Monday, December 30, 2013

REVIEW: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook

Summary: Katey Kontent and her roommate meet Tinker Gray by chance on New Year's Eve 1937 at a jazz bar in Greenwich Village. Both girls are fascinated by the sophisticated yet boyish banker and the trio struck up an immediate if tenuous friendship. That meeting and the resulting friendship leads to far-reaching consequences for each of their lives. The novel focuses on Katey's life and choices of the following year, as she finds herself forming new relationships and mingling in the upper echelons of New York society.

First Line: "On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art—the first exhibit of the portraits taken by Walker Evans in the 1930s on the New York subway with a hidden camera."

Tracy's Thoughts: First, let me say that I adored this book. Amor Towles's rich language and vivid description bring to life a fully realized world and nuanced characters I did not want to leave behind. I don't think the setting could have been any better depicted. The dialog, the real-life settings—everything comes together perfectly to recreate the golden ear of Manhattan, reminiscent of classic movies starring the likes of Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, or Katherine Hepburn. Towles creates a lush yet uneasy world of artifice and hidden agendas that intrigues and delights. For its emphasis on betrayals, disappointments, class tensions and iniquities, Rules of Civility has even been compared to works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But Katey is not your average socialite-wannabe. She is also a bit of an enigma herself, having recreated herself more than once, but she does not put on airs or deny her humble origins. She is a devoted reader (an interest which plays quietly but significantly into her story) and is determined to earn her own way. As a narrator, Katey is sharp-tongued, witty, and just a little vulnerable. As her choices throughout the year reveal their consequences, the reader can't help but feel her disappointment, uncertainty, and determination. As circumstances shift and new opportunities arise, Katey proves herself a worthy—though far from perfect—heroine.

Instead of huge events, this is a novel full of a series of small revelations and shifts in circumstance that simultaneously feel both startling and inevitable. Earlier clues and dropped threads reappear in a way that feels natural and realistic rather than manipulative. But ultimately, this is a book that will appeal to readers more interested in character development that plot-driven narratives.With its careful, subtle plotting, intriguing characters, and atmospheric setting, it was the perfect book for me. It is a superbly told story of random chance, everyday life-altering decisions, and reinvention. All in all, a perfect read as the New Year approaches.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

REVIEW: Crankee Doodle by Tom Angleberger, Illustrated by Cece Bell

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Picture Book/Humor
Audience: Pre-K–Grade 2

Summary: Crankee Doodle is bored. But when his pony helpfully suggests several possible solutions for the tedium, Crankee is unreceptive and becomes increasingly contrary with each of the pony's ideas.

First Line: "I'm bored."

Tracy's Thoughts: The song "Yankee Doodle" has never made much sense to me, but I absolutely loved singing it as a kid. (Truthfully, it's still kind of fun to sing.) But in this hilarious picture book, the nonsense lyrics take on new life and even get a bit of much needed clarification.

The illustrations are simple, in bold primary (and patriotic) colors. As Crankee becomes increasingly...well, cranky, squiggly, wavy lines are introduced in the background. Other subtle artistic touches add humor—particularly in the last pages, when Crankee and his pony finally make it to town. The highlight here, though, is Angleberger's (the Origami Yoda books) dialog between the cranky Yank and his pony. Crankee's escalating rants grow more and more long-winded and personal until  both characters unravel in complete (and highly hilarious!) meltdowns.This book makes for a great read aloud and will prove particularly relevant for a child in the midst of his own irritable day.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

REVIEW: Wait! Wait! by Hatsue Nakawaki and Komako Sakai (Illustrator)

Rating: 5/5 Stars
Genre: Picture Book
Audience: Pre-Kindergarten

Summary: A toddler explores the outside world, chasing after a variety of creatures only to have them escape. Eventually the child is scooped up by dad for the trip home from the park.

First Lines: "Wait! Wait!"

Tracy's Thoughts: Gentle, minimalistic text and delicate acrylic and oil pencil illustrations beautifully capture a child's sense of wonder and growing independence in this quiet picture book originally published in Japan. Simple lines and smudges are used to convey both emotion and movement. The child's facial expressions and movements are perfectly rendered in realistic, subtle detail.Curious children will almost feel the cat slipping from their grasps and will fully relate to the child's startled awe when the pigeons take flight and flap away.

The book's palette is mostly neutrals, with small splashes of color to emphasize flushed cheeks and background details. But the focus throughout is on the toddler, who is at the center of a series of two-page spreads. Dressed in a black and white ensemble of overalls, shirt, and chunky shoes, the child could be either a boy or a girl, adding to the universality of her actions. This is a tender and lovely work which perfectly illustrates a child's curiosity and early interaction with the natural world.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

REVIEW: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Audience: Middle-Grade/Tween

Children have been disappearing from the village of Gavaldon for generations. Adults claim children simply get lost in the forest and disappear, but the children know the truth. Every four years, two children—one nice child and one nasty child—are spirited away by the mysterious School Master to be trained as heroes and villains, eventually graduating into fairy tales of their own. Sophie has always believed she will be selected for the School of Good and groomed to become a princess. And surely her witchy, loner friend Agatha is destined for the School of Evil. Only once Sophie's dream comes true and she and Agatha are taken by the School Master, the girls find that their presumed destinies are flipped and the school is far more dangerous than they anticipated.

First Line: "Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped."

Tracy's Thoughts:
I adored this book, with its twisted fairy tales and imaginative world building. At first glance, The School for Good and Evil might feel a bit like a Harry Potter rip-off, with its predestined school divisions, secret corridors, magical creatures, and deadly challenges. The Rowling influence here is undeniable. And yet—for the most part—The School for Good and Evil feels fresh and new. Much of this is due to its examination of the middle ground between good and evil and the unlikely, occasionally uneasy friendship between its two heroines.

Sophie—with her princess hair, flouncy pink dresses, and daily good deeds—is the picture of a Disney princess, while Agatha—a dire, black-clad loner who prefers the companionship of her cat and a quiet cemetery—thinks villains are far more interesting. Which is why the girls are so surprised when pretty Sophie is dropped at the School for Evil and Agatha is assigned to the School for Good. Readers may think they know the "moral of the story"—truth lies beyond appearances, blah, blah, blah. But fortunately for us, the story and its characters are more complicated than that.

The School for Good and Evil is a bit lengthier than necessary, with a somewhat repetitive series of trials and tests, but I was entertained throughout and frequently amused by the snappy dialog and moral dilemmas. Despite its flaws, the The School for Good and Evil is a clever, adventure-filled read that turns the expected clichés of fairy tales upside down. Luckily, this is only the first title of a planned trilogy. A sequel (A World Without Princes) is due out in April 2014 and a film adaptation is currently in development. But for those eager for more, check out the dedicated website and take the exam to determine which school is right for you. (My results: 66.7% Good, 33.3% Evil. Sounds about right ; ) )

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

REVIEW: Giant Dance Party by Betsy Bird, Illustrated by Brandon Dorman

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Picture Book/Humor/Fantasy
Audience: Preschool–Grade 2

Summary: Six-year-old Lexy loves dancing. But every time she tries to perform in front of a crowd, she freezes completely. So she decides to quit and become a teacher. Unfortunately, no one wants to learn from a kid—until a group of fuzzy blue giants turn up at her door looking for dance lessons.

First Line: "One day Lexy decided that when it came to dancing, she was done."

Tracy's Thoughts: 
This highly enjoyable story comes from a well-known children's librarian and blogger, and it's clear she knows her stuff. Bird's action-packed language and Dorman's energetic artwork fairly leap off the page, creating a fantastic read aloud. Vivid, full-color digital art and a likeable, exuberant protagonist will capture the attention of readers, and the humorous text and story will hold it. I was charmed when Lexy refers to herself as an "ice pop" after freezing onstage (anyone want to guess how the giants are described when they too suffer from stage fright?), and laughed out loud when the giants practiced a wide variety of dances, from the chicken dance to krumping. The story nicely weaves together a tale of realistic fears with fantasy elements, and the result is a fun, engaging read that makes Lexy's eventual triumph less pointedly didactic than many other picture books dealing with childhood fears. Even better, the final page leaves room for a follow up title—or so I hope.

Monday, December 9, 2013

REVIEW: The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction/Love Story
Audience: Adult

Summary:  In 19th century Italy, a young Contessa recognizes that she is losing her eyesight. She tries to tell her fiancé and parents, but no one believes her. That is, no one with the exception of her friend Turri, a married, eccentric inventor who lives on the estate adjoining her father's. Slowly, images become increasing blurred and distorted until, shortly after her wedding, Carolina finds herself in complete darkness. Yet in her dreams, she see everything in magnificent color, imagining a glorious world of possibility. In her sleep, she finds freedom in glorious adventures but during the day she cannot even walk alone to her beloved lake or pen a letter to a friend. Longing to stay in contact his friend, Turri in turn designs a machine that will help her with the everyday task of communicating with distant friends and family—a writing machine. Somehow, the gift ignites a spark that leads to a passionate, clandestine affair that changes both their lives.

First Line: "On the day Countess Carolina Fantoni was married, only one other living person knew that she was going blind, and he was not her groom."

Tracy's Thoughts: Lush, vivid detail and lyrical prose make this slim novel a truly absorbing read. The description of Carolina's loss of sight and her slow acclimation to her condition are particularly vivid and affecting. Cary Wallace's writing is almost magical at times, evocative and dreamy as she describes the Italian countryside, Carolina's impressions, and others' reactions to her blindness. Though simple, the story too is intriguing. Based on the man who invented the first working typewriter prototype for the blind woman he is rumored to have loved, it weaves a romantic fable around historical events. Throughout the course of the novel, the reader is taken on a journey right along with Carolina, from flashbacks of her courtship with her husband Pietro to her encroaching blindness and impulsive, inevitable affair with Turri.

The focus here is more on tone and character than specific events, though. The characters are well developed yet mysterious, from Carolina herself to secondary characters like Liza, Carolina's odd serving girl who adds small lies and fictions to the stories she reads to Carolina. The ending here is a bit abrupt though not unsatisfying. Instead, it preserves a sense of ethereal mystery that reflects the tone of the rest of the novel. Ultimately, The Blind Contessa's New Machine is an intelligent, whimsical tale that balances tragedy with inspiration and understated humor.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

REVIEW: Rump by Liesl Shurtliff

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genre: Fantasy/Fairy Tale
Audience: Middle-grade (upper elementary & and younger middle school)

Summary: In a land where your destiny is determined by your name, Rump is out of luck. No one—not Rump and not even his beloved grandmother —knows his true name because his mother died before she could tell anyone. All she was able to get out was the first part: "Rump." Now he spends his days dodging bullies and toiling away in the mines, digging for enough specks of gold to scrape by and appease the greedy miller and the king. Then Rump uses his mother's old spindle and makes a magical discovery: He can spin straw into gold! Unfortunately, magic can have terrible consequences, and Rump is quickly in over his head. Now Rump must cope with pixies, trolls, and fairy tale villains on his journey to discover his true name and gain control over the magic that binds him.

First Line: "My mother named me after a cow's rear end."

Tracy's Thoughts:
Rumplestiltskin has been one of my favorite fairy tales ever since I saw the 1987 film adaptation starring Amy Irving and Billy Barty. Despite his creepiness and unmitigated selfishness, I was curious about Rumplestiltskin's motives and background. I wanted to know more. Though I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Once Upon a Time, the character of Rumple—as portrayed by the supremely talented Robert Carlyle—has succeeded in making the story of Rumplestilkskin even more intriguing to me. Somehow, this adaptation by Liesl Shrutliff creates an alternate version that includes all the key elements of the original but turns the story inside out, making Rumplestiltskin the hero.

Suffice it to say that I enjoyed this novel immensely. Rump's story is set in an unnamed kingdom, a well-developed world where fairy tales intersect just the teeniest bit. Clear, energetic writing and a cheeky narrative voice help create a story to capture the interest of even the most reluctant readers. The writing is full of silly humor (fart jokes even!) and adventure, yet there is substance here as well. Rump's quest for self-confidence and hope in an unfair world is truly touching. It also addresses—and presents possible answers to—a lot of the questions I've had from previous versions, such as why Rump's true name is so important. Although the action wanes from time to time into predictability, this is an appealing fantasy filled with laughter, cleverness, and magic.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

REVIEW: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Realistic Fiction/Love Story
Audience: Young Adult/Teen

Summary:  For Eleanor and Park, it is far from love at first sight. Park thinks the crazy-haired, oddly dressed new girl looks like a victim waiting to happen, and the minute she steps on to their shared school bus he's proven right as the bullies zero in for the kill. Meanwhile, Eleanor is too concerned with her problems at home to think much about the "stupid Asian kid" who reluctantly scoots over to share his seat, cursing under his breath all the while. For days they share the seat in awkward, sometimes hostile silence. But then... Something changes. Soon, Eleanor is surreptitiously reading Watchmen comics over his shoulder and Park is making Eleanor mix tapes of his favorite bands. Slowly, tentatively a friendship develops and then friendship becomes something more. But love doesn't solve everything. Together they must face disapproving parents, mean-spirited classmates, and the dark truths Eleanor never wants Park to discover.

Celebrity Stamp of Approval:Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”—John Green, The New York Times Book Review

First Lines: "He'd stopped trying to bring her back. She only came back when she felt like it, in dreams and lies and broken-down déjà vu."

Tracy's Thoughts: I practically inhaled this book from start to finish. Told through the alternating perspectives of Eleanor and Park, it is a fast, engaging read that brings its characters to vibrant life. Both protagonists feel incredibly real, flawed yet wholly sympathetic. Though they come from different worlds, I completely bought into the idea that Eleanor and Park are destined to meet and fall in love. Yet even they have doubts that their love can last, especially considering their circumstances. Eleanor is keeping secrets from Park about her disadvantaged home life and abusive, skeevy stepfather, and Park's Korean-American mother is less than approving of Eleanor and her appearance. Plus Park has some difficulty coping with the shameless bullying some students at the school direct at Eleanor. (Though he adores her, he's also a little embarrassed by her at times.) And then there's Eleanor's own insecurities and her trouble believing that slender, calm Park is attracted to her chubby, difficult self. Suffice it to say, they have a lot to deal with, and every bit of it feels realistic and essential to the story.

Despite the undeniable dark side to this novel, it is also funny, heartbreaking, and extremely sweet. In many ways, the novel is like Eleanor herself: gritty and perhaps a little abrasive, but also extremely lovable. There is a good deal of profanity and crude language, but, to me, the language is authentic to the characters and place rather than gratuitous. And the dialog is smart and clever; it's no wonder John Green so enthusiastically recommends this book. Though it is solidly grounded in the period (did I forget to mention the book is set in 1986?), Eleanor and Park is a timeless, universal story of first love.

Monday, November 18, 2013

REVIEW: The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: Picture Book
Audience: Preschool to 2nd Grade

Summary: Laszlo lives in a large house with a creaky roof and several intimidating staircases, but it is the dark that scares him. It hides in corners and comes out at night, but most of all, it lives in the basement. Then one night, the dark comes to Laszlo's room and speaks to him, urging Laszlo to visit the one place he fears most.

First Line: "Laszlo was afraid of the dark."

Tracy's Thoughts: From the moment I first heard of this book, I was psyched. Yes; I'm a grown woman without children excited over a picture book! But it's a collaboration between Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen! I loved the dark, edgy humor of Klassen's I Want My Hat Back and thought a book by Klassen and Lemony Snicket about a child's fear of the dark would be perfect. And the duo does not disappoint.

This imaginative, suspenseful picture book manages to be both appropriately eerie and oddly comforting (in a Lemony Snicket kind of way!). Here, the dark is a living, breathing entity. As least it is to Laszlo, who sleeps with a flashlight and avoids shadowy corners. Most of the illustrations are deceptively simple two-page spreads depicting the interplay of light and shadow, with solemn little Laszlo looking on warily. The house is austere and barren, giving the dark room to expand. Overall, the muted color scheme and mildly creepy tone of the text compliment one another perfectly. And after Laszlo comes to an understanding of sorts with his nemesis, the ending comes full circle. Only now, instead of watching the creeping shadows with suspicion as the sun sets outside, Laszlo is oblivious to the coming night and plays happily with his toy trucks, his flashlight nowhere in sight.

For a completely different take on nighttime fears, I highly recommend I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fall 2013 Giveaway Winners + Last Chance Giveaway!

Grace Doll by Jennifer Laurens
Cover Description:
Grace Doll had everything a girl could want:      
Fame. Fortune. Beauty. Everything except her      
freedom. So when a powerful movie producer      
forces an experimental treatment on Grace--one      
that's purported to make beauty immortal--she      
stages her own death to escape him. With the      
help of trusted friends, Grace slips into hiding.        
She's forever flawless. Forever young, and      
forever pursued by her past.       
But when a stranger arrives on her doorstep,        
holding the key to a life she thought she'd       
left behind, Grace must decide   between the      
safety she's known...and embracing the role      
she was born to play.      
And the winners are...
# 127  Jada Redmon
# 53  Pinky028
# 62  Pinky028
# 56  Pinky028
# 6 Bethany
# 65 Pinky028
# 68  Kari Crum
# 134  Jada Redmon
# 85  Anonymous (Jen)
# 135  mrsshreve
# 80  Anonymous (Jen)
# 18  Jessica Cooper
# 88  Anonymous (Jen)
# 103  Kayla Druin
# 140  Catherine Spann
# 93  Anonymous (Jen)

....But wait! We have an extra giveaway available. For those of you who didn't win, Grace Doll by Jennifer Laurens is now up for grabs.The book goes to the first person to leave a comment below (be sure to leave your e-mail address so I can arrange pickup!) Ready... Set...Go!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

FLASH REVIEWS: Recent Audio Reads in Historical Fiction

I'm back with more quick reviews of my recent audio reads! I just finished two Bloody Jack Adventures  plus a couple of adult historicals. So here goes...

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny
Rating: 2/5 Stars
Audience: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

When the powers that be try to keep her from practicing her craft as a physician, Renaissance woman Gabriella Mondini decides now is the time to go searching for her long-lost father. What follows is a journey across Europe and beyond that calls to mind the Canterbury Tales. Through her entries in her diary and additions made in an anthology of diseases begun by her father (also a physician), readers are privy to Gabriella's adventures and obsessions. A woman physician in sixteenth-century Venice, Gabriella Mondini had the potential to become a fascinating character. The plot in and of itself is certainly intriguing, but the pacing is uneven and the supernatural elements are clumsily integrated and all too predictable. O'Melveney is a poet, and the prose is lyrical and striking at times; however, it also frequently veers into pretension and excessive description. Probably the only reason I finished this audiobook is Katherine Kellgren, whose magnificent voice performance kept me engaged.

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert  Goolrick
Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
Audience: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction/Psychological Suspense/Southern Gothic

When Charlie Beale arrived in the small Southern town of Brownsburg with a suitcase full of money, it was the summer of 1948. Decades later, a man who knew Charlie and was witness to Charlie’s torrid, fateful affair with the young bride of the town’s wealthiest man recounts the story. I was downright mesmerized by Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, but Heading Out to Wonderful lacked the tension and immediacy I expected in his follow-up novel. The setting and storyline had the haunting, nostalgic quality of a folk ballad, but the finale seemed forced and arbitrary. Also, I was troubled by the occasional awkwardness of the narrative voice and some unacknowledged loose ends. For example, it is never explained (MILD SPOILER AHEAD...HIGHLIGHT TO READ) how Charlie came by that suitcase of money. Although this was the most interesting part of the story to me, I would have understood if that particular plot point remained a mystery. But the fact that none of the book's characters seem to wonder or question it makes no sense. Still, even with all that being said, I think Heading Out to Wonderful would make a fantastic book club read. The recurring themes of lost innocence, sin and forgiveness, identities abandoned and recreated, and memory itself leave much to discuss.

Mississippi Jack by L.A. Meyer
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Historical Adventure/Humor
Series: Bloody Jack Adventures #5

I am still a little furious at Jamie. But at the same time, I also like him a bit better now. In the past, Jamie has been almost too perfect for the wonderfully flawed adventuress that is Jacky Faber. Now, I see him as a more developed, if flawed character and I like him better for it. In this latest adventure, Jacky and Jamie are once again separated as Jacky makes her way down the Mississippi in a rollicking adventure reminiscent of the best tall tales. Legendary boatman Mike Fink even plays a significant role in the story. New love interests also emerge—most notably the irascibly charming Sir Richard Allen—to throw a wrench in Jacky and Jamie's relationship. Not to mention the intervention of the British Navy and Intelligence Agency, marauding Indians, and a homicidal Mike Fink. Also, did I already mention that I love Katherine Kellgren? Because I do. Her fabulous performances make the Bloody jack series a joy to listen to, bringing Jacky and the gang to vivid life.

Mt Bonny Light Horseman by L.A. Meyer
Rating: 3/5 Stars
Audience: Teen/Young Adult
Genre: Historical Adventure/Humor/War Story
Series: Bloody Jack Adventures #6

This time around, Jacky is tasked by British Intelligence to act as a spy against the French. Those who love the battle scenes of earlier Bloody Jack novels won't be disappointed. And Jacky being Jacky, there are also new flirtations for the more romantically minded (though the new love interest fails to live up to the standard set by Jamie's previous rivals for Jacky's affections, IMHO).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tracy's Favorite YA Reviews

It's hard to believe, but Book News & Reviews hit its two-year anniversary back in August! More than 70 reviews later, I've given out only a handful of 5 and 4.5 star reviews so readers would know which books really stand out for me. Many of those selections have been YA books, so to wrap up Teen Read Week, I thought today would be a great time to look back on some of my favorite teen titles reviewed here on the blog.

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Reviewed: August 9, 2011

This book is still very close to my heart. It was my very first review for Book News & Reviews, but more importantly I read it at a time when, like Amy, I was coping with my own grief and guilt over the loss of a loved one. Amy & Roger's Epic Detour deals with some difficult issues, but it is also an undeniably fun book about music, friendship, and adventure. It made me cry, it made me laugh, and it made me reflect. Amy and Roger's playlists inspired me to create my own mixes in memory of my mother, a task which gave me something concrete to do and helped me deal with her loss. Sometimes you are lucky enough to discover the perfect book at just the right time. I'm glad that I found Amy & Roger's Epic Detour when I did. Read my original review »

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Reviewed: December 6, 2011

Now that Divergent is one of the "It" books, with a devoted fandom and a highly anticipated movie on the way, I can proudly say that I discovered it fairly early on. (I actually read it months before I wrote my review because I was waiting for library copies to come in.) As I said in my original review, I liked it far it more than The Hunger Games. For me, Tris is a more believable character and I love the dynamic between Tris and Four. Which makes me wonder why I STILL haven't read Insurgent although it's been sitting by my bedside since shortly after the release date. I think secretly I know the wait for the final book would drive me crazy. But since Allegiant comes out this month, it may be safe to proceed... Read my original review »

I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Reviewed: December 23. 2011

This book was such a surprise to me. There was very little buzz, and it wasn't a contender when awards time rolled around. But, trust me, it's a gem. This is what I wrote in my original review:
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.
Excessive and gushy perhaps, but I stand by what I wrote 100%. Read the full original review »

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Reviewed: February 22, 2012

Unlike I'll Be There, this is a book that was on everyone's radar. Well, anyone remotely familiar with YA literature who hasn't been living under a rock for the past few years. Almost universally known as the book that will have you crying your way through at least one box of Kleenex, The Fault in Our Stars actually did not push those particular buttons for me. It was heartbreaking but, for me, not tear-inducing. Instead, I simply enjoyed the heck out of the smart, quirky, book-loving characters and John Green's always stellar dialogue. Read my original review »

City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Reviewed: June 23, 2012

This is the fifth book in the series and easily my favorite yet. I wasn't fully on board the Mortal Instruments bandwagon early on, although I enjoyed the books well enough. I simply felt that Clare's writing was not as polished as I wanted it to be. I got a kick out of her sharp, snarky humor and strong characterizations, but I also spotted a lot of plot inconsistencies. Maybe that was related to errors in the audiobook recordings, but I doubt it. But City of Lost Souls won me over once and for all. The tension and angst were at full throttle from start to finish, and the audiobook was fantastic. (Seriously, I am so glad the producers ditched Ed Westwick and stuck with Molly Quinn on her own.) The City of Bones movie may have been a HUGE disappointment, but I can't wait till the final installment of the series comes out in May 2014. Read my original review »

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbotsky
Rating: 5/5 Stars
Reviewed: August 16. 2012

I was a late discoverer of this fabulous cult classic. My love for this book is mostly down to the strong, engaging voice. The fact that it's set during in the 1990s, when I was a high school student myself, probably has a little something to do with it at well. This is an engrossing, full story with excellent characterizations and relatable issues. Although on the surface my high school experience was nothing like Charlie's, I still felt like we had everything in common. I especially recommend the audiobook, which brings out Charlie's voice perfectly.
Read my original review »

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Reviewed: February 11, 2013

This book made a huge impression on the 2013 Youth Media Award committees (<---check out that cover to see the evidence), and it's clear why. The simple narrative, without any unnecessary literary embellishments, packs a powerful punch. This is a novel that succeeds on multiple levels and tackles A LOT of issues without ever becoming heavy handed or preachy. In hindsight, I am seriously tempted to bump up my star rating to a five!  Read my original review »

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Reviewed: June 12, 2013

Urban fantasy meets horror meets historical fiction in this near-perfect series opener. The 1920s have never been creepier or more intriguing, and I love the diversity of the characters and personalities.This is a book that works both as a self-contained novel and as a wonderful lead-in for the rest of the series. Although I read it months ago, The Diviners is a book that I keep coming back to in my mind over and over. I can't wait to see what comes next and how the many disparate characters will eventually come together.  Read my original review »

If you're interested, other books I've awarded 4.5 or 5 stars to include:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

BCPL's Ultimate Teen Booklist, 2013 Updates

As promised last year, BCPL's Ultimate Teen Booklist has been updated! We have carefully selected a few new titles to add and have updated title lists for ongoing series. Here is a quick summary of our additions for 2013:

New to the List:

Aristotle and Dante and the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz  (2012)
In the summer of 1987, two 15-year-old loners meet and forge a powerful friendship. This stunning novel about identity and acceptance deals with several teen “issues,” including sexual and ethnic identity, but never comes across as heavy handed. With simple, lyrical prose Sáenz creates a magical tale that speaks of universal truths and fears. High School.

Blankets (graphic novel) by Craig Thompson (2003)
This graphic memoir is a poignant tale of sibling rivalry, first love, artistic inspiration, and personal faith. Thompson’s relationships are skillfully depicted in all their nuances, and he is brutally honest about his struggles with his fundamentalist upbringing and the complexities of young love and sexuality. Blankets is a compulsively readable story, and the pen and ink drawings are sensitive and dynamic, perfectly capturing the characters’ moods and the snowy Midwest setting. High School (mature).

The Diviners by Libba Bray (2012)
Featuring disparate teen protagonists with nothing in common other that a secret special ability, a ghostly serial killer, and the vivid setting of Prohibition-era New York, this is a vivid historical fantasy with a horror spin. Best of all, while the story comes to a satisfactory resolution, there are overarching mysteries that promise good things to come in the rest of the planned quartet. High School.

The First Part Last by Angela Johnson (2003)
With short, spare sentences that say everything, Johnson tells the story of a sixteen-year-old single dad. The fear, the exhaustion, and the overwhelming love for his newborn baby daughter all come through perfectly as Bobby comes to grips with what parenthood means for his life and struggles to make the best decisions he possibly can for his daughter. Short, poetic chapters alternate between “now” and “then,” creating a suspenseful mood that will translate well for reluctant readers. High School.

 Hate List by Jennifer Brown (2009)
When Valerie and her boyfriend compiled a “HateList” of all the people they dislike or who have wronged them, she had no idea he would come to school with a gun and use it as a checklist for a killing spree. Five months later, school is back in session and Valerie is a social outcast struggling with her own guilt and grief. This is a wrenching, intimate portrayal of the aftermath of a tragedy, told from a unique perspective. High School (mature).

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1970)
In this first volume of her autobiography, poet Maya Angelou reflects on her life up until the age of seventeen. Told through a series of scenes depicting both gut-wrenching moments of heartbreak and fear and life-affirming events and relationships, Angelou’s story is a poignant tale of growing up in 1930s rural Arkansas. With bare honesty, humor, and grace, Angelou weaves a lyrical masterpiece that is both timeless and inspirational. High School.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
After reuniting with two former classmates from her “special” English boarding school, a thirty-something woman begins to reconsider her supposedly idyllic years at the school only to question friendships and unearth disquieting memories. Set in a fully realized dystopian world, Never Let Me Go paints a gripping portrait of adolescence in an increasingly bleak future. High School.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (2000)  
In this allegorical story about popularity and the courage of nonconformity, an eccentric new student named Stargirl arrives at Mica High School  to inspire fascination and scorn with her oddball behavior and strange dress. Her ebullient, uninhibited ways and determined kindness attract 11th grader Leo Borlock immediately, but when the rest of the school shuns them both, will Leo be able to balance his need for acceptance with his love for Stargirl? Middle School/High School.

Series Updates:
Bloody Jack Adventures by L.A. Meyer
Xanth by Piers Anthony

So what do you think of our additions? What are your favorite titles from this year that we should consider for the next update?

Get the complete annotated list on our library website »

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fall 2013 Giveaway!

I just finished my annual Fall cleaning, and guess what I found? A handful of ARCs (Advance Reading Copies), just waiting for you to claim them!

Rules of entry are at the end of the post. Please note that all prizes must be picked up at a BCPL location. Contest ends at 12:00 a.m. on Thursday, October 31, 2013.

Here are the titles I have available:

Enon by Paul Harding (September 2013)
A devastating portrait of a father desperately trying to come to terms with the loss of his beloved thirteen-year-old daughter, killed in an accident. –NoveList

The 100 by Kass Morgan (September 2013)
When 100 juvenile delinquents are sent on a mission to recolonize Earth, they get a second chance at freedom, friendship, and love, as they fight to survive in a dangerous new world.   –NoveList

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole (July 2013)
A love story told in letters spans two world wars and follows the correspondence between a poet on the Scottish Isle of Skye and an American volunteer ambulance driver for the French Army, an affair that is discovered years later when the poet disappears.   –NoveList

Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant (July 2013)
A tale inspired by the lives of Borgia siblings Lucretia and Cesare traces the family's rise in the aftermath of Rodrigo Borgia's rise to the papacy, during which war, a terrifying sexual plague, and the family's notorious reputation forge an intimate bond between brother and sister.   –NoveList

Mother, Daughter, Me by Katie Hafner (July 2013)
A health and technology journalist documents the author's efforts to promote family bonds and healing during a haphazard year spent sharing a home in San Francisco with her complicated octogenarian mother and teenage daughter.   –NoveList

The Village by Nikita Lalwani (July 2013)
Traces the efforts of a team of journalists to understand and document life in an experimental open prison where convicted murderers share their lives in a humble village, a site that becomes increasingly and dangerously subject to the dubious moral codes of its drama-seeking visitors.   –NoveList

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (June 2013)
Traces the story of an American rowing team from the University of Washington that defeated elite rivals at Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics, sharing the experiences of their enigmatic coach, a visionary boat builder, and a homeless teen rower.   –NoveList

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver (June 2013)
Visited by a high-powered attorney who has initiated a clemency petition on her behalf and who is also the mother of her victim, death-row inmate Noa is slowly persuaded to share the events surrounding the murder in spite of her reluctance to reveal the whole story or have her life extended.   –NoveList

Transatlantic by Colum McCann (June 2013)
A tale spanning 150 years and two continents reimagines the peace efforts of democracy champion Frederick Douglass, Senator George Mitchell and World War I airmen John Alcock and Teddy Brown through the experiences of four generations of women from a matriarchal clan.   –NoveList

Walking with Jack by Don J. Snyder (June 2013)
Documents the author's efforts to fulfill a promise to caddy for his son if the latter qualified for a professional tour, describing his training at age fifty-seven to study caddying in Scotland, where he lived like a monk.   –NoveList

Icons by Margaret Stohl (May 2013)
Icons #1

After an alien force known as the Icon colonizes Earth, decimating humanity, four surviving teenagers must piece together the mysteries of their pasts--in order to save the future.  –NoveList

Wasteland by Susan Kim & Laurence Klavan (April 2013)
Wasteland Trilogy #1

In a post-apocalyptic world where everyone dies at age nineteen and rainwater contains a killer virus, loners Esther and Eli band together with a group of mutant, hermaphroditic outsiders to fight a corrupt ruler and save the town of Prin.   –NoveList

Game by Barry Lyga (April 2013)
I Hunt Killers #2

After solving a deadly case in the small town of Lobo's Nod, seventeen-year-old Jazz, the son of history's most infamous serial murderer, travels to New York City to help the police track down the Hat-Dog Killer.   –NoveList
Read Tracy's review of Book 1, I Hunt Killers.

A Week in Winter by Paul Harding (February 2013)
Follows the efforts of a woman who turns a coastal Ireland mansion into a holiday resort and receives an assortment of first guests who throughout the course of a week share laughter and the heartache of respective challenges.   –NoveList

Niceville by Carsten Stroud (June 2012)
Niceville Trilogy #1
When a young boy literally disappears before security cameras while walking home from school, an ensuing search is conducted by ex-Special Forces veteran Nick Kavanaugh, who with his lawyer wife encounters an ancient malevolent power linked to a deep crater.   –NoveList

Rules of Entry

1. To enter, use the Rafflecopter widget below. To be eligible for the drawing, you are required to log in to the widget with your e-mail address or Facebook account AND leave a comment at the bottom of this post stating which ARCs you would like to receive. (Choose up to ten. You are not guaranteed to win your top choices, but we do our best). Click "+1" and "Enter" on the widget only after you have posted your comment below. After completing the first task, you can also earn bonus entries by following the directions in the widget.

2.  All ARCs must be picked up at a Bullitt County Public Library location. Winners will be notified via e-mail and will be posted on this blog. Contest ends at 12:00 a.m. on Thursday, October 31, 2013.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Updated on 10/18/13 to add:

Apparently there is still some confusion about entry. Basically, there are two separate steps which MUST be completed to finalize your entry.

#1 Make sure you leave a comment at the bottom of this post stating which ARCs you would like to receive. Otherwise, I will not know which prize(s) to give you if you win the drawing.

#2 Log in to the widget above and click "Enter." (See image below.) You must log in with your e-mail or Facebook account so that I will be able to contact you if you win. I began using the Rafflecopter widget for two reasons: 1) to protect contact information of participants; only I will see your e-mail address as opposed to if you were required to post it with your comment and 2) to facilitate multiple prize entries and select winners randomly.

There are also additional tasks, such as liking the BCPL Facebook page or commenting on another post on this blog. You will earn extra entries for completing these tasks

Saturday, September 28, 2013

FLASH REVIEWS: Recent Audio Reads with an International Flavor

As I mentioned in my last post, my pleasure reading of late has been almost entirely limited to audiobooks. It's been a while since I finished some of these, but here are some quick reviews of international-themed books I've been reading/listening to over the past few months:

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Adult/YA Crossover
Genre: Coming-of-Age Story/Political Fiction/War Story

This stunning coming of age novel tells the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a young Rwandan who dreams of running in the Olympics. He is a kindhearted and slightly naive boy, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly aware of the stark ethnic divide in his country and the challenges his Tutsi heritage will present to achieving his dream. Gripping and frequently distressing—this is one of the few novels that has made me cry—Running the Rift is nevertheless a story of hope, love, and perseverance. Benaron does not shy away from the escalating violence that eventually leads to the Rwandan genocide, but the story is not sensationalistic in any way. Instead, through the fictionalized account of Jean Patrick, it brings a relatable voice to an unimaginable tragedy and shows that there is much more to the country and its people than can be surmised from political reports and news stories. In contrast to the unflinching portrait of violence and moral complexities are Jean Patrick’s genuine love of his sport, his country, his family, and a young woman for whom he would do almost anything.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Audience: Adult
Genre: Literary Fiction/Political Fiction/Dystopia

Set in the real-world dystopia of North Korea, this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel takes readers on a weird and wonderful journey along with its anti-hero protagonist. Jun Do begins life with the unlucky reputation of being an orphan—although in actuality he is not—and through a series of strange circumstances and fateful choices he finds himself filling unlikely roles, from professional kidnapper to national hero to romantic rival of the Great Leader himself. Set in a world where the “story” is so much more important than truth—where the story becomes truth—Jun Do seizes opportunities to reinvent himself over and over, and yet the nature and politics of North Korea can easily take him on a detour that will rewrite his story all over again. Perhaps because the world it explores is so very alien, I must admit that I initially found this book a bit difficult to connect with. I also wonder whether my occasional dissatisfaction might be related to the audio format. There are multiple voices and frequent interruptions from propagandist loudspeakers that perhaps did not translate well in this audio adaptation. But while it becomes a bit tedious at times (whether due to format or subject matter), The Orphan Master’s Son is also frequently brilliant, fascinating, and surprising.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Adult
Genre: Nonfiction/Social Issues/Travel Writing

In this intimate and poignant book, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist creates a extraordinary portrait of India's urban poor. By focusing on Annawadi, one of dozens of tiny slums that exist alongside the modern new airport and luxury hotels of Mumbai, Katherine Boo is able to bring to life the everyday realities faced by so many. While the story centers on the accusations of a woman who set herself on fire and the repercussions for the family accused of harming her, several key residents of the small undercity are examined. From petty squabbles that escalate into tragedy to a murdered garbage thief left ignored on the side of the road, death and survival in Annawadi is brought to vivid life by Boo’s compassionate yet clear-eyed reportage. There is Abdul, the quiet, diligent garbage collector; Asha, an ambitious kindergarten teacher determined to work the corrupt system for her own betterment; and Manju, Asha’s disapproving, intelligent daughter who hopes education will be her way out. Readers are left both frustrated by the actions of some residents and cautiously hopeful for the futures of others; but, in the end, the people of Annawadi are portrayed at complex individuals, not as collective objects of pity but as human beings fighting for survival and carving out a life in a flawed and corrupt system.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

REVIEW: Overseas by Beatriz Williams

Rating: 3/5 Stars
Genre: Love Story/Fantasy/Time-Travel
Audience: Adult

Summary: In modern day Manhattan, newbie Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson is mystified and intrigued when billionaire Julian Laurence begins pursuing her after little more than a passing glance. But their love story is not an easy one: Julian's pursuit blows hot and cold despite their irresistible attraction, and he also seems to be keeping secrets. Interspersed with this tale are scenes from World War I–era France, to which modern-day Kate has somehow traveled on a mission to find Captain Julian Laurence Ashford and protect her lover from the future.

Tracy's Thoughts: As regular Books News & Reviews readers may have already guessed, I've been in a bit of a reading slump of late. I've been enjoying audiobooks on my commute to and from work, but it's been difficult to find the time and focus for any pleasure reading beyond that. I've started several (print) books over the last few months, but sticking with them has been a different story. And yet I finished Overseas in two days, staying up till 2 a.m. on a work night in order to finish. Overseas isn't great literature or even particularly original, but it held my attention and made me care about the characters. I simply enjoyed it.

At times, it reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey with less angst and a time travel twist. Overseas doesn't feature erotic sex scenes—love scenes are more in the fade-to-black tradition, though Kate and Julian's relationship is certainly passionate. Julian isn't nearly as tortured as Christian Grey, but he does have secrets. Also, the writing is better (thankfully, none of the characters have bickering conversations with their "subconscious"). So as much as I hate the habit of comparing recent reads to the latest big-hit book phenomena, the push-pull dynamic between the characters and the development of their relationship did call to mind James's trilogy.

The two entwined settings of Overseas make for a suspenseful, perfectly-paced story that answers one question only to raise another. The reader is able to piece just enough together to feel informed and invested, and yet all the the whys and wherefores remain a mystery until the perfect moment. Overseas is a charming and imminently readable love story that will likely appeal to fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Outlander, and perhaps even Fifty Shades of Grey fans who are interested in the powerful man/ordinary girl relationship dynamics but who are not necessarily looking for BDSM or erotic fiction.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...