All Book Reviews

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
Sanderson, Brandon
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

You know, it’s difficult to review a book that already highlights its flaws in the text itself. Part of me wonders if the reviews from the second book in the series were bad enough to warrant this kind of meta self-awareness. In the end, while Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia does take the time to address these weaknesses in its story and characters, it still doesn’t excuse the fact that they’re in there in the first place. These winking soliloquies seem to gloss over the fact that the book knows what’s wrong with it, but instead decides to gloss over it with self-reference instead of fixing the root of the problems themselves.

By this point in the series, I have come to terms with its middle-grade silliness and occasional bathroom humor. I loved the rule-breaking first book in the series, only to become annoyed by this constant fourth-wall breaking that happened in book two. By book three—this book—I finally came to terms with the fact that I’m not the target audience for this book, despite how well-written it is and how intricately its fantasy world has been created.

Perhaps due to my acceptance of this series for what it is, I felt the plot and character development were better in this part of the series—even if it did seem to trend toward “after school special” territory more often than not. Not only did we get to see more of Alcatraz’s parents (although, not nearly enough in my opinion), there was a lot more world-building that helped to flesh out this strange land introduced in previous volumes. Plus, the character who was a former librarian was (and is) probably my favorite character in the series right now.

More of the same self-aware silliness from Brandon Sanderson, I give Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Genres:
Covered in Water
Lawrence, Ellen
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

If you’re looking for a good introduction to the study of water, this may
be the book for you. You’ll learn about the water on earth – salt &
fresh. You’ll learn where our water comes from and why it’s limited, how
rivers are formed, and frozen water. You’ll also learn about the water
cycle. Try the experiment at the end of the book and resolve to use water
wisely.

Reviewer's Name: Carol
Over on the Farm
Berkes, Marianne
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Over on the Farm can be sung to the traditional tune “Over in the
Meadow.” Through it, children can learn language, counting, and movement.
The activities at the end of the book help children interact with the farm
in a variety of ways. Information provided teaches about the various animals
mentioned.

Reviewer's Name: Carol
My Little Gifts: A Book of Sharing
Witek, Jo
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

There are so many different ways to give. This interactive book - with flaps
to open on each page - explores many of them. It also talks about sharing,
sibling rivalry, and collaboration. Learn about the importance of giving and
receiving gifts from the heart!

Reviewer's Name: Carol
The Unofficial Guide to Learning with LEGO
Buckley, Danielle
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Does your child love LEGO? This book offers a variety of ways to
build on their interest to inspire learning. From simple math activities and
reading readiness to complicated STEM challenges, this book has something for
learners of all ages!

Reviewer's Name: Carol
Genres:
The Graduate
Webb, Charles
2 stars = Meh
Review:

If I could condense this book down to a single phrase, it would be “What?” It’s not that I didn’t understand this book, it’s more that this single word/question was used for every third line of dialogue. Not only was this incredibly annoying to read—as every character seemed to have hearing problems that required the other speaker to repeat themselves—but it just seemed to pad out an already weak plot. I have no idea how this book became so famous that it led to a much superior film adaptation, but now I know that nobody should bother reading this book because of its inspiration for the movie.

Let’s talk about character motivations next. Nothing ever made any sense. Sure, there’s a bit of existential ennui involved with finishing something you excel in (school, in this case), but the actions of the main character only make sense up until a point. Once we hit the third act, there’s just a series of random actions that aren’t grounded in reality. This is also not to mention that the characters around him, especially the primary love interest, also make illogical decisions that aren’t founded in any sort of reality. At least this book is short enough that you’re not going to waste much time reading it.

Maybe I’m just missing the point of this book. Perhaps it’s an examination of the consequences and realizations that come from living a life that seems to have no meaning. I mean, I get the counter-play between the newly-disillusioned Benjamin and the almost permanently-disillusioned Mrs. Robinson; butwhenthe entire thing is filled with awkward and nervous dialogue that constantly repeats itself, I can’t help but think that there isn’t anything significant there. Even the ending was so abrupt and unfulfilling that I had to thank the movie version for its subtleness in revealing the characters’ realization of what they’ve done.

A truly sub-par story that was made into an above average movie, I give The Graduate 2.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Genres:
The Winter of the Witch
Arden, Katherine
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

In everyone’s reading adventures they find that there are those books they come across that they like, some they love, and then there are those books that resonate so deeply, that you say to yourself and all who will listen “this is why I read.” Its not just the stunning world building, the lyrical prose, or the deep character development, but something more, that speaks to your soul, about who you truly are or what the world around you is really like. Something that can’t always be expressed through spoken word or any other means, expect through story. This is what Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch has done for me.

Picking up right where The Girl in the Tower had left off with Rus in shambles and the people needing to blame someone for what happened to their city they naturally turn to Vasya. I am not going to try to explain the rest of the plot because so much happens. But suffice it to say that in this one there is so much more wintery magic, more of the winter king, everyone’s favorite hero, and so much more action and adventure I could barely keep up.

This book flows seamlessly from the 2nd to the third one without taking a single breath. And the blending of the historical and fantastical is so complete it totally had me believing that 13th century Rus existed side by side with this wintery magical world called midnight and had me longing to time travel so I can visit it. With mysterious and magical midnight roads, it’s chiriti and spirits of all types, its magical house, and a lake on the edge of worlds, it’s flying horses, its river monsters and so many other fairy tale elements this book appealed to me on so many levels. It really awakened that inner child in me, that I think is in all of us that loves fairy tales and magic, wants to be accepted and loved but also wants to have purpose and feel needed. Their was just so much about this fable and Vasya as a character that spoke to my soul that it’s hard to express it all in one measily review.

Vasya also grows so much into her power in this tale. She really discovers her identity and the book delves not only into more of who she and is becoming but also who her family is and their magical legacy. I really grew to love Vasya as a character and her determination to never give up even in the most difficult of circumstances, her love of her city and people, her strength, and how she doesn’t just accept her circumstances but fights for better things and saves herself and those around her.

Can we also talk about Vasya and Morozko relationship for a second. I love their relationship and think it is a great representation of what love in real life is often like. I love how they grow into their relationship, and that she loves him but doesn’t always love everything about him or the choices he makes. It proves what is often true about love that it is not always magic and sunshine and unicorns but can often be difficult. It often requires sacrifice and one to be selfless enough to make sacrifices. It also requires each partner to live with each other in daily life with all their imperfections no matter how much it annoys and frustrates you. I love the fact that, though Morozoko is this ancient powerful being, his character also has imperfections and issues and his own sorrows that Vasya has to learn to live with. I also love that they save each other in more ways than one, and in the scenes when they do connect it is often tender and beautiful and heart wrenching all at the same time.

Beyond the character development, the story itself is filled with lush and atmospheric imagery, beautiful and lyrical prose, and quirky and whimsical details that speak to my heart childhood heart. I also, being a history major, really appreciate the research done for this series with regards to historical detail. In history we call this establishing historical context, putting the person we are studying in their historical environment within the whole of history. It blended Vasya’s magical world and grounded her in a specific place in history seamlessly.

All this to say I loved this book and this series! Both are a solid 5 stars! And when it comes out next Tuesday Jan 8, run, don’t walk to your local library or book store to get this beautiful fable and complete your collection of one of the best series of all time. Seriously it’s up there with CS Lewis and Tolkien for me ya’ll. Thank you to Edelweiss and Del Ray for my Digital Review Copy for review!

Reviewer's Name: Tawnie
The Gilded Wolves cover
Chokshi, Roshani
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Severin’s legacy has been stolen. And he wants it back. As the sole heir to the House of Vanth, leading it should be his birthright. But folks from two of the other three houses stopped him from assuming the mantle of head of House Vanth. So when a secret society, the Order of Babel, approaches him and promises him his true inheritance in exchange for an artifact, he agrees to find the artifact along with his crew.

I enjoyed this one, though it isn’t without its flaws. Normally I end a review with my complaints, but in this case my main issue is also a positive so we’ll just start there! This book is quite similar to Six of Crows. Arguably a bit too similar. I mean, there are character analogs (Severin is fairly close to Kaz, Laila is like a Inej/Nina hybrid), and aspects of the plot are pretty similar as well. It felt like I was reading really incredible fanfiction on occasion. The thing is, though, I loved Six of Crows, so I really ended up enjoying this book too. Where Six of Crows is gorgeously bleak, The Gilded Wolves is exuberantly lavish. Set in late 19th century Paris, the trappings of this book are dazzling. Each scene is more lush than the last, and our characters’ surroundings are brought to life in the most whimsical of ways. Magical extravagance abounds, and I had the best time imagining the various rooms, secret chambers and tunnels. The world building was cool, although it occasionally felt convoluted. Overall, though, the author manages to blend religion and science and math, which is really no easy feat. The other thing that I really liked about this book is that the cast is very diverse in race, ethnicity and sexuality and that the author makes commentary about important, relevant issues such as colonialism, racism, and immigration.

I’ve read a few other books by this author, one that I hated (Star Touched Queen) and one that I enjoyed (Aru Shah). This one was much closer to an Aru read for me, although I do find that the rich prose reads as purple on occasion. There will obviously be a sequel, and I’ll definitely give that a go when it comes out in something like two years. I think a this book may also improve upon a reread. Some of the characters were a bit hard to keep track of - when the villain was ultimately revealed, I was like…who was that again? The end also felt super rushed and disjointed, and I think several of the plot points and character developments introduced might have made more sense at the top of the next book.

TLDR: A lavish heist and adventure fantasy for readers of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Ryan Graudin’s Invictus or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I think most readers of YA fantasy will like this one – I did! 3.5 stars.

Thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. The Gilded Wolves will be available for purchase on 15 January 2019, but you can put your copy on hold today!

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Book Review: Dream Differently
Bertram, Vince M.
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Written by the president and CEO of Project Lead the Way (PLTW), Dr. Vince M. Bertram, Dream Differently provides excellent advice. Directed at mainly high school students thinking about college and their future, Dream Differently provides insight about many confusing aspects of today's economy.

Dr. Bertram explains the best way to follow your dreams while still being practical. Topics such as what is your dream, what college to attend, what to major in, and what other classes to take besides required classes. While Dr. Bertram encourages STEM courses, he also explains how to pursue your dream in other areas. Overall, Dream Differently was very helpful advice on what to do to ensure your success in today's world.

Reviewer's Name: John B
Genres:
King of the Wind
Henry, Marguerite McCallum
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

The book, King of the Wind, is a lovely story about a horse and his master. The connection between Sham, the horse, and Agba, a boy, is focused upon during the book, and the author certainly created something special.

The characters are decently developed, but the connections between characters are much better. The setting of the book is also quite unique and fits well with the story. It's more than just a classic horse story. Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone, as it's a pretty quick read and a great book.

Reviewer's Name: Steven L
Sounder
Armstrong, William H.
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

The book, Sounder, is a great read. While it is a short read, it packs a powerful punch. The only reason I could really no like the book was that it does get to a be a cliche "dog story" at times. The characters are pretty well developed, and the story does get very dark. The multiple ongoing conflicts also captivate the reader. While its sort-of a children's book, the book also does have some cool underlying themes that the reader can pick out.

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone, as its quick and phenomenal read.

Reviewer's Name: Steven L
The Rules
Holder, Nancy
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

The Rules, by Nancy Holder & Debbie Viguie, is a great thriller but lacks much else. The focus of the book is on the plot, but it's just an average thriller plot. None of the characters are developed over the course of the book, and it doesn't have enough clues to be a mystery. I felt like the author could've expanded for on the theme of rules, but it was a good idea. The book just kinda lacks sustenance, although it does provide a pretty good thriller experience. I would recommend this book to an avid thriller fan, but not really anyone else.

Reviewer's Name: Steven L
The One and Only Ivan
Applegate, Katherine Castelao
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

"The One and Only Ivan" by Katherine Applegate is about a silverback gorilla named Ivan who lives at a mall and video arcade told from his perspective.
Ivan has other animal friends that include an old elephant named Stella who is sick and in pain. He goes through a lot of things with his friends but he still wants to go somewhere with other gorillas because he thinks he is the only gorilla he will ever know. The mall almost closes until a new baby elephant arrives. At the mall the elephants are mistreated and Ivan and Stella don't like that another elephant will be hurt. Time goes on until Stella becomes very sick. The mall downplays her illness until she can no longer do the tricks, so doctors come to help Stella get better. In the end all the animals including Ivan go to a zoo where they are treated better and are with other animals.

I would recommend this book. It is very heartwarming but at the same time sad. I cried multiple times while reading "The One and Only Ivan". I chose to read this book because I read it before in third grade and wanted to read it again. Obviously, I could not relate to the characters who were animals. The ending is surprising and the book isn't predictable.

Reviewer's Name: Oriana O.
Genres:
Book Review: She's Come Undone
Lamb, Wally
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

The Goodreads synopsis for this book says the main character is the "most heartbreakingly comical heroine to come along in years." That's a bunch of crap. The main character is flawed but not funny, just sad and hard to root for. Some parts of the book I loved, other parts I didn't. But overall the good parts won out.

Reviewer's Name: vfranklyn
Awards:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print
Browne, Renni
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

Even though this book was published 25 years ago, its advice for aspiring authors is timeless. From those just starting to veterans still polishing their craft, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was initially released. After all, the pre-eminence of self-published authors has spawned a plethora of poorly-written and amateur works that seriously need some form of editing. On the plus side, the more self-published authors who take the advice in this book and put it to good use, then perhaps there will be less of a stigma against them in the future.

Breaking down the editing process into 12 distinct parts, this book shows the reader—through numerous examples—how a lousy piece of prose can be edited into something much more palatable. That being said, there are a lot of examples, some of which take up multiple pages. Occasionally, the errors are
shown in bold print, which would probably have been helpful in other sections as well, instead of relying on the reader to pick out the problems they just learned how to fix. It also would have been beneficial if the answers to the exercises were placed immediately after each section instead of in an appendix.

It is encouraging to note that this early-90s book recognizes that writing conventions change over time. While many authors want to write “the great American novel,” the definition of what that is has morphed over time as different forms of media have shaped the landscape. Despite all this, there were certainly many chapters that I was able to use to recognize weaknesses in my writing, as well as techniques that I have since become proficient in, merely to be reminded what my writing used to be like.

An excellent guide for authors of all skill levels, I give Self-Editing for Fiction Writers 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Genres:
A Closed and Common Orbit
Chambers, Becky
4 stars = Really Good
Review:

After the refreshing sci-fi The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet , I was ready to follow the crew of the Wayfarer to their next adventure. Unfortunately, the sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, decided to take a path more akin to The Godfather Part II (1974). Instead of following the main characters of the first story, this sequel delved into the new life of the AI now known as Sidra, while also interspersing a quasi-related prequel story of one of the new characters introduced in this book. Fortunately, these two stories were well paced against each other.

Even though I feel readers could pick up this book without having read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, there are certainly a few details about the diverse races found in this universe left out of this book—probably for the sake of brevity. This didn’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of A Closed and Common Orbit, but having that previous knowledge certainly helped to bring these alien creatures to life in my mind. Still, the main characters are basically humans, so the interactions with the aliens would be the main reason to know how these creatures communicate.

While this book is only tangentially related to the one that proceeded it in the series, the universe the author has created is solid enough to support a few more additional stories like the ones found here. With fewer characters to focus on in this book, A Closed and Common Orbit was able to dive deep into some pretty heavy topics, including child slavery and artificial intelligence. The writing still retains its casual dialogue style that genuinely helped bring these few characters to life. If anything, the author’s writing is what will keep me coming back to this series.

A mostly unrelated, but still expertly written sequel, I give A Closed and Common Orbit 4.0 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
The Elfstones of Shannara
Brooks, Terry
3 stars = Pretty Good
Review:

Back in 2016, I saw advertisements for a TV show adaptation of the original Shannara trilogy, likely trying to cash in on the success of Game of Thrones. While I never watched the show, I remembered enough from these trailers that I was able to recognize that the plot of the first book in the series, The Sword of Shannara , was not the plot of the series. However, when I started reading the next book in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara, suddenly memories of the TV show came to mind. Having finished this book, I can see why the TV show wanted to start here.

I didn’t particularly care for the derivative Sword of Shannara, as it seemed to steal all its ideas from The Lord of the Rings. While The Elfstones of Shannara still appears to take influence from this quintessential epic fantasy, there are enough other fantasy tropes thrown in to make it feel at least somewhat more original. Plus, the strength of the story in this book merely highlighted how unnecessary The Sword of Shannara was, as it basically threw away all the main characters from that book, relegating them to “distant grandfather” status and maintaining the only truly interesting character, the druid, for this book.

The strength of The Elfstones of Shannara comes from its main plotline that finds a boy and girl on a quest to save a magical tree that is dying, thus allowing demons to re-enter the realm. All the other side stories, like the battle/war that was happening, and all the familial and political drama that went with it, I could have done without. Mostly, these minor characters and plots didn’t seem fleshed out enough for me to care. Alternatively, the main story was exciting and had pretty good pacing for a fantasy book that sometimes spends too many words on descriptions and world-building that don’t matter.

A much superior follow-up to The Sword of Shannara, I give The Elfstones of Shannara 3.5 stars out of 5.

Reviewer's Name: Benjamin W.
Genres:
The Paragon Hotel
Faye, Lyndsay
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

1922. Alice James finds herself on a westbound train with two bullets in her stomach and $50,000 worth of counterfeit cash. On the run from the mob, she befriends a black porter who saves her life by taking her to his doctor friend in the only black hotel in Portland, Oregon. When a mixed race child goes missing from the hotel, the residents panic as KKK activity in Portland has been escalating. This excellent novel switches back and forth from the events leading up to Alice’s shooting and then her experiences at the hotel after arriving.

Alice James is one of my favorite characters in recent memory – she’s flawed, but self-aware, whip-smart and most importantly compassionate. Her empathy gets her into the trouble and she knows it, but she’s the sort who is willing to sacrifice herself for the greater cause. The supporting characters, especially Blossom, are equally flawed but lovable, especially as their truths slowly come to light. I’m a sucker for a 20s setting, and we get a lot of the good stuff here, especially linguistically. Our Alice has quite the endearing way of explaining herself in 20s style aphorisms.

In addition to being a charming read, the book covers some really important issues around race, gender and sexuality. The author has a deft enough hand at covering these issues that she manages to make the commentary work for the 20s as well as present day. If you decide to read this book, you’ll laught, cry and rage along with the characters at the injustices handed to them based on their gender, race or sexuality. My one complaint is that the middle sagged a bit – this is book that’s largely focused on character development and the mystery really just served to get Alice to learn things about her new friends.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but the promise of mob-excitement, mystery and racial commentary brought me to this book, and I’m so glad it did. Richly drawn characters and a fascinating setting pretty much guarantee that most fiction (historical or otherwise) readers will enjoy this one, and I’ll be pre-ordering a copy for my mother. 5 stars – I adored it.

Thanks to Netgalley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons for the advance copy, which I received in exchange for an unbiased review. The Paragon Hotel goes on sale on 08 January, but you can put your copy on hold today!

Reviewer's Name: Britt
Ayesha: The Return of She
Haggard, H. Rider
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Coming from the author of "King Solomon's Mines" and creator of Allan Quartermain, you can expect a terrific turn of the century, adventure story. Written as the sequel to "She", "Ayesha: The Return of She" stands on its own, and I find it even more enjoyable than the original story (but "She" does make for a good prequel - as I read them out of sequence). Our hero Leo, sets out with his friend to seek out his long lost love. This leads them to the most remote of areas, across vast deserts, and over treacherous mountains. When they reach the empire of Kaloon, the Khania Atene swears that she is the woman Leo is searching for, but he is unsure, and wishes to consult with the mysterious Hesea, an ancient priestess of the mountain, who has sent for him. Atene will risk everything, even war with the people of the mountain, to keep Leo by her side, even though he wishes to see the Hesea. Is Atene the woman Leo is seeking? Who is the cryptic Hesea? What dangers await Leo and his friend, both in Kaloon, and on the mountain?

This story was originally published in a serialized form in 1904-1905, with gorgeous Art Nouveau illustrations. If you can find it, I highly recommend reading a reprint that includes the original illustrations. One of my favorite books of all time!

Reviewer's Name: Chris W.
The Shadow of the Wind
Zafon, Ruiz
5 stars = Bohemian Rhapsody Awesome!
Review:

Wonderful mystery reminding me of Umberto Eco. "Anyone who enjoys novels that are scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling should rush right out to the nearest bookstore and pick up The Shadow of the Wind." Really amazing depiction of characters and setting in early 20th century Spain. Captures feeling of fear caused by Spain's political environment and war and aftermath when villainous police. Can't put down type of read.

Reviewer's Name: S Andrews
Awards:

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