Friday, March 23, 2018

The Orphan Band of Springdale by Anne Nesbet, 2018

Click to view
 on Goodreads 
With the United States on the verge of World War II, eleven-year-old Gusta is sent from New York City to Maine, where she discovers small-town prejudices — and a huge family secret.

It’s 1941, and tensions are rising in the United States as the Second World War rages in Europe. Eleven-year-old Gusta’s life, like the world around her, is about to change. Her father, a foreign-born labor organizer, has had to flee the country, and Gusta has been sent to live in an orphanage run by her grandmother. Nearsighted, snaggletoothed Gusta arrives in Springdale, Maine, lugging her one precious possession: a beloved old French horn, her sole memento of her father. But in a family that’s long on troubles and short on money, how can a girl hang on to something so valuable and yet so useless when Gusta’s mill-worker uncle needs surgery to fix his mangled hand, with no union to help him pay? Inspired by her mother’s fanciful stories, Gusta secretly hopes to find the coin-like “Wish” that her sea-captain grandfather supposedly left hidden somewhere. Meanwhile, even as Gusta gets to know the rambunctious orphans at the home, she feels like an outsider at her new school — and finds herself facing patriotism turned to prejudice, alien registration drives, and a family secret likely to turn the small town upside down.

(448 pages)

I'll be honest: I didn't really know what I was in for when I picked up The Orphan Band of Springdale, and I kind of thought it was going to be a little bit boring. I like historical fiction, but some areas (such as orphans going to live with a troubled family in a small town) have been done nearly to death by this point.

I'm very happy to report, though, that The Orphan Band of Springdale avoids a lot of the pitfalls of its niche. Some of the plot devices and twists may look familiar, but the book as a whole is done in a fairly original and definitely gripping manner. It handles a lot of messy, complicated issues such as anti-German sentiment in the 1940s, the handling of sensitive family history, and the labor organization movement. All of these are done very well, I thought, and woven together very tightly and interspersed with the right amount of humor to keep things from becoming too dark for its target audience.

I think my favorite thing about this book is that it works very hard to show both sides of every issue and paint the characters as complex and nuanced. There are almost no pure villains or amazing heroes in Springdale; people make their decisions out of love, out of fear, out of necessity; sometimes those decisions are good ones that improve life for everyone involved, and sometimes those decisions are bad ones which wind up hurting people around them. But they always have reasons for the choices they make, and sometimes those reasons are actually very reasonable (even if we may not like their results). For example, it's not really fair that Gusta–an innocent child–gets bullied because of her German last name, but it is true that her father is literally from Germany and WWII has already started; fears that her family might be connected to the Nazis aren't entirely unreasonable. As the granddaughter of a Swiss-German American who lost the German language which had been handed down for generations, because schoolteachers and parents decided it wasn't a good idea to let their kids speak German in the 1940s, I can mourn for the loss of cultural heritage people of German ancestry experienced during WWII–and the discrimination some, like Gusta, experienced–but I also understand that it was necessary to a certain extent. I think Nesbet does a good job walking the line between the two perspectives, showing us the atmosphere of the time and its results.

The Orphan Band of Springdale is a good book, a nuanced book, and I really enjoyed reading it. It may be a bit long for some younger readers, but if they can make it through the 450 pages then I recommend it. Let me know in the comments below if you or anyone you know has read it, and give us your thoughts!

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Sea Before Us by Sarah Sundlin, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
In 1944, American naval officer Lt. Wyatt Paxton arrives in London to prepare for the Allied invasion of France. He works closely with Dorothy Fairfax, a "Wren" in the Women's Royal Naval Service. Dorothy pieces together reconnaissance photographs with thousands of holiday snapshots of France--including those of her own family's summer home--in order to create accurate maps of Normandy. Maps that Wyatt will turn into naval bombardment plans.

As the two spend concentrated time together in the pressure cooker of war, their deepening friendship threatens to turn to love. Dorothy must resist its pull. Her bereaved father depends on her, and her heart already belongs to another man. Wyatt too has much to lose. The closer he gets to Dorothy, the more he fears his efforts to win the war will destroy everything she has ever loved.

The tense days leading up to the monumental D-Day landing blaze to life under Sarah Sundin's practiced pen with this powerful new series.

(375 pages)

I've found myself reading more Christian romance novels over the past year or so, and I'm not entirely sure why. It's a good light genre, very fluffy and escapist, though I have to say that the quality has been extremely varied (and leaned quite a bit on the side of cringe). I'm finding that the historical fiction ones are often better, though, and I'm always intrigued by the prospect of another angle on WWII, so I decided to review The Sea Before Us when I got the chance.

And honestly, I enjoyed it. At nearly 400 pages, it was long enough to carry multiple plot lines and let the reader spend quite some time with the characters. Granted, the plotlines were incredibly melodromatic and contrived, but they were still interesting and grabbing. Sometimes you just want a ridiculously dramatic read, you know?

There were only a few times when the book got to be too much for mine: the beginning, which shows Wyatt's dramatically horrible back story; the first time Wyatt visited Dorothy's house, when he spilled said entire shameful backstory to two strangers without any reservations; and Dorothy's cringe-worthy pursuit of her childhood crush. I can't go much more into them for fear of spoilers, but yeah.

I think my main gripe with the book was how little it actually felt like it was set in Britain. Besides the occasional touristy thing or stereotypical vocabulary (and obviously the WWII details–which were very interesting in their own right!), it honestly just felt like the characters and setting were someplace in America, which makes sense since Sundin is from California. Perhaps some of the tonal trouble stems legitimately from the fact that Wyatt is from Texas, but I have spent a couple weeks in both London and Edinburgh, the two main cities featured in the book, and am currently attending college in Scotland, and I really don't feel like the atmosphere feels very authentic.

This tonal issue bothered me just a little at the time, and more now that I'm looking back at the book as a whole, but I honestly did enjoy The Sea Before Us. I'm not sure I'll read all the books in the series, each of which will feature one of Wyatt's brothers, because I have to be in just the right mood to enjoy this level of melodrama. If I do, though, I'll be sure to let you know what I think of them.

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

Friday, March 9, 2018

Emily Windsnap and the Falls of Forgotten Island by Liz Kessler, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
While on vacation, Emily Windsnap finds herself swept up in an ancient prophecy as the New York Times best-selling series continues.

Emily is headed to a tropical island for a relaxing vacation with friends and family. And this time, Emily promises her best friend, Shona, there will be absolutely no adventure — just plenty of fun. But somehow excitement always seems to find Emily, and before she knows it, she ends up on the other side of a powerful waterfall on a forgotten island no one else can get to. Well, no one that isn't a half-mer like Emily and her boyfriend, Aaron. The people who live on the island believe in a prophecy that foretells how they can be saved from an imminent, devastating earthquake — and this prophecy seems to revolve around Emily and Aaron, as well as a mysterious, mythic giant. Will they be able to find the giant — and fulfill the prophecy — before it's too late?

(320 pages)

I read the original The Tail of Emily Windsnap novel many, many years ago–back when I was actually in its target audience. It honestly read like a standalone, so I was a little nonplussed when a sequel came out, but I went ahead and read and enjoyed it. The story yet again seemed finished, which I was okay with, but then a few years later another book came out. Then another. And another. And another. And now this one. If you haven't been keeping count, that means Falls of Forgotten Island is the seventh book in a series while always seems to be wrapped up and finished at the end of every new installment.

The thing is, though, the reason Kessler can get away with writing so many of these books is that they really are enjoyable reads–especially for a certain demographic of readers, largely made up of tweenage girls. There's always something very appealing about the story of an ordinary girl who can secretly turn into a mermaid and live a whole nother life beneath the waves. Add in the romance plotline which has sprung up in the later books, with Emily's boyfriend Aaron, and it's sure to be a hit with kids who have always secretly wanted Emily's life.

As for me, I have to say that I'm getting rather sick of the Emily Windsnap books by this point. The drama seems rather contrived in this one, with Emily seeming to get into fights with everyone for reasons that are not entirely in her control. Shona get really mad at her for stumbling into yet another dangerous problem in need of a hero to save the day. It's hard to sympathize with her anger, or her desire to basically just leave the island to be destroyed.

At the same time, I do agree with Shona that it's getting kind of ridiculous how many times Emily has stumbled into a deadly scenario that only she (plus Aaron sometimes) can prevent. The premise may be getting rather old, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it. I don't plan on re-reading Falls of Forgotten Island anytime soon,  but I won't warn anyone away from it either. If you're a fan of the Emily Windsnap series, let us know in the comments what you think of this latest instalment!

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

Smart Cookie by Elly Swartz, 2018

Click to view
on Goodreads 
SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO KEEP A FEW SECRETS.

Frankie knows she’ll be in big trouble if Dad discovers she secretly posted a dating profile for him online. But she’s determined to find him a wife, even if she ends up grounded for life. Frankie wants what she had before Mom died. A family of three. Two is a pair of socks or the wheels on a bicycle or a busy weekend at the B&B where Frankie and Dad live. Three is a family. And Frankie’s is missing a piece.

But Operation Mom is harder to pull off than Frankie expects. None of the Possibles are very momish, the B&B’s guests keep canceling, Frankie’s getting the silent treatment from her once best friend, and there’s a maybe-ghost hanging around. Worst of all, Gram and Dad are definitely hiding secrets of their own.

If a smart cookie like Frankie wants to save the B&B and find her missing piece, she’s going to have to figure out what secrets are worth keeping and when it’s time to let go.

(288 pages)

What a fun, sweet story. There's nothing in here that hasn't been done many times before, but Smart Cookie puts the elements together in a way that's interesting and engaging.

For one thing, the focus on cookies was great. I love cookies. I'm guessing you probably like cookies. Pretty much everybody likes cookies. Frankie is constantly making fresh batches for the bed-and-breakfast, choosing different recipes to match her mood, and it really made me start craving some cookies of my own (not that it takes a lot to do that). My only cookie-related gripe is that Swartz didn't include any recipes in the chapter beginnings or the back of the book! I would have liked to try one or two, and I know for sure that kids who are the target age would be even more excited about getting to make the sweets described in the story.

Okay, okay, moving on from the cookies. I quite liked Frankie, she was a perky kid with a lot of get-up-and-go. There were a lot of things going on around her that she didn't entirely understand, but she tried her best to keep up and contribute where she could. The storyline about her father's dating profile is actually a rather small component of the book, which also focuses on Frankie's class's preparation for the float, her old best friend's struggles with the repercussions of her father's abandonment, her father's efforts to keep the bed-and-breakfast afloat, and her grandmother's growing hoarding tendencies, as well as some other smaller storylines.

There's a lot going on, quite a bit of which touches on serious real-world issues in a way that is still enjoyable and manageable for younger readers. That's quite important to have in a book, I think. It's crucial to give children a method to grapple with and understand complex issues such as infidelity, financial hardship and mental health without scaring or hurting them. Smart Cookie does this in such a smooth way that I didn't even realize it until after I'd finished the book!

I recommend Smart Cookie to anyone who's thinking about reading it. If you do, let us know in the comments section what you think!

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

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange, 2016

Click to view
on Goodreads 
1919. Henry has moved to the countryside with her parents and her baby sister, Piglet – all still scarred by the death of her brother. Alone in her head, she begins to explore her surroundings, encouraged by her only friends – characters from her favourite books. Nobody much notices when she wanders into the woods at the bottom of the garden and meets Moth, a striking witch-like woman. Together they form a bond that could help Henry save her family.
(304 pages)

What a lovely and thoughtful read.

I had no idea what I was in for when I picked it up, which I think made the experience even more delightful. In this review, I'll try to discuss my own reaction to the book without spoiling too much of the experience of going into it blind for you.

Because it's an extremely atmospheric book. It's set in a big, rambling old house with secrets tucked quietly away inside its walls. It's set right after the end of World War 1, at a time when the fighting had ended but the reverberation of pain from so much death was still echoing in the air. It's the story of a young girl who has suffered terrible loss and trauma, using her imagination to cope with her new reality–but the lines become blurred, and one begins to wonder what is real, what is imagined, and whether Henry is beginning to suffer from hallucinations like the ones her mother has developed.

I wish I could delve more into the characters of the story, because I felt they were strong as well, but as I said I don't want to spoil too much. My only real complaint is that some of them were a tad stereotypical, and that one or two of the later plot turns were a little too contrived/convenient for me. I loved the book best when Henry was just wandering around in the house and the adjacent forest, exploring the world. But of course the plot had to come to some sort of climax and denouement, and I think that what Strange chose to do is perfectly fine and does wrap the book up very well.

And with that, I think I'll stop. I definitely recommend The Secret of Nightingale Wood to everyone who is interested. If you read it, let us know your thoughts in the comments down below!

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