching her hold everything in. The focus in the end of the book, though, isn't really on her home life; it's on Lara and the way she was being treated at school. Now I haven't had much experience with bullying, but I thought it was absolutely horrible the way everyone treated Lara from day one. The minute she walked in the classroom door, people were calling her ugly names and making fun of her. That's despicable! If she's really that overweight, that's her parents' fault–or the fault of some disorder, maybe, I don't know–but it's definitely not her fault. She's ten years old, people! I don't know, fifth graders are just so barbaric sometimes.

As for Lara as a character, I never really felt like I got to know her that well. She seems sweet, and extraordinarily brave, but almost rather one-dimensional: we never really see Laney have a heart-to-heart with Lara and find out what makes her tick. There were honestly a lot of characters and plotlines whose stories I would have loved to see expanded, which is why I wish the book were a little longer. Barring an updated and heftier re-release of the novel, I'm hoping for a sequel sometime down the road. I think there's a lot of material in Larger-Than-Life Lara that Mackall could use to develop a whole series, actually. It could be, I don't know, "The Paris, Missouri series." Or something catchier. I'm not really a title developer. But anyway, I definitely enjoyed Larger-Than-Life Lara and I'm glad I had the chance to read it. If you've read it, comment below and let me know what you thought!

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Blind Guide to Normal by Beth Vrabel, 2016

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Richie “Ryder” Raymond has a gift. He can find the punchline in any situation, even in his limited vision and prosthetic eye. During the past year at Addison School for the Blind, Ryder’s quick wit earned the respect and friendship of his classmates. Heading to mainstream, or “normal,” school for eighth grade is going to be awesome.

After all, what’s not to like? At Addison, Ryder was everyone’s favorite person. He could make anyone laugh, especially his best friend Alice. So long as he can be first to make all of the one-eyed jokes, Ryder is sure he’ll fit in just as quick at Papuaville Middle School, home of the Fighting Guinea Pigs. But Alice warns him fitting in might not be as easy as he thinks.

Turns out, Alice was right. In just the first hour of “normal” school, Ryder is attacked by General MacCathur II (aka, Gramps’s cat), causes his bio teacher to pass out cold, makes an enemy out town hero Max, and falls for Jocelyn, the fierce girl next door who happens to be Max’s girlfriend. On top of that, Ryder struggles to hold onto his dignity in the face of students’ pity and Gramps’s non-stop practical jokes.

Ryder quickly sees the only thing worse than explaining a joke is being the punchline. But with help from his stuck-in-the-70s Gramps and encouragement from Alice, Ryder finds the strength to not only fight back, but to make peace.

This exciting sequel to A Blind Guide to Stinkville weaves humor, recovery and second chances into an unforgettable story, with characters who will hook you from page one.

(272 pages)

I always meant to read A Blind Guide to Stinkville. I even went so far as to check it out from the library one time about a year ago, but then life happened and I had to turn it back in before I got around to reading it. When I got an email from Sky Pony Press asking whether I'd like to review its sequel/companion, A Blind Guide to Normal, I figured this was my chance to read a book at least connected to Stinkville. I went in with very high hopes.

Coming out of the book I'm a little less enthusiastic. I liked it, sure, but I just didn't really connect with the characters the way everyone else seemed to with Stinkville. I could see and understand the pain Ryder buried deep inside his chest, the way he shoved aside his fear and anger and insecurity and masked it with corny jokes. I saw that, but I still didn't really like him. Ryder treats his grandfather like a laughingstock throughout most of the book, even though the old man is still mourning the death of his wife; he makes new friends in school but treats them absolutely horribly; he does some very insensitive things, then never really apologizes for them. To be honest, I feel bad for Ryder–I really do. But I feel even worse for Jocelyn and Max and Gramps.

And really, Jocelyn and Max and Gramps are the main reason I liked Normal. Jocelyn was probably my favorite character, just because I loved the glimpses we got of her past and how she fought to move forward. Max is, basically, an ideal boyfriend. I loved him throughout the book, even when he was going head-to-head with Ryder. And Gramps? Gramps is just straight-up awesome. When he tells the story of his past, it's so touching to see how much in love he still is with his wife–even though she's been gone for around thirty years. Ryder was too busy being embarrased by his grandfather's old-fashioned sense of style to realize how sweet and cool the old man really was.

Do I recommend A Blind Guide to Normal? Meh. I suppose if you want to read it I'm not going to warn you off it, it really is funny in some parts and meaningful in others. Just go in knowing that Ryder isn't the nicest person in the world, and that there is way too much romantic angst in this book about a bunch of thirteen-year-olds. If you do/have read it, definitely let me know what you think! In the meantime, I think I'm going to send my copy off to my local Little Free Library.

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

Finding Father Christmas / Engaging Father Christmas by Robin Jones Gunn, 2016

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In FINDING FATHER CHRISTMAS, Miranda Carson's search for her father leads her unexpectedly to London with only a few feeble clues as to who he might be. Immediately welcomed into a family that doesn't recognize her, and whom she's quickly coming to love, she faces a terrible decision. Should she reveal her true identity and destroy their idyllic image of her father? Or should she carry the truth home with her to San Francisco and remain alone in this world? Whatever choice she makes during this London Christmas will forever change the future for both herself and the family she can't bear to leave.

In ENGAGING FATHER CHRISTMAS Miranda Carson can't wait to return to England for Christmas and to be with her boyfriend, Ian. She has spent a lifetime yearning for a place to call home, and she's sure Carlton Heath will be it, especially when a hinted-at engagement ring slips into the conversation. But Miranda's high hopes for a jolly Christmas with the small circle of people she has come to love are toppled when Ian's father is hospitalized and the matriarch of the Whitcombe family withholds her blessing from Miranda. Questions run rampant in Miranda's mind about whether she really belongs in this cheery corner of the world. Then, when her true identity threatens all her relationships in unanticipated ways, Miranda is certain all is lost. And yet . . . maybe Father Christmas has special gifts in store for her after all.

(352 pages)

When I saw that this pretty collection of short stories was being turned into a Hallmark movie, I snapped it up right away. I love Hallmark movies, and I thought reading the original material to one would be a great way to get geared up for the holidays!

I have to say, though, that I think Hallmark movies must be getting a little more inappropriate than they used to be. Getting over the fact that Miranda's an illegitimate child of a man who already had a family is a little hard to just roll with. Sure, there are some circumstances that temper the "cheating" aspect of it–and the emphasis on forgiveness and finding one's family is healthy in its own way–but it just doesn't seem like, for a Christian book, there's enough emphasis put on the fact that what her father did was wrong. In fact, in the second short story ("Engaging Father Christmas"), Miranda actually spends a fair amount of time trying to get the affection of her father's wife.

I kid you not, Miranda doesn't just want to be acknowledged as her father's daughter amongst the family. She also wants to join in on their Christmas, and treat her half-brother's wife and children like family, and basically be given full insider status in this posh British family. She has this strange compulsion to "make friends" with Margaret, her father's wife, and I just felt like cringing every time she approached her. I mean, it's one thing for Miranda to get Margaret's reluctant acknowledgment of her blood relationship to the family; it's another altogether to try and be friends with her. How would you like it if the walking, talking reminder of the one time your husband was unfaithful to you thirty years ago kept shoving herself in your face and making passive-aggressive moves to show how open and friendly she's being despite your standoffishness? I honestly thought Miranda was way too entitled in "Engaging Father Christmas," and I didn't even like her boyfriend/fiance to boot. There's such a thing as making a character too perfect, you know?

Anyway, for all that I honestly didn't hate the two stories. They really are very cozy reads, full of roaring fires and cozy beds and gorgeous Christmas trees and fantastic productions of A Christmas Carol. They're also set in England (which I'm traveling next week for college visits–just think, I could be living there a year from now!). This instantly makes everything about five times more cozy and warm than they would be already. I looked up the Hallmark movie, and it looks like they moved Miranda's birth family from England to Vermont. That's so disappointing because it destroys most of the cozy atmosphere I enjoyed in the books. I think the fact that the Whitcombes are English also adds a layer of complexity to the story because their high-ranking status in prim English society makes Miranda's existence much harsher for them than it would be for some random actor's family in Vermont. Also, Miranda's boyfriend has a Scottish brogue. That right there is a huge point in his favor!

Anyway, if you're willing to look past the moral iffy-ness of Miranda's situation and the sometimes really blatant cheesiness of both the plot and the characters, then you might like this story. I would honestly recommend reading "Finding Father Christmas" and just stopping there, because it's not quite as cringe-inducing as "Engaging Father Christmas."

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

Friday, November 25, 2016

Henry Hunter and the Beast of Snagov by John Matthews, 2014

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Adolphus Pringle lived a relatively normal life before he met Henry Hunter, but being the best friend of a twelve-year-old millionaire genius certainly makes life interesting. He has accompanied Henry on adventures all over the world and encountered dozens of supernatural creatures. Henry has a penchant for paranormal mysteries, and he never fails to drag his trusty sidekick, Dolf, into adventures to track down the truth in these mystical legends.

Henry announces one morning that he and Dolf are going to go in search of a creature more terrifying than Dracula himself: the Beast of Snagov. The pair of supernatural investigators travel from where Bram Stoker stayed in Whitby to Transylvania. Along the way they come across some strange things such as Dracula’s daughter, Bella, and an organization called the Order of the Dragon that wants to sacrifice Henry Hunter to the Beast of Snagov. When Henry is taken, it’s up to Dolf and Bella to team up and rescue him!

Will Henry survive this supernatural adventure? Get ready to discover the world of the supernatural through the eyes of our spooked narrator as he tags along on the first adventure in the Henry Hunter series!
(240 pages)

This is the second Halloween-themed book that I've read in the past week, the first one being Monsterville. As I wrote in my review, I really loved that book and was totally in the mood for another creepy Halloween-type novel. Luckily, I had another monster-themed Sky Pony Press book sitting on my shelf: Henry Hunter. I jumped right into it after finishing Monsterville, and was expecting great things.

Honestly, though, it just didn't really hit me the right way. Maybe it felt too much like a dumbed-down Sherlock Holmes (with monsters instead of an actual crime, and a stereotypical twelve-year-old genius millionaire robot rather than the brilliant, enigmatic and flawed human being we get in Sherlock). Maybe I couldn't get over the unrealistic premise of two young boys wandering into all sorts of terrible danger, with no adult ever even attempting to stand in their way. Maybe I didn't like how vanilla and clueless Dolf was–like the worst of Watson and Hastings and movie-Ron all jumbled together.

Maybe I'm just too old for this book. I think that's really the bottom line, I've simply reached the age where I want more subtlety and dynamism than Henry Hunter could offer. Honestly, I think it's quite a good book for kids who are in middle school. It's got vampires and backwoods Transylvania, cool creepy ancient castles, and a big ole' monster that the main characters need to defeat in the end. If I were five years younger, I think I'd probably have loved reading about the wealthy, independent Henry who spoke dozens of languages and knew practically everything. I would have lapped up the story just as quickly as I devoured, say, the 39 Clues series–which also featured hyper-intelligent children entrusted with large sums of money and zipping around the planet practically on their own.

I don't know, there's probably a pretty good chance that your kid would like this if they're in middle school. If you're looking for some slightly creepier books to give them that aren't really macabre, then this might be just the thing. I can't say I really recommend it to anyone older than middle school, though, just because there are so many other books out there. I don't know that it really stands out from the crowd enough to demand the attention of anyone over the age of about twelve.

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monsterville: A Lissa Black Production by Sarah S. Reida, 2016

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Thirteen-year-old Lissa Black is miserable when her parents force her to move from New York City (the perfect home for an aspiring writer/director/actress) to Freeburg, Pennsylvania, nowhere capital of the world. There’s nothing to do there, except play her little sister Haylie’s favorite new game, Monsterville, and hang out with her new neighbor Adam.
But when a walk in the woods lands her face-to-face with a swamp monster hungry for brains and then a Sasquatch that moos, even Lissa can’t call her new home totally boring. With Adam’s help, she catches the culprit behind the drama: a shape-shifting goblin who’s fled from the monster world of Down Below.
And what do you do with a creature that can be literally anything? Make monster movies, of course! Lissa is convinced that Blue will be the secret to her big break.
But when Haylie goes missing on Halloween, Lissa, Adam, and the monster must venture Down Below to stage a rescue—and face the real Monsterville, which is anything but a game.
Monsterville is a fusion of The Boxtrolls, Jumanji, and Candyland, weaving together friendship, family, and monsters into a funny fantasy-horror brimming with heart from a great new middle grade voice.

(368 pages)

Wow. This was . . . very different from what I was expecting it to be. In the best possible sort of way! I'm really regretting not reading it around Halloween time because it would have been gotten me into the perfect spooky mood. It's definitely got a very high creep factor in it, but not in an over-the-top unpleasant sort of way.

The first thing that really made the story for me, right from the first few chapters, was Lissa's narration. She's absolutely obsessed with filmography, so half the time she describes a scene she compares it to some classic film or describes how she would film it if her life were a movie. These extra details add a very creative angle to the novel and provide many instances of picturesque imagery that we wouldn't get otherwise. Besides enjoying Lissa's narration, I also just really connected with her as a character. It's all too rare to find a main character who loves small children and is great at babysitting. For Lissa, though, acting as a "mini mother" seems to come naturally. In fact, especially toward the second half of the novel, she often behaves more like Hailey's mother than her older sister! Lissa's reaction to moving from New York to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania is also very realistic: she's mad, and grouchy, and at first refuses to admit that there might be anything good about the entire state of Pennsylvania. Honestly, that's how I usually feel when I move somewhere new. Lissa's evolution of emotions (and the reliable, yet increasingly distant, support she gets from her friends back in New York) ring true to my own moving experiences.

So basically, Lissa is exactly like me with a love for movies swapped out for my obsession with books. Good. That right there guarantees I'll enjoy at least a large part of the book. But did I love it? Yes, absolutely. I adored Adam, Lissa's next-door neighbor who allows himself to get dragged along for the ride in exchange for nothing more than the opportunity to show Lissa reasons why she shouldn't hate Pennsylvania. The cynical part of me says he's a little too perfect to be a real person, but I'm not in the mood to listen to it. He's awesome. Hailey herself is adorable, very realistic (if a tad too cooperative at times–but then, maybe my younger siblings are just wilder than most). The side characters we meet from Lissa's new and old school all ring true in the small roles that they're given.

But now for the monsters. And I have to say, this is one of the more horrific premises for a novel that I've read in a while. The further you get into the story, the worse it gets; by the time the main characters are stumbling through Down Below, facing terrible monsters in their quest to find Hailey, things are pretty hard-core. If you stop and think about the reason Hailey's been kidnapped, they're positively horrific.

At the same time, though, like I said: I really loved reading Monsterville. Maybe it's just the fact that it's a middle-grade novel, but no matter how dark things got I never felt like it was going to end in total tragedy. I'm not usually one for horror, but I actually adored Monsterville. It had just the right mixture of family (including not-dead, emotionally-invested parents!), friendship, love, and tension. It also ended on a sort-of cliffhanger, and I am definitely ready for the sequel. Someone please tell me it will be out in time for next Halloween!

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schröder, 2016

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After the death of her father, twelve-year-old Wren finds her life thrown into upheaval. And when her mother decides to pack up the car and forces Wren to leave the only home she's ever known, the family grows even more fractured. As she and her mother struggle to build a new life, Wren must confront issues with the environment, peer pressure, bullying, and most of all, the difficulty of forgiving those who don't deserve it. A quirky, emotional middle grade novel set in Michigans Upper Peninsula, Be Light Like a Bird features well-drawn, unconventional characters and explores what it means to be a family and the secrets and lies that can tear one apart.
(240 pages)

This is a fairly melancholy book, but not in an overpowering way. I was a little worried about reading Be Light Like a Bird right now, just because I'm already emotionally overextended from stressing out about college stuff, but it actually turned out to be an almost cathartic read for me. Nothing like reading about a girl with a dead dad to put things in perspective, you know?

I'm moved tons of times, so I know how hard it can be to let go of a past home and live somewhere new, but Wren's moves are like a thousand times worse than any I've ever done. She lived in one place–one house–her entire life, and suddenly she's forced to leave all of that behind and start completely from scratch! Add to that the reason for their sudden move (her father's plane crash, which didn't even leave behind a body to be buried), the fact that she didn't even have anything of her father's to remember him by, and things become extremely bleak.

Considering how horrible her experiences were, I can completely understand Wren's anger at her mother and her desperation to put down roots and be absorbed into a support system–any support system. That's why I really kind of despised her mom for most of the book. Even at the end, when we learn a little more about the reasons for her actions, I'm still not really okay with them. Wren shouldn't have had to befriend strangers just to talk about how much she missed her father.

Now that we're on the topic of Wren's new friends, though, I have to say that I really loved them for the most part. I didn't particularly like Carrie, the popular girl Wren decides to befriend as a way of fusing herself into the social hierarchy at school, but I thought the way Wren responded to Carrie's nastiness was much more mature and realistic than the ways characters in other books have handled similar situations. Theo was another slightly stereotypical character (the nerdy unpopular boy who's secretly an ideal best friend for the main character), but somehow I didn't really mind. He and Wren bond over interesting things like bird-watching and photography, and Theo–who's mother died a few years before–is as a compassionate friend who knows exactly what Wren is going through. I hope the two of them stay side-by-side for a very long time.

Honestly, though, I can't put my finger on it but I just wanted . . . more from Be Light Like a Bird. I don't mean more in the sense of having a heavier dosage of Wren's grief, because I think Schröder handled that aspect of the story beautifully, but I just mean more details. If Wren lived her entire life in that one town, why does she barely even think about it? You'd think she'd feel the loss of her old classmates, who were at least familiar even if they weren't her best friends, and that she'd spend more time comparing her old home with this new one. More than anything, though, I honestly felt like we don't get a very good description of her father. We get flashbacks and memories with him in them, but I never feel like I truly know him as a complex and nuanced human being.

To be fair, the focus of Be Light Like a Bird really isn't on Wren's father or her old town, or even on her mother. The focus is on Wren's struggle to move on from her father's death, and I think it does a great job of that. Be Light Like a Bird is a beautiful book in its own way, and I recommend it to anyone who thinks they'd like it.

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora, 2016

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For fans of Gary Schmidt and Joan Bauer, a laugh-out-loud intergenerational road trip story from acclaimed author Paul Acampora!

Since the death of his grandfather, Leo's number one chore has been to chase after his grandmother who seems to wander away from home every few days. Now, Gram's decided to roam farther than ever. And despite his misgivings, Leo's going along for the ride. With his seventeen-year-old cousin, Abbey, and an old, gassy dog named Kermit, Leo joins Gram in a big, old Buick to leave their Pennsylvania home for a cross-country road trip filled with foldout maps, family secrets, new friends, and dinosaur bones.

How to Avoid Extinction is a middle-grade comedy about death and food and family and fossils. It's about running away from home and coming back again. For Leo, it's about asking hard questions and hopefully finding some sensible answers. As if good sense has anything to do with it. Against a backdrop of America's stunning size and beauty, it's also about growing up, getting old, dreaming about immortality, and figuring out all the things we can -- and can't -- leave behind.
(208 pages)

Honestly, my gut reaction when closing the book was "man, this needed to be longer!"At barely 200 pages, there didn't seem to be much room for the story to stretch as long as it needed to go. I did really like the characters and the path that they took, but I was also yearning for more.

If I'm being completely honest, actuall, I did have a little trouble with some of the characters: namely, Leo's mother and grandmother. Mainly his mother. She's not actually around for most of the book, so it's hard to get a pin on her personality, but from the little we do get she seems like a rather unpleasant mother. I get that there were reasons for her behavior, that her life hasn't been all roses and sunshine, but she's been very closed-off and hasn't mentioned any of the major parts of her life to Leo (even the parts that include his own birth father). Leo, for his part, seems remarkably nonchalant about all the information she's hidden from him–but grows increasingly curious to find out more as the book progresses. It's a bit peculiar, really, that he hadn't wondered much before about what his gone-away dad was like.

Anyway, I'm not always the biggest fan of quirky stories: sometimes they just feel forced, like someone is trying to hard to be "meaningful" by being bizarre. I think Acampora legitimately knows how to pull off a touching and off-beat story, as he did in his debut Defining Dulcie (my review) all the way back in '06. It definitely works in How to Avoid Extinction as well, though I have to admit Extinction didn't quite connect with me on the emotional level that Dulcie did.

This is a meaningful and interesting book, full of interesting and colorful characters facing up to some pretty tough truths about life. I will admit freely that there was one scene about three-fourths in that made me sob like a baby, and I definitely came out of the book wishing it hadn't ended. I get the general vibe from the book, though, that it could have gone a little deeper. The material felt a little rushed at times, because (as I said at the beginning of this review) it honestly just felt too short. Maybe it's just a shortcoming inherent in the middle-grade genre, but I can't help but bemoan all of the amazing things Acampora could have done with the plot if he'd only taken another hundred pages to write it.

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight by Douglas Gibson, 2015

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One day, Isaac Thompson is just your average fifth grader playing the part of a porcupine in the school play. The next, he has strayed into a mysterious subterranean realm that has been lurking beneath his school Castle Elementary and launches his quest to knighthood. When Isaac's little sister Lily goes missing from their school's creepy basement, he and his best friends Max and Emma set out in search of her. Their search takes them to the Underground, where they encounter an army of spear-wielding rats, a talking human-sized bat, and a thumb-nosed prison guard. But humans who stay in the Underground too long transform into weird, unpleasant creatures and are forced to work for the horrible Elf King. Can Isaac and his crew escape the Underground before it's too late for them to ever return home?
(160 pages)

Wow. This was such a fun book. It kind of reminded me of a Rick Riordan novel, in the way that it takes everyday kids and puts them into crazy scenarios. It's also like Suzanne Collins's Gregor the Overlander books, with its fantastical underground world and societal flaws.

What I really appreciate about Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight is that, despite being part of a genre known for its repackaging of tired old adventure formulas (and despite threatening to follow those cliches during the first few chapters), it not only manages to create an original and interesting world but it also poses some thought-provoking moral questions along the way. The characters make a series of increasingly dark discoveries as the book goes along, exposing the dark side of what seemed at first like such an exciting and ideal kingdom. I don't want to go too much into exactly what those discoveries are, because the book is short enough that I'd be spoiling quite a large percentage of it for you, but suffice it to say that I really enjoyed being taken along for the ride.

Okay, though, now all of you who actually have middle schoolers are thinking that Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight is going to be too dark for your kids. I can't speak for every reader out there, but one of the things that actually impressed me with Tales of a Fifth-Grade Knight was that the author managed to pack some thought-provoking scenarios into it while still keeping the story extremely PG. The actual violence is very minimal, and the sense of danger as the kids hunt for Lily is present but never overwhelming. Tales is definitely much less violent than the Gregor the Overlander books I mentioned earlier (and less violent than some of Rick Riordan's books too, now that I think about it). I don't read a huge amount of books in this genre, so I can't tell you how it stacks up among its peers, but I at least enjoyed it. As soon as I hit "publish" on this review I'm passing it on to the best judge of all: my ten-year-old brother, a member of its actual target audience. If his opinion of the book is radically different from my own, then I'll come back here later and add his thoughts to this review.

When's the last time you read a middle-grade fantasy novel? I hadn't read one in ages, and I think I'm getting hooked again. I don't know what to read next, though–comment below with your favorites so I can check them out!

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

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Bicycle Spy by Yona Zeldis McDonough, 2016

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Marcel loves riding his bicycle, whether he's racing through the streets of his small town in France or making bread deliveries for his parents' bakery. He dreams of someday competing in the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race. But ever since Germany's occupation of France began two years ago, in 1940, the race has been canceled. Now there are soldiers everywhere, interrupting Marcel's rides with checkpoints and questioning.

Then Marcel learns two big secrets, and he realizes there are worse things about the war than a canceled race. When he later discovers that his friend's entire family is in imminent danger, Marcel knows he can help -- but it will involve taking a risky bicycle ride to pass along covert information. And when nothing ends up going according to plan, it's up to him to keep pedaling and think quickly... because his friend, her family, and his own future hang in the balance.

(208 pages)

When I requested The Bicycle Spy, I envisioned a group of kids smuggling covert information in their bike baskets, biking heroically over the border of some European country (possibly over a snow-covered mountain) to do their part in getting some Jews get away from the Nazis.

Yeah. I should have read the description a little more carefully. This is about a boy from a small town in France, whose parents are bakers and who loves to bike. He becomes good friends with the new girl who just moved to town, but soon discovers that she and her family are hiding a secret that puts them in danger from the French soldiers who are loyal to the Nazis and have taken over the countryside. There's lots of biking, to be sure, and certainly quite a bit of smuggling in bike baskets, but no border-crossing or snow-covered mountains. I don't really mind, though, because The Bicycle Spy is just about perfect all on its own.

The only reason I say "just about," rather than that it "is" perfect, is that I wish the book were longer. There were some storylines (especially those having to do with Marcel and Delphine's relationships with the other kids) that would have been interesting to see be developed more thoroughly. Considering that The Bicycle Spy is written for middle-school kids, though, I suppose I can't really hold its shortness against it. McDonough actually does an amazing job packing so much material into just 200 pages.

I thought the details about bike riding were really great. I personally haven't actually ridden a bike in over two years (ever since I injured my wrist falling off a horse–I'm a little paranoid about crashing and hurting it again), but I bet a lot of kids will be drawn to the discussions/descriptions of cycling that come up periodically. Marcel's obsession with the Tour de France, and the way he pretends to be competing in it whenever he's biking, adds a great dimension to the book. The fact that Delphine is also obsessed with biking also makes their friendship very natural–because they actually have something in common! People in books becoming best friends/falling in love when they don't even have any shared interests is a pet peeve of mine, so I was happy about how genuine Marcel's and Delphine's friendship felt.

Honestly, I think genuine is a good word for the book as a whole. All of the characters, from Marcel's parents to Delphine to the boys at school, simply seem real. They read like actual human beings, not just fictional characters. Marcel is not some wonder-child hero out of a romantic novel. He's a real kid, brave yet flawed, who wants desperately to do the right thing but is terrified that he'll make a mistake and bring destruction down on himself and the people he cares most about.

I truly enjoyed reading The Bicycle Spy. There are so many WWII books out there, and pretty much every part of the war has been explored in detail, but I don't think I'd ever read a story set in German-controlled rural France before. It was a very interesting angle, one that is particularly fitting for middle schoolers (not nearly as violent as many books set during the war). I highly recommend The Bicycle Spy to any and all who are interested in it.

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

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw, 2016

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Following the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, this is a new, very personal story to join Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan's fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden fom its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

This is a story that offers young readers insight into how children lived during the war, while also introducing them to Japanese culture. Based loosely on author Kathleen Burkinshaw’s mother’s firsthand experience surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, The Last Cherry Blossom hopes to warn readers of the immense damage nuclear war can bring, while reminding them that the “enemy” in any war is often not so different from ourselves.

(240 pages)

Okay, this is a really hard book for me to review. Why? Because it's tragic. Spoiler alert: people die. Because it's Hiroshima in 1945, and very bad things happened in that time and place. Things that are truly unspeakable, and which–after actually reading about–I really don't feel up to discussing.

Luckily for both my reviewing struggles and my mental sanity, the attack doesn't happen until about 3/4 of the way through the book. That leaves approximately 170 pages for me to analyze, which are also extremely challenging. How do I provide any sort of a coherent review of a book focused so entirely on a culture I know nothing about?

Because seriously, if this book were set in America–and didn't have an atomic bomb in it–it would be pretty screwy. I've read very few characters like Yuriko: she's curious and opinionated on one hand, but completely submissive and blindly devoted to her father on the other. There are some major bombshells dropped–oh my gosh, can't believe I just tried to use bombing as a metaphor to talk about The Last Cherry Blossom. No, there are some big reveals that take place later in the novel, some really life-shattering reveals that should rock Yuriko. And they do, sort of, for like two chapters. But then they never turn out to be very important, and I just generally get the feeling that they were kind of stray plotlines. All they really accomplished was to drive home just how foreign and patriarchal Japanese society was at the time. Because seriously: Yuriko is expected to just swing with things. And she is so used to conforming to the expectations of the people around her that she buries her emotions deep down and never actually confronts anyone about the (either terribly heartless or magnificently kind, depending on how you look at it) choices that they made and then never told her about.

Gah, I wish I could go into more detail on this but I can't! Anyway, The Last Cherry Blossom is not set in America. It's set in WWII-era Japan, and the novel provides a (presumably accurate, though I'd have no idea if it weren't) glimpse into the intimate everyday life in Japan during the war. I caught some fascinating parallels in this story to books I've read about life on the American homefront (especially in the descriptions of people gathering scraps of metal to give to the government). I also thought it was very cool, just in general since I haven't read any other books set in Japan, to get such a vivid depiction of Japan's rich cultural traditions. There are descriptions of a wedding, several holidays, a feast or two, a soldier sending-off, and–later–funeral rites. Added together with Yuriko's deeply ingrained sense of proper behavior (including not showing emotion in public–like, ever–and never arguing with her elders), this creates a vivid depiction of Japanese culture in the 1940s.

I could go on talking about The Last Cherry Blossom forever, chewing it over, analyzing all the new insights on history that I've gained from it, occasionally complaining about the random leaps forward in time that skipped details I wanted to learn more about. I think I'll stop now, though, just to keep this review at a reasonable length. I definitely recommend The Last Cherry Blossom, if for no other reason than that it is literally the only book I know of that brings readers into the hearts and minds of the nation of Japan. So often in WWII books we only see the brutality of Japanese military actions. I think it's really important that we have books like The Last Cherry Blossom that widen our perspective, showing us how people during wartime can't always be sorted into just "the good guys and the evil enemy." We need more books that show how the themes of heartbreak and sorrow are woven into the narratives of both sides of any war. We need to be shown that people don't have to be on the right side of a war to feel pain when their loved ones die. The Last Cherry Blossom accomplishes this beautifully, and I truly respect and admire Burkinshaw for writing it.

Do you know of any other books written from a Japanese perspective during WWII? If so, post the title in the comments section below so I can check them out!

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

Monday, October 24, 2016

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso, 2016

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Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people.

But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud—even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high?

(256 pages)

I never really thought of drums as a guys-only instrument. Maybe that's because the only other character I've ever read about who plays the drums is Amanda in Wendy Mass's amazing Willow Falls series. It never really occurred to me that Amanda was doing something unusual by playing the drums, and I still don't really think she was. So in the first few chapters, when Sam kept thinking about how unusual she was for being a girl who played drums and about how offbeat her passion for music was, I was a little puzzled.

Luckily, the entire book doesn't consist of Grosso creating a faux-gender roles situation and then overcoming it. Instead, the book quickly moves to becoming a story about one girl's desperation to do the one thing that makes her happy. Sam goes through a huge amount of work to get her drum lessons, you've got to admire her devotion to drumming. I loved the character of her drum teacher (whom I can't name for fear of spoilers!)–he/she had just the right amount of passion, kindness, and grumpiness to make a realistic yet lovable mentor. As for Sam's parents . . . yeah. I don't really want to talk about them, because her father is so unkind to her that I can't stand him.

Though, now that I think about it, Sam could have pushed her parents a little harder on the drum issue before sneaking around behind their backs. As far as I can tell, she asked her father a grand total of two times (both when she could already tell he was in a bad mood), and immediately wilted when he snapped at her. Plus, why was it always her father that she asked? Considering the fact that Sam's mom was the one really bringing in a paycheck, you'd think she'd be the one getting the final say over whether her daughter could pursue a new hobby. For the majority of the book, she has a very wallflower-like presence in Sam's life. It's never specifically stated in these terms, but I think Sam's dad is sexist. This could also explain why it was so firmly ingrained into her head that playing the drums was a masculine activity (and thus not something she was really supposed to enjoy)–her dad could have put some weird ideas about gender roles into her head.

That's my two cents, anyway. I did enjoy I Am Drums, even though I wanted to smack almost every main character at least once. It's an interesting novel, full of a variety of important themes. I don't know that it is very memorable, though–a year from now, it will probably have faded into my memory, woven in with all the other books I've read which feature misunderstood pre-adolescent girls with special abilities and unhappy parents. I enjoyed it while it lasted, though, and you could too. If you've read I Am Drums, comment below to let us know what you thought of it!

Disclaimer: I won a complimentary ARC of this novel, which was provided by the author, in a giveaway on Tweens Read Too.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Our Man in Charleston by Christopher Dickey, 2015

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Between the Confederacy and recognition by Great Britain stood one unlikely Englishman who hated the slave trade. His actions helped determine the fate of a nation.
As the United States threatened to break into civil war, the Southern states found themselves in an impossible position: Their economic survival would require reopening the slave trade, banned in America since 1807, but the future of the Confederacy could not be secured without official recognition from Great Britain, which would never countenance such a move. How, then, could the first be achieved without dooming the possibility of the second? Believing their cotton monopoly would provide sufficient leverage, the Southerners publically declared the slave trade dead, even as rapacious traders quickly landed more and more ships on the American coast.
The unlikely man at the roiling center of this intrigue was Robert Bunch, the ambitious young British consul in Charleston, S.C. As he soured on the self-righteousness of his slave-loving neighbors, Bunch used his unique perch to thwart their plans, sending reams of damning dispatches to the Foreign Office in London and eventually becoming the Crown's best secret source on the Confederacy—even as he convinced those neighbors that he was one of them.
In this masterfully told story, Christopher Dickey introduces Consul Bunch as a key figure in the pitched battle between those who wished to reopen the floodgates of bondage and misery, and those who wished to dam the tide forever. Featuring a remarkable cast of diplomats, journalists, senators, and spies,
Our Man in Charleston captures the intricate, intense relationship between great powers as one stood on the brink of war.
(400 pages)

I actually read this over the summer, but I was just so busy working on applications and starting my classes that I couldn't find time to review it. Then I got a bunch more books to review, with actual deadlines staring me in the face, that kept distracting me from doing Our Man in Charleston. I'm finally getting more organized now–I put all the books I have for review into a calendar, and I force myself to methodically go through and read/review them in that order–and it's made me actually efficient at something for once, so now I'm reviewing Our Man in Charleston.

And honestly, I loved it. Every single word. This is the sort of historical nonfiction I adore, full of character studies and firsthand quotes and vivid descriptions that make it feel like a fictional novel. Books like Our Man in Charleston (and The Family Romanov, and A Night to Remember) are so amazing, because they really make the events they describe feel real. When I put down Our Man in Charleston, I not only finally understood the American Civil War (the motives, the conflict, the nature of the fighting), but I also saw how it fit into a grander global context. Before reading this, I had no idea that the rest of the world was even watching the Civil War, let alone how close Britain came to coming into it on the side of the South.

It's a horrible book at times, though. Bunch lived in Charleston, the heart of Southern rebellion, and some of the stories he tells about the way Southerners treated their slaves are absolutely sickening. Also, one of the biggest conflicts that sprung up between the North and the South, and one of the most hotly debated ones inside the South, was the question of whether or not America should reopen the slave trade with Africa. I kid you not, there was a shortage of slave labor and the most common Southern reaction was "okay, let's just go capture fresh Africans and ship them here. That will solve all of our problems!" I just . . . can't even think of anything to say about that. It takes a special kind of evil to think like that.

I don't know what else to say, besides read this! If you're at all confused by the forces behind the Civil War, read it. If you're a Civil War geek looking for an intimate, international angle, read it. If you're still trying to argue that the war had nothing to do with slavery and was really just about the right to secede, then please read it–and I dare you to come out the other side still talking about the "War of Northern Aggression."

I don't usually quote specific lines from the books I review, but I'll do it just this once because there's a quote I want to end with that perfectly encapsulate's South Carolina's attitude at the onset of the Civil War:
"Other nations, especially those enlightened and more old-fashioned in their notions, rebel, fight, and die for Liberty," wrote Bunch, while South Carolina "is prepared to do the same for slavery."
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.