Monday, December 11, 2017

Taking a Short Break Until the New Year

Hello, everyone! This is just a quick note to let you know that I will be taking a short break from posting reviews until the January. I am taking a few weeks off to study for and take my college exams and celebrate the holidays. I'll be right back on Monday the 1st of January to start up my regular schedule of Monday and Friday book reviews. In the meantime, I hope you have a great end of the year. Happy holidays!

Unschooled by Allan Woodrow, 2017

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This year's fifth graders are the worst Principal Klein has ever seen. But he's hoping that Spirit Week can teach them teamwork, with a top secret prize for the winning team as incentive.
Best friends George and Lilly have been looking forward to Spirit Week all year. They might be complete opposites, but they can't wait to be on the winning team together. When their classes end up rivals, with Lilly leading Team Red and George leading Team Blue, the friends swear they can compete and remain best friends.
But suddenly there are slimed lockers, sabotaged costumes, and class pets held hostage. As the pranks escalate, it threatens everything, including the prize. Because if Principal Klein finds out, Spirit Week will be cancelled and the students will spend the rest of the year in detention.
Can George and Lilly find a way to fix their friendship and get the entire fifth grade to play fair, or is the most awesome week of fifth grade about to make this the worst school year ever?

(288 pages)

I reviewed the prequel to this book, Class Dismissed, about a year ago. I thought it was okay, pretty funny, but kind of forgettable. I did indeed basically forget about it after a while, so I had no idea another book was coming out this year.

I didn't, at least, until Unschooled showed up on my doorstep one day unannounced. I think my younger siblings, frankly, were more excited about it than I was (they had also appreciated Class Dismissed more than I did), so I read it quickly and immediately passed it on to my little brother. And I have to say, I actually liked Unschooled better than Class Dismissed.

It seemed a little more mature to me, and a lot more interesting. The premise of competing teams in school reminded me a little bit of the wonderful No Talking by Andrew Clements, and the split between best friends George and Lilly made for compelling friction. Things quickly spiralled completely out of control between the teams, and the best friends, and it was interesting to see how it happened fairly realistically and how the team leaders continued to be held responsible for things that were not really their fault. I did find it a little unrealistic that the adults put so much responsibility on the shoulders of these fifth graders, but it's all good because I like reading about what they do with it.

Honestly, Unschooled is an engaging, well-paced read with interesting main characters and good levels of tension. I enjoyed it quite a bit as a fun, rather fluffy, read; I suspect that kids in the target audience will love it even more than I did.

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

Eden Summer by Liz Flanagan, 2017

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It starts like any other day for Jess. Get up, draw on eyeliner, cover up tattoos, and head to school. But soon it's clear that this is no ordinary day, because Jess's best friend, Eden, isn't at school . . . she's gone missing.

Jess knows she must do everything in her power to find Eden. Before the unthinkable happens.

So Jess decides to retrace the life-changing summer she and Eden have just spent together. But looking back means digging up all their buried secrets, and she soon begins to question everything she thought the summer had been about, and everything she thought she knew about her best friend . . .

(288 pages)

Eden Summer isn't really a book I ever would have picked up on my own–too YA for my tastes–but I was still intrigued when a copy of it showed up on my doorstep a few weeks back. I love murder mysteries, so I hoped the search for Eden would involve lots of character analyses and shocking plot twists.

Well, I was right about the first part at least. There isn't much action in the book, mainly just characters wandering around and talking/remembering, but we definitely get to know the main characters very well. I quickly came to realize that I have very little in common with Jess and Eden, both of whom are very emotionally scarred and who make some very questionable lifestyle choices. Jess lives with her mother, who decided late in life that she was actually lesbian, and is struggling to deal with her own trauma-related demons while simultaneously hunting frantically for Eden. We get to know Eden quite well through flashbacks throughout the book, learning all about the anguish she feels after her older sister died in a tragic car accident. As for the third main character, Liam, we know less about him. We mainly just know that he's Eden's boyfriend and that he and Jess have been trying to support and shelter Eden throughout the summer.

It's hard to describe why, but I just didn't really like the characters very much. I feel sorry for both Eden and Jess for their prospective traumas, yes, but I also really hate the way Eden treated her sister in the month or so before the accident. And I love that Jess is so supportive of Eden after her sister's death, but I also can't accept the action she and *ahem* someone else did shortly before Eden's disappearance. It's simply unacceptable.

Also, a content warning: the language in Eden Summer is pretty awful. There are a lot of swear words scattered throughout it, including several uses of the f-word and "hell" as a swear and also some derogatory references to Jess's lesbian mother.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, I never would have picked up Eden Summer on my own. I think I'm glad that the opportunity to read it was dropped into my lap, because it's good for me to shake up my reading habits once in a while, but I am ready to set it back down and move on to something more my usual speed.

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in order to provide an honest review.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Just Sayin' by Dandi Daley Mackall, 2017

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Just Sayin' tells the story of an almost-blended family that almost falls apart before it even begins. 11 year-old Cassie Callahan is staying with her grandmother while her mom, Jennifer, recovers from a difficult breakup from her fiance, Trent. Cassie, along with Trent's kids, Nick and Julie, are trying to figure out why their parents' relationship ended so abruptly and searching for a way to bring them back together. Meanwhile, the kids get caught up in a game show that encourages the "art" of insults, and learn along the way that our words have much more power than they think.

In a way that only Dandi can accomplish, this story weaves together, in a contemporary way, an old-time game show, letter writing, outstanding vocabulary, and reminders from God's word that taming our tongue is both difficult and important!

(178 pages)

Man, Dandi Daley Mackall is versatile. I originally grew to love her Starlight Animal Shelter horse series a long time ago, and then I rediscovered her when I started receiving books for review from her publishing company Tyndale and they sent me Larger-Than-Life Lara (a book told in "school assignment" format by a girl whose overweight classmate was bullied) and With Love, Wherever You Are (a retelling of her grandparents' romance while both were serving in Europe during WWII). Now we get something quite different yet again with Just Sayin,' which is told entirely through letters and texts exchanged between the characters.

It's a very interesting narration gimmick, and one that works really well here. I had a little trouble suspending disbelief for the duration of the book (because let's be honest, no one–let alone children–regularly writes such detailed, vulnerable letters to friends, family members, and new acquaintances). I managed, though, and I'm glad I did because Just Sayin' really is a very good read.

The story of the split between Nick's dad and Cassie's mom so soon before their marriage is an interesting one, if a little simplified at times. With just 180 pages to work with, Mackall didn't really have space to flesh the nuances of the situation out as well as she could have otherwise. I was rooting for them to join together as a family once more, of course, but I cared a lot more about Cassie, Nick, and Nick's little sister Julie than I did about the parents. I was particularly mad at Cassie's mom–because I don't care what sort of emotional drama you're going through, up and abandoning your daughter at your mom's house indefinitely is not okay.

But forget the parents, it's really all about the kids. Cassie's and Nick's letters are so warm and funny, and I love the way they try out all sorts of nasty insults on each other. They're big fans of insults, and they're almost professional-level good at dishing them out. Cassie begins to have a sort of "crisis of faith" during the book, in which she starts reading the Bible at her pastor's urging and realizes that some insults are unkind and un-Christlike. This is an interesting side story, though I also struggle with the idea that a kid her age would be mature enough to come up with these sorts of complex biblical analyses (let alone be convicted enough to consider implementing them!).

Really, my main issue with Just Sayin' is that the characters act pretty unrealistically both for their age and for the format of their correspondence. But it's such a fun and heartwarming book–and the kids' letters are just so laugh-out-loud hilarious!–that I can't help but love it anyway.

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

Almost There by Bekah DiFelice, 2017

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Home, by definition, is where you feel comfortable, where you are established, where relationships are worn in and familiar. It is where you are known, a place to belong. It is a universal longing, but an elusive destination.

Why does life often move us far from this secure, primal comfort? We transfer to different locations or simply live unsettled in our own hometown. We rebuild, make new friends, find new jobs, and forge new ties. Our blanket of security becomes a whole host of unknowns. Underneath it all, sure as the evening taps, there is a homesickness for belonging.

What if this homesickness is not just a series of challenges to be overcome, but a vehicle for God to draw us to Himself? What if God is orchestrating our circumstances to bring us into the knowledge of who He is? What if all along He is inviting us home?

Is it possible to build a home in a life that marches to the cadence of constant change and transition? In Almost There, Bekah DiFelice, a military wife familiar with the impermanence of home, offers encouragement and wisdom to those who struggle with a search for belonging in a world where home is constantly shifting. God, the grand home builder with an eternal guarantee, invites us to build a home that resides in the privacy of our hearts, a settlement that is fundamentally immovable. If we put roots down in a God who is unchangeable, He promises to be a steady anchor in the unpredictability of life.

(192 pages)

I am not a military kid, but people often think I am.

My family has moved eight times since I was born, at an average of every three years or so. When I tell people we've moved because of my father (a scientist), the first assumption for many is that my father has a military job.

All that to say . . . I can relate on a very personal level to DiFelice's descriptions of the trials and tribulations of moving somewhere new every so often. I know what it's like to hunt for a new church, to make awkward small talk with people who might be new friends (or possibly new frenemies), to unpack all my belongings and make an impersonal new house into a home.

Or at least, to make it some part of a home. The whole point of DiFelice's book is detailing her search for home. She was thrust from her childhood home to marry her husband and follow him first to Yuma, Arizona (a tiny base in the middle of nowhere) and then, after three years and every three years after that, to a new location somewhere around the world. She was definitely a lot less prepared for moving out into the world than I am, because she'd lived her whole life in the same place surrounded by family; her quest to discover what home really is was interesting to read (and often hilarious), but I don't know that it was specifically that helpful to me.

After all, I already know where my home is: it's wherever I'm living at the moment. And also with my family. And also, to varying extents, every place I've ever lived. Because personally, I don't believe that home has to be just one place. My home is a physical place and an emotional one–it's every place I've ever lived that I still have fond memories of, it's the house of my parents and siblings who love me (no matter where that house happens to be at the moment), and it's the physical address where I live my day-to-day life at the moment. Home is like a running tally sheet, not a single focal point that almost always stays the same.

And I think, really, that DiFelice reached the same conclusion that I did. She also had some more insight into God's role in things, which I hadn't really given much thought to. But the real reason I loved reading Almost There has nothing to do with the deep philosphical insights: Bekah DiFelice is simply hilarious. I loved the funny, realistic ways she had of describing the experience of moving around and living life. I can't think of much else to say about the book (other than that it's really good and I very highly recommend it!), so I think I'll just end with a quote from her describing the drive to her first home away from her parents, in Arizona:
When night set in, headlights flashed bright and aggressive from the opposite direction. So many people, it seemed, were fleeing from the very place I was headed. I departed Colorado armed with Cheez-Its and gusto, and in the desert I realized that both were gone.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Crossing the Line by Bibi Belford, 2017

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Billy’s family has fallen on hard times, what with his da hospitalized after the war and his ma barely scraping by. But it’s no hardship for him when there’s not enough money to pay the tuition for Nativity of Our Lord, the private Catholic school everyone in his neighborhood attends. Billy’s not big on education.

When he transfers to James Ward, a Chicago public school, he finds out there’s a big difference at public school: the kids aren’t all Irish—in fact, they aren’t even all white. It isn’t long before Billy’s found a new best friend in Foster, another fifth grader who also doesn’t have any money, loves baseball, and just happens to be black.

Billy is pretty sure skin color doesn’t matter. Not when he and Foster are just horsing around, playing baseball, working on the docks of the canal, and building a raft at their secret hideout on Bridgeport’s Bubbly Creek. But in the Red Summer of 1919, it does matter.

Whew. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up Crossing the Line: I thought it was going to be a rather run-of-the-mill middle-grade novel about some kids who learn to be friends across color lines and defend their choices to the outside world (along the lines of Kristin Levine's The Lions of Little Rock). I suppose it did feature those topics, but there's so much more going on in Crossing the Line than just "crossing social boundaries."

The main character Billy learns some very hard truths over the course of the book. Truths like that some of his friends and family are racist. And that in 1919, with not enough money or jobs to go around, racism can rear its head in terrible, gruesome ways. He learns to walk a thin line, staying pleasant to his racist white friends and keeping distant from his black friends in public but spending all of his free time playing in the woods with his best friend Foster (who is black) and Foster's two older brothers. He hates hiding his friendship with the black boys, feels like a coward for pretending not to know them in public, but he grows to realize over time that by being "selfish" and protecting himself he's actually protecting them from all sorts of terrible things at the hands of the racists.

Belford has said that she decided to write Crossing the Line after gradually becoming aware of her own white privilege, and I definitely see that influence in the book. Billy is forced throughout the story to notice and despise all the ways, little and big, that the color of his skin grant him access to both places and freedoms that Foster isn't allowed. He goes from being nearly oblivious to the inequalities in his world to seeing them everywhere, and he struggles with feeling guilty and trying to find ways to help Foster and his brothers that don't put them in even more danger.

Billy's struggle to recognize, internalize, and prevent the evils of racism is the biggest focus of the book, but there are many other themes tied into the story that make it even more meaningful and thought-provoking. There are no absolutes in this book, no pure good guys and very few total bad guys. Billy's racist best friend Tommy seems like a monster when he's talking about "the blacks who steal our jobs," but he also comes from a deeply troubled, abusive home and has still been a wonderful friend to Billy in some of his most vulnerable moments (including when his da returned with debilitating shell-shock from WWI). Billy's da himself was a wonderful man on the race issue, teaching his children to respect people of all races, but he was also quite sexist: he didn't think his oldest daughter needed to go to high school because all a woman needed to know was how to cook and keep house. And don't even get me started on the policeman, the secretive Russian lodger, Billy's put-upon older sister Mary, and the myriad other side characters who are each drawn with their own nuanced personalities.

Honestly, I absolutely loved Crossing the Line. It's gritty and real and honest in a way that's still okay for younger readers. But that same grittiness and realness and honesty forces me to put a qualification on my recommendation of it: beware giving this book to the gentle children you know, because I promise it will upset (and possibly traumatize) them. There's a scene involving a puppy getting hit with a glass bottle that's not described in detail, but which could also be very upsetting for animal lovers. But once a kid is old enough, this is a book that they need to read. Honestly, I would say that this is a book that everyone needs to read at some point or another. It's definitely far and away one of the best books I've read this year–and that's really saying something.

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

Frost by M.P. Kozlowsky, 2016

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Being human is her greatest strength.

Sixteen-year-old Frost understands why she’s spent her entire life in an abandoned apartment building. The ruined streets below are hunting grounds for rogue robots and Eaters.

She understands why she’s never met a human besides her father. She even understands why he forbids her to look for medicine for her dying pet. But the thing is, it’s not her real father giving the orders…

It’s his memories.

Before he died, Frost’s father uploaded his consciousness into their robot servant. But the technology malfunctioned, and now her father fades in and out. So when Frost learns that there might be medicine on the other side of the ravaged city, she embarks on a dangerous journey to save the one living creature she loves.

With only a robot as a companion, Frost must face terrors of all sorts, from outrunning the vicious Eaters…to talking to the first boy she’s ever set eyes on. But can a girl who’s only seen the world through books and dusty windows survive on her own? Or will her first journey from home be her last?
(352 pages)

When I was not far into Frost, I described it as a steampunk novel to my younger sister. When she asked me what steampunk was, I told her it's a genre of fiction that usually has a lot of advanced tech and clockwork motifs, a fair number of robots, a fantasy-esque scenario that's explained with sciency stuff rather than magic, lots of dystopian situations with oppressive bad guys, and stories that grapple with what it means to truly be human (and whether a robot "with a human-like consciousness" is still inferior to a living, breathing human being)

I legit started laughing halfway through Frost because it had every single one of those elements in it. I've only read about three steampunk novels counting Frost, but I must really have a deeper insight into the genre than I expected. Since it follows so many of my expectations, as you might guess, the book isn't exactly the most original book I've ever read; it sticks with the usual tale of robots gone bad, humanity oppressed, a quest to find the legendary human colony, etc. I'm a little sketchy on the details of why the humans all went nuts when Frost was a baby, because it seems like most of the dangers are human-inflicted rather than related to the robots, but it's definitely the humans' fault now that things aren't improving. Things get pretty gory at some points, with mentions of people eating their own bodies in order to stay alive (which is both really gross and highly unrealistic) and of the brutal treatment slaves receive under the dictator who offers asylum to the humans. They're not described in extreme detail, but Frost definitely is not for the faint of heart.

Honestly, though, I'm not sure I agree with Frost's decision to put herself and the people around her in danger over and over again in order to save the life of a pet that was already like eight years old. It's absolutely horrible when pets are dying, I should know that more than anyone right now, but I don't know that the solution is really to throw yourself and everyone you know into mortal peril in the slim hopes of finding something that would help it recover. It seems like throughout the book characters are unable and unwilling to deal with the finality of death; they're constantly either avoiding it, daring it, or cheating it (by way of uploading their brain to a robot). Death is awful and horrible, yes, but I don't think that trapping a soul inside a metal body is really a good long-term alternative. It cheapens the tragedy of a human body's death and decay when you can just install a copy of their brain in a robot and keep right on going. Their consciousness may still be alive in another form, but that original human being is still dead. And that is still a tragedy.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the whole issue. I liked Frost more than I thought I would, enjoyed foraying into a genre that I don't usually read, but I wasn't blown away by it. If you like steampunk, or you're interested in getting into it, then Frost might well be a good place to start–or at least I think so. Keep in mind that I've only ever read three steampunk's novels when you take my recommendation under consideration.

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Out of Tune by Norah McClintock, 2017

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When Alicia, a talented violinist at Riley Donovan's high school, is found bludgeoned to death in a field on the outskirts of town, suspicion immediately falls on Carrie, the teen's musical rival. But Riley isn't convinced of Carrie's guilt, and even though her police-officer aunt tells her to stay out of it, Riley goes searching for the truth. Did Carrie really kill Alicia in a fit of jealous rage, or is there another explanation for Alicia's death?
(122 pages)

This is a nice little murder mystery.

I know that sounds weird–"nice" and "murder mystery" aren't paired very often. But the truth is that Out of Tune is just the sort of novel I needed: a pure mystery, with a violent crime but no gory/explicit content. The basic scenario (a high school student enlisted to investigate the murder of a female fellow student who appears to be a "golden child") at first reminded me a lot of the much-gorier Running Girl by Simon Mason, but Out of Tune is frankly a little more my speed in the violence department. It's like an Agatha Christie murder mystery: the story starts with the crime, and then follows the main character as she tracks down the clues. We get a description of the crime scene in one of the beginning chapters but not much more than that. Actually, now that I think about some of Agatha Christie's book, this is probably actually a step down from those even.

I feel like so many of the murder mysteries I've read lately focused more on character drama (most of which didn't even wind up being relevant to the investigation), so I really appreciated how focused Out of Tune was. McClintock never forgets that she's writing a murder mystery, not a small-town drama. Granted, that does come at the expense of getting to know some of the side characters very well–a feat that's made doubly hard because you're expected to already know a bunch of the characters from the earlier books in the "Riley Donavan" series–but I personally didn't really mind focusing on the clues rather than on the characters pursuing them.
The reason I love Agatha Christie's novels is because she so perfectly blends interesting characters with fascinating crime investigations. While I've yet to find a murder mystery that does both of these areas as masterfully as she does, I'm finding that I much prefer the ones that err on the side of the crime investigations. This is the case of Out of Tune, which wound up being a perfectly satisfying who-dunnit with a logical, yet suprising, reveal–and a protagonist I still know little about. And I am perfectly okay with that.

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Hand Book by Miryam Z. Wahrman, 2016

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Handwashing, as part of basic hygiene, is a no-brainer. Whenever there's an outbreak of a contagious disease, we are advised that the first line of defense is proper handwashing. Nonetheless, many people, including healthcare workers, ignore this advice and routinely fail to wash their hands. Those who neglect to follow proper handwashing protocols put us at risk for serious disease--and even death.

In this well-researched book, Wahrman discusses the microbes that live among us, both benign and malevolent. She looks at how ancient cultures dealt with disease and hygiene and how scientific developments led to the germ theory, which laid the foundation for modern hygiene. She investigates hand hygiene in clinical settings, where lapses by medical professionals can lead to serious, even deadly, complications. She explains how microbes found on environmental surfaces can transmit disease and offers strategies to decrease transmission from person to person. The book's final chapter explores initiatives for grappling with ever more complex microbial issues, such as drug resistance and the dangers of residing in an interconnected world, and presents practical advice for hand hygiene and reducing infection. 

With chapters that conclude with handy reference lists, The Hand Book serves as a road map to safer hands and better hygiene and health. It is essential reading for the general public, healthcare professionals, educators, parents, community leaders, and politicians.
(248 pages)

This was one of the first books I ever won through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. I was new to LibraryThing at the time, and slightly too trigger-happy about clicking "request" for books that I'd normally never pick up. When I got the email saying I'd actually won a copy of The Hand Book, I was shocked–what was I going to do with a book about hand sanitization?! I thought it was going to be one of those pseudo-science books, full of "solutions" to germs that involved, I don't know, drinking special tea or something. I wound up just shoving the book on my shelf and planning to get to it "someday." Since I'm trying to review all the books I've gotten for review this summer before heading off to college, that day has finally come.

And honestly,  The Hand Book is way more legit than I was expecting. Wahrman is actually a real scientist who has done detailed experiments into the spread and dangers of germs. Her advice is thorough and practical, designed to make you think about the disgusting germs you come into contact with on a regular basis and to help you make some small changes to decrease the chances of contracting  an illness. That's interesting enough, but what I really liked were Wahrman's discussions of hand hygiene in hospitals, restaurants, and third-world countries. It's really disgusting to read about all the mistakes and deaths that occur every year because of carelessness in the first two institutions, but also quite interesting to learn about all the creative (and surprisingly effective) ways people in poor countries have developed to cleanse themselves without water.

I'll be honest, I didn't carefully read every page of The Hand Book; I was in a skimming sort of mood when I sat myself down to finally read it. But I enjoyed it way more than I'd ever thought I would–it was far more interesting, engaging, relevant, and well-researched than I'd expected. I can't say it was a page-turner, because this sort of material simply can't be, but it was as close to that as a book about hand hygiene can get. It also temporarily turned me into a germaphobe, so that's new.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Promising Life by Emily Arnold McCully, 2017

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For as long as he can remember, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau has been told that a promising future lies ahead of him. After all, his mother is the great Sacagawea, who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition of discovery. And thanks to his mother, Baptiste's life changes forever when Captain Clark offers him an education in the bustling new city of St. Louis.

There, his mother charges him to "learn everything" - reading, writing, languages, mathematics. His life becomes a whirl of new experiences: lessons, duels, dances, elections. He makes friends and undertakes unexpected journeys to far-off places.

But he also witnesses the injustices Clark, as a US agent for Indian Affairs, forces upon the Osage, the Arikara, the Mandan, and so many others. He sees the effect of what some call "progress" on the land and on the people who have lived there for generations. And he must choose what path he will take and what place he will have in a rapidly changing society.

(304 pages)

When a copy of A Promising Life showed up on my doorstep a few weeks ago, I was intrigued by the idea of reading a book about Sacagawea's son set during a time period I knew very little about.

It wasn't much like what I was expecting, since Sacagawea disappears from the story almost immediately and the 300-page book covers a huge span of time from Baptiste's childhood to when he's about 25-30 years old. I did learn some valuable new things about history, like the fact that Sacagawea was actually the slave of a Frenchman (who was also Baptiste's father) and that the real-life Jean Baptiste Charbonneau lived an absolutely fascinating–and very international!–life.

Unfortunately, I can't say I really loved the book. I never got a good handle on the characters because it felt like there were just too many people and events going on. I also don't feel like there's a good rising action, climax, falling action, etc., because the author essentially just took all the historical facts known about Baptiste and filled in the gaps with her own ideas. Real life doesn't often fall into easy plot organization, does it?

Anyway, I feel like A Promising Life is a very educational book but it just wasn't quite my cup of tea. It felt a bit mature at times (especially when Baptiste fathers a baby in a one-night stand–though details are given!). It also introduced me to a lot of fascinating historical characters, though, so I'm still happy to have had the opportunity to read it.

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

League of American Traitors by Matthew Landis, 2017

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When seventeen year-old Jasper is approached at the funeral of his deadbeat father by a man claiming to be an associate of his deceased parents, he’s thrust into a world of secrets tied to America’s history—and he’s right at the heart of it.

First, Jasper finds out he is the sole surviving descendant of Benedict Arnold, the most notorious traitor in American history. Then he learns that his father’s death was no accident. Jasper is at the center of a war that has been going on for centuries, in which the descendants of the heroes and traitors of the American Revolution still duel to the death for the sake of their honor.

His only hope to escape his dangerous fate on his eighteenth birthday? Take up the research his father was pursuing at the time of his death, to clear Arnold’s name.

Whisked off to a boarding school populated by other descendants of notorious American traitors, it’s a race to discover the truth. But if Jasper doesn’t find a way to uncover the evidence his father was hunting for, he may end up paying for the sins of his forefathers with his own life.

Like a mash-up of
National Treasure and Hamilton, Matthew Landis’s debut spins the what-ifs of American history into a heart-pounding thriller steeped in conspiracy, clue hunting, and danger.
(256 pages)

Okay, let me start by getting rid of the elephant in the room: Hamilton. I have actually never seen Hamilton (or listened to its full soundtrack), but I know enough about the musical to hazard a pretty good guess that League of American Traitors is nothing like it. Sure, the book's got some mentions of Revolutionary War-era historical figures, but they're definitely not the focus of the book. Instead, League of American Traitors is basically a modern-day adventure/spy novel trying hard to capture some of the vibe of National Treasure while really reminding me of a rather watered-down nonmagical Harry Potter.

I'm sorry, was that overly negative? I don't mean to be, but I'm having a hard time swallowing my disappointment. I was really excited for League of American Traitors, I thought it would be thrilling and realistic and educational at the same time. It may have been education at parts (when the author wasn't, you know, making stuff up to serve the plot), and thrilling occasionally, but I just couldn't get past all the unrealistic and ridiculous stuff that the book expected me to accept. My biggest issue with the plot is the whole premise: a league of the descendants of "good guys" from history decided to hunt down every single descendant of the "bad guys" of American history and force them to participate in one duel. If they win, they're left in peace; if they lose, they're dead; if they flee, they spend the rest of their life on the run.

You know what my biggest problem with this premise is? The idea that people who are descended from famous figures from 300 years ago care so much about some ancient grudge that they're willing to make all of their children participate in duels to the death. That just wouldn't happen. Also, why is everyone so hung up on the past, anyway? We are not our ancestors. We are not responsible for what they did in the past. If you trace my family tree far enough back, I've got some bad people back there, too. But I don't define myself by the choices made by my distant ancestors hundreds of years ago, and I don't see why the people in the book do either!

The other issue I have with the book is the fact that it takes all of history at face value. All the historical figures are sorted into either the "good guy" or the "bad guy" category with no room for nuance. Jasper does bemoan this at one point, when he questions why Benedict Arnold is remembered only for his betrayal and not for any of the amazing battles he won for the cause before then, but I would have liked to take things a step further: why does everyone assume that the "good guys" were good? Why is fighting against Britain inherently better than remaining a Loyalist? Is it just because we won the Revolutionary War, so history was written by the victors? I for one would have probably been a Loyalist, if we're being perfectly honest–I just don't really think our excuses for breaking off from Britain were as great as everyone thought. And some of the classifications seemed very arbitrary, like the fact that Thomas Paine (author of the extremely patriotic Common Sense) was classified as a traitor for a pamphlet he wrote after the war that the patriots didn't agree with, or that one "traitor" ancestor was a slave who fled his patriot owners and fought for the British because he was promised freedom afterword. I think it's frankly horrible that this poor man was branded a "traitor" to some cause he really couldn't care less about and his descendants were forced to participate in this gruesome tradition of deadly duels. And setting all this aside, I think it's ridiculous that all of these people who pride themselves on being descended from the people who fought for American freedoms (only for white male landowners at the beginning, but still) are completely disrespecting those same freedoms to force people into duels against their will.

Honestly, though, I should stop and talk about the positives. I did like some of the side characters, though Jasper seemed like a very bland character without much personality of his own–and I completely disagree with an immoral choice that he made during the climax. I would say that the book could be good for younger kids who love spy stories and history, but it's got some pretty terrible languge (including several instances of the f-word), so I don't want to recommend it to anyone who's not ready for that. Basically, if you've read my semi-ranting review and still think you'd like to read the book, and you don't mind some bad language, then go ahead and give League of American Traitors a try. Maybe you can find something in it that I couldn't.

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Roadfood, 10th edition by Jane & Michael Stern, 2017

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First published in 1977, the original Roadfood became an instant classic. James Beard said, "This is a book that you should carry with you, no matter where you are going in these United States. It's a treasure house of information."

Now this indispensable guide is back, in an even bigger and better edition, covering 500 of the country's best local eateries from Maine to California. With more than 250 completely new listings and thorough updates of old favorites, the new 
Roadfood offers an extended tour of the most affordable, most enjoyable dining options along America's highways and back roads.

Filled with enticing alternatives for chain-weary-travelers,
Roadfood provides descriptions of and directions to (complete with regional maps) the best lobster shacks on the East Coast; the ultimate barbecue joints down South; the most indulgent steak houses in the Midwest; and dozens of top-notch diners, hotdog stands, ice-cream parlors, and uniquely regional finds in between. Each entry delves into the folkways of a restaurant's locale as well as the dining experience itself, and each is written in the Sterns' entertaining and colorful style. A cornucopia for road warriors and armchair epicures alike, Roadfood is a road map to some of the tastiest treasures in the United States.
(480 pages)

I will be the first to admit that I'm not a foodie–at all. You're probably wondering why I agreed to review Roadfood, then. The truth is that I just liked the idea of a guidebook to travel food, and I wanted to see if it would really help my family pick where to eat while we travel.

The truth is that it probably wouldn't. This is mostly because I come from a family of not-foodies, and there are six of us so we have to work really hard at keeping bathroom/eating/resting breaks at a minimum if we ever want to get anywhere, and so we basically always just pick our lunch destination from the billboards by the highway (and they're almost always either McDonald's, Wendy's, or Burger King, because those are the restaurants with a drive-through). I don't see myself truly being able to convince my parents to drive out of their way to enjoy a particularly succulent sit-down diner, because they get antsy if we drive more than two miles away from the highway on a rest stop.

That said, I do think this book offers a valuable service: it lists yummy restaurants sorted by state, with detailed descriptions of a few dishes and the service/atmosphere, so it makes choosing a restaurant once we've reached our destination much more intriguing. Put another way: I wouldn't drive out of my way to eat at Tedd Drewe's (which famously sells the best ice cream in the world) in St. Louis, because those St. Louis highways are murder and I'd lose way too much time for reaching my final destination, but of course I would make a point to visit it if I were there a couple of days. And, you know, already within a 20 to 30 minute radius of one of their locations.

To be fair, though, I grew up on Tedd Drewe's ice cream. If I didn't already know what it tasted like, and I was a real foodie, maybe I would go hours out of my way to try it. And maybe now I'm just making myself hungry for ice cream. I'm going to stop talking about Tedd Drewe's now.

Anyway, I can't vouch much for the accuracy of the listings, but the basic format of the book is that the entries are sorted by state (which are sorted by region, not alphabetically); if you want a short list of just the restaurant names, without details, there's one in the back of the book with page numbers for looking up the details. Every entry includes the name of the restaurant and its address, its website and phone number if it has those, hours of operation, and a price-range estimate. Beneath that, there's a description of the restaurant's food and service and atmosphere, as well as tips about how crowded it can get and the like.

The cynical part of me says that most of this information is probably available online, and that books can very quickly get outdated (and, in fact, one of the restaurants it lists in Indianapolis is already out of business!), but the other part of me says that it can be really nice to have a tangible book for looking up interesting and unique places to eat. Roadfood can serve as a good jumping-off point for restaurant hunting, anyway. And who knows what rare gems it might point us to?!

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Innocent Heroes by Sigmund Brouwer, 2017

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A unique celebration of the important role animals play in war, and an insightful look at the taking of Vimy Ridge from the perspective of 3 men in a Canadian platoon.

Never before have the stories of animal war heroes been collected in such a special way. This book consists of eight connected fictional stories about a Canadian platoon in WW1. The Storming Normans have help from some very memorable animals: we meet a dog who warns soldiers in the trench of a gas attack, a donkey whose stubbornness saves the day, a cat who saves soldiers from rat bites, and many more. Each story is followed by nonfiction sections that tell the true story of these animals from around the world and of the Canadian soldiers who took Vimy Ridge. Through the friendship that grows between three of these soldiers in particular, we get a close-up look at life in the trenches, the taking of Vimy Ridge, the bonds between soldiers and their animals and what it meant to be Canadian in WW1.

(208 pages)

This was an interesting blend of fiction and truth, interspersing a made-up, animal-centric storyline about men in a Canadian platoon during WWI with real facts about the animals featured in the different chapters.

On one hand, I really loved learning about all those different animals from WWI–and the Canadian platoon they were with, since I barely even knew before now that Canada participated in WWI! But then at times I felt like the way it was done, switching between chapters of fictional stories and then nonfictional explanations, made the narrative feel really disjointed. I kept forgetting who the various people were for quite a long time because I didn't read about them for so long in between chapters.

Also, and I suppose this is just an interesting cultural perspective, there is a lot of emphasis put on the supposed superiority of Canadian military tactics (basically, the generals see their soldiers as equals and give them room to interpret assignments as they wish) over the much more top-down American and British structures. While it does sound like the Canadian system is the one I would like to be in, I really don't know enough about military tactics to know which is ideal; I do, however, know from reading the book that Brouwer is definitely heavily in favor of Canada. And it's actually really interesting to read about WWI and military tactics from such a different angle than I usually do. I mean, let's be honest, there's really not much material out there about the Canadian perspective on most of the big wars.

Basically, it's a good book with a lot of interesting details that gets bogged down at times by the alternating format it's written in. I still liked it, though, and I suspect a lot of other people–especially kids with a passion for army history–will too, If you read it, please be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments section down below!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from a LibraryThing Early Reviewer giveaway.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Shadow of Your Smile by Susan May Warren, 2011

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A beautiful blanket of snow may cover the quaint town of Deep Haven each winter, but it can't quite hide the wreckage of Noelle and Eli Hueston's marriage. After twenty-five years, they're contemplating divorce . . . just as soon as their youngest son graduates from high school. But then an accident erases part of Noelle's memory. Though her other injuries are minor, she doesn't remember Eli, their children, or the tragedy that has ripped their family apart. What's more, Noelle is shocked that her life has turned out nothing like she dreamed it would. As she tries to regain her memory and slowly steps into her role as a wife and mother, Eli helps her readjust to daily life with sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-heartwarming results. But can she fall in love again with a man she can't remember? Will their secrets destroy them . . . or has erasing the past given them a chance for a future?
(344 pages)

The Shadow of Your Smile has a nice premise (very similar to a movie that came out a few years ago, right?), and I thought it was pretty well done. I liked the idea of a ruined marriage being "restarted" with the wife's sudden amnesia, even if the possibility of such amnesia is scientifically iffy. It's rather sad to watch Noelle realize that she gave up all of her dreams of pursuing her art and establishing a career, and that she's just an average housewife now. The cynical part of me wonders whether there's some sort of sexist reason she's not working, because it's not like she's staying home to homeschool her kids or something that would actually prevent her from working during the day, but I don't think that's where my mind is supposed to go with this scenario. I can't say I really agree that her husband is such a catch, because he does a lot of things I'm not really a fan of, but I suppose she's looking for something different from what I would want in her shoes.

There are several side plots that I liked better than the main one, including Noelle's grown son's growing romance with a childhood acquaintance and the family's attempts to move past the brutal death of Noelle and Eli's daughter, Kelsey. The storyline about Kelsey is actually my favorite, just because it's so brutal and honest and real. Reading about the parts where the family is remember (or, in Noelle's case, forgetting) Kelsey is heartbreaking. The rest of the book is kind of soft and cheesy in comparison.

And also really cheesy. Keep in mind that the cheese levels in The Shadow of Your Smile are practically out of the roof. It was an entertaining read that passed a few nice hours, though, and I'm glad I took the time to give it a try. Sometimes a fluffy, clean, slightly cheesy romance novel is just what the doctor ordered.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through the Tyndale Rewards program (click here to check it out–by using my link you'll get 25 credits, which is enough to get a book).

Friday, October 27, 2017

Lucky in Love by Kasie West, 2017

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In this new contemporary from YA star Kasie West, a girl who wins the lottery learns that money can cause more problems than it solves, especially when love comes into the picture.

Maddie doesn't believe in luck. She's all about hard work and planning ahead. But one night, on a whim, she buys a lottery ticket. And then, to her astonishment --

She wins!

In a flash, Maddie's life is unrecognizable. No more stressing about college scholarships. Suddenly, she's talking about renting a yacht. And being in the spotlight at school is fun... until rumors start flying, and random people ask her for loans. Now, Maddie isn't sure who she can trust.

Except for Seth Nguyen, her funny, charming coworker at the local zoo. Seth doesn't seem aware of Maddie's big news. And, for some reason, she doesn't want to tell him. But what will happen if he learns her secret?

With tons of humor and heart, Kasie West delivers a million-dollar tale of winning, losing, and falling in love.

(333 pages)

Wow. This book is just so darned cute! Why did no one tell me to read a Kasie West novel before now?! I'm so glad its cover and description caught my attention enough to make me send off a request for it to Scholastic, because Lucky in Love was exactly the fluffy and innocent, though still realistic and thought-provoking, book that I needed to read this summer.

Because seriously, how could I not pick up a book about a girl who wins the lottery and falls in love with the one guy who's oblivious to her windfall?! This book lives up to its promise, offering interesting and compatible main love interests and a lottery story that could honestly have filled a whole book by itself without the romance even showing up.

But who am I kidding? The romance is my favorite part! I love that Maddie and Seth are legitimate friends and coworkers long before they start to become anything else, and that their relationship develops very organically from that relationship. I couldn't care less about physical chemistry (i.e. lust between two characters), because that tells me nothing about their suitability for each other as life partners. But when they're bonding over their shared love for animals, then I definitely start shipping.

Lest you accuse me of giving a biased review, though, I should discuss the cons of the book. There are a few minor ones, but only one that truly bugged me: Maddie's academic life. As a recently-graduated senior who has just finished four extremely rigorous years of high school, including a year and a half of standardized testing/college applications, I could totally tell that West didn't do her homework on, well, anything when it came to Maddie's college application. Maddie and all of her friends take it as a given that of course she'll get into every good school in California (including Stanford and UCLA). Her best friend literally starts this big campaign to convince Maddie to come to Stanford with her in the fall . . . before either of them has gotten an admission letter. There's no one alive who can be that confident in their admission chances to Stanford unless Stanford is their last name or they literally cured cancer (preferably both). If Maddie were a real high school senior, she and her friends would know this. Also, if she were such a shoe-in for such high-ranking schools, she would totally have way more extracurriculars than just working at the zoo.

I'm sorry if it seems like I'm nitpicking, I just thought this was all kind of frustrating because I was in Maddie's shoes–and frankly, probably had an application stronger than hers would have been from what we read in the book–but I was far from a shoe-in at any of the schools she applied to. And also, no one–and I mean literally no one–cares if you get a B or two in the second semester of senior year. Once the decisions are out, they are out. Period. Unless you suddenly flunk out of high school or something equally dramatic. And throwing a wild party or two will not get you blacklisted by any university, either.

Okay, okay, now I'm done. The academic stuff bugs me more and more as I sit here thinking about it, but it's not really that big a deal in the context of the book. The focus is truly on Maddie's struggles to adjust to her fame/fortune and to tangle out her feelings toward Seth. It's such an adorable story, and I really loved it. If you're in the mood for a fun romance, then I definitely recommend it.

Also, I recently picked up another one of West's books, P.S. I Like You, practically by accident. I can't go into it much here, but needless to say that it was also adorable and I actually liked it even more than Lucky in Love!

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

Whistling in the Dark by Shirley Hughes, 2015

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"Well-written and well worth reading." The Bookseller. Liverpool, 1940: thirteen-year-old Joan’s home is under threat from the Nazi’s terrifying nightly air-raids. It is not an easy time to be a teenager, especially with the sweet rationing, strict curfews and blackouts. Joan and best friend Doreen love going to the cinema until the bombings intensify and then even that becomes too dangerous, especially when an army deserter is found lurking near their home. Who is he and why does he think Joan can help him? As the Blitz worsens, Joan and her friends make a discovery that will tear the whole community apart…
(240 pages)

I've read a lot of historical fiction book centered around WWII, and they all take a slightly different angle on the terrible time. A lot of them involve the homefront in some way, so I was a little worried that Whistling in the Dark would struggle to carve its own unique spot in the literature, but I needn't have worried.

One thing I didn't know going into the book is that the author, Shirley Hughes, actually lived through WWII as a teenager living in Liverpool (the town where the book is set). I think that detail adds a little spark to the story that many other books about the time period don't have, just because we know the author really knows what she's talking about when she describes life there at the time.

And really, though it's a little book, there's quite a lot going on. I don't really want to go into the individual plotlines very much, because there would be lots of spoilers, but suffice it to say that Joan is confronted with issues ranging from personal/familial crises to meeting a loner refugee girl in school who doesn't speak English to dealing with the army deserter who is lurking around. They're all resolved in satisfactory and interesting ways, and I really liked reading about it.

Honestly, with all the amazing WWII books out there, I can't say that Whistling in the Dark stands out from the crowd a huge amount. But it's a good book, especially for younger readers who aren't prepared for the full horror of, say, a European Jewish girl's experiences during the war, and I for one really liked it. If you read it, please let us know your thoughts in the comments section down below!

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eagar, 2017

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Can a clever young inventor uncover a ruthless pirate’s heart of gold?

Thrilling sea adventure takes on a hint of steampunk in the second book by the author of the acclaimed Hour of the Bees.

When her parents, the great marine scientists Dr. and Dr. Quail, are killed in a tragic accident, eleven-year-old Fidelia Quail is racked by grief — and guilt. It was a submarine of Fidelia’s invention that her parents were in when they died, and it was she who pressed them to stay out longer when the raging Undertow was looming. But Fidelia is forced out of her mourning when she’s kidnapped by Merrick the Monstrous, a pirate whose list of treasons stretches longer than a ribbon eel. Her task? Use her marine know-how to retrieve his treasure, lost on the ocean floor. But as Fidelia and the pirates close in on the prize, with the navy hot on their heels, she realizes that Merrick doesn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy his loot. Could something other than black-hearted greed be driving him? Will Fidelia be able to master the perils of the ocean without her parents — and piece together the mystery of Merrick the Monstrous before it’s too late?

(432 pages)

First I just want to say that Race to the Bottom of the Sea was actually really good. I didn't know exactly what it was going in–I knew lots of water was involved, and was actually envisioning a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-esque submarine–but the whimsical description drew me to the book to try it out in the first place. And I'm glad I did!

You'd think that this would be a really sad and depressing book considering how much death appears/is mentioned, but it's actually not. It's an entertaining read that becomes rather serious and thoughtful, but never painful to read. My younger sister is an extraordinarily picky reader (and basically sticks mainly to nonfiction books about animals), but she voluntarily borrowed Race to the Bottom of the Sea from me and downed the whole thing in a couple of days. I think that in and of itself says a lot about the book's reception by its target audience.

As for me, while I did enjoy Race to the Bottom of the Sea, I had a little bit of a harder time suspending my disbelief long enough to accept the pseudo-science plot contrivances and the usual "genius-inventor child" trope that pops up in a lot of children's books. I liked Fidelia fine, and normally she struck me as a very nice, normal girl, but her inventions were frankly pretty ridiculous.

But really, the book has everything a child could want from a story involving pirates and treasure troves (and, of course, several foes). It's a lot more palatable for sensitive readers than, say, Treasure Island but it still doesn't speak down to them. I recommend it for pretty much anyone who is looking for a pirate-y book and who doesn't mind a certain amount of death (including parental death/grieving in the beginning of the book!).

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

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Nutcracker Mice by Kristin Kladstrup, 2017

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Hidden in Saint Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theater are the world's tiniest ballet fans: the Mariinsky mice, including Esmeralda, a rising dancer in the Russian Mouse Ballet Company. Despite being unable to control her tail, Esmeralda has just been assigned the lead role of Clara in a ballet debuting at Christmas: The Nutcracker. But when she learns that the new ballet features mice as villains, her excitement turns to horror: the mice of Saint Petersburg will never come to see such a production. Meanwhile, nine-year-old Irina is convinced that the mice she's seen in the Mariinsky -- the mice her father, the custodian, is supposed to exterminate -- are not only fans of the ballet, but dancers themselves. No one will believe her, so it falls to Irina to help save the mice everyone else considers vermin . . . and perhaps to help Esmeralda ensure the future of the mouse company. Sweet and inventive, Kristin Kladstrup's ballet fantasy features artwork by beloved illustrator Brett Helquist, old-fashioned drama, and just a touch of holiday magic.
(336 pages)

This is the sort of cozy book I would have devoured as a little girl. There's something so appealing about a story set in a far-off country (in this case Russia) during a far-away time (1892) that features anthropomorphic creatures (ballet-dancing talking mice!). Add all the dancing and ballet details to that, plus the one human girl who suspects the truth about the mice, and it's even more absorbing. In addition to all that, the scenario of mice preparing to perform The Nutcracker during its first human performance adds a delicious familiarity and Christmas feeling to the story because I attended performances of The Nutcracker almost every year when I was small.

Thus, before I even try to analyze The Nutcracker Mice objectively, I have to just say that I fell in love with the simple magic the story offers. After so many YA novels and adult nonfiction books, I needed to reading something so simple and pure as The Nutcracker Mice. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

Now, as for the story itself. First you have to get past the implausibility of the idea that mice are not only intelligent, human-like creatures who put on elaborate productions using the music played during the human performances, but also that all the theater mice are trained to read and understand both Russian and French. For some, I suppose that could be a pretty big hurdle; as for me, I counted it as part of the story's charm. I thought it was interesting that Esmerelda is an adult in the story because normally children's books feature protagonists who are in middle school. It made the (pretty slight) romance much stronger, in my opinion, and also made Esmerelda's adventures much more above-board and legit–she wasn't lying to any parents or sneaking out after hours, for example. It was also a little disconcerting, though, because I kept forgetting she was older until random moments when something would remind me.

I also really liked the bits of the story about Irina, the girl who spots Esmerelda practicing her ballet moves one day. She's written very realistically, and the drama surrounding her father's job is very well done.

Honestly, I have a hard time being very objective about The Nutcracker Mouse. It may not be perfect, or unpredictable, but it's a good solid book that I enjoyed and that I know for a fact I would have been completely in love with even a few years ago. If you know a kid with a fanciful imagination, then The Nutcracker Mouse would be a wonderful present for them–especially now while we're close to Christmas time!

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

Sinking the Sultana by Sally M. Walker, 2017

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The worst maritime disaster in American history wasn't the Titanic. It was the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River -- and it could have been prevented.

In 1865, the Civil War was winding down and the country was reeling from Lincoln's assassination. Thousands of Union soldiers, released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps, were to be transported home on the steamboat
Sultana. With a profit to be made, the captain rushed repairs to the boat so the soldiers wouldn't find transportation elsewhere. More than 2,000 passengers boarded in Vicksburg, Mississippi . . . on a boat with a capacity of 376. The journey was violently interrupted when the boat's boilers exploded, plunging the Sultana into mayhem; passengers were bombarded with red-hot iron fragments, burned by scalding steam, and flung overboard into the churning Mississippi. Although rescue efforts were launched, the survival rate was dismal -- more than 1,500 lives were lost. In a compelling, exhaustively researched account, renowned author Sally M. Walker joins the ranks of historians who have been asking the same question for 150 years: who (or what) was responsible for the Sultana's disastrous fate?
(208 pages)

Going into this book, I knew absolutely nothing about the Sultana. I had just finished studying AP US History, but our coverage of the Civil War remained focused on the big things–the politics, the generals, and the major battles. The sinking of the Sultana may have been terrible for the people who experienced it (as well as for the friends and families who lost loved ones on it), but it had no real lasting impression on the course of American history.

But still. I can't believe I'd literally never learned anything about the Sultana before. I used to be obsessed with the Titanic, yet I'd never heard of the largest American maritime disaster?

Anyway, on to the book itself. It's a good length, long enough to include lots of interesting details but not so long as to bore readers who are new to the subject. The first few chapters set the stage, introducing us to some of the prisoners of war and the squalid conditions they were subjected to, before moving on to the end of the war and the liquidation of the prison camps. There were some politics involved with the ships, some pressure placed on the men in authority to pack the Sultana as full as they possibly could as opposed to moving some of the men to other ships.

Then there's the description of the actual disaster, which is simply brutal. I had tears in my eyes reading about all the gruesome scenes that confronted the survivors, all the people–including innocent children–who died horrible deaths that night. It was a terrible scene, a truly horrific one, and I still can't believe that I never knew anything about it before now. I'm sad to have read the book in a way, because it was so horrifying, but also glad that I did and learned about this little-known dark moment in my nation's history.

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

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Giving Heart: A Coloring Book Celebrating Motherhood by Stephanie Corfee, 2017

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A beautiful artist-drawn coloring book with Scripture created to encourage, inspire, and delight Christian mothers.
This beautifully rendered adult coloring book will offer Christian moms a perfect way to enjoy moments of peaceful creativity as they color 46 gorgeously intricate pictures and meditate upon God's word. Filled with lovely botanical scenes, charming designs, and intricate patterns, the images and words of this book will remind mothers of their special place in the hearts of their loved ones and the wonderful purpose God created in them.

(96 pages)

Honestly, I think I–like everyone else–am finally falling out of love with the adult coloring book fad.

Before and after

Actually, if we're being completely honest here, I don't think I ever really was in love with adult coloring books. I just decided I should be because everyone else was, and I amassed a lot of pretty coloring books with the mindset of "I'm sure I'll get around to coloring these eventually." Which is ridiculous, because I have a permanent injury in my dominant wrist that makes repetitive writing/coloring literally painful for me.

I suppose that explains why I took so long to review A Giving Heart: I had to convince myself to color a page of it. And don't get me wrong, the designs are very pretty; there are lots of flowers and vases and women with pretty hair that exude an aura of peace whenever I look at them. But I just don't have the stamina (or the patience) to sit and color every single little design in a complex picture. I just don't. I think, if I'm going to keep coloring, I need to go back to kid coloring books because that's basically where my attention span is at right now.

You can see a little bit of
But I'm sorry, let me get into reviewing the coloring book for those of you who are actually interested in it. I do like a lot of the pictures (though quite a few of them–especially the quotes–are "churchy" enough that they wouldn't really do for a non-Christian audience), and the complexity is really not as bad as it's been in some of the other coloring books I've seen. My biggest issue with the book itself is probably its paper quality: I color with thin markers, and the back side of the pages I've colored are dark with the colors I used and have actually bled through in the spots where my markers rested. The paper has also gotten a little warped from the coloring, almost as though it's slightly water-stained. I really don't know why the publisher didn't invest in some thicker, pricier paper to ensure the book could actually be used for its intended purpose.

But then, you could always scan the pictures and color them on a fresh sheet of paper. This would keep the book pristine for multiple uses, too. If I were more serious about coloring, that's probably what I would do.

But I'm not, so I suppose I'll end this review now since I'm already out of stuff to say about the book. I hope my thoughts have been at least a little bit helpful. If you do decide to buy and color the book, be sure to show us pictures of the pages you complete!

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness by Paula Poundstone, 2017

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“Is there a secret to happiness?” asks comedian Paula Poundstone. "I don’t know how or why anyone would keep it a secret. It seems rather cruel, really . . . Where could it be? Is it deceptively simple? Does it melt at a certain temperature? Can you buy it? Must you suffer for it before or after?” In her wildly and wisely observed book, the comedy legend takes on that most inalienable of rights—the pursuit of happiness.

Offering herself up as a human guinea pig in a series of thoroughly unscientific experiments, Poundstone tries out a different get-happy hypothesis in each chapter of her data-driven search. She gets in shape with taekwondo. She drives fast behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. She communes with nature while camping with her daughter, and commits to getting her house organized (twice!). Swing dancing? Meditation? Volunteering? Does any of it bring her happiness? You may be laughing too hard to care.

The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness is both a story of jumping into new experiences with both feet and a surprisingly poignant tale of a single working mother of three children (not to mention dozens of cats, a dog, a bearded dragon lizard, a lop-eared bunny, and one ant left from her ant farm) who is just trying to keep smiling while living a busy life.

The queen of the skepticism-fueled rant, Paula Poundstone stands alone in her talent for bursting bubbles and slaying sacred cows.

Like George Carlin, Steve Martin, and David Sedaris, she is a master of her craft, and her comedic brilliance is served up in abundance in this book. As author and humorist Roy Blount Jr. notes, “Paula Poundstone deserves to be happy. Nobody deserves to be this funny.”

(288 pages)

I don't usually go for self-help books, because the advice they offer isn't really that helpful for me. And I struggle sometimes to get into reading memoirs by comedians because they wind up being way less funny on paper than they are in person.

I took the leap with The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, though, because I didn't know Poundstone's work well enough to be offended if the book didn't live up to it, but I knew that she must be pretty funny since she's a panelist on Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me, and because I loved the idea of watching someone else's journey to seeking happiness rather than having someone lecture me about the "one true way" for me to achieve true happiness.

And let me just say first that Paula Poundstone is absolutely hilarious. Her descriptions of life as a mother to three children are so realistic they're almost painfully funny, and the images she paints of her efforts in her various classes and endeavors had me literally laughing out loud.

I liked the techniques she decided to try, too: exercising, learning to use a computer, cleaning out her house, renting a sports car for a day, spending quality time with her pets and walking around hugging strangers are all good ideas. If I had her resources (or, more accurately, her lack of concern about debt), then I would probably try some of them, too!

Poundstone wrote the book over the course of about seven years, during which time two of her kids went off to college. I loved all the details we got about her kids. What did rub me a little bit the wrong way, though, was Poundstone's complete hate for the use of technology in education and the extreme lengths she wound up going to get her son away from the influence of computers and violent video games. As a homeschool graduate who took ten online AP courses over the four years of high school, I have to say that I really don't agree with Poundstone's determination to vilify all uses of technology when it comes to schooling. It's especially puzzling when she also admits to spending lots of time on Facebook, Twitter and Gmail (while telling her kids they shouldn't be on the computer at all), and when she said she carefully limits her children's screen time. If she was really putting limits on their computer time or checking their video games to make sure they weren't disgusting, then why is her son struggling so much with an addiction to violent video games?

Also, the language in this book is pretty bad. The f-word is scattered in probably a few times every chapter, and Poundstone occasionally makes cracks about her own asexuality or the frequency with which males (including, she assumes, her son) think sexual thoughts. Ew.

Other than that, though, I really did enjoy The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness. If you don't mind the language and off-color jokes, and you're interesting in reading about one hilarious single mother's journey to finding human happiness, then this might be the book for you. If you decide to read it, I promise you'll laugh out loud at least once.

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

Remember the Ladies by Angela P. Dodson, 2017

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2017 begins the centennial celebrations of women first winning the right to vote, culminating in national suffrage three years later. This book documents the milestones in that hard won struggle and reflects on women's impact on politics since.

From the birth of our nation to the recent crushing defeat of the first female presidential candidate, this book highlights women's impact on United States politics and government. It documents the fight for women's right to vote, drawing on historic research, biographies of leaders, and such original sources as photos, line art, charts, graphs, documents, posters, ads, and buttons. It presents this often-forgotten struggle in an accessible, conversational, relevant manner for a wide audience. Here are the groundbreaking convention records, speeches, newspaper accounts, letters, photos, and drawings of those who fought for women's right to vote, all in their own words, arranged to convey the inherent historical drama. The accessible almanac style allows this entertaining history speak for itself. It is full of little-known facts. For instance: When the Constitutional Convention of the thirteen colonies convened to draft the Constitution, Abigail Adams admonished her husband John Adams to "remember the ladies" (write rights for women into the Constitution!). Important for today's discussions, REMEMBER THE LADIES does not extract women's suffrage from the inseparable concurrent historic endeavors for emancipation, immigration, and temperance. Its robust research documents the intersectionality of women's struggle for the vote in its true context with other progressive efforts.
(448 pages)

As a young American woman in the 21st century, I take my right to vote for granted. My ability to participate in politics, whether through voting or campaigning or running for office, is such an obvious right that I struggle to imagine a time when I wouldn't have been able to even speak in public before men.

I suppose that's a sign of how far we've come, right? I don't usually like to think about that, though, because it makes me strangely uncomfortable to think that I would have been considered a second-class citizen even a hundred years ago. My great-grandmother was twenty years old when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed giving her the right to vote. Twenty! That's just inconceivable to me.

The entire focus of Remember the Ladies is on detailing the fight for woman's rights. It includes descriptions of the small attempts made in the country's early years, focuses mainly on the 70+ year battle for enfranchisement/legal rights, and then discusses the roles modern women play in politics. It's the historical details that I find so fascinating, and which are so crucial for me to learn about. I don't really agree with Dodson that Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election because she's a woman–I'd guess it has more to do with how wildly unlikeable she is and how strictly conservative a lot of Americans are–but that is literally my only complaint about Dodson's viewpoint. In the rest of the book, she does a very good job describing all the different suffragists and their organizations, conflicts, splits, allies, and conflicting causes (as issues like temperance and abolitionism alternately aided and undermined the fight for suffrage).

I mean, the suffrage movement lasted over seventy years. As Dodson herself points out, that is a very long time for a single movement. It progressed in clunky fits and starts at first, but it made it to victory despite the chaotic (and pressing!) distractors of the Civil War, Reconstruction, anti-immigration sentiment, and World War I. It's amazing to read about all the strands of activism that wove themselves through the background of U.S. history until the suffragist movement finally achieved its main goal. And I think it's important for me to read a book like Remember the Ladies once in a while so I can appreciate all the people in the past who fought for rights that I take for granted today.

Actually, I think everyone should read a book like Remember the Ladies once in a while, be they male or female. It's good for all of us to get a reality check now and again, to gain an appreciation for how far gender equality has progressed in just the last 100 years.

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