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.