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Staff Book Reviews

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray
Sepetys, Ruta
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

This is an amazing book. So stark and unforgiving, written exactly like Siberia and the arctic circle. This isn't an autobiography but it sounds like it could be. I have no doubt that Lina's circumstances happened to thousands during Stalin's reign. The writing was so realistic I could feel the wind and the cold and every terrible thing that came with it.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
A Colony in a Nation
Hayes, Chris
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Chris Hayes, a journalist on MSNBC, wrote this book after his experience reporting in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in 2014. In the book, he posits that we treat people of color in this country the same way that King George treated the colonists in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War: by enacting a police state that exploits the few for some sort of economic gain. We exist as two entities in this country: the Nation, which is concerned with upholding the law, and the Colony, in which we're more concerned with creating order.

This was a quick, excellent read. I'm usually not a fan of using personal anecdotes to make a point, but Hayes does that effectively here: most noticeably because he then will follow an anecdote with data to back up whatever it is he's saying. The anecdotes, though, make the book particularly interesting, especially because they are often presented as a "what if" thought experiment as to how Hayes' experience might have been different had he been a person of color. Part history lesson, part social justice treatise, A Colony in a Nation is a book that's not to be missed, particularly by those that are concerned with issues within the criminal justice system, and the egregious civil and human rights violations that are enacted upon citizens of color in the United States. 5 stars.

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Trees
Lemniscates
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today. -Chinese Proverb

This is a lovely book that quietly conveys what trees are, how they live, and what they do. The illustrations beautifully magnify the simple text in what I would call biblioharmony. Snuggle up with your little one and check out Trees by Lemnisactes.

Reviewer's Name: Kristin B.
Jane, Unlimited
Cashore, Kristin
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Jane's parents died when she was quite young, but she never felt like an orphan due to the amazing parenting skills of her quirky Aunt Magnolia. When Aunt Magnolia heads off to a photography expedition to Antartica never to return, Jane feels unmoored. She drops out of college and continues her dead end job at the university bookstore. When a surprise visit from an old friend results in an invitation to a mysterious mansion, Tu Reviens, Jane jumps on the chance to experience something new. Not only that, but Aunt Magnolia has told her to NEVER turn down an opportunity to visit the enigmatic island retreat, and Jane is eager to learn more about Magnolia's connection to the place.

That was a hard synopsis to write, as this is a book that somewhat defies description. The book starts off as kind of an Agatha Christie meets Jane Eyre meets John Fowler's the Magus, and then quickly turns into an almost Whitehead inspired choose your own adventure. Jane makes the same choice several times with different consequences each time, and the result is a compilation of strange, horrifying, thrilling and delightful stories and plot twists. Cashore's storytelling abilities are on full display here as she seamlessly weaves together a number of different genres. Character development, while it seems like it would be secondary, is also an integral part of the story. I loved all of the side characters (some of them almost eclipse Jane), and would read an entire book about almost any of them.

Jane, Unlimited is a book that I'll reread in a year or so, because there was a lot of intricate plotting and connections that I'm sure that I missed. I actually don't think I've ever read something quite like this, and that's saying something because I read a lot. The unique format of the book was attractive to me, though I can see it being frustrating for some readers; it's not until Jane makes her second choice that you really start to realize what is happening. If you read this book (and you should), I'd say just relax and enjoy the ride - it's a wonderfully weird one. I can't wait to see the art in the final copy, as I think that the right images before certain stories will add to the peculiar ambiance that permeates the book.

The ending felt both forced and rushed to me, but I think I'll enjoy it more the second time around (as I said earlier, this book practically demands to be reread). I almost loved this one, and now I really can't wait to see what Cashore comes up with next. 4.5 stars.

I received a free copy of this eBook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Awards:
Genres:
Ghost
Reynolds, Jason
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Jason Reynolds (author) + Guy Lockhard* (narrator) = Magic

Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost, has been running from things his whole life: his violent father, the consequences of altercations at school with a bully, and most of all, the anger that's been building up inside him. So Ghost has a ton of natural talent, which he puts to use when he inadvertently impresses the coach of a local track team. After the coach begs him to join, and Ghost reluctantly agrees, he begins to see that he might be happier if he runs towards something instead of away from everything.

I listened to this audiobook, and it was excellent. I really struggle with middle grade fiction, as I oftentimes have trouble identifying with the characters (I mean, middle school was a loooooooong time ago), but Reynolds took me right back to the thick of it. In a good way. The day-making/ruining things your classmates would say, interactions with adults in positions of authority, and not really being sure about who you are and what you want in life - Reynolds nails it all. Moreover, Ghost is just a straight up likable character, even as he makes poor decision after poor decision. We really get to see him grow over the course of the novel, and even as he does the wrong thing, his heart is usually in the right place. I loved his relationship with his mother, and later, with Coach. There aren't always positive adult relationships in fiction for young people, and so it was nice that Ghost had so many adults that he could turn to. The secondary characters were just as dynamic, and also had very serious problems of their own to deal with. I'd read a book about any of them. Shoot, I wanted to adopt most of them. As a runner myself (although I'm not competitive and do longer distances), I really liked that the book was about track as it's not a sport we read or hear a lot about. There's a bit about fartleks that was pretty hilarious, and I think runners (Land Sharks, anyone?) will find a lot to love here.

If you are looking for a book to listen to or read with your kids, this is a great one. There are loads of teachable moments, and it is ultimately a heartwarming tale of self-discovery. I couldn't get enough of it - 5 stars.

*Shout out to Guy Lockhard - he narrated the other Jason Reynolds book that I've listened to (All American Boys), and he is a fantastic narrator. It seems like Reynolds thinks so as well, because it looks like Lockhard will be narrating Reynolds' recently released book about Spiderman Miles Morales. I may have just put that on hold...

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Book Review: After You
Moyes, Jojo
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

See, here's the problem: I wasn't that enamored with the first book in this series (Me Before You). It just didn't wow me. So with that book as a jumping-off point, this book didn't stand a chance at getting above 3 stars. Still, it was pretty good. The ending was super cheesy, though, which tempts me to give it 2 stars. But hey, I'm feeling generous, so 3 stars it is.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Book Review: Ramona Quimby, Age 8
Cleary, Beverly
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

This is a sweet book. It's not so mind-blowing as to warrant an in-depth review, so I'll just leave it at that.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout
Grace, Laura Jane
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

I love this book with all my heart. As a longtime fan of Against Me!, it was so exciting to read about how the band started off, the positive and negatives of touring and recording, the growth, decay and rebirth of the band and how the entire time the primary figure that has driven Against Me! from the very beginning was struggling with her identity. I'm utterly in love.

Reviewer's Name: Cassie
House of Furies
Roux, Madeleine
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

Louisa is on the run. Leaving the private boarding school she attended, and with no family to speak of, she plans to masquerade as a fortune teller in order to obtain enough money to leave Britain for America. After one fortune telling session goes awry, she finds herself at the mercy of an old crone who offers her a position as a scullery maid at a nearby mansion, Coldthistle. Louisa is excited to have employment, but after seeing strange, solid apparitions in the night, she learns that Coldthistle Manor is a house that attracts the most horrid of visitors, and that their punishment (death) is meted out by the employees of the house. She has to decide whether or not to stay and try protect new visitor and possible romantic interest Lee, or to resuscitate plan A and flee to the Americas.

I enjoyed this entertaining, gothic style horror story. Louisa, our protagonist, is fairly interesting, especially as you learn more about her upbringing and experiences with abuse at her boarding school. She doesn't lack a backbone, which is something I appreciate in a protagonist, especially in a Victorian setting. However, for this reader, Coldthistle and Mr. Morningside are the interesting parts, and as this book is the first in the series, we only scratched the surface of discovering more about them. The mythology of the peoples living in the house is revealed by short vignettes at the beginnings of some chapters, and those creature's appearances were illustrated by someone quite talented. The occasional chapter was also preceded by artwork - pictures have meaning in the book, and some chapters featured a creepy looking wall featuring random, old school looking pictures of things that were usually relevant to the next few chapters.

Some readers have complained that the pacing of the book is a bit slow at the start, but I did not find this to be the case as I was pretty instantly swept up in the mystery of Coldthistle. I will say that I didn't find the book to be especially scary, even after a few extremely gruesome murders, but it was definitely a bit creepy. The lack of scariness, for me anyway, was because despite the pictures and fabulous illustrations, I never really bought into the creepy, gothic atmosphere. The lack of chills notwithstanding, I enjoyed the characters, setting and new-to-me mythology enough to ultimately enjoy the book. I think that teens that read horror novels will find a lot to like here, and I'll be booktalking this one (in high schools, it really is quite gory) in the fall. 3 stars.

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Genres:
Under a Painted Sky
Lee, Stacey
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

Under a Painted Sky was just okay for me. The book was probably very similar to being on the Oregon Trail - every once in a while something exciting would happen but for the most part, you're on the trail with a long stretch of boring ahead of you! That being said, I really do like the fact that Stacey Lee used a "historical" setting to present two strong, multicultural female characters. Annamae (African-American) and Samantha(Chinese) came into each others lives at a critical time and in the end, they realize that you can choose your family. Also being accepted for who you are was a central theme. But I felt Under a Painted Sky was a historical novel with not much history. The story takes place on the Oregon Trail, and we do hear of some of the hardships of traveling that the pioneers faced, but Stacey Lee only did one mention of Native Americans in the book. One sentence about the Cheyenne. It's hard to believe that on the trail, they didn't encounter any Native Americans. I think this book will be popular with teen girls. They will love the romance!

Reviewer's Name: Melissa
Awards:
Instant Mom
Vardalos, Nia
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Fans of Vardalos get a behind the scenes look at her (generally not-so) glamorous Hollywood life -- and a personal tale about her struggles with infertility and foster-adoption that transformed her in to the "Instant Mom" of the title. While most parents on this journey don't have to negotiate with the entertainment press, Nia's story is funny, sweet, and deeply relatable. She is currently an Adoption Ambassador for the Adoption Council of Canada (and the book does include some information for those starting their family adoption journey) but the story stays close to home, close to the heart, and is a charming personal tale of her family's origins.

Reviewer's Name: Rebecca O.
Monkey Me and the Golden Monkey
Roland, Timothy
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Clyde is always in motion and tries to listen, but doesn’t always succeed. When he eats a banana that’s been blasted by a special ray, he feels even more like being in motion – because he keeps turning into a monkey! This is a fun, humorous book for a beginning reader ready to move into chapter books.

Reviewer's Name: Kristin Brown
Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine
Whelan, Gloria
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

A great, rolling doggerel accompanies this story about finding a way to allow the queen to enter the sea without any part of her being “seen!” Funny and factual, this will be a fun read for you and yours.

Reviewer's Name: Kristin Brown
Spot, the Cat
Cole, Henry
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Spot, the Cat by Henry Cole, is a beautiful wordless pen and ink book. An open window allows Spot to escape out into the city and a wonderful adventure ensues. Wordless books are a lovely opportunity to have a conversation about what is on the page. You may be surprised by what your little one notices that escaped your attention – just like Spot escaped!

Reviewer's Name: Kristin B.
Save Me a Seat
Weeks, Sarah
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Even though Save Me A Seat is a Children's book, I ABSOLUTELY loved it. A really wonderful story told by Joe and Ravi. Both boys are "different". Joe has a sensitivity to noise (auditory processing disorder), while Ravi is the new kid in school as his family has moved from India. Both Joe and Ravi have challenges in the classroom, with their classmates, and even at home. But they both work at facing their challenges and in the end become friends. A really great story and read, no matter what age you are!

Reviewer's Name: Melissa Mitchell
Awards:
A Face Like Glass
Hardinge, Francis
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

There's something wrong with Neverfell's face. In Caverna, where people live underground, people's facial expressions never change, unless they want them to. But Neverfell's face is horrifying, and so her caretaker Master Grandible, cheesemaker extraordinaire, makes her wear a mask at all times. Confined to Grandible's chambers, Neverfell gloms on to all visitors, until one day she meets a special visitor, escapes Grandible's corridors and truly starts to experience the horrors of Caverna - all of which are more terrible than her face.

First, this is not a horror book. I went into it thinking that it was (I mean, look at that cover - it's creepy!), and I think that expectation hampered my enjoyment of the read a bit.

By all rights, I should have loved this book. It has the ingredients of a book I would love: a strong(ish) female heroine, intricate worldbuilding, court intrigue, unreliable characters and a few fun twists. Unfortunately, I was never able to really connect with the characters, aside from Neverfell. Neverfell, and to a lesser extent her friend Zouelle, are the only characters to really get much development, and unfortunately, Neverfell spent most of the book annoying me. The first part of the book is also short on an overarching plot - I kept wondering where we were going (aside from, potentially, outside). Neverfell spends the middle 200 pages or so making silly, avoidable mistakes and almost getting herself or her friends killed. Which makes sense, given her sheltered upbringing, but it wasn't super fun to read, and despite a strong beginning, the middle of the book seemed to drag on. However, the last 100 pages or so, once our protagonist has a larger objective, were delightful. There's a reveal in the epilogue that I didn't see coming, and I loved it.

While the book wasn't perfect, the worldbuilding was amazing, and I definitely want to read author's other book, The Lie Tree (which apparently is horror), now. A very solid middle grade read. 3 stars - I liked it.

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Genres:
The Velveteen Rabbit
Williams, Margery
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

This is a dark book. I read it to Zoe thinking, "Aww, so sweet! It's about a much loved stuffed rabbit." I think Zoe burst into tears at least twice, making me question my parenting choices. But we (somewhat) bravely soldiered on, thinking that there has to be a happy ending. But nooooo, the ending was the saddest of all. Spoiler: Rabbit becomes real and can no longer be loved by the boy. Yeesh, English writers are not afraid to go there.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Genres:
Book Review: Me Before You
Moyes, Jojo
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

This was a good book. I found it engaging but not so good that I couldn't put it down. Actually, towards the end I found myself carving out time to read it. It's a romance with a twist. I'd like to see the movie. I'm going to read the second in the series, After You next, so that's saying something.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Book Review: The Little Prince
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

I don't know, maybe it's because I was reading this out loud to my daughter, but I just don't see what all the hubbub is. It was heavy-handed to me. There were some sweet spots, but overall I was underwhelmed.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Awards:
Rivers of Sunlight: How The Sun Moves Water Around the Earth
Bang, Molly
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

"I am your sun. My energy warms your days. I light up your world." So begins a lovely book about how the entire Earth's water system works. The illustrations are the sort you can sink into and perseverate over. This book is so beautiful, in fact, that you will absorb the complexity of our Earth's hydrology without even realizing it. Check out Rivers of Sunlight and pour yourself into knowledge and beauty.

Reviewer's Name: Kristin

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