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. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sherlock Mars by Jackie Kingon, 2016

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A riotous concoction: fine dining, virtual reality, and murder.
Molly Marbles runs a successful bistro on terraformed Mars. But a virtual restaurant opens near her place, offering the experience of delicacies from across the Solar System with none of the calories. What will this do to her business?
Then its owner is murdered in her kitchen. Molly, an amateur detective, springs into action to help the police solve the mystery, while also planning her pop-star daughter's wedding, keeping her kitchen staff from feuding, and protecting her cyborg friend from the humans-only mob. Meanwhile, the infamous Cereal Serial Killer has escaped prison on Pluto and has everyone worried. Things are getting hectic, but Molly is a resilient and resourceful woman. And her knack for mysteries sees her nick-named 'Sherlock Mars'.
A rollicking science fiction, mystery, comedy.

(266 pages)

Sherlock Mars is a really hard book to describe because it's so many things at once. Sure, it's a "science fiction, mystery, comedy" as the synopsis describes it. But there's much more to it than that. It's a futuristic envisionment of what will happen to the universe when human technology catches up with our addiction to colonization; it's also a philosophical take on the extent to which technology will replace lost body parts, and about the hateful prejudice/political turmoil that always springs up when the majority party feels threatened by the growth of a powerful minority–in this case, the development of androids who not only have electronic bodies but have also been given some huge functionality enhancements from their "natural" states. It's a really interesting scenario, watching the horrible hate that springs up between androids and the anti-enhancements groups. I can see both sides of the debate: androids are still human beings, and they shouldn't be discriminated against, but all the upgrades they get aren't exactly fair. It's one thing to save someone's life by giving them a new body, but it's another to give them software that provides them with unfair physical and mental advantages over non-enhanced humans, you know? That's just my take on things, though–and, taking a step back from things, I do feel slightly ridiculous getting into a political argument about androids of all things. It's a fascinating topic, though, and I honestly would have loved if the whole book had revolved around it.

Actually, the biggest trouble I had with Sherlock Mars was that there were just too many interesting storylines floating around. There are way too many characters, most of whom walk onto the page just a handful of times but who the reader is expected to recognize after the first time they show up. There were several times throughout the book when Molly would start talking to someone, and I would have to sit back and wrack my brains for a minute to figure out who they were. This also made it harder for me to recognize the important people (like suspects for the murder), because I'm too busy trying to keep straight all the myriad of people who work at Molly's bistro. Honestly, I suspect that Kingon was more fascinated by the futuristic world and culture that she had created than with the storyline herself; a few times, it definitely felt like she was just using the plot as an excuse for having Molly explore different parts of this world. Not that I'm complaining, though, because it was really fascinating to read about it (and Nirgal Palace, the resort where Molly's daughter is getting married, is absolutely amazing!).

Before I end, I should probably throw in a few negatives. First, I didn't like Molly's family–like, at all. Her daughters were prejudiced prima donas who only showed up to demand help for Becky's wedding or to groan and make rude faces whenever Molly mentioned her friend Trenton–just, as far as I can tell, because they didn't like associating with androids. Plus, Becky's future in-laws run with an extremely anti-android crowd (we're talking anti-android-rights protests). The other main negative is more of a content warning than anything: this is an adult book, not MG or YA, and it shows. Most of the content is fine, but once in a while the characters (who are all married) bring up questions/comments (never detailed) about having sex. Also, though it's never addressed in too much detail, one character is trans. These things barely hurt my enjoyment of the book, but I wanted to bring them up in case they'd affect your decision to read it.

This is getting incredibly long, so I'm going to stop. If you're interested in Sherlock Mars, then give it a try. I'm not going to scream "read it!" from the rooftops–I liked it, but the characters/pacing were a little strange, and as a rule of thumb I don't recommend adult books with racy comments/content–but I did enjoy Sherlock Mars. It made for a nice, silly (but still thought-provoking) break from my normal MG historical fiction and fantasy fare.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My mom's also old school friends with the company's founder (which is how he knew me to send it in the first place), but I tried not to let that influence my review too much.

Monday, October 10, 2016

In Case You Missed It by Sara Darer Littman, 2016

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Sammy Wallach has epic plans for the end of junior year over: Sneak out to the city to see her favorite band. Get crush-worthy Jamie Moss to ask her to prom. Rock all exams (APs and driver's).
With a few white lies, some killer flirting, and tons of practice, Sammy's got things covered. That is, until the bank her dad works for is attacked by hacktivists who manage to steal everything in the Wallach family's private cloud, including Sammy's entire digital life. Literally the whole world has access to her emails, texts, photos, and, worst of all, journal.
Life. Is. Over.
Now Sammy's best friends are furious about things she wrote, Jamie thinks she's desperate, and she can barely show her face at school. Plus, her parents know all the rules she broke. But Sammy's not the only one with secrets -- her family has a few of its own that could change everything. And while the truth might set you free, no one said it was going to be painless. Or in Sammy's case, private.

(320 pages)

The first thing that struck me about Sammy Wallach was that she's really similar to me in a lot of ways. She's a junior; I'm a senior. She's taking four AP exams; I just took four AP exams, and am going to do it again next year. She's training for her driver's test; I'm training for mine (and bonus: my mother used to be every bit as anxious a passenger as hers is). As the story continued, more similarities emerged–we've both never dated, we both live a huge portion of our lives online, we both–well, actually, that would be veering into spoiler territory.

The second big realization I had about Sammy, though, was that while we share a lot of lifestyle habits and pressures, we are two extremely different people. I would never, ever sneak out to a concert - especially not by lying to my parents about going to an AP study sleepover. I would also never calculate my exact odds of being asked out by my crush. With those two actions out of the way, I think the impact of having my information leaked online would be a lot less emotionally devastating than it was for Sammy. I don't know, though, I suppose there are probably embarrassing things about me in my files. You never truly understand how terrible something would be until you're dealing with it yourself.

The fact remains, though, that I had a hard time really feeling as sympathetic about Sammy's situation as I was probably expected to. The truth is that I've been in her shoes–or at least, shoes very similar to hers. I can understand the pressures Sammy was dealing with before the leak, because they're the same pressures that I deal with every day. Heck, I'm a senior–my life is pressure, more pressure than she faces (before the leak, of course). But when I'm upset, I don't lie to my parents or sneak out to forbidden concerts (or even write nasty things in an online diary). Instead, I lie in bed and watch tv. I read a novel. I put my thoughts in order, and review a book that's been poking at my conscience for a while. It's hard for me to get past Sammy's actions, because I just can't stand the way she used the "I'm a good, overworked and stressed out kid" line. That excuse just doesn't hold water with me.

I think there's some character growth by the end of the book, though. Sammy still isn't my favorite character ever, but life throws her some major curveballs that both teach her to put life in perspective and make her more sympathetic to read about. Also, the romance subplot is really, really sweet! I hope I get to date a guy like that someday.

Anyway, I'm not going to recommend In Case You Missed it as the best book ever. It's pretty good as entertainment, though, and raises some interesting issues about innate racism and sexism in the job market (even if it does choose about two examples of each and return to them ad nauseum). I enjoyed it pretty well, though  not as much as I'd hoped I would. If you've read it, what did you think? Would you recommend it to others?

And also, on a completely unrelated note, since when do we say that someone is "a racist" instead of that they're "racist?" Is that some sort of new phrasing I've just been really ignorant about? Because Sammy and her friends are always saying things like "I'm not a racist," "you could be a racist," "she's a racist," etc. It caught me pretty off-guard.

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited copy of this novel for review from the publisher.

Friday, October 7, 2016

NKJV Study Bible from Thomas Nelson, 2016

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The NKJV Study Bible, the most comprehensive study Bible available, now available in a handy personal size with words of Christ in red! The acclaimed NKJV Study Bible is the most complete study system for all who desire accurate study in God’s Word. The Second Edition includes more features to make it the best all-purpose study Bible. Using the trusted New King James Version, The NKJV Study Bible has “the mind of a scholar and the heart of a pastor.” Nelson's skilled team of scholars has produced the system to reach for when study in God’s Word is the goal.
Features include: • NEW attractive new full-color page design • NEW stunning Bible-land photos and graphics • NEW in-text maps and charts • Full cross-references with textual notes • Word studies and indexes • Bible Times and Culture Notes • Book introductions, outlines, and timelines • Reader-friendly notes and articles ideal for extended study • Deluxe NKJV Concordance including proper names
Part of the Signature Series line of Thomas Nelson Bibles
NKJV Study Bibles sold to date: More than 1.3 million
The New King James Version®—More than 60 million copies sold

(2400 pages)

From time to time, I see a Bible available for review on BookLook Bloggers. Normally this isn't a big issue for me, because I only get two credits for requesting at a time so I don't feel the slightest desire to spend one on a Bible (especially since I already have about six here at home!). A few months ago, though, the options were particularly slim–all the good books had already been snapped up for the month–and I had a credit to burn. I figured, why not? I'll request a Bible! I'd already learned that I didn't like ugly hardback Bibles, so I went with this nice-looking paperback one. And by paperback, I thought it meant that the picture was just the box it came in and then the Bible itself would be leatherbound.

I guess I need to read the fine print more closely. Because when they say paperback, they mean paperback. And that ugly picture you see up there? Yeah, that's literally what's printed on the outside of the Bible. Yuck. Also, this thing is shaped like a brick. It's got about the same proportions as one, too–very short, squat, and heavy. Not attractive at all.

Honestly, I can't really get over this Bible's outward ugliness. I've barely been able to make myself use it at all. Flipping through it, though, the font seems like a reasonable size (though it might be a tad small if you have vision problems). The text itself fills about two-thirds of the page, and the bottom third is made up of notes on the text. I also see a variety of maps, tables, cultural notes, etc. scattered throughout the entire Bible, and detailed introductions at the beginning of each book. The maps and pictures featured in the introductions are all done in full color, which is–ironically enough, looking at the cover–pretty aesthetically pleasing.

I don't know, I like my books to be attractive on the outside. I like to pick them up, stroke them in appreciation for a minute, and then open them up. There's no attractiveness to this one, so I know I won't be motivated to use it any time soon. I'd much rather study from my pretty pink leather-bound Bible! The biggest perk of this particular study Bible, though, is that it's only thirty dollars. I suppose, if I actually had to pay for a new Bible, that would be a pretty huge note in its favor.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this Bible from the publisher through the BookLook Program.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Dive! by Deborah Hopkinson, 2016

Welcome to the eleventh stop on the Dive! blog tour! My task today is to review Dive!, so let's jump straight into it.


Dive! World War II Stories of Sailors & Submarines in the Pacific tells the incredible story of America's little known "war within a war" -- US submarine warfare during World War II.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US entered World War II in December 1941 with only 44 Naval submarines -- many of them dating from the 1920s. With the Pacific battleship fleet decimated after Pearl Harbor, it was up to the feisty and heroic sailors aboard the US submarines to stop the Japanese invasion across the Pacific.
Using first-person accounts, archival materials, official Naval documents, and photographs, award-winning author Deborah Hopkinson brings the voices and exploits of these brave men to life.
(384 pages)

This is a really hard book to review.

I can't analyze the characters, or question the plot, or take note of the writing style. I can't do any of that because this isn't a fictional novel. Everything in Dive! is true, which makes it a thousand times harder for me to critique.

Did I enjoy reading it? Sort of. It is a book about submariners in WWII, you know. So many people died in the war–and the casualty rates for men serving aboard submarines was way higher than for those in any other service. It's really depressing to read about all these men on board the ships, living their strange claustrophobic lives deep under water and fighting to protect the country they loved. About half of the book is actual firsthand quotes from submariners; the tragedy is that the book features accounts from so few men. There were several times when I went "ooh, why don't we have a firsthand account from XYZ's point of view?" But then a chapter or two later Hopkinson would say "on its next patrol, his submarine was sunk and everyone aboard died." That really put a downer on, well, everything.

Dive! was a very good book, though. Amazing, really, from a historical perspective. As I said before, the text is about half made up of direct quotes from men who actually served in the submarines and lived through the events that made history. The other half of the text, then, is Hopkinson's own descriptions of people and events that couldn't be described firsthand. Interspersed throughout the regular narrative are also inserts ranging in length from a single paragraph to two-page entries, discussing everything from the way attack strategies changed after Pearl Harbor to opportunities for African American submariners during the war to a detailed description of the logistics involved in having an ice cream maker installed aboard the USS Trigger. There's also a plethora of black-and-white pictures, which are absolutely breathtaking to look at. The images are both fascinating and horrible, full of grinning captains, relaxing submariners, sinking ships, and slim metal ships. Fascinating, because we get such an intimate look at what life was like for the submariners; horrible, because we find out over the course of the book that oh-so-many of those grinning young men died in the very metal ships in which they were photographed.

The narrative focuses on military tactics, but it also dives (pun intended!) into all the various other ways submarines were used during the war. My favorite side topics were refugees (there's a fascinating chapter about Lucy Wilson, a nurse evacuated from Corregidor) and pets (so many adorable dogs were adopted by the crews of the different ships!).  Scattered throughout the book are tips for researching deeper into specific topics, links to sites and museums connected to submarines, etc. The end of each "part"–a part being one year of the war–there's a handy timeline that lists out all the main events that happened in the year that has just been covered. In the end section there's also a plethora of resources that includes a list of all the submarines lost throughout the war, a "Facts and Figures" sheet, a roster of all the people (and animals) discussed throughout the book, a diagram of a submarine, a list of the most successful submarines, a glossary, extra resource links . . . yikes, my fingers are getting tired just listing these all out! Let's see, almost done: a (very robust) bibliography, about eighteen pages of source notes (like I said, there were a lot of firsthand quotes in this book!), and an index.

Whew. As you can probably tell, this book is designed to be the perfect starting point for studying all things submarine. And as you can probably also tell, it succeeds with flying colors. Dive! is an amazing resource, full of everything I could have ever wanted to know about submarines during WWII and then some. For those who want more, it's also packed full of advice and resources for doing so. In my book, that earns it an extra gold star. This is a serious research book, but it's still completely approachable as a middle grade read–and, in the midst of some pretty horrible stuff, it still managed to be downright hilarious from time to time. All in all, it's an amazing read and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it. If you're interested at all in WWII submarines, then you absolutely need to check it out!

About the Author:
Deborah Hopkinson is as award-winning of picture books, fiction, and nonfiction for young readers. In 2013 she received a Robert F. Sibert Honor and YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award honor for Titanic: Voices from the Disaster.
She has won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text twice, for A Band of Angels and Apples to Oregon. Sky Boys, How They Built the Empire State Building, was a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor awardee. She lives near Portland, Oregon.
The Great Trouble, A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel won the OCTE Oregon Spirit Award and was named a Best Book of 2013 by School Library Journal and an Oregon Book Award finalist.
Visit her on the web at and follow her on Twitter at @deborahopkinson.


Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for appearing! For other stops on the Dive Blog Tourplease check

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel so I could participate in the blog tour.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Chasing at the Surface by Sharon Mentyka, 2016

Welcome to the fourth stop on the Chasing at the Surface blog tour! My task today is to review Chasing at the Surface, so let's jump straight into it.


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on Goodreads 
Sometimes finding your way home takes more than courage. It takes a leap of faith.
After her mother unexpectedly leaves home, twelve-year old Marisa struggles with her feelings of loss and abandonment just as a pod of nineteen orca whales - mothers with their new calves following a run of chum salmon - become trapped in the enclosed inlet near her Northwest home. Marisa's journey to help the whales find their way home brings her to a new understanding of the assaults humans have had on nature, and the complicated meaning of family and home.
228 pages)

I actually wound up loving this book way more than I thought I would.

It's not like I expected to hate Chasing the Surface, of course. If I didn't think it was any good, I wouldn't have agreed to join the blog tour for its release in the first place. But while I was interested in reading Chasing at the Surface (hey, I'll read practically anything you hand me if it has a sea mammal on the cover!), I wasn't sure whether there would be a hippy-ish vibe to the whole "relationship between humans and nature" aspect advertised in the description.

Well, that definitely didn't happen. Chasing at the Surface is a really good book, full of deep storylines about family, relationships, loyalty, and what it means to truly dive beneath the surface of a situation. Many things Marisa (and the reader, for that matter) takes for granted at the beginning of the book wind up being turned on their heads by the end. I was especially surprised by the reason Marisa's mother left, because I hadn't seen that coming at all. In a slightly different vein, I also really enjoyed seeing how Mentyka incorporated Native American culture into the story. I don't know anything about west-coast Native American presence (considering the fact that I've only even been to California for three days in my entire life), but it seems from Chasing at the Surface that they're pretty active in Washington state. It adds a really meaningful dimension when they begin trying to help the whales get out of the inlet–for, as Marisa observes, "The Suquamish people have lived here . . . for thousands of years. . . . If the Tribe is worried enough about the whales to schedule a blessing ceremony, maybe we should all start paying closer attention."

Oh, and speaking of the whales: I really loved reading about them. I know next to nothing about the sea mammals, but they seem truly amazing. Reading about Marisa's close encounters with them makes me pretty jealous, actually. When I went whale-watching, I spent a full half-day huddled up on a boat (in freezing Maine!) and saw nothing more than the edge of a tail flitting out of the water in that entire time. Marisa got to see the orcas swimming, and breaching, and eating, and communicating!

Okay, wait, I just remembered that the whole reason Marisa had the opportunity to get that close in the first place was because the wales were trapped in the inlet. So yeah, that wasn't so great. And it was really despicable, actually, reading about how horribly the tourists took advantage of the whales just so they could satisfy their own curiosity. I can understand wanting to get close to the whales, but not being willing to sacrifice the animals' health in pursuit of that dream.

I sense that if I keep going in this vein I'll wind up on an animal rights rant (how could I not after googling the real-life Penn Cove orca capture Marisa learns about in the book?!), but I'm going to purposefully divert that conversation for another time and focus on talking about Chasing at the Surface itself. I mentioned many of the positives–deep storyline, intriguing themes, a fascinating storyline about trapped orcas–but  I should probably talk briefly about the negatives as well. The only main one I really have has to do with Marisa's mom. I get that she had to go, that she needed to straighten certain things out, but I am definitely not okay with the way she dumped her own husband and daughter to do that. It just about broke Marisa's heart, struggling to cope with her mother's inexplicable abandonment. That wasn't fair. A mother is meant to be there for her children. She doesn't get to just decide she's going to up and leave, that her own secret problems are more important than the emotional wellbeing of her adolescent daughter. There's a certain bond of trust that's been broken between them, and I doubt–no matter what she does next–that it will be restored any.

My issues with Marisa's mom aside, though, I really loved reading Chasing at the Surface. The rest of the characters are all drawn realistically (even the relatively minor ones!), and the plot is very gripping. I was rooting so hard for the orcas to make it out of the inlet, and . . . well, I think you'll have to read it for yourself if you want to know what happens. Suffice it to say, though, that I really enjoyed Chasing at the Surface. I hope you will, too!

About the Author:
Sharon Mentyka is a children's writer and teacher with an MFA from the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Her stories and essays for both children and adults have appeared in numerous literary magazines. "B in the World," an illustrated chapter book for children ages four to seven about a gender nonconforming child, was published in 2014. "Chasing at the Surface," her debut novel for middle grade readers, was inspired by an actual event that occurred in Dyes Inlet, Washington.


Thanks again to Sharon Mentyka for appearing! For other stops on the Chasing Blog Tour, please check

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author so I could participate in this blog tour.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Interference by Kay Honeyman, 2016

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on Goodreads 
Friday Night Lights meets Jane Austen's Emma in this wonderful novel about a big election, big games, the big state of Texas, and a little romance.
As a Congressman's daughter in Washington, DC, Kate Hamilton is good at getting what she wants -- what some people might call "interfering." But when her family moves to West Texas so her dad can run in a special election, Kate encounters some difficulties that test all her political skills. None of her matchmaking efforts go according to plan. Her father's campaign gets off to a rough start. A pro tip for moving to Texas: Don't slam the star quarterback's hand in a door. And whenever Kate messes up, the irritatingly right (and handsome) Hunter Price is there to witness it. But Kate has determination and a good heart, and with all her political savvy -- and a little clever interference -- she'll figure out what it takes to make Red Dirt home.
Terrifically funny and sweetly romantic, with whip-crack dialogue and a wise perspective on growing up, Interference is the perfect next read for fans of Jenny Han, Huntley Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth Eulberg, or Sarah Dessen.

(352 pages)

Last year in AP English, I wrote a huge paper on themes of education in Jane Austen's Emma for a scholarship competition. I analyzed the novel, dissected the motives of all the various characters, and described how they related to each other through their various relationships to education. In the process of writing this paper, I took a book I'd already read multiple times and cemented every exquisite detail of its plot and characters into my brain for posterity.

That's why I quickly deduced that Interference is not just like Emma (as the description implies) but that it must actually be based on it.

What other explanation can there be when there are so similarities between the two books? Sure, on the surface they're very different - one's about a self-absorbed socialite who entertains herself by playing matchmaker and the other's about a disheartened politician's daughter who puts a "spin" on things to help people get what they want - but under the surface they're deliciously similar. I won't go into exactly how, because that would ruin many of the plot points in Interference, but if you've ever read Emma then it will be hard not to spot at least some of the parallels between the two books.

Interference is definitely its own story, though - and I love it for it. Who wants to read a book that's just a complete knock-off of a different book, even if the first book is one of the best novels on the planet? Honeyman brings so many new elements to the table that Influence stands wonderfully on its own two feet. I love Kate, who's simultaneously clever/confident and oblivious/insecure. I realize those are opposite descriptions, but somehow it's true: she is confident in her abilities to smooth her way through life with people, but also oblivious to the intricacies of the completely new culture she's been thrown into and insecure about her place in her family as her father drops her altogether from his campaign. I usually dislike main characters who are slick people-readers, because they get annoying and too full of themselves; that's so not Kate, and it's great to watch her stumble around figuring out what to do with herself.

The other characters are great, too. Hunter (*cough*Mr. Knightley*cough*) is particularly fun to read about. Kate's family is staying with her aunt, who runs an animal shelter of sorts; Kate helps out with the animals to get extra credit hours so she can beat out her cheating ex in competition for a hard-to-get college recommendation letter, and in doing so she's forced to work alongside Hunter. They're also paired up in science class, so they basically spend almost all of their time together. It's sweet seeing how Kate grows to trust Hunter, how he acts as her safety net over and over again, even though they're fighting almost constantly (usually about Kate's latest well-meaning but terrible plots to make people's lives better). Then there's Ana, a social outcast (ostracized after her ex spread dirty rumors about her) whom Kate meets in yearbook and quickly adopts as her best friend. Both Kate and Ana love photography (and I mean, like, professionally love it), and Kate learns a lot about how to find the soul in pictures by watching Ana at work. There's also Kyle, star football player and son of the man who's running against Kate's father. Kyle's a complicated character, he really is, and I loved how he was never put into a stereotypical box (even when there were several he could have very easily fallen into).

I could go on and on about the various characters and all of the different storylines (which include Kate's search for "soulful" pictures to put in her college application portfolio, the drama surrounding the local football team's run in the playoffs, and her father's campaign, which was actually really interesting in and of itself), but I might as well stop here or no one is actually going to read this whole review. I initially went into Interference expecting a fluffy, meaningless romance, but I wound up instead with a deep novel about authenticity, love, friendship, and - above all - digging past the mask and finding out who you really are. It truly is a wonderful book, and I'm so glad I got the chance to read it. I am most definitely holding on to my copy and rereading it in the future; in fact, after spending all this time thinking about it while I wrote the review I think I need to revisit it right now. Excuse me while I go do that . . .

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