Staff Book Reviews
Set in the 1920’s, this is the story of Jack and Mabel, a childless couple homesteading on the Alaskan frontier. The workload is never-ending, and without children to help with plowing, planting and harvest, they struggle not only to survive, but to avoid losing themselves to despair and disappointment. It is a story not only of survival and grit, but also of the kindness found in a community of like-minded individuals and families. This theme is typical of much historical fiction about western expansion and pioneer life, but this story holds an unexpected and delightful twist, where magic, reality and fairytales intersect. The first snow of the year is met with a playfulness that is not typical of Mabel and Jack. They end their snowball fight by building a snow-child near their cabin, complete with mittens, a hat, and arms made from twigs. The next day, they discover that their snow child was destroyed during the night – likely by wild animals. Their journey from that point is full of hope and expectation. The story has a dream-like, ethereal quality, yet the author maintains the sense of solidity that is required for historical fiction to work. The pace is slow, but fits well with the time and place. I sincerely enjoyed this author’s first novel. It made me think about the importance of accepting others as they are – always an important consideration. I have Eowyn Ivey’s second book in my “to read” stack right now, and will eagerly read her future offerings.
This Arthurian tale is about noble knights, impossible quests and miracles. Camelot has fallen. King Arthur Pendragon and his Round Table of invincible knights have been destroyed. For tens years now the land has spiraled into chaos and destruction. Ruled by the evil Morgana and her hired barbarians, the people have no hope - all is lost. Guinevere, the Queen of the Britons, is hidden away in a far away abbey, safe from the assassins of Morgana - or is she? And where is Merlin the Wise, Arthur's trusted adviser? That old wizard was at the Battle of Camlann when the King fell, but has disappeared. Morgana's spies are searching the land for him and has vowed to take his head. A merchant ship approaches the shores of Albion hoping to avoid the Saxon Sea Wolves that hunt these waters now. But they're spotted, boarded and the butchering begins. Then two passengers emerge from the ship's hold. Like banshees from hell they move in deadly unison, destroying everyone in sight. Sir Percival, the last Knight of the Table, has returned.
I was very curious to try one of James Patterson's Bookshots. He called them a pulse pounding thriller from beginning to end. I will say it lived up to the billing! I was immediately into the story and kept wondering what was going to happen next. 113 Minutes started off with a teenage boy dying from an overdose from crystal meth. Then there is a bank robbery, a heist of over a million dollars at a country club, and then a shootout with the Feds! Whew!!! I really enjoyed this one and can't wait to read more Bookshots!
I started off in love with this book. However, as it progressed I lost a little bit of interest in it. I guess Miggory Sow and Roscuru didn't appeal to me as much. But it finished strong. Great narrative voice and well paced. Well done overall.
This book recounts the tumultuous Civil Rights Era. It covers everything from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Rides, Sit-ins, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Black Panthers, and much more. It's well organized, engaging, and powerfully written. I learned so much! This book is classified as juvenile nonfiction, but only upper elementary would likely benefit from it. It's better suited for teen nonfiction and of course for adults like me.
Seneca's life revolves around solving cold cases and unsolved murders. As soon as she found the Case Not Closed website online, she becomes obsessed to the point where she stops paying attention in classes and risks expulsion from her university. But when the sister of Helena Kelly, a murder victim who disappeared mysteriously in a sleepy Connecticut town, reaches out through through the website, Seneca knows all bets are off. Along with some friends from the site, she finds herself in Connecticut for spring break trying to solve the mystery of Helena Kelly's disappearance.
I recently read a book that was billed as "Twin Peaks" meets "Gossip Girl" and it sucked. I figured this one might fill that now existent hole in my life. While it was a bit more "Gossip Girl" than "Twin Peaks", the book was exactly what I wanted it to be: brainless but entertaining with a good mystery. It dragged a little in the middle, but otherwise, the pacing was pretty fast especially as the clues start to come together. The dialog is breezy and light, the mystery and background of the characters is, for the most part, pretty dark and the cast is diverse but underdeveloped. Shepard totally fooled me with the killer - I thought I knew who it was, but I had no idea.
If a slightly soapy murder mystery sounds like it could be your thing, look no further. I enjoyed this one - 3 stars.
This is the kind of book you need to read more than once and perhaps even take notes. Its take on the sources of fear and how to free yourself from it are spot on. The answer is to realize certain truths about life, be mindful, aware, and meditate. These aren't easy fixes, but it gives me hope that with some work I will be successful.
“The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip” is a mere 82 pages, and features the witty lyricism of George Saunders, National Book Award finalist, and the whimsical illustrations of Lane Smith. One might call the story an adult fairy-tale, but I believe both young and old will find it humorous and intriguing.
The story introduces the reader to round, baseball-sized creatures called gappers. They are bright orange, not particularly intelligent, and simply love goats. Saunders explains that, “when a gapper gets near a goat it gives off a continual high-pitched happy shriek of pleasure that makes it impossible for the goat to sleep” (2). For the three families that make up the town of Frip, this is bad news. Goats are their livelihood and so the children of these families must brush gappers off their goats eight times a day to keep their goats happily producing milk. The gapper trouble increases for Capable and her father when a slightly more intelligent gapper takes charge of the goat-loving critters. He decides that the whole lot should gang up on a single house rather than splitting themselves between the three houses of Frip. The other two families rejoice in their gapper-less good fortune, but poor Capable and her goats are quickly overrun by the united forces of gappers.
This story is funny, very creative, and poignant in its understanding of human nature. It expresses the importance of community and kindness, and in a way that sounds only a little preachy. Overall, “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,” is definitely worth a read. It requires a single sitting to finish, and rewards the reader with plenty of laughs and a renewed sense of what it means to be a neighbor.
Vinegar Girl is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. In this version, Kate Battista lives a stagnant life - she got part of the way through her college degree, works a job that she hates, and lives with her scientist father and younger sister, Bunny. Kate's father starts to shake things up when he suggest that Kate marry Pyotr, his research assistant at the lab who is in desperate need of a green card.
I was pretty curious about how this book was going to shake out as the very premise is extremely offensive in modern times - it's really unpalatable to think of a strong woman being "tamed" by her husband. And unfortunately, the book does sort of go there. Pyotr did and said a few things that made him Dead To Me, and on the whole, I found most of the characters to be pretty unlikable. Kate herself was interesting and relatable much of the time, though the circumstances of her situation were pretty avoidable. The epilogue was cute, the writing fine, and the narration was great. I just think it could've been better - after all, 10 Things I Hate About You (don't judge) was a pretty successful modern retelling of the story. Sadly, for me, this book was just ok. 2 stars.
Reader beware, this is my favorite book. This is probably the fifth or sixth time I've read it. It's observant, subtle, and cleverly written. I come away with something new every time I read it. This time I felt for Elizabeth upon coming to the realization that her father was greatly to blame for the shortcomings of her three younger sisters. Oh, and Mr. Darcy's subtle devotion to her was more apparent to me this time around. It's easy to imagine the BBC version and characters while reading, but this book - like most books - is more richly constructed than the mini-series.
This a great introduction to the orchestra and it's instruments for the lower grades. My 7 year old loved that there were animals playing the instruments. It helped her better absorb the information. She is learning the cello and loved that a koala plays it in the book. Overall, very well presented, fun, and informative.
Cute cute cute! This is a fun book that is chock full of imagination. I liked that is was inscribed as Harry Potter's copy but Ron Weasley had amusing handwritten notes in it. I think this book may be best enjoyed by devoted Harry Potter fans. If you've seen the Fantastic Beasts movie, you may enjoy trying to pick out the beasts featured in it. Fun!
This is a very informative book about the orchestra, their instruments, and the music they play. I learned a lot from it. I liked the section about composers probably the best, although the history of orchestras was fascinating as well. This book is classified as juvenile nonfiction but it's equally good for teens and adults.
It’s been 2 years since Will Traynor’s death. Louisa Clark traveled for a while, but now she is stuck in a bad job and just treading water. Even surviving a fall from the rooftop of her apartment building doesn’t shock Louisa into wanting to experience more of life. Louisa joins a support group to deal with her grief and develops a relationship with the paramedic who saved her. However, it’s the arrival of teenage girl with a link to Louisa’s past that sets her life into a spin and changes it in more ways than she could ever have imagined. After You, Jojo Moyes’ sequel to Me Before You, is a well-written, realistic look at dealing with grief and all the curves life throws at a person. Fans of the first book will feel like they are catching up with an old friend. Be prepared to cry and laugh out loud as you spend more time with this loveable character.
In 2041, what we currently call "the cloud" morphed into a version of AI called "the Thundercloud" that was able to solve all of the world's problems. Death has been basically eliminated - all manner of illness and injury can be cured, and pain is a thing of the past. Thundercloud stops the effects of global warming, and calculates how to best use the world's resources so that no one goes hungry. It's also made government completely irrelevant. However, to stop overpopulation, people called Scythes have to glean, or permanently kill, random members of the population. Scythe follows two teens, Citra and Rowan, as they reluctantly apprentice to become a Scythe.
I think Shusterman has another "Unwind" type of hit on his hands. As the book develops, the seemingly Utopian society gets darker and darker and more dystopian - but really only because of the gleaning. The Scythes have a rich history, and it was interesting to learn about them and their different approaches to gleaning. The book is absolutely at its best when examining humanity and the moral obligations and quandaries that come along with being a scythe - I ended up reading the occasional sentence out loud to my partner, which is something to which I rarely subject him. The ethical implications of gleaning are pretty huge, and the examination of killing and its purpose are what really makes the book a fun read. Also, no surprises here, Shusterman, a National Book Award winner, can WRITE.
I did feel that the book had some premise issues. As the book explains it, your chances of being gleaned, or even knowing someone who has been gleaned, are pretty rare. So why is gleaning even necessary? The book addresses this, but the answer was not satisfactory. I can also easily think of solutions to this problem that don't involve random killing. For example, why not impose some sort of birth limit (people have dozens of children in this version of the future)? Or maybe only those that have children are eligible for gleaning? Or maybe you only get "9 lives". The tenth time you die, it's for real. There wouldn't have been a book without the gleaning, but the book also never managed to convince me that gleaning was a thing that actually needed to happen. I also found it terribly convenient/nonsensical that the Scythes were the only group of people that operated outside of Thundercloud. Like, why? Thundercloud literally solved ALL of humanity's/the earth's problems, but this, life and death, one of the arguably most important problems, we're going to leave up to humans? Mmmmmmmmmmk. Oh, and then Citra and Rowan are eventually pitted against each other, and the rationale as to why makes absolutely no sense. Especially after a certain event transpires, and they STILL are in a fight to the death. It doesn't seem consistent with the rest of the world-building; it felt like a contrived (and unsuccessful) plot device.
Premise problems aside, I really did enjoy the book. If you like near future books, dystopians or ethics, it's definitely worth a read. 3.5 stars.
This was a fun little sci-fi novella. Binti is about a Himba girl from Earth -- the eponymous Binti -- who is accepted into a super-prestigious university and becomes the first Himba to go off-planet to attend college. There's a lot of prejudice against Himba by the Khoush on Earth, so Binti is nervous about traveling outside of her homeland, but when she gets on a shuttle with fellow students they find they have their love of science and astronomy in common, and she begins to feel optimistic about attending Oomza University. However, part-way into the journey the Meduse, a type of alien in a long war against the Khoush, attack the ship at dinnertime and kill all the students -- except for Binti. She’s not exactly sure why, but it seems to have something to do with a mysterious artifact she found in the desert that she keeps as a good-luck charm. Binti hides in her room, but she fears it will only be a matter of time until the Meduse kill her; she might not be Khoush, but she's a human on a Khoush ship, and that's enough. What seemed like the beginning of an exciting new life now is going to end just days after her departure.
I listened to Binti as an audiobook, and the narrator did a wonderful job with the story. I enjoyed Binti’s perspective and was drawn in by the back-story of their world -- the astrolabe technology everyone seems to use, Binti’s skill as a Harmonizer, living space-ships, and many other intriguing details. It’s extremely short -- just 90 pages -- and at the end I definitely wanted more information about the world and its people and technology. On the one hand, it’s good that Okorafor made me care enough to be interested in hearing more, but the tradeoff was that book felt a bit rushed/cramped at times. There are novellas that work perfectly in that form and are paced so well that they’re as rich and complete as a full-length novels, but this one didn’t quite meet those standards. This is intended to be the first book in a series, so I'm cutting it some slack for that reason, but it still didn't quite work on its own. The message was strong, but there were plot points I would have loved to see explored in more depth, relationships I wish had been better fleshed out, and some finer details of the setting that I wish Okorafor could have delved into to make for a more satisfactory ending. I still enjoyed the story for what it was, and I'll be looking out for the next entry in the series, but it fell a bit short of what I wanted. That being said, it's a creative story with a very cool setting, and I would certainly recommend Binti to fellow sci-fi fans.
The Mortifications follows the Encarnacion family from Cuba to Connecticut and then back to Cuba again. Soledad's husband, Uxbal, is heavily involved in rebel groups resisting Castro's regime. She doesn't want her children growing up in that environment, and eventually she decides to take them and leave for America without her husband. Uxbal tries to hold her daughter Isabel captive, but she threatens to cut his son's throat if he doesn't let her take both their children. They escape successfully, but the incident leaves deep scars on everyone in the family. Soledad eventually begins a new relationship with Henri Willems, a Dutch man trying to cultivate Cuban tobacco in the US, and all the while she and her children drift further and further apart from one another as they try to adjust to their new lives.
The Mortifications is a leisurely-paced book and it draws rich portraits of all the characters: Soledad, who takes her children from Cuba to America to protect them but finds herself haunted by a lost marriage and country; Isabel, who took a vow to her father to remain chaste until she could have rebel children for his militia, and who later joins a convent in an effort to keep this vow; Ulises, a student of classical literature who feels abandoned by his mother, father, and sister alike; Willems, who is haunted by the idea that his tobacco holds the ghosts of the slaves his family once owned in Haiti; and many more minor characters who are written with equal depth and sympathy. It was a genuine pleasure to read -- beautiful writing, very introspective, and with enough humor to keep it from being too relentlessly depressing. That being said, it's a very (and I mean very) slow-paced book and is focused more on the internal lives of the characters than any cohesive plot, so that might be frustrating to readers looking for something with a little more structure. I would give it 3.5 stars, in large part because the writing was absolutely gorgeous.
Sierra Santiago is looking forward to the perfect summer. Class is finally out, she has a close group of friends to hang out and party with, and best of all she has the perfect summer gig: painting murals on the walls of old buildings in Brooklyn. But when she starts work on her first mural, she notices something strange going on with the other paintings around her. For one thing, they’re fading way faster than normal, and for another – well, it almost seems like they’re moving. Most confusing of all, when she gets home her grandfather – who hasn’t spoken since his stroke – suddenly wakes up and starts speaking directly to her: she HAS to finish the mural she’s painting, he says, and she needs to do it as fast as possible – before it’s too late. Sierra is thrown. What could a giant picture of a dragon have to with anything? And what does her grandfather mean about time running out? He leaves her with a riddle about a missing woman and more questions than answers.
Most infuriating of all, everyone in her family seems to know exactly what’s going on – but no one will tell her. Her mother even gets angry with her when she tries to ask about the connection between her grandfather and the murals. Something about the subject is just too dangerous to discuss. At first this seems ridiculous to her, but when she goes to a party with a group of her friends suddenly the danger is all too real. A zombie crashes the party and heads straight for her. Sierra is in shock, but Robbie, the quiet, artistic boy from her class that she’s been chatting with, knows what it is – and knows Sierra’s grandfather, too. Sierra escapes, but it’s a close call, and her problems are only just beginning.
Afraid and more confused than ever, she decides to go to the best place for research: the library. While she’s there, she discovers that an anthropologist, the mysterious Dr. Wick, was studying her grandfather and his group of friends just before he had a stroke and everything went wrong. Dr. Wick was researching a power called shadowshaping: the ability to imbue ancestral spirits into their artwork, whether it’s storytelling, music, or, you guessed it, painting murals. Sierra’s starting to put together the pieces, but time is running out – the murals are fading faster than ever and her grandfather’s group of friends, the shadowshapers, are dying one by one. Sure, they’re elderly men, and there’s not a mark on their bodies, but it can’t just be a coincidence, can it? And what about Dr. Wick – he went missing at the same time as her grandfather's a stroke, but is he a victim or a killer? Sierra sets out with Robbie and her group of friends in search of answers. Along the way, she’ll face the walking dead, living paintings, and her family’s tangled past.
I love fantasy, and this had such a unique premise that I had to pick it up, but sadly it fell far short of my expectations. First, the good: the magic system is very original and a lot of fun to read about; the idea of imbuing artwork with ancestral spirits is already interesting, but having murals and chalk drawings come to life to dance and fight and interact with the world made for great reading and some really cool action scenes. In addition, the cast is very diverse in terms of both race and sexuality, and Sierra’s budding relationship with Robbie felt natural rather than forced (and I say that as someone who usually hates romance in YA, but it was very subtle and actually rather sweet). Unfortunately, none of this could save the book from its biggest problem: the pacing. Usually I’m complaining about books that are bloated with filler, but this one had the opposite problem: way too many ideas, not enough space. In just 280 pages, there wasn’t enough room to develop all of the world-building and plot and character development that could have made this book great. As a result, it’s very uneven, and there’s no room for the plot to breathe; the book jumps around a lot from plot point to plot point, and most of the interactions between characters are, quite frankly, bizarre. Older forces awkward conversations that seemed designed to cram in as much background detail as possible before ending abruptly mid-stream so that Sierra can get to the next scene. It’s as if he’s written a check list of everything Sierra needs to do and he’s decided to follow it doggedly regardless of whether or not it flows. Details are introduced but then never followed up on or resolved in any way.
This is compounded by a second problem: the writing just isn’t very good. Part of that is just the book being aimed at a younger audience, and that aspect doesn’t bother me, but another part is awkward transitions between scenes, ham-fisted dialogue, and way too many editing errors for such a short read. These problems together made it honestly quite painful to get through, especially in the rushed beginning chapters when you can see Older trying to get to the main plot as quickly as possible at the expense of everything else. Basically, good idea, poor execution. I would give it 2.5 stars. I still think this has appeal for teens who love urban fantasy or who are looking for something different and original to read, but I wouldn’t call it good by any stretch of the imagination.
In this inventive South Korean novel (based on an earlier short story by the author), a woman decides to become a vegetarian after a disturbing, blood-soaked dream leaves her convinced that she needs to purify herself. Yeong-hye remains largely a mystery to us throughout the novel -- we hear about the situation mainly from her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, and they're often more interested in what they want from her (passivity, "normal" behavior, sexual gratification) than in understanding what's happening inside her mind. It's interesting to watch the escalation of behavior that's considered inappropriate; even the most mild changes to her routine provoke violent reactions and eventually lead her family members to cross lines of their own. At first, not eating meat alone is shocking and indicative of disrespect for her husband, then a refusal to wear a bra, then a discomfort with speaking -- and the gap widens more and more between Yeong-hye and the people around her as she withdraws from the world in her obsession with becoming more plant than animal.
Still, despite the oddity of the premise, it reads more like horror than comedy, and there was some real emotional weight to Yeong-hye's problems and to the exploration of the internal lives of her family as they react to her rebellion in increasingly bizarre ways. I liked the first section (dealing with the destruction of Yeong-hye's marriage) more than others, but they were all fascinating, and the sister's perspective helped bring things to a satisfying conclusion. Some parts were a bit too on the nose for my taste, but it was an engrossing read overall. There was a lot of reflection on the position and treatment of women in modern-day South Korea, which may interest some readers, as well as a more general look at the everyday violence around us, people's inner desires, and the pressure to conform. (I'd give this 3.5 stars if I could, but I rounded up because the writing deserved it.)
Popular school mascot Brittany Montague jumps off a bridge in her mascot costume. The only two members of the private school's "Mystery Club" are determined to find out why.
This book took me forever to read, mostly because it was kind of awful. I picked it up because I love a good murder mystery and this was billed as Twin Peaks meets Pretty Little Liars. While I'm not super familiar with either property, I figured that this meant it would be a dark and weird murder mystery with a touch of scandal and gossip, which, YES PLEASE. I was also pretty drawn in by that AMAZING cover. Kudos to whoever designed that. But the book itself was not so great. I've actually got so many reasons that I didn't like it that I'm going to present them in an enumerated list:
1. The "mystery" such that it is, is actually solved in the first 100 pages, and the book was seriously uninteresting after that.
2. BOTH main characters were freaking terrible, small, boring people.
3. Aside from the MCs, there were five "bad" characters in the book, four of which were people of color (three are Asians - does the author have something against Asians?). There's also a weird sort of anti-Semitic statement. So.
4. Adults are presented as being totally worthless. Something to this effect is actually said multiple times.
5. There is a weird unresolved child porn sex-ring subplot that will seemingly go somewhere in the next book? Somehow this is a series?
6. Our lovely main girl character refers to other lady characters as sluts, because, as mentioned earlier, she is freaking terrible. There is other fun sexist messaging as well. At one point, a coach basically calls women crazy because they get periods. Awesome.
7. Oh yeah, and there is rape. Because of course there is. Our main characters know about it, but do they do anything? No! Because they are terrible. The whole thing is basically shrugged off.
Sigh. This was clearly meant to be satire or a parody or funny or something, but whatever the author was doing, it was not working. Not for me, anyway. 1 star - I did NOT like it.