Friday, August 31, 2018

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen, 2018

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Chaya Lindner is a teenager living in Nazi-occupied Poland. Simply being Jewish places her in danger of being killed or sent to the camps. After her little sister is taken away, her younger brother disappears, and her parents all but give up hope, Chaya is determined to make a difference. Using forged papers and her fair features, Chaya becomes a courier and travels between the Jewish ghettos of Poland, smuggling food, papers, and even people.

Soon Chaya joins a resistance cell that runs raids on the Nazis' supplies. But after a mission goes terribly wrong, Chaya's network shatters. She is alone and unsure of where to go, until Esther, a member of her cell, finds her and delivers a message that chills Chaya to her core, and sends her on a journey toward an even larger uprising in the works -- in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Though the Jewish resistance never had much of a chance against the Nazis, they were determined to save as many lives as possible, and to live -- or die -- with honor.

(400 pages)

Wow.

Just, wow. I mean, I've been a fan of Nielsen's for ages, and I adored her East Berlin book A Night Divided, so I knew going in that I was going to love Resistance. But I had no idea how blown away by it I was going to be.

World War II is pretty well-trodden ground by this point, but Nielsen still managed to find an aspect–the Jewish resistance movement–that I didn't know anything about. I never knew that the Jews worked so hard to organize themselves and fight against the Nazis, but they did. They were incredibly brave, risking their lives every day to undermine the war effort, warn the people imprisoned in ghettos about the death camps, and smuggle some out into safe houses.

Chava and her fellow fighters know from day one that they will most likely die for their cause, but they know that they will face death no matter what they do–they want to use their lives to do the most good before they are killed, either for fighting or for being Jewish. It's a horrible situation, the ultimate "rock and a hard place" dilemma, and they are beyond brave for choosing to do what they can to help.

I love how Nielsen doesn't just leave it at that, though. Over the course of Chaya and Esther's journey, they meet lots of different people from all walks of life and religion. They meet some Poles who ignore them, others who attack them for being Jewish, and still others who risk life and limb to help them. They meet some Jews who refuse to fight back out of fear, and some who don't fight out of disbelief, but also some who won't fight because their faith forbids murder–so they fight for the Jewish religion by not taking up arms. Nielsen's focus on these moral nuances, on portraying the various ways people responded to the Nazis without judging them, is a great strength throughout the book.

I realize I haven't really discussed the main characters much yet. It's hard to focus on them when there are so many incredible details about history to pull from Resistance's pages, but Chava is the perfect core to the book. She doesn't see herself as a hero, and she doesn't romanticize anything. She is a very pragmatic person, treating herself almost like an object and calculating how best to use herself for the good of the Jews and downfall of the Nazis. Her initial impatience with/distaste for Esther is completely reasonable, since the younger girl really is pretty useless, but I loved watching them come to understand and respect each other as the story went on. I rooted for both of them, as well as for their cause, though I knew the story couldn't possibly have a picture-perfect happy ending.

I wouldn't recommend Resistance for very young readers, just because the vast majority of the characters in this book either die or expect themselves to die at any moment (and the climax, which is masterfully done by the way, is set in the Warsaw Ghetto during a doomed revolt). There's no bad language or graphic descriptions of the gruesome scenes Chava encounters, though, so as far as books about Polish Jews during WWII goes, this is about as "clean" as it's going to get.

I'm sure it's no surprise when I say that I highly recommend Resistance. I try to always list pros and cons in my reviews, but I literally don't have any cons for this one. It's a wonderfully well-written book, and it gives proper due to the incredible men and women who fought for their people. I hope many children read Resistance and learn the story of these heroes.

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

Monday, August 27, 2018

Sons of Blackbird Mountain by Joanne Bischof, 2018

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When Aven Norgaard leaves Norway to serve as housekeeper to her late husband’s cousins in Appalachia, she expects lads in need of care, not three grown men—each in need of a wife and bound by a powerful brotherhood. As the men carve out a living by brewing artisan liquor, young Haakon’s pursuit tempts Aven’s lonely spirit . . . but it is his deaf brother, Thor, whose silent strength shows her the depths of real love.

Unable to speak to any woman, Thor Norgaard never anticipates Aven will befriend him, let alone treat him as her safe harbor. Though hard cider is their livelihood and his greatest talent, he fights his way to sobriety with Haakon’s help, defying the bottle for Aven’s hand—only to face a battle of the heart that tests even the strongest bonds of brotherhood.

(341 pages)

You might think that this is just another cheesy Christian old-timey romance. To a certain extent, you would be right.

But to shove Sons of Blackbird Mountain into the same category as so many of the throw-away novels in that category doesn't really seem fair to it. Because, while I may have been a bit cynical going in, I quickly realized that Bischof has a serious gift for storytelling. Her prose is beautiful and absorbing, and the characters are drawn so well they feel like people you could actually meet in real life.

Perhaps this is because the characters are flawed. And not just the typical "stubborn and quick to righteous anger" flawed, but actually screwed-up people with struggles and challenges. Both Thor and Haakon make big mistakes at different points in the story, and there is no softening or pooh-poohing away the badness of what they do.

Along the same vein, Aven's hard background is laid out for the reader to see: her illegitimate birth in a nobleman's house, her mother's death at a young age, her childhood in a workhouse and her marriage at 17 to a Norwegian stranger who shipped her from Ireland to Norway, her husband's addiction to alcohol, etc. Plus there's an entire storyline about the KKK and their attacks on a black family close to the Norsgaards.

That's not to say that Sons of Blackbird Mountain is a depressing book, though. In fact, if anything, I'd still say it errs on the side of optimism! Thor got away with a lot of bad things when he was an alcoholic, and everyone waved away a lot of things I would have had a very hard time swallowing. I loved that he is deaf, because there are so few books out there with hard-of-hearing characters (and Bischof did an amazing job describing his lifestyle!), but I was a little taken aback by how well he and Aven connected when she literally didn't even understand sign language! Like, seriously.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading Sons of Blackbird Mountain even when I had to fight back an eye-roll or two at the most ridiculous plot turns. I loved the characterizations and the way nothing was sugarcoated, and I highly recommend Sons of Blackbird Mountain for those of you who are interested.

I do just have to add a trigger warning for this book, though: there are two scenes where sexual assault is implied (once it is a misunderstanding, the other time it never goes past PG-13).

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

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard, 2018

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i am the girl manny loves. the girl who writes our story in the book of flying. i am alice.

Alice is fifteen, with hair as red as fire and skin as pale as bone. Something inside Alice is broken: she remembers words, but struggles to speak them. Still, Alice knows that words are for sharing, so she pins them to posters in tucked-away places: railway waiting rooms, fish-and-chips shops, quiet corners. Manny is sixteen, with a scar from shoulder to elbow. Something inside Manny is broken, too: he once was a child soldier, forced to do terrible, violent things. But in a new land with people who care for him, Manny explores the small town on foot. And in his pocket, he carries a poem he scooped up, a poem whose words he knows by heart. The relationship between Alice and Manny will be the beginning of love and healing. And for these two young souls, perhaps, that will be good enough.
(288 pages)

I'm struggling to review The Stars at Oktober Bend.

I really don't know what to say. Is it a good book? I think so. Did I personally enjoy it? Not all that much. Can I even remember half of what happens? Nope. Does that make me a bad person? Hopefully not.

Basically, it's the sort of meaningful, lyrical, poignant book that we're all supposed to fall head over heels for. Alice's story is tragic and haunting, and Manny's is equally so.

Or at least, it is once we find out what it is. Unfortunately, so much time is taken up with Alice–her muddled narration, her backstory, her vivid memories and those she blocked out–that there isn't nearly as much focus on Manny. We learn that he was a child soldier, that he is traumatized, and that he quickly falls for Alice. And that's almost all the details we get in the entire book.

Perhaps that is the root of my troubles with the book, my apathy toward their relationship. I cared about Alice, but not so much about Manny because I didn't know him. And besides, I was really just so mad at all the people who did wrong by both of them throughout their lives that I struggled to find much to enjoy.

I genuinely do think this is a good book–it's lyrical and meaningful and poignant, and its exploration of Alice's family dynamics in particular is very well-drawn. But the book and I didn't entirely click. If you're interested (and won't be triggered by mentions of rape), then, by all means, do give it a go. Hopefully you will be able to get more out of it than I did.

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

Monday, August 20, 2018

A Defense of Honor by Kristi Ann Hunter, 2018

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When Katherine "Kit" FitzGilbert turned her back on London society more than a decade ago, she determined never to set foot in a ballroom again. But when business takes her to London and she's forced to run for her life, she stumbles upon not only a glamorous ballroom but also Graham, Lord Wharton. What should have been a chance encounter becomes much more as Graham embarks on a search for his friend's missing sister and is convinced Kit knows more about the girl than she's telling.

After meeting Graham, Kit finds herself wishing things could have been different for the first time in her life, but what she wants can't matter. Long ago, she dedicated herself to helping women escape the same scorn that drove her from London and to raising the innocent children caught in the crossfire. But as much as she desperately wishes to tell Graham everything, the risk of revealing the truth may come at too high a price for those she loves.

(376 pages)

This is an odd mix of a book.

For one thing, it's a grim look at the underside of 19th-century highbrow English society, sparing no punches in its depiction of a world where Kit's project–an orphanage and rehab program to help illegitimate mothers impregnated by nobility–is necessary.

From another angle, it's a love story between a woman traumatized by her past and tied down by duty and a man who . . . well, who doesn't have much of a driving force besides a strong friendship for his friend (whose sister has gone missing, most likely into Kit's program) and a penchant for curiosity that brings them together in the first place.

From still another angle, it's a sappy, idealistic book about believing the best in people and about how there are always honorable people out there, even when it seems like everyone is rotten.

I'll be the first to say that I got sucked into the story and enjoyed a few pleasurable hours reading it. But I'll immediately add that that third point quickly began to grate. You can't have a book about abandoned illegitimate children and then try to argue that humans are inherently good. Further, when Kit blackmails these crummy noblemen fathers into paying child support, this is treated like a morally questionable (to downright evil) action. Why?

No, seriously. Why does everyone get so upset about this? These are obviously, by and large, extremely terrible people who will not do what they are obligated to do unless someone holds their feet over the fire. I have absolutely zero issues with Kit threatening to expose their dirt to the world unless they pay paternity (in fact, my only qualm about this arrangement is that this means she is hiding their criminal activity from the world in exchange for child support they should already be providing!).

I was enjoying the book quite a bit until they started bringing this up as a big moral issue, because I just so completely don't agree with the idea that Kit has done anything wrong. The ending is fine enough, though, and the characters are interesting enough (and the children are definitely cute enough!), so I say definitely do give it a try if you'd like.

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

Friday, August 17, 2018

Planet Grief by Monique Polak, 2018

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What a crappy way to spend a weekend. The always-sarcastic Abby would rather be playing soccer, and the cagily quiet Christopher thinks a grief retreat is a waste of time. Neither of them wants to spend two days talking about their feelings. But despite their best efforts to stay aloof, Abby and Christopher are drawn into the lives of the other kids at the retreat. Maybe their stories will make them rethink how they are dealing with their own losses.
(208 pages)

Going in, I was a little nervous that Planet Grief would be too heavy for me. A book about grief counselling doesn't exactly sound like the happiest of summer reads, especially when I already feel antsy thinking about death.

I'm glad I gave in to my curiosity and picked it up, though, because it manages to hit all the right spots. Abby and Christopher are realistic and sympathetic leads, and the other characters in the group are even more interesting and compelling. The various exercises Eugene (the counsellor) has the kids do, and the conversations he supports them through, are fascinating to watch.

Basically, this is a book about kids who have to be strong enough to pull through experiencing something no child should have to face: the death of a close family member. There's no strong plot to pull the book along, though there is a climax, and the story is really driven by the stories of the kids and their struggles. There's no sugar-coating, no skating past the hard emotions of losing a parent or a sibling, and I personally really appreciated "peeking in" on the grief process of these characters.

My only real complaint about the book is that there was one storyline, added just to add drama I think, which I thought was a bit ridiculous and unnecessary. It kind of drew attention away from the core of the book. It wasn't a huge deal, though, and I think Polak handled it in a way that still fit well with the rest of the book. I should also add that there's a family coming to the grief counselling which has two mothers, and there are a few mentions of how unusual it is to have "a maman and a mom." It's not made into a big issue, so I don't think it would bother most readers, but I wanted to mention it just in case.

All in all, I really–well, enjoyed might not be the right word to describe how I felt while reading Planet Grief. I appreciated it, let's say. I liked it. I'm glad that I read it, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in it.

What other books about children dealing with grief do you recommend? My all-time favorite is Suzanne LaFleur's Love, Aubrey!

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr, 2018

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Grisha is a dragon in a world that's forgotten how to see him. Maggie is a unusual child who thinks she's perfectly ordinary. They're an unlikely duo—but magic, like friendship, is funny. Sometimes it chooses those who might not look so likely. And magic has chosen Grisha and Maggie to solve the darkest mystery in Vienna. Decades ago, when World War II broke out, someone decided that there were too many dragons for all of them to be free. As they investigate, Grisha and Maggie ask the question everyone's forgotten: Where have the missing dragons gone? And is there a way to save them? At once richly magical and tragically historical, The Language of Spells is a novel full of adventure about remembering old stories, forging new ones, and the transformative power of friendship.
(256 pages)

Sometimes, when I've gotten too bogged down with churning through books and reviews, I get a little disenchanted with reading. I forget the magical feeling that comes with losing myself in a good book.

But then I read something like The Language of Spells and I remember all over again.

It reminds me of so many of the fantasy books I read when I was younger, but it's not so redundant that it becomes forgettable. The approach to magic is a relatively fresh angle, and the faux history of magic's disappearance in the past few hundred years actually makes quite a bit of sense. The mistreatment of the missing dragons is awful, but made a hundred times worse by the fact that it eerily echoes the Holocaust which took place around the same time.

Don't worry, though, the story is not so dark that it would be bad for younger or more sensitive readers. In fact, I think it's just about the perfect combination of sadness and fun. Grisha's story is a fascinating one, which I don't want to talk about too much because of spoilers, and I loved to watch his and Maggie's relationship.

My only real issue with the book, I think, is that Weyr kept basically smacking us in the face with the idea that everyone has become so caught up in efficiency and facts that they've forgotten how to see magic; only people like Maggie, whose father lets her read whatever books she chooses and lets her direct her own homeschool education, has kept hold of her imagination enough to see the dragons. As a former homeschooler myself, I don't believe you have to have an unorthodox education to stay imaginative–and I don't think small children should be encouraged to read books with adult topics they're not ready for.

But that's a rather small quibble I have. Overall, I just really enjoyed the reading journey. On one hand, I'd love to read another book set a few years down the road–but on the other, I think the ending is just about the perfect bittersweet end to a perfectly bittersweet story.

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

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Girls' Guide to Conquering Life by Erica & Jonathon Catherman, 2018

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There's a lot a girl needs to know as she grows up and makes her way in the world. Having a reference guide of practical how-to life skills and character traits can empower her to become a confident and capable woman. Coauthors Erica and Jonathan Catherman offer this collection of step-by-step instructions on 100 things girls need to succeed, including how to

- introduce yourself
- change a flat tire
- respectfully break up with a guy
- leave a tip
- apply for a job
- ask for a promotion
- behave during a police stop
- create a personal budget
- calculate square footage
- wash your face
- clear a clogged drain
- iron a shirt
- wear a scarf
- shoot a basketball
- sharpen kitchen knives
- and much more

In fact, if it's in here, it's an important skill or character trait practiced by capable and confident women. With great illustrations and sidebars of advice from world-class experts, this all-in-one reference tool for young women in the making is the perfect gift for birthdays, graduations, or any occasion.

(304 pages)

From washing your hair to throwing darts to grilling a steak, this book has a short how-to section for just about everything you might want to do.

It's pretty impressive, really. The author's don't assume any gender stereotypes; they assume their female reader might need to do a very wide range of things, including asking a guy out, changing a tire, and playing many different sports as well as the usual topics like talking to a guy or wearing a scarf. The explanations are split into numbered steps which make things pretty straightforward and are always encouraging.

The book is clearly meant for a girl a few years younger than me, perhaps in middle school or high school: there are mentions of asking parents for permission and going through the transition of growing up. The advice is still good, though, and I appreciated reading through it.

My only complaint with the format of the book is that there weren't enough illustrations to go with the instructions: some of the entries were a bit confusing without images to show what the authors meant.

I also thought there were some topics that should have been included. If the book is meant for younger girls, a discussion of tips for dealing with their period would have probably been very helpful. As would a section of advice for asking parents for more freedoms, or some tips for picking a college or moving away from home/finding a community in a new place.

I suppose no one book could have every single thing, though, and this book does cover quite a bit. It's a bit strange that it's marketed so strongly to girls, since the same advice holds true for guys in almost every single section, but I would probably recommend it to both genders. A lot of its advice is pretty familiar to me, but it would be perfect for people who don't have parents to teach them these sorts of things.

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

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Fandom by Anna Day, 2018

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Cosplay ready, Violet and her friends are at Comic-Con.

They can’t wait to meet the fandom of mega movie, The Gallows Dance. What they’re not expecting is to be catapulted by freak accident into their favourite world – for real. Fuelled by love, guilt and fear, can the friends put the plot back on track and get out? The fate of the story is in their hands ...

(402 pages)

I'm sure there are times we've all daydreamed about entering our favorite fictional universe. For me it's always been Hogwarts and Camp Halfblood; for you, it might be District Twelve or the Shire or any number of other fictional settings. We love our favorite books, we dream about our favorite characters, and we imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes.

I love this idea of seeing what that would really be like. Because, as Day's characters find out again and again, it probably wouldn't be nearly as glamorous as we like to think it would be.

Day does a fabulous job of thinking through the morals and the implications of bringing a fictional world to life. In a dystopian world, real people are really suffering–hundreds, thousands of them who may not have speaking parts but suddenly have feelings. The cruelty added to bring tension to the main character's surroundings is more inhumane when it's really happening. The romance which seems so sweet on the page becomes a lot more selfish in real life when it distracts from the life-or-death rebellion missions.

I love books that make me think about things on a deeper level, and The Fandom did just that.  I do still have some bones to pick with it, though. For one thing, I think Violet had one too many friends. I got Alice and Katie mixed up more than once, and I didn't really see the purpose Alice served that couldn't have been fulfilled in other ways. I also thought that the bad language (swears up to and including the f-word) were unnecessary, forcing me to skip recommending it to people I otherwise would have handed it to. I also didn't really see the need for the romance subplot, though I suppose others might like it more than I did.

All in all, I liked The Fandom quite a bit but it still felt like something was . . . missing. I enjoyed the ride, though, and you may too–just remember that some of the language and violent content is not meant for younger readers!

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

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Orphan's Wish by Melanie Dickerson, 2018

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From the streets to an orphanage in a faraway kingdom, Aladdin has grown up alone. Until he meets Kirstyn. With a father who is the duke of Hagenheim and a mother who is the patroness of the orphanage where Aladdin lives, Kirstyn is a member of the most powerful family in the land . . . and way out of his league. Despite the difference in their stations, Aladdin quickly becomes Kirstyn’s favorite companion for taking walks in the forest, and their childhood friendship grows along with them.

Through his scrappy skills, intelligence, and hard work, Aladdin earns a position serving in the duke’s house. But he knows it isn’t enough to grant him his one desire: Kirstyn’s hand in marriage. If he hopes to change his station in life and feel worthy of marrying Kirstyn, he must leave Hagenheim to seek his fortune.

But once Aladdin leaves, no one is around to protect Kirstyn, and the greedy men desperate to take advantage of her father’s wealth take notice. Now, more than Aladdin’s background stands in the way of the future he’s worked so hard to obtain. His only hope is to rescue Kirstyn and somehow manage to win her hand as well.
(352 pages)

When I was younger, I had a friend who was obsessed with Melanie Dickerson's books. I never quite found the time to read many of them, so when I saw the opportunity to review The Orphan's Wish now I jumped at it.

I myself have always been a huge fan of fairytale retellings, so I love the idea of this Hagenheim series. Aladdin used to be one of my favorite bedtime books (though I have to admit that I can't remember seeing the Disney movie in full), so it was fun to see how Dickerson changed up the old story.

To be honest, though, there reaches a point where the book doesn't even feel like a retelling anymore. Besides keeping Aladdin's name and lack of social standing the same, Dickerson basically just made up her own story. She has Aladdin brought off of the streets and moved to Germany when he is still a small child, and he grows up in the orphanage near Kirstyn's home. I actually really love their relationship, so different from the original as it may be: I'm a big sucker for childhood friendships that blossom into something more.

Looking at the book on its own, separate from the movie it is very distantly based on, my main issue with it is that the main characters are basically all either pure good or pure bad. There is a little nuance, and Aladdin and Kirstyn struggle at times with accepting their flaws, but Aladdin is still just so amazing at everything that it becomes almost cringey at times.

I actually didn't mind it so much, though, just because I was rooting for him. He won me over pretty quickly, really. I liked Kirstyn, too, and I was horrified by the way she is treated by others in the book.

My main other concern with the book is the fact that it takes a story meant to be set in the Middle East, transports it to Germany of all places, and then skates past most of the racism that Aladdin would have likely had to face at that time and place. Since Aladdin was a made-up legend in the first place, though, I found it less offputting than if she had moved, say, Mulan to Germany.

Bottom line? I got very wrapped up in The Orphan's Wish. I rooted for the main characters, I hoped for the best, and I enjoyed the ride. It may have been a touch cheesy in places, and the characters may have been a little unrealistic sometimes, but it was still a fun read that I enjoyed. My friend was right–I need to read some more Melanie Dickerson books!

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