Monday, August 28, 2017

Get Coding! by Young Rewired State, 2016

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Learn how to write HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and build your own website, app, and game! An essential guide to computer programming for kids by kids.
Crack open this book and set off on several fun missions while simultaneously learning the basics of writing code. Want to make a website from scratch? Create an app? Build a game? All the tools are here, laid out in a user-friendly format that leads kids on an imaginary quest to keep a valuable diamond safe from dangerous jewel thieves. Presented by Young Rewired State an international collective of tech-savvy kids in easy-to-follow, bite-size chunks, the real-life coding skills taught in this engaging, comprehensive guide may just set young readers on the path to becoming technology stars of the future."

(208 pages)

I actually agreed to review this all the way back in October, but I only got around to reading it a few weeks before this review needed to go live. Why? Because it's a fun premise for teaching kids to code, and I really love it, but I already knew how to do almost everything the book teaches. I did a two-semester HTML/JavaScript/CSS web coding class several years ago and took AP Computer Science (which teaches Java, similar to JavaScript) in my junior year. I already love to code–thus the fact that I'll be majoring in it when I start college (two weeks from now!)–so I don't really need the introductory material anymore.

"Why did you agree to review it, then?" you may be asking. It's a fair question, but honestly, I was hoping I could pass it along to my youngest brother and see him interacting with it. He's frankly more of the target age, and he was just getting into coding at that point. But he took one look at the book, saw that it didn't involve coding mods for Minecraft, and said he wasn't going to do it. Hmmph.

But honestly, after flipping through it, I still think Get Coding! would be absolutely perfect for just the right kid. I probably could have gotten my brother hooked on it if I'd tried sooner–heck, I probably would have gotten hooked on it if I'd gotten it before I took the other classes. It teaches a lot of interesting skills in a meaningful way, tying them together with letters and "missions" connected to this stolen gem that the coder is helping to protect from the "Bond Brothers" who want to steal it back. You have to make a website for exchanging information about the gem, then password-protect it, then build a checklist web app, then plan a route through a city (by embedding Google Maps), then make a game to train the security guards at the museum, then put together a full website to inform the public about the gem. It's sequential and interesting, and there are little newspaper articles to go along with the letters at each step.

If anything, I worry that the book packs too much of a punch at just 208 pages. It moves extraordinarily quickly, and while it explains things well I bet there will be kids who will get stuck early on, copy the code straight from the book without analyzing it, and struggle to understand the trickier concepts further on. That was definitely a problem when my brother and I worked through the web design textbooks a few years ago. The support website for the book,, actually looks very helpful, though, so it could be okay.

Basically, if you or your kid thinks the book's "mission" gimmick will make coding fun, then definitely buy Get Coding! If you don't think it will hold interest, though, then you would probably be better hunting around to find something that will be more attractive.

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Next Together by Lauren James, 2017

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Katherine and Matthew are destined to be born again and again, century after century. Each time, their presence changes history for the better, and each time, they fall hopelessly in love, only to be tragically separated.

Spanning the Crimean War, the Siege of Carlisle and the near-future of 2019 and 2039 they find themselves sacrificing their lives to save the world. But why do they keep coming back? What else must they achieve before they can be left to live and love in peace?

Maybe the next together will be different...

(356 pages)

I'd definitely heard of this basic scenario (two souls in love reborn again and again throughout time), but I love it so much I just had to request The Next Together. I was so excited when it came that I cracked it open that same day and read the whole thing by bedtime.

The sad thing is that it wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be. And it's strange, because in some ways it lived up to my expectations: it features true love, multiple fascinating and under-represented periods in European history, drama and sacrifices galore.

But it was also a disappointment. Because I never really felt the connection between Katherine and Matthew, I was just told that there was this big special tie between them. And there was so much skipping around between time periods that I never really got invested in any of them. And the side characters were basically footnotes in the stories. And in at least one storyline, Katherine and Matthew are both a little too . . . promiscuous for my tastes.

Instead of being a beautiful epic love story about two intricate people throughout time, and the mystery of why they kept being separated from each other, The Next Together basically turned out to be four rather shallow romance novelettes about unremarkable people who are tied together by some funky time travel shtuff. And the time travel shtuff wasn't even explained in the end. I was prepared to be really mad about that in this review, but then I looked on Goodreads and found out that there's actually a sequel coming that will probably explain everything (though I don't think I'll read it). As an aside, the main character of this sequel is lesbian. I think that gives you a good idea of the author's outlook on certain things.

I did enjoy the storyline that was told entirely through notes between the two characters, though. They may have been rather naughty from time to time, but they were also so sweet and hilarious that I couldn't help but love them. I kind of want a whole book now just made up of the sticky-notes they sent each other via the fridge.

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Back on the Map by Lisa Ann Scott, 2017

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With their mother long dead and their father unknown, eleven-year-old Penny Porter and her twin brother Parker have been bouncing around foster homes for as long as they can remember. Inspired by the historical figures in her favorite book, Penny likes to imagine who she could be related to. Sacagawea? Her genes would be good ones to have. Or maybe Ghandi, or Harriet Tubman. There are endless possibilities!

But while Penny embraces the question marks in her family tree, she and Porter are both ready for a real home. Living with their aging, ornery Grauntie isn’t easy, but it’s better than other places they’ve been, and they don’t want to get moved again—or worse, split up. Penny believes the key to keeping them from being bounced to another new home is getting their town of New Hope, North Carolina back on the state map. And what better way to do that than to spruce up and sell New Hope’s Finest—an old orphanage that was supposed to reopen years ago as the best attraction ever, but never did.

She’s got the creativity and the gumption to do it. And maybe knowing who you are doesn’t matter so much as knowing what you can do. But will that be enough to finally keep her and Parker in one place for good?

(306 pages)

There are a lot of books on the market out there about kids living in quirky small towns, learning some valuable lesson about life while trying to overcome a challenge. They often have quite a Southern twang to them. I've liked a few of them, but they often ring rather hollow/cliche for me.

If that category of books is a circle, then Back to the Map is lying on the edge of that circle with part of its body in the circle and part of it outside it. I think it actually gains a lot for keeping the quirkiness a little more contained than some of the other books do. Penny's passion for trading items around town and fixing junk up into art is very fun to read about, and the interesting side characters add fun distractions to the story. The central project of fixing up New Hope's Finest (a decrepit, abandoned orphanage) is very interesting to read about. I never quite could follow Penny's logic that tied selling New Hope's Finest and getting the town back on the map to gaining a forever home there, but I suppose 11-year-olds aren't known for having the soundest reasoning skills.

I think the bits I mainly didn't care for revolved around characters' quirky semi-magic "gifts" that popped up here and there, just because I don't really care for that particular trope. Others might like it more than I did, though. I also didn't really like the depiction of Porter, which offered a rather stereotypical "behaves like he has autism and has special powers" character, but I don't know enough about the issue to know whether it's actually offensive or not.

There was also a plotline about Penny's search for information about her father, whom she and her twin brother Porter have never met because their mother gave birth out of wedlock without him. All they know is that he must have been some dark ethnicity because their mother was white and they look Black. Racism is lightly touched on (Penny thinks her mother's family is extra ashamed that she and her brother were born out of wedlock and dark, and she remembers times when strangers called her a mutt), with a subtlety that I think works well in a book which is really focused on other issues. There are a lot of snippets of information about historical figures who Penny likes to "try on" as potential ancestors on her father's side, which is sweet and sad and educational all at the same time.

Basically, Back on the Map is a sweet, fun read that I enjoyed. It's probably not going on my top twenty favorites list, but that's not really saying much about its quality since I've literally read hundreds (if not thousands) of books. If you're interested in it, then go ahead and read it. You won't be disappointed.

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

Beneath Copper Falls by Colleen Coble, 2017

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USA TODAY bestselling author Colleen Coble returns to her beloved Rock Harbor—but both danger and romance hide in this idyllic small town.

Dana Newell has just moved to Rock Harbor to take a job as a sheriff's dispatcher and is settling in next door to Bree and Kade Matthews. The abusive relationship she left behind seems a distant memory in this perfect place.

Her first day on the job, Dana receives a call from her friend Allyson who screams "He's going to kill me too" before the phone goes dead. Dana immediately dispatches a deputy, but it's too late. Allyson's death is ruled an accident, but Dana just doesn't believe it. She knows Allyson—an investigative reporter—was researching a new story. Did someone want to keep her quiet?

Dana continues to look into the accident with the help of Bree and also Allyson's cousin Boone. Romance quickly blooms between Dana and Boone but the game is much more complex than either of them imagined. When Dana's ex-fiance locates her, she's caught in the middle. It’s a game of cat and mouse as she and Boone fight to catch one killer while evading another.

(368 pages)

Beneath Copper Falls is an interesting and engaging read, but ultimately not a very memorable one. It struggled to incorporate a wide variety of characters and storylines while picking up speed in a murder mystery that was more head-scratching than anything.

I mean, the murderer's attitude and demeanor . . . doesn't really match the psyche of his crimes. Forgive me if I'm wrong about this, because I am definitely not a mental health expert, but it seems like his behavior over time is not really cohesive with a single psychological profile. Even so, I still confidently guessed the murderer 1/3 of the way from the book's end. The murder mystery part of the story wasn't really much of a twisty surprise.

As for the other part, the characters, I thought they were pretty well done. Like I said, I did enjoy reading Beneath Copper Falls, so take this with a grain of salt . . . but I thought the characters were rather too plentiful to be necessary (the side effect of writing multiple books set in the same town!) and that a lot of the dialogue was pretty cheesy. And the romance was just painful to read.

Also, Dana really didn't ring true to me as a 911 dispatcher. I don't know exactly what training they go through, but it must be pretty intense; the way she reacts when things go wrong throughout the story just didn't feel like she'd been taught to cope with emergencies. And it seems like the sort of person who helps out in emergencies all day long would already have some basic self-defence training (if for no other reason than that she'd have seen first-hand how necessary it can become). Finally, several times on the job Dana has to fight the urge to offer to pray with people as she helps them–and, indeed, she mentions that she used to get in trouble at her old job for doing just that. I shouldn't even need to say it, but that is utterly inappropriate and unprofessional behavior. It's not "nice" or "godly" to try and shove your religious practices on people when they're at their most frantic and fragile, it's just potentially adding a new stressor to an already-extreme situation. I can't believe this hadn't been drilled into Dana at some point.

This review reads pretty negatively, but I just want to reiterate that I did enjoy reading Beneath Copper Falls. It may have had its flaws, and it may not be the best book I've ever read, but it was still a nice, fluffy read that helped me while away my summer hours. That is certainly worth something in and of itself!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, in order to participate in a TLC blog tour.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Summer on Earth by Peter Thompson, 2017

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The night that eleven-year-old Grady Johnson looked out his window and wished upon a shooting star, his life changed forever. Grady, his Ma, and younger sister Luanne are having a hard summer. Dad has died and the family isn't the same. Though Ma is trying her best, Grady knows they don't have enough money to get by. The shooting star he saw was a space craft plunging to Earth, and landing at the back of their farm. Extraterrestrial engineer Ralwil Turth has one goal, to fix his power drive and go back home. But things don't go as planned. Stuck in human form, he gets to know Grady and his family as he works on their farm. He starts to learn about what it means to be human, and the exotic charms of this planet like the taste of potatoes, and how amazing bugs are. As Ralwil grows to care for Grady and his family, he comes up with a plan to help them, sure it will solve all their problems. But when trouble comes, the family's survival and Ralwil's very life are on the line. Can Grady find the courage to help his family and save his friend?
(296 pages)

When Peter Thompson reached out to me to review his new MG novel, Summer on Earth, I leaped at the chance to read it. I'm a huge sucker for sci-fi stories, and MG books, so Summer on Earth looked like a really good combination for me.

And it was. I really loved the combination of futuristic alien tech, realistic small-town ambiance, and meaningful relationship growth between the characters. I was fascinated by Ralwil's exploration of earth, I loved watching him experience everything we take for granted for the first time. His enthusiasm for corn, for example, and his analysis of human family dynamics were both thought-provoking and funny. I especially loved when he observed Grady's widowed mother in control of the children and the farm and decided that earth must feature matriarchal societies. I wish!

If I had to pick one book that Summer on Earth most reminded me of, I would say Alexander Key's The Forgotten Door. There's a little bit of the same underlying story, the idea of an alien from a futuristic world becoming stuck on earth and learning about human ways as he attempts to find a way back home. I wouldn't be surprised, actually, if Thompson got some of his inspiration for Summer on Earth from reading The Forgotten Door as a kid. And as someone who absolutely loved the earlier book but hated how short it was, I have to say that I totally love getting that vibe from Summer on Earth.

Honestly, there's not much else to say. I suppose my one "complaint" is that Summer on Earth doesn't dive quite as deep into some of the issues it brings up as it might have done, but I also recognize and appreciate that it's written for a middle school audience and thus isn't meant to go as far as I would sometimes prefer. I really liked Summer on Earth, but I think I'm also a little older than its target audience. When I handed it off to a younger boy a little closer to the middle-grade target he loved it even more than I did.

Basically, if you're looking for an interesting and engaging sci-fi book aimed at middle schoolers but still interesting for any age group, then Summer on Earth fits the bill. If you do decide to read it, comment below to let us know what you think!

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year, Revised Edition by Julie Zeilinger, 2017

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College 101: A Girl's Guide to Freshman Year is a comprehensive and authentic guide for girls to everything related to the college process. Unlike other college guides, College 101 is written from the honest, humorous, and relatable first-person perspective of a young woman who recently experienced the process, while also offering the advice of experts and unique experiences of other college-aged women. This guide shows girls what to really expect from the college planning process as well as their first year of college, including pro tips and common pitfalls to avoid. From test-taking tips, to finding the right college for you, to how to make the most of your freshman year, this book answers all young women's questions, including those they didn't even know they had! Presented in a dynamic and varied format, College 101 imparts seriously valuable information and secrets about the process in an extemporaneous and entertaining way.
(207 pages)

I figured that, as a high school graduate getting ready to head off to college next year, I was the perfect person to read and review College 101. I may not be able to judge the quality of her advice against personal experience, but I can describe how this member, at least, of its target audience responds to the book.

Unfortunately, I have to report that I really didn't like it that much. Some of Zeilinger's advice is helpful, especially her comprehensive to-bring checklist and her detailed descriptions of financial tips and advice/resources for anyone who suspects they may have been assaulted. But, and I couldn't find a way to say this that wasn't really awful, Zeilinger is just way too feminist-focused to write a college guidebook.

And for the record, I say that as a feminist.

The thing is, men and women really aren't that different. When I picked up College 101, I barely processed (and definitely care) that it was addressed solely to girls. But it's a really big deal to Zeilinger, and she's constantly talking about how we women "owe it to our grandmothers" to do well in school because they fought for our right to attend it, and how any bad thing that happens to us–ever!–is definitely the result of sexism. I don't know about you, but my first thought when another woman is rude to me is not "oh, it's not her fault, she's just responding to the sexist pressures placed on women that force them to push others down to get ahead." I think "that woman is responsible for her own actions, and she is choosing to be a jerk to me." Also, Zeilinger talks a lot about how terrible and sexist it is that a lot of women feel pressured to do it all–to look good, get good grades, and balance school and a social life. Yeah, sure, it can suck sometimes. But does she think guys don't face those same pressures? Hello?

She also goes into way too much detail about sex, and sexual freedom and sexual experimentation for my taste. I'm all for letting people make their own choices, but my choices do not involve sexual activity and so I really don't enjoy reading so much about it.

Basically, I gained a little bit of new information from College 101 but I didn't agree with a lot of the author's attitudes and outlooks so my enjoyment of the book was marred by that. It could be better for other readers, I don't know, but I for one will keep an eye out for another college guidebook–maybe one that's not addressed just to girls this time.

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Captivating Lady Charlotte by Carolyn Miller, 2017

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Lady Charlotte Featherington is destined for great things on the marriage market. After all, as the beautiful daughter of a marquess, she should have her pick of the eligible nobility hen she debuts. She, however, has love at the top of her list of marriageable attributes. And her romantic heart falls hard for one particularly dashing, attentive suitor. Sadly for Charlotte, her noble father intends her betrothed to be someone far more dull.

William Hartwell may be a duke, but he knows he was Charlotte's father's pick, not the young lady's own choice. And the captivating Lady Charlotte does not strike him as a woman who will be wooed by his wealth or title. While she has captured his heart, he has no idea how to win hers in return--and the betrayal and scandal his first wife put him through makes it difficult for him to believe that love can ever be trusted. His only hope is that Charlotte's sense of responsibility will win out over her romantic notions.

Can a widowed duke and a romantically inclined lady negotiate a future and discover love beyond duty? Will they be able to find healing and hope from the legacy of grace? Poignant and charming, this is another beautifully written, clean and wholesome Regency romance from Carolyn Miller.

(310 pages)

First, a word of warning: The Captivating Lady Charlotte is the second book in the Regency Brides: A Legacy of Grace series so there may be some accidental spoilers for its prequel, The Elusive Miss Ellison (my review). There's a fairly strong connection between the two, since Charlotte is the younger cousin of Lavinia Ellison from the first book. Lavinia and her–ahem–personal life actually wind up taking a pretty big role in the story, but I'll try to steer around the biggest spoilers.

I went back to read my review of Miss Ellison after reading Lady Charlotte, and I was reminded of the strengths and weaknesses of the former. It's funny, because I think this second book is directly opposite its prequel–better where Miss Ellison was weak, and weak in areas it was strong. What do I mean? Well, the religion in Miss Ellison was so cheesy and pushy (perhaps because Lavinia's father was a pastor) that I found it almost hard to read; discussions of faith and religious duty in Lady Charlotte, on the other hand, are sparse and focused mainly on a duty to help those who fall through society's cracks (as well as a few mentions among fellow believers of the importance of prayer during hard times). On the other hand, I actually really loved the romance in Miss Ellison–it was entertaining and realistic, if unrealistically enabled by the plot at times, and everything was just really sweet. In Charlotte's case, however, I never really get the vibe that she and William had enough of a connection or a shared passion for anything that would tie them together. William basically decides he needs a new wife and that Charlotte is pretty enough (and, you know, probably has enough substance) to take on the role. She never shows any interest in him until very late in the book, and I honestly feel like she just managed to convince herself that she was in love with the older man so she could comfortably resign herself to the situation dictated by her parents and society.

I know. That's not exactly the most romantic storyline, is it? The whole premise of the book (basically, "Charlotte is eighteen now so she must be married off to the highest bidder!") becomes more sexist the longer I think about it. I don't entirely hold that against Miller, since I'm pretty sure that's just how things were back then and she does try to create realistic loving relationships amidst the arranged marriages, but it still just rubs me the wrong way. As an eighteen-year-old young woman myself, I can't really stomach the way Charlotte's entire life revolves around getting married, loving her future husband, and bearing an heir and a spare for his family. Ick.

I really did enjoy reading The Captivating Lady Charlotte, even if it sounds like I didn't. While I didn't love the main characters quite so much this time, and the plot was a little more murky/rambling than that of Miss Ellison, I actually enjoyed it just as much. I look forward to also enjoying the third book in the series, The Dishonorable Miss DeLancey, when it comes out in a few months.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in order to participate in a Kregel blog tour.