Monday, January 29, 2018

Fire on the Track by Roseanne Montillo, 2017

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The inspiring and irresistible true story of the women who broke barriers and finish-line ribbons in pursuit of Olympic Gold

When Betty Robinson assumed the starting position at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, she was participating in what was only her fourth-ever organized track meet. She crossed the finish line as a gold medalist and the fastest woman in the world. This improbable athletic phenom was an ordinary high school student, discovered running for a train in rural Illinois mere months before her Olympic debut. Amsterdam made her a star.

But at the top of her game, her career (and life) almost came to a tragic end when a plane she and her cousin were piloting crashed. So dire was Betty's condition that she was taken to the local morgue; only upon the undertaker's inspection was it determined she was still breathing. Betty, once a natural runner who always coasted to victory, soon found herself fighting to walk.

While Betty was recovering, the other women of Track and Field were given the chance to shine in the Los Angeles Games, building on Betty's pioneering role as the first female Olympic champion in the sport. These athletes became more visible and more accepted, as stars like Babe Didrikson and Stella Walsh showed the world what women could do. And--miraculously--through grit and countless hours of training, Betty earned her way onto the 1936 Olympic team, again locking her sights on gold as she and her American teammates went up against the German favorites in Hitler's Berlin.

Told in vivid detail with novelistic flair, Fire on the Track is an unforgettable portrait of these trailblazers in action.
(304 pages)

What a powerful and educational read this is.

I mean, going into the book I knew absolutely nothing about the history of track in the Olympics, or how difficult it was for women to join in the games. I could have guessed that latter part, I suppose, but it had never really occurred to me before–I never really cared about sports enough to look into those first Olympian women.

And they were an extraordinarily talented bunch, there's no denying it. The story of their struggle, not just for entry but also for respect, equal treatment, fair coverage, and familial support, is a powerful one.

The book delves as intimately as it can into the lives of all the first greats: Betty Robinson (the first woman to win gold in track), Babe Didrikson (who almost singlehandedly won every track event one year!), and Stella Walsh, as well as snippets of the lives of the women they ran alongside and against. While the focus remains largely on Betty's tale at first, it moves on to the other runners during the period of her recovery from the accident and then comes back to her at the end. I think it's a great way of approaching the material.

I also think it's amazing that Betty Robinson could be in such a horrific plane crash and then recover so well as to return to competing in the Olympics. Considering the fact that I am currently in an immobilizing boot because I sprained my ankle at a dance four months ago and it just won't heal, I can barely even comprehend that sort of incredible recovery.

I'm still not very interested in sports, not even track, but I enjoyed learning the stories of these very unique women who led the way for females to compete in less "delicate" sports (basically anything other than gymnastics or swimming) in the Olympics. I was going to recommend the book to my younger sister, a former gymnast, because I thought she would also appreciate it, but changed my mind once I reached some more mature content in the latter part of the book (references to childhood sexual abuse, athletes confused about their sexuality/gender, and Hitler–literally Hitler–coming on to the lesbian gold-winner Helen Stephens at the Berlin Olympics).

I appreciate the inclusion of these sorts of details, because they are also a part of these womens' stories, but their inclusion does make recommending the book to younger readers difficult. If you're an adult, however, and interested in the early Olympics or the rise of women in Olympic sports, then this is definitely the book for you.

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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Death and Douglas by J.W. Ocker, 2017

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Douglas has grown up around the business of death. Generations of his family have run the Mortimer Family Funeral Home. The mortician and gravediggers are all his buddies. And the display room of caskets is an awesome place for hide and seek. It’s business as usual in Douglas’s small New England town. Until one day an incredibly out of the ordinary murder victim is brought to the funeral home. And more startling: others follow. On the cusp of Halloween, a serial killer has arrived. And unsatisfied with the small-town investigation, Douglas enlists his friends to help him solve the mystery. With sumptuous descriptions of a bucolic town and it’s quirky people, fascinating yet middle grade–appropriate insider information about the funeral process, and a crackling mystery with a heart-pounding conclusion―Death and Douglas has something for readers young and old.
(372 pages)


What a perfect book book this would have been to read right before Halloween! It's spooky and scary, with a serial killer on the loose and a main character who spends his life surrounded by death, but never so gruesome that it would be unpleasant to read.

It's perfect for middle school, really–though I liked it too, and I'm definitely not in that demographic anymore. I thought Ocker took a really interesting angle on spooky stories, telling a tale that was no less believable than an episode of NCIS or Monk or [insert your favorite crime show here]. Douglas is very comfortable with death, the sort of death that happens by accident or through aging. He knows and accepts that it is natural and inevitable, and he has a very intimate understanding of the process that occurs–from home removal to embalming to funeral ceremony to burial–because he has grown up as a part of the funeral business. When he discovers a serial killer is on the loose, though, it's fascinating not only to watch him and his friends do their best to solve the mystery but also to watch him grapple to equate his peaceful understanding of death with the horrible, unnatural, untimely death that occurs when there is a murder.

I think this is an important issue to think about, especially in a culture such as ours that is so inundated with books and movies and TV shows that revolve around solving murders. I love Agatha Christie's stories, for example, but none of her characters ever quite grapple with the horribleness of murder in quite the same way Douglas does. I think that's a big advantage of having a kid narrate, and I think it's also part of what makes the book both accessible for younger kids and also possibly a bit too much for them.

After all, dealing with the finality and purpose of death is pretty heady stuff for a kid's book. It manages to do a good job, I think, even without bringing in any sort of discussion of an afterlife. And the characters, both major and minor, are just so well-done that the entire book is a joy to read. It's also surprisingly hilarious for a book that literally has the word "Death" in its title.

Basically, if you want to read it, then do. I highly recommend it. But if you (or the kid you're thinking about) might not feel ready, then set it aside for now. Either way, think about saving it to read on some dark nights in October leading up to Halloween–that's definitely the best time of year for it!

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

Holding the Fort by Regina Jennings, 2017

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Louisa Bell never wanted to be a dance-hall singer, but dire circumstances force her hand. With a little help from her brother in the cavalry, she's able to make ends meet, but lately he's run afoul of his commanding officer, so she undertakes a visit to straighten him out.

Major Daniel Adams has his hands full at Fort Reno. He can barely control his rowdy troops, much less his two adolescent daughters. If Daniel doesn't find someone respectable to guide his children, his mother-in-law insists she'll take them.

When Louisa arrives with some reading materials, she's mistaken for the governess who never appeared. Major Adams is skeptical. She bears little resemblance to his idea of a governess--they're not supposed to be so blamed pretty--but he's left without recourse. His mother-in-law must be satisfied, which leaves him turning a blind eye to his unconventional governess's methods. Louisa's never faced so important a performance. Can she keep her act together long enough?

(345 pages)

Sometimes I'm just in the mood for a fluffy book, you know? And it doesn't get much fluffier than a historical fiction novel about a dance hall singer mistaken for a governess at a fort in the American West.

A small part of my brain hates the entire premise of the book, since basically the entire point of Fort Reno appears to be to dole out food rations to the American Indians of the West and generally just "keep them in line." I also dislike a man, Frisco Smith, who showed up a couple of times in the story and may be setting up to be the hero of a future book: he's fighting to open the latest land aquisition up to homesteading. The exact quote:

"All I'm asking is that the government do the same thing for them [white settlers] that they did for the Indians. Give them a chance at a homestead, too.

 This is completely unfair, of course, since the land was the Native Americans' to begin with–not the white settlers'–and their culture was not really compatible with the euro-centric model of small, individual homesteads.

But honestly, sometimes I just need to read a fluffy historical fiction without thinking about all the horrible parts of American history. The story in Holding the Fort is held together by the romance, which is likely the driving factor for most people reading the book and basically also is the plot. I think my favorite parts were honestly when Louisa was spending time with the girls and studying her way into an education of her own along the way. I sympathized with her struggles and rooted for her to find a happy ending, since life had dealt her nothing but bad cards and she had always done the best she could with them. I cared for Daniel's daughters more than I cared for him himself, but I was happy enough to see them both finding their way to happiness together.

Honestly, though, I think I'm much too cynical for this book, because I kind of agreed with the grandmother that the girls needed to get out of that fort full of men and get a real education. Fort Reno doesn't seem like a very nice place to raise children, and the "mean old grandmother" trying to "steal the children" presented in the story really just seems like a loving and concerned grandmother who wants the best for her daughter's children more than anything else.

But gah, that's me thinking about things too much again. Anyway, Holding the Fort is a fun escapist read for a few hours–if you can manage to turn off the questioning part of your brain long enough to enjoy it.

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

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories by Celeste Fletcher McHale, 2017

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Jacey met the man of her dreams a year ago—and hasn’t seen him since. Finally relocating him as the pastor at her best friend’s wedding was the very last thing she expected.

A year ago, Jacey was trapped on a rooftop during a flood with perfect strangers, including a family and a man named Colin. After two days there together, she had no doubt that Colin was the man of her dreams. When they were finally rescued he tucked his phone number into her pocket. But an accident with the rescue boat left her hospitalized with amnesia and PTSD . . . and his number nowhere to be found.

Now, Jacey has still only recovered bits and pieces of her memory from that time. She clearly remembers Colin—but not his last name or any other details that would help her locate him. She’s trying to immerse herself in the joy of her best friend’s wedding . . . when she looks up at the end of the aisle only to discover Colin there in the minister’s role. Shock is an understatement.

On one hand, she’s elated to see him again. And then reality sets in. She never intended to get married or have kids. And being a minister’s wife was definitely never on her list. Was Colin not the man she thought he was? Or has the amnesia changed her more than she realized?

With the typical wit and honesty Celeste Fletcher McHale is becoming known for, it’s time for Jacey to take a fresh look at her life. Could this string of unexpected events have been setting her up for something far better than what she had planned for herself?

(320 pages)


I alternated between loving this book and heavily rolling my eyes at it.

I think the basic scenario of a young couple who were brought together and then torn apart by a flood is a very interesting one, and McHale to a large part does it credit. She also, however, adds a lot more plot elements and devices which quickly stretch the story past any semblance of realism. There are too many coincidences, comical misunderstandings, and sudden life-changing decisions for my usual taste, but I was in just the right roll-with-it mood so I could appreciate the emotions of the story without getting buoyed down by logic.

And I did enjoy reading about Jacey and Georgia, quite a bit! Colin irritated me a bit more: he seemed kind of condescending, especially considering his philandering past, and he moved way too fast when Jacey was clearly still grappling with PTSD from the flood. The supporting characters were all well-drawn, though, and all of the main characters had interesting backstories that blended well together.

But seriously, let's go back and hit a couple of the things that have bothered me most since I finished the book. For one thing, the instalove is almost gag-worthy: Jacey and Colin both decide that they must be either in love or at least deeply attracted to each other after spending very little time together, all of which was under very horrific situations which would clearly have been affecting their judgment. They never really had a chance to get to know each other before jumping into things. Also, there are some coincidences that keep their plots entwined about halfway through the book that are just too far out there for me to swallow (though I can't go into them because of spoilers). There's also some mention of the foster care system, which I can't go into too much either, and–as a member of a foster family with quite a bit of experience with "the system"–I thought the representation was a little off. That could just be the result of varying practices across state lines, though, so I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories was a nice relaxing read, but it was also frustrating in parts. If you're looking for a light read to while away your days, then this is just the sort of forgettable read that could hit the spot.

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

Monday, January 8, 2018

Ink by Alice Broadway, 2018

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Every action, every deed, every significant moment is tattooed on your skin for ever. When Leora's father dies, she is determined to see her father remembered forever. She knows he deserves to have all his tattoos removed and made into a Skin Book to stand as a record of his good life. But when she discovers that his ink has been edited and his book is incomplete, she wonders whether she ever knew him at all.
(366 pages)

First, let's just deal with the fact that the idea of Skin Books and tattoos are really, really weird. In this society, people literally get all important parts of their lives tattooed onto their bodies. When they die, their corpses are literally skinned and the skin with tattoos on it gets put into a book and given to their family. Leora's house literally has a bookshelf just full of the Skin Books of her various ancestors. That's right, the books with their literal dried skin.

*Shudders*

So gross. But putting aside the ickiness (and my personal aversion to ever getting a tattoo myself), I think the world built in Ink is absolutely fascinating. There's a beauty in the way people use tattoos to literally slice the most important facts about themselves–and their favorite memories and the key aspects of their personalities–into their skin. There are people whose entire career consists of studying tattoos and giving new ones to people. This is a job, but there are also some people–like Leora and her mother–who can look at people's tattoos and discern the story behind them. It's a beautiful thought, this idea of being completely open and honest and almost literally "wearing your heart on your sleeve." The lore behind the practice is also very beautiful, with several semi-fictionalized tales from their past which were very reminiscent of our fairy tales.

Where things get hard, though, is where the government is concerned. It's extremely strict and uptight, and it requires all people to get certain tattoos. All people who don't get tattoos are considered to be dangerous (partly because of the old stories and partly because they "hide" themselves by not sharing their secrets on their skin), but the leaders of the government crackdown more and more on weeding out not just them but also anyone who sympathized with or helped the,.

As the story goes by, Leora learns more and more about the world she lives in and the government's actions. She also learns some things about her father's history and her own past. It's all very interesting, and I'm very excited to see where the story goes from here in the sequel, but the real focus of Ink was on introducing both Leora and the reader to the world and the plot of the sries.

I enjoyed the book, though the skin books definitely did creep me out a little bit.If you're interested, check it out! Let us know in the comments below what you think of it.

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

Friday, January 5, 2018

Esme's Wish by Elizabeth Foster, 2017

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When fifteen-year-old Esme Silver objects at her father’s wedding, her protest is dismissed as the action of a stubborn, selfish teenager. Everyone else has accepted the loss of Esme’s mother, Ariane – so why can’t she?

But Esme is suspicious. She is sure that others are covering up the real reason for her mother’s disappearance – that ‘lost at sea’ is code for something more terrible, something she has a right to know.

After Esme is accidentally swept into the enchanted world of Aeolia, the truth begins to unfold. With her newfound friends, Daniel and Lillian, Esme retraces her mother’s steps in the glittering canal city of Esperance, untangling the threads of Ariane’s double life. But the more Esme discovers about her mother, the more she questions whether she really knew her at all.
(252 pages) 

What a nice, cozy book to read at the start of my winter vacation. Esme's Wish features enough popular elements (girls with missing mothers, portals to secret magical lands, magic connected to water, special magical powers, a trio of friends, etc.) to feel familiar and cozy, but Foster somehow managed to combine them in a grabbing and interesting way. Once the story really got rolling, I never got bored or experienced deja-vu from other books. I was entranced.

One of my favorite aspects was the way Esme discovered more about her mother as the story went on: as new developments occurred in her investigation, not only did she gain an increasingly nuanced and complex understanding of who her mother was as a person (moving beyond the hazy memories of a cheerful and idealized mother she had clung to for so long), but she also gained new information about the fantastical world she had just discovered.

I have to say, though, that possibly my least favorite part of the book is the component that has to do with her life back in the "normal" world. There's one scene with her father which seems to show that he loved her mother, and still loves her, very much, but that doesn't negate the fact that he is marrying a Cinderella's stepmother-type woman who wishes Esme didn't exist. He then leaves on an extremely long honeymoon without even telling her that his new sister-in-law will be staying with her . . . and that new step-aunt then proceeds to tear down every familiar item in their entire house in order to do away with reminders of Esme's mother.

It's just . . . painful. Painful to read, and painful to imagine happening. I can't believe Esme's father is otherwise depicted as a loving man and a good husband in her memories/her mother's writings, because he seems quite selfish to me. But anyway, that's a relatively small component of this book so it's not a big drawback. And I'm actually looking forward to seeing how Foster expands on these characters in future books.

Because that's right, there are more Esme books on the way. And this is awesome news, because I can't wait to read them! Esme's Wish was a beautiful, fun book to read, and I can't wait to dive back into her world. In the meantime, if you're in the mood for a book like Esme's Wish, then by all means do give it a try–and comment below to let us know what you think!

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

Monday, January 1, 2018

Flower Moon by Gina Linko, 2018

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Tempest and Tally Jo Trimble are mirror twins—so alike they were almost born the same person—and they've been inseparable since birth. But it's the summer they turn thirteen, and it seems like everyone can tell something is changing between them.

Pa Charlie, whose traveling carnival is the best part of every summer, is watching them closer than ever. Digger, who sneaks poor kids onto the carnival rides for free and smiles faster than anyone, seems to be fixing for a fight. Even Mama is acting different, refusing to travel with the carnival this year even though her own twin, who she hasn't seen since childhood, will be there.

And Tally and Tempest are the most different of all. There's a strangeness between them, a thickness to the air, an unseen push and pull, and it's getting stronger. It starts as a feeling, but soon it's sputtering and sparking, hurling them backwards, threatening to explode.

When Tally learns that she and Tempest may not be the first twins in their family to be separated by whatever this force is, she realizes she'll have to find a way to stop it—or she might lose not only her sister, but everyone she loves.

(256 pages)

In the last few years, there has been a surge of quirky quasi-magical books featuring tweens who, more often than not, grow into themselves over the course of the story (often go on a trip) and learn something about themselves/their family that they'd never known before. These books also, for reasons I have yet to comprehend, often have a southern twang to them.

This budding sub-genre of books has been very popular, and I've read many of the books and liked them, but I'm the first to admit that I've never really bought entirely into it: I find many of the books (with the notable exceptions of Sheila Turnage's incredible Mo & Dale Mysteries, Ingrid Law's Savvy series and Kathleen Van Cleeve's Drizzleare pretty vanilla, really, and largely forgotten as soon as the last page is turned.

When I requested Flower Moon, I figured it fell squarely into the niche of books I've just described–but I'd seen good reviews of it, so I hoped it would be one of the great ones. After reading it, I have to report that Flower Moon is a good book–and it ticks all the boxes for the magical realism genre–but it somehow doesn't really seem to match the other books in the subgenre. Maybe it's because the characters are much more down-to-earth and realistic than the protagonists of most books: true, most characters are reduced to one or two personality traits, but Linko narrates with a frank and honest eye for detail and the setting of a traveling carnival is plausible enough that it's easy for the readers to imagine that we are in place of the main characters.

I enjoyed the book, and I rooted for the girls to figure out a solution to their growing separation, but I struggled at first to relate to Tally, because she was such a jerk to her twin. I suppose this is part of the realisticness of the book, since real-life siblings are often cruel to each other, but it was hard to read; at the same time, though, I found it difficult to understand Tempest's insecure worries that Tally wanted to be free of her forever. Surely most functional sibling relationships are strong enough that this would never come into question?

Anyway, as for the magic system itself, I thought the premise was interesting. Linko could have gone into more detail in showing us its effects on past generations, and perhaps its origins. It also seemed like the ending was a little too easy, though I can't go into it much because of spoilers. And everything was made like five times harder by the decision of every single adult to keep the past this big dark secret from the girls, which seems odd since they should have known better (and they should have recognized what was going on way before they did!).

All in all, Flower Moon was a good book and a nice afternoon read, but it wasn't the powerhouse read I was hoping it would be. I do recommend it for those of you who are interested in it, though. Let me know what you think of it in the comments below!

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