Friday, December 23, 2011

REVIEW: I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Rating: 5/5 Stars
Audience: Young Adult/Teen
Genre: Realistic Fiction

Summary: Seventeen year-old Sam and his twelve-year-old brother Riddle have never had a normal life. A decade ago, they were kidnapped by their mentally unstable father, a criminal with a pathological fear of government and technology. Since then, the trio has traveled across the country, living in ramshackle places and avoiding the authorities at all costs. At a very young age, Sam learned that it would be up to him to ensure that he and his brother are fed and safe.

Riddle has never been to school, rarely speaks, and suffers from untreated asthma. He lugs around an old phone book filled with the impossibly detailed mechanical drawings he spends his days creating. Sam's escape is music; every Sunday, he visits a different church so that he can absorb the sounds of organs and pianos, clapping and singing. He sits in the back and remains anonymous. Then he meets Emily, who finally sees him and, eventually, introduces Sam and Riddle to her family. For the first time, the two boys feel connected to the real world, but what will happen when their father discovers their secret?

Tracy's Thoughts:
Intertwining a gripping survival story with a sweet tale of first love, I'll Be There is one of the best, most heartfelt books I've read in ages. It's one of those stories that completely mesmerizes you and still lingers in your mind weeks later. And puts a smile on your face. There is a magic to Sloan's prose: it is thoughtful and yet carries an immediacy that makes each page a joy to read. There is nothing flashy in her writing; it is vivid and precise, allowing the extraordinary characters and their predicaments to move the story along. Am I sounding a bit fan-girl crazy and over-the-top in my praise? I apologize. But. I love this book.

It's magical in a completely different way. It is all about the connections that people make, the brief intersections that can change your life. It is about how all the small, insignificant things can add up to larger ones. It is about family and belonging. Told from multiple points of view, covering everyone from Sam and Riddle, to Emily and her mother, to the boys' paranoid father Clarence, I'll Be There creates a world that is both intimate and infinite. The narration transitions seamlessly, weaving a rich and layered tale.This is a book that made me laugh, cry, gasp, and sigh with pleasure at the end, pausing for a moment to savor the extraordinary journey I had just completed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

REVIEW: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Young Adult/Teen, Adult Crossover Interest
Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary: It is 1941 and Stalin's reign of terror is in full dominion, though fifteen-year-old Lina has no idea of the terrible forces at work. She is stunned when Soviet officers invade her home to arrest her family and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia, giving them only twenty minutes to pack a few belongings. Her father, not home at the time of the arrest, is separated from the rest of the family while Lina, her mother, and younger brother are crammed into a boxcar labeled "Thieves and Prostitutes." This is only the beginning of Lina's journey, filled with deplorable, life-threatening conditions and a slow realization of some of the more unsavory aspects of life. And yet through it all, Lina retains hope, following her mother's strong example and using her artistic talent to send messages to her father.

Tracy's Thoughts:
This is a truly lovely book; haunting and terribly sad because we know it is based on true events, but also inspirational. Ruta Sepetys writing is fluid and emotionally evocative. With a few precise words, she is able to make a powerful statement ("Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch."). It is never overdone or cheaply sentimental. The first sentence grabbed me, and I did not want to put this book down as Lina's story gradually and painfully unfurled:

They took me in my nightgown.

Thinking back, the signs were there—family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape.

We were taken.
The novel is written in short chapters, which makes some of the atrocities described a bit easier to digest. Scenes are not truly graphic, but they are vividly and powerfully depicted. But, again, there is a thread of hope and perseverance that runs throughout, as well as a budding love story to provide balance. Also, there are flashbacks to Lina's life in Lithuania before the deportation to provide respite and clues to explain why Lina's family was targeted by the Soviets.

Reading this novel, I felt like I was reading a true account—like Hautzig's The Endless Steppe or even The Diary of Ann Frank. The characters, especially Lina, her mother, and a crotchety old man who is with the family on the train and at the various work camps, seemed real. Of course, several first-person accounts and interviews where included in Sepetys's research. And the author's own family history undoubtedly made this an intensely personal story.

My only complaint is that I felt the ending was a bit too abrupt. I wanted more. There is an epilogue at the end, but to me Lina's story felt incomplete. But, regardless of my slight disappointment with the ending, this is a story that needs to be told. The Holocaust is widely studied, but comparatively few are aware of the genocide of the Baltic people that took place under Stalin's rule. Sepetys's novel is an important work, both thought-provoking and enjoyable.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

REVIEW: Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Audience: Adult
Genre: Psychological Suspense

Summary: Christine Lucas wakes in a strange room, with a strange man beside her. He wears a wedding band, and she is disgusted with herself for apparently sleeping with a married man. But catching sight of herself in the bathroom mirror, Christine discovers that she is not the carefree twenty-something she believed herself to be. She's clearly in her forties—and she also wears a wedding band. Unfamiliar photos are pinned to the bathroom mirror, and a note proclaims that the man in the bed is her husband, Ben. Christine has amnesia. Every night when she goes to sleep, she loses all memory of the her life past a certain point.

Her life is very narrow. Just Ben, and a psychiatrist whom Christine meets without Ben's knowledge. At the direction of her doctor, she keeps a journal to document her life and piece together the past—and hopefully—a future. However, day by day, her journal entries become increasingly unsettling and Christine begins she wonder if she can trust anyone—including herself.

Tracy's Thoughts:
This book has appeared on numerous Best of 2011 lists, and it won the Crime Writers Association's 2011 award for best first book. I can understand why. It reminded me of Cat Patrick's Forgotten, but with a creepier flavor, like the the movie Memento. Watson's writing is compelling, creating an increasingly tense, claustrophobic feeling in the reader. I read this book in one evening, and although I guessed the book's twist ending early on, I was never fully confident in my theory, just as Christine could never fully trust her own memory and instincts.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

FLASH REVIEWS: A Parade of Picture Books...

I recently realized that we haven't reviewed any picture books lately (as promised in our site description!), so here goes...

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
The bear's hat is gone, and he wants it back. Patiently and politely, he seeks out his fellow forest creatures to inquire "Have you seen my hat?" It's like a sly game of clue, with clever visual hints. It's an adorable tale with an ever-so-slightly dark twist at the end. Ages 4 to 8.
Rating: 5/5 Stars

Stop Snoring, Bernard! by Zachariah OHora
Bernard loves living at the zoo, and he loves naptime. Unfortunately, the other otters are tired of his snoring. So begins Bernard's quest to find a sleeping spot where he won't bother anyone... This is a sweet, low key story with simple, almost vintage-style illustrations. Ages 3 to 7.
Rating: 3/5 Stars
Blackout by John Rocco
Told through a series of graphic novel–style panels, this is the story of an ordinary summer night in the city. A little girl is eager to play a game, but everyone in her household is too busy. Then there is a blackout; with the power suddenly out, no one is busy at all and the the neighborhood comes alive. The visual images are bold and striking, and small details add a lot to this story about family togetherness. The contrast between light and dark plays an important but subtle role. Ages 4 to 8.
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

The I'm Not Scared Book by Todd Parr
Extremely bright colors—a Parr trademark—will grab kids' attention in this motivational book about common childhood phobias. Comical details add nuance. The text itself lacks subtlety, but will give comfort to anxious children and offers simplistic solutions to calm fears. Ages 3 to 6.
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Pirate Boy by Eve Bunting and Julie Fortenberry (illus.)
Danny has lots of what-if questions about pirates, and his mother is patient and inventive as she answers each one. This is a heartwarming tale of imagination and connection between mother an child. The artwork, especially the drawings of pirates, is bright and striking. Ages 4 to 8.
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Friday, December 16, 2011

REVIEW: The Witches of East End by Melissa De La Cruz

Rating: 3/5
Audience: Older Young Adult/Adult
Genre: Paranomal Romance/Mystery/Fantasy

It’s the beginning of summer in North Hampton, and beautiful Freya Beauchamp is celebrating her engagement to wealthy Bran Gardiner, the heir to Fair Haven and Gardiners Island. But Freya is drawn to Bran’s gorgeous but unreliable brother Killian, and sparks fly when the two decide to play a dangerous game, following an ancient story of love, betrayal and tragedy that harks back to the days of Valhalla.

Witches of East End follows the Beauchamp family—the formidable matriarch Joanna and her daughters Freya and Ingrid. Freya, a sexy bartender, has a potion to cure every kind of heartache, while Ingrid, the local librarian, solves complicated domestic problems with her ability to tie magical knots. Joanna is the witch to see when modern medicine has no more answers; her powers can wake the dead. Everything seems to be going smoothly until a young girl, Molly Lancaster, goes missing after taking one of Freya’s irresistible cocktails. As more of the town’s residents begin disappearing, everyone seems to have the same suspects in mind: the Beauchamp women.
Lucinda's Thoughts:
I really enjoyed this book. As a fan of mythology it was refreshing to see a tale with Norse, rather than Greek mythology at its core.  The character development was interesting and kept me reading.  I finished this book quickly.  The one drawback to this book is the "too" neat ending.  The book seemed to end very abruptly, with a very hurried resolution to problems that should have taken at least a couple more chapters to reach their denouement.  This book comes with a PG-13 rating due to  some steamy romantic scenes.  While they are steamy they are tastefully written.  The epilogue provided an unseen twist that I'm sure will lead to the next book in the series.  This author also writes the Bluebloods vampire series for young adults.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

REVIEW: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Young Adult/Teen
Genre: Paranormal Horror

Summary:  Theseus Cassio Lowood kills ghosts. Well, the bad ones anyway. You know those urban legends and ghost stories about vengeful spirits taking their anger and disappointment out on the living? Some of them are true, and it is Cas's job to stop them once and for all. He travels from town to town with his witch mother and their cat Tybalt, killing murderous ghosts and secretly preparing himself for the day that he will confront the ghost that killed his father. Now he has a new ghost in his sights: Anna Dressed in Blood. But something about her is different than the other ghosts Cas has faced. She's incredibly strong. And she knows she's dead. For over fifty years, Anna has killed everyone who has dared step foot inside her family home. But for some reason, when Cas invades her territory, she lets him live.

Tracy's Thoughts:
"Spellbinding and romantic," declares Cassandra Clare on the book's cover blurb. Spellbinding, yes. But romantic? Um, no... Not so much. Anna Dressed in Blood is more Supernatural than Twilight (or whatever paranormal romance is your current favorite). Yes, there is a late-emerging romantic subplot here, but it is not the heart of the story.

As a horror story, I didn't really find it all that scary, either. At least, not leave-the-light-on and jump-at-small-noises scary. But. Kendare Blake's writing is absolutely gripping. Vividly cinematic (unlike one zombie book I could name) and satisfactorily gruesome, Anna Dressed in Blood is definitely creepy and disturbing. I was enthralled by the atmospheric description and the compelling, first person narration:

The stagnant clouds make me motion-sick for some reason, so I go back to looking at the forest, a blanket of pines in colors of green, brown, and rust, struck through with birch trunks sticking up like bones. I'm usually in a better mood on these trips. The excitement of somewhere new, a new ghost to hunt, new things to see...the prospects usually keep my brain sunny for at least the duration of the drive. Maybe it's just that I'm tired. I don't sleep much, and when I do, there's usually some kind of nightmare involved. But I'm not complaining. I've had them off and on since I started using the athame. Occupational hazard, I guess, my subconscious letting out all the fear I should be feeling when I walk into places where there are murderous ghosts. Still, I should try to get some rest. The dreams are particularly bad the night after a successful hunt, and they haven't really calmed down since I took out he hitchhiker.

An hour of so later, after many attempts at sleep, Thunder Bay comes up in our windshield, a sprawling, urbanesque city of over a hundred thousand living. . . . It's only as we get into the heart of the city—the older part of the city that rests above the harbor—that I see what I'm looking for. . . .

Over the course of my life I've been to lots of places. Shadowed places where things have gone wrong. Sinister places where things still are. I always hate the sunlit towns, full of newly built developments with double-car garages in shades of pale eggshell, surrounded by green lawns and dotted with laughing children. Those towns aren't any less haunted than the others. They're just better liars. I like it more to come to a place like this, where the scent of death is carried to you on every seventh breath.

Cas is a dynamic character: bold, snarky and wonderfully quick-witted. But he's also fallible. Every now and then, he fumbles on a job or is caught off guard, with no idea how to respond. He doesn't always know the answers—especially once he is faced with a ghost like Anna—and admits to manipulating people to achieve his goals. I didn't always like him, but I understood him and was invested in his story. Plus, his wry humor adds a wonderful dimension to the story, as do the secondary characters. Cas reluctantly makes friends with a geeky psychic and the school's queen bee, who for once does not fall into the popular girl=mean girl stereotype. And of course, there's Anna. You wouldn't expect to find a homicidal ghost known to rip people in half a sympathetic character, but Blake has managed to imbue Anna with a vulnerability that doesn't make her murderous history any less disturbing. Perhaps more so, if anything.

Anna Dressed in Blood also does an excellent job of setting itself up for further books in the series without sacrificing the story at hand. It stands on its own, but also leaves you wanting more. Personally, I'm hooked and looking forward to the sequel, Girl of Nightmares, due for release in August 2012.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

REVIEW: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Audience: Middle Grade/Tween
Genre: Historical Fiction/Novel in Verse

Summary: It's 1975 and, as the Vietnam War rages, the fall of Saigon is imminent. Until now, ten-year-old Hà's life has been been somewhat ordinary: she goes to school, fights with her older brothers, plays pranks on her friends. Of course, her father has also been missing in action for nine years and now her friends are beginning to move away from the threat of the Communist invasion. When her mother makes the difficult decision to flee their homeland, the family must leave behind everything familiar. The novel is written in free verse and takes place over the course of a year, beginning on Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, relating Hà's experiences and impressions from her life in Saigon, through the family's escape and difficult boat journey, to the even more difficult transition to life in America.

Tracy's Thoughts:
First off, I usually avoid novels in verse. I am always skeptical that they can deliver the same level of plot detail and character development as a prose novel. Thanhha Lai proved me wrong. There is precisely the right amount of detail in this sparse novel. Hà's world is elegantly and succinctly crafted and the format in no way detracts from the fullness of the story. Hà, her mother, and each of her three brothers emerge as distinct, empathetic characters. There is the scholarly engineering student, Brother Quang, who must take on work as an apprentice mechanic; gentle Brother Khôi, lover of animals; fierce, loyal Brother Vu, obsessed with Bruce Lee; and their mother, a loving woman strong enough to do whatever is needed for her family. Hà herself is eager, perceptive, stubborn, and prone to tempers. She's determined to feel smart again, though quite sure that "Whoever invented English/should be bitten/by a snake."

This is a powerful novel about the immigrant experience, and one to savor slowly. Despite what many will consider weighty subject matter, this is a fairly light read with a good deal of humor. I found myself grinning and laughing out loud more than once at Hà fresh take on American culture, such as her insistence that the "The Cowboy," as she calls her family's Stetson-sporting American sponsor, should have a proper horse and teach her to ride. Inside Out & Back Again is also the perfect novel to give to any middle school student who has been bullied or felt out of place.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Hunger Games Fashion!

Top fashion designers are putting their talent and imagination toward envisioning Katniss's fire dress! Check out the awesome photogallery at

Here are my favorites:

Design by Rachel Roy

Design by Charlotte Ronson

Design by Christian Cota

...And then some of them really miss the point. (A caftan? What was Tommy Hilfiger thinking?)

So, which design is your favorite? Can you picture Jennifer Lawrence in one of these outfits for the Tribute Parade? Tell us your vision for the perfect fire dress!

Friday, December 9, 2011

REVIEW: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Adult/YA Crossover
Genre: Fantasy/Magical Realism

Summary: The Cirque des Rêves arrives in the night, without warning, and captivates its audience from dusk till dawn. What the audience—and most of the performers—do not know is that the circus is merely the arena for a much grander scheme. Two magicians have set their protégés on a collision course, a deadly game where not even the participants themselves are sure of the rules—or the consequences. Celia, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, is a performer in the circus, pretending that her magical feats are mere illusion. Marco, an orphaned boy trained by Prospero's greatest rival to defeat Celia, is more covert in his strategy. The Night Circus spans decades and continents as the game plays out slowly—until the two competitors finally meet and fall in love, putting the circus itself at risk.

Tracy's Thoughts:  
This gorgeously imaginative, genre-blending novel is all about atmosphere and tone. It reminds me of a slightly lighter, Victorian-era Something Wicked This Way Comes. The prose creates a feeling of suspended enchantment, and the reader is made to feel like a spectator to the circus itself. The action develops slowly, and the narrative skips about in time and from one character to the next. Some readers may find this frustrating; and yet, however loosely the threads are woven, they all pull together magically at the end. Readers who loved Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell won't want to miss it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

REVIEW: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I read this book months ago, before we launched the blog, but with all of the recent attention—it was named Favorite Book in the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards and recently snagged a movie deal with Summit—I thought it was time for a review here on Book News and Reviews!

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Audience: Young Adult/Teen
Genre: Dystopia

Summary: In a not-too-distant future Chicago, everyone is divided into five factions with five different belief systems. Abnegation strives toward selflessness, Amity pursues peace and friendship, Candor practices unrelenting honesty, Dauntless engages in feats of courage, and Erudite seeks knowledge. Beatrice Prior was raised in Abnegation, but knows she is too selfish and inquisitive to remain there, even though switching factions means leaving her family behind. And now that she is sixteen, it is finally time to choose her permanent faction. But her choice won’t be easy. When she takes her aptitude tests, Beatrice learns that she is a Divergent, someone who does not fit easily into any of the predetermined classifications and whose very existence threatens her society.

Tracy's Thoughts:
Looking for the next Hunger Games? This is the book you’ve been waiting for. After a slightly slow start, Divergent is an addictively fast-paced read set in a fully developed world. In fact, I liked it even better than Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic Chicago setting is fascinating and just recognizable enough to make this future vision all too believable. Even better, there is no annoying, forced love triangle. (Seriously... Did anyone really think POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT!!! HIGHLIGHT TO READ that Bella was going to choose Jacob or that Katiniss wouldn't end up with the every-loyal, always-patient Peeta? Well, did you?)

But yes, Divergent has a romance. A GREAT one actually. The romantic tension between Tris (the character formerly known as Beatrice) and Four is engrossing and unpredictable. Yeah, you know they will end up together, but each meeting and conversation holds a surprise. And Roth does a stellar job of balancing the physical action with relationship intrigue.There are enough fights, chases, and life-threatening risks to satisfy any action fan—and it's not all squeezed together at the end to add last minute conflict like in other popular books I could name. As soon as Tris chooses her faction, she must prove her mettle and survive a series of initiation tests—or become factionless.Tris is gutsy and smart, but also vulnerable and unsure of herself—not in an annoying way, but in a realistic, true-to-life way. She doesn't have special weaponry skills or supernatural strength, but she's mentally tough and really, really determined. I loved her, Four, and the entire world Veronica Roth has created.

Both action-packed and thought-provoking, Divergent easily sets itself apart from the other new books on the Hunger Games bandwagon. Roth writes with an engaging intensity that challenges readers to look at their own lives and consider what faction they might choose. This is a page turner that I highly recommend for both girls and the guys, teenagers and adults. Needless to say, I am eagerly—and impatiently!— awaiting the May release of Insurgent, the trilogy's next installment. Only five more months to go...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

REVIEW: Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer (Spoilers present)

Rating: 3/5 Stars
Audience: Older Middle/High School/Adult
Genre: Vampire Fiction/Romance

Summary: In Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final installment in the series, Bella’s story plays out in some unexpected ways. The ongoing conflicts that made this series so compelling--a human girl in love with a vampire, a werewolf in love with a human girl, the generations-long feud between werewolves and vampires--resolve pretty quickly, apparently so that Meyer could focus on Bella’s latest opportunity for self-sacrifice: giving her life for someone she loves even more than Edward.

Lucinda's Views:  In the last installment in the Twilight Saga, Stephenie Meyer doesn't fail to deliver.  I really enjoyed re-reading this book after seeing the movie on opening night.  (Side note:  The book and the movie follow closely and the film is well done.)  Having said that, Bella's new adventures kept me interested as her evolving relationship with Edward takes on some unexpected turns.  The way that the story neatly wraps up the love triangle between Edward, Jacob and Bella is satisfying, and the ending to the book rings true. 

On a deeper level the story ponders some of the ethical questions that plague our society today...."Is terminating a pregnancy morally right?  Which person is more important the mother or the baby, especially when the mother's life is in danger?" 

On another note, the appearance of the Volturi bring more vampires out of the woodwork, several of whom I would like to see further stories about.  Vampires such as Garrettt, and the reappearance of the Denali vampires for instance.  Another possible story that I would like to see is the relationship between Jacob and Renesmee.  Possible spin offs?  Who knows?  Only Stephenie Meyer.

Just a little trailer from the movie to whet your appetite :)

Found this interview with Stephenie done by Nancy Pearl...Interesting!
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