Friday, February 05, 2016

Canadian Mystery Series Continues to Intrigue, Delight

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"What killed people wasn't a bullet, a blade, a fist to the face.  What killed people was a feeling. left too long.  Sometimes in the cold, frozen.  Sometimes buried and fetid.  And sometimes on the shores of a lake, isolated, left to grow old, and odd." (163)

(Note:  Although this review will not contain spoilers for A Rule Against Murder, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Armand Gamache mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

In the middle of a long, hot summer, Armand Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, retire to a luxurious auberge to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary.  The amiable couple always enjoys their annual vacation at Mainoir Bellechasse, a venerable old B&B situated not far from the quaint village of Three Pines.  This year, however, their peaceful visit is interrupted by the arrival of the Finneys, a wealthy, cultured clan at the Bellechasse for their yearly family reunion.  From the start, the snooty group prove themselves catty, cruel and decidedly uncouth.  The Gamaches are shocked by the Finneys' childish behavior; they're even more stunned to discover that one of their good friends from Three Pines is a Finney.

Things grow even more unpleasant when a Finney family member ends up dead in what appears to be a very strange accident.  As Chief Inspector Gamache investigates the fatality, he comes to an even more unsettling conclusion: murder.  The usual team is called in to help Gamache—as they poke around the crime scene, interview witnesses, and interrogate suspects, they will come to understand the disturbing inner workings of the Finney Family.  Hostility runs deep among the dysfunctional group, but would one of them really go so far as to murder another?  Or is the killer of a different bloodline entirely?  Only the great Armand Gamache can sort out such a puzzling mystery.

As much as I love cozy Three Pines, a different setting makes A Rule Against Murder, the fourth book in Louise Penny's Armand Gamache series, feel unique.  Thankfully, everything else about the novel remains the same, meaning that devoted readers will still get all they have come to expect from a Penny novel—deep, complex characters; an intriguing, twisty mystery; and warm, engaging storytelling.  As an added bonus, A Rule Against Murder delves deeper into Armand Gamache's psyche, revealing more about his childhood and personality.  All of which makes him an even more fascinating character.  Gamache is a personal favorite of mine, one about whom I'll never tire of reading.  In case you can't tell, I'm continuing to love this series.  I can't wait to see what Gamache & Co. get up to in their next adventure.

(Readalikes:  Other books in the Armand Gamache series, including Still Life; A Fatal Grace; The Cruelest Month; The Brutal Telling; Bury Your Dead; The Hangman; A Trick of the Light; The Beautiful Mystery; How the Light Gets In; The Long Way Home; The Nature of the Beast; and A Great Reckoning)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Three Women + 1 Beach Town + Copious Amounts of Tea = Shelter From the Raging Storms of Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

People have been flocking to Scarborough—the famed seaside town on England's Yorkshire Coast—for hundreds of years.  They come seeking adventure, relaxation, and a refuge from their cares.  For three very different women whose lives intersect there one Fall, Scarborough will become a place out of time, a place where they discover what they really want and find the courage to be who they really are.

Kat Murray, a 26-year-old single mother, dotes on her young son.  With cash running low, she's desperate to find a job that will pay the bills but not encroach on her time with Leo.  Worried about making ends meet, Kat finds solace where she always has—at the Seafront Tearoom.  The owner of the quaint shop has long mothered Kat, offering support, strength, and love.  Séraphine Moreau, a French au pair, stumbles onto the tearoom by accident.  Although she's in England to tutor a prickly 10-year-old, her main reason for fleeing Bordeaux has more to do with the secret she's keeping from her family.  The tearoom, and its sympathetic proprietor, give Séraphine something she never expected to find in Scarborough—warm, lasting friendships that give her the strength to deal not just with her difficult charge, but also with her personal dilemmas.  For go-getter Charlie Harrison, visiting Scarborough is a matter of killing two birds with one stone.  The Londoner can do her sisterly duty by dropping in on perfect, judgmental Pippa, while fulfilling an assignment for the culinary magazine she hopes to run one day.  Unsuspecting Charlie gets more than she bargained for, however, when she finds her sister in a crisis, herself on the verge of being fired, and a handsome architect who wants more from her than she's prepared to offer.  The Seafront Tearoom, where she meets both Kat and Séraphine, becomes her shelter from the storms brewing in her life.  

As the trio of women become acquainted, a strong, bolstering friendship forms between them.  With each of them struggling in their own unique way, the bond (solidified over copious amounts of tea) provides what they need to fight their battles.  But will they triumph away from Scarborough's warm embrace?  Or will their trials be too much for any of them to bear?

The Seafront Tearoom, a new romance by British author Vanessa Greene, is a light, warm-hearted tale about friendship, family, and finding oneself in the most unexpected of places.  It's a quick, fluffy read with a happy, too-neat ending that feels satisfying if not entirely realistic.  Although one of the novel's plot twists did catch me off-guard, most of the plot is as routine and predictable as, well, afternoon tea.  The women at the center of the story are all pleasant, just not overly interesting or exciting.  Which, incidentally, describes how I feel about The Seafront Tearoom overall—it's a nice, easy read that's enjoyable but not particularly memorable.  I liked it, didn't love it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of other novels about women forming fortifying friendships because of shared interests [knitting, book clubs, art classes, etc.], although no specific titles are coming to mind.  Suggestions?


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and a couple non-graphic references to sex

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Seafront Tearoom from the generous folks at Berkley Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House).  Thank you!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Crenshaw A Quiet, Sneak-Up-On-You Story About a Little Boy and His Big Worries

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Jackson Wade is going into 5th grade.  He's way too old for imaginary friends.  Which is why the re-appearance of a certain giant feline alarms him so much.  Jackson knows he made Crenshaw up when he was seven as a way to deal with the fear and uncertainty he felt while his family was homeless and living in their minivan.  So, why has Crenshaw returned?  Is it because of the strain that's so palpable in the Wade's rented apartment?  Is it because of the unpaid bills, the empty kitchen cabinets, his parents' arguing, his dad's inability to hold a job because of his MS?  Jackson doesn't want to lose his home again.  The worry is driving him crazy—and Crenshaw's presence is not helping.  

Although Jackson thinks he's old enough to hear the truth this time, he's not sure he can handle what his parents will surely tell him.  Should he ignore his fears and find solace in his old pal Crenshaw?  Or is he mature enough to send Crenshaw packing while he handles the situation like an adult?  Or at least not like a scaredy-cat baby?  Either way, it's a terrifying choice for a boy who's shouldering a burden that already feels too heavy to bear.  

Like her beloved The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate's newest middle grade novel, Crenshaw, is a quiet, sneak-up-on-you kind of story.  It's poignant and touching, heartbreaking yet hopeful.  Crenshaw adds some humor to the tale, but overall, this is a sobering book about a little kid dealing with big worries.  That might put some readers off and that's too bad because Crenshaw is an impacting read that will resonate with kids—and adults—as they struggle with real, difficult problems in life.  Although the novel's resolution is realistically imperfect, the story nonetheless ends on a positive, upbeat note that speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.  Despite its serious subject, this is another can't-miss-it middle grade tale.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for serious subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

TTT: Because We Always Want What We Don't Have

Somehow, I got my weeks totally mixed up!  I thought today's Top Ten Tuesday topic was a freebie, but it's not; it's actually about historical/futuristic societies.  Since nothing is coming to mind for the correct topic, I'm going to stick with my original plan and do the freebie I should have done last week.  Before I get to that, though, I want to make sure you're invited to join in the TTT fun.  All you have to do is click on over to The Broke and the Bookish, read the rules, make your own list, and hop around the book blogosphere to share the TTT love.  Easy peasy.

Okay, on to my freebie topic.  I know lots of you are sick to death of winter.  Maybe I would be, too, if I lived somewhere that actually has winter.  We're not so lucky here in the Phoenix area.  Sure, we've had some chilly days (for us); some mornings it's gotten down into the 30s, but still ... real winter continues to elude us desert dwellers.  Most people live here for exactly that reason.  For this PNW girl, though, I miss the chill in the air, the snow softly falling, the crackle of a blaze in the fireplace—all the things that signify winter to me.  In a month or so, our temps will be back up in the 100s.  The only way to make winter last around here is to read about it in books.  So, here you go with my Top Ten Most Memorable Books set in the Winter:

1.  Into Thin Air by Jon Krakeur—You've probably all read this haunting memoir about an American journalist's quest to summit Mt. Everest in 1996.  I finished it a couple weeks ago, but I can't stop thinking about the terrible, life-changing events that happened to him and others with whom he was climbing.  Although Krakeur's trip took place in March—technically Spring—I can't think of a chillier, more winter-ish book than this one.

Because Into Thin Air made such an impact on me, I also checked out these two to read soon: Left for Dead by Beck Weathers (a member of Krakeur's climbing party) and Buried in the Skya memoir about sherpas climbing on K2's deadliest day by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan.  I've heard mixed reviews about the former and lots of praise for the latter.  Both sound fascinating to me.

2.  Bones On Ice by Kathy Reichs—While we're on the subject of Mt. Everest ... This novella (#17.5 in Reichs' popular Tempe Brennan series) concerns a female hiker from North Carolina who dies mysteriously while climbing the mountain.  It's up to Tempe, a forensic anthropologist, to figure out what really happened.  This is a quick but very compelling whodunit.

3.  Winter at the Door by Sarah Graves—This is the debut novel in a new series starring homicide detective Lizzie Snow.  Believing her mysteriously missing sister and niece might be in northern Maine, Lizzie takes a deputy job in the small town of Bearkill.  She quickly discovers there's much more going on in the sleepy village than meets the eye ...

4.  Trapped by Michael Northrop—A vicious New England blizzard traps seven teenagers at their high school with no access to the outside world.  Can they survive with no heat, little food, and a dwindling hope of rescue?

5.  The Shining by Stephen King—When Jack Torrance accepts a job as the caretaker of an old hotel for the winter, he's looking forward to family time and a new start.  But, as the weather takes a turn for the worse, he finds himself trapped in isolation, fear, and his own madness.

6.  Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys—Unlike most readers, I wasn't totally bowled over by Sepetys' Between Shades of Gray.  The YA novel, about a Lithuanian girl who's sent to a Siberian work camp during WWII, is vivid and compelling, but I just didn't feel much connection with the characters.  The total opposite is true of its sequel, Salt to the Sea.  It's been months since I read the chilling follow-up and it still haunts me.

7.  The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon—All McMahon's books are creepy, but this one is especially so.  The novel revolves around a mysterious old legend about the deaths of a mother and daughter.  Now occupying the farmhouse in which the dead females once lived, a teenager gets wrapped up in the chilling truth about what really happened to them.

8.  Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson—It's been a long time since I read this novel about a drowned fisherman and the Japanese-American accused of murdering him.  Time for a re-read of this atmospheric tale, methinks.  

9.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens—Probably the most iconic wintertime book of them all, I try to re-read this classic tale every December just because I love it so much.

10.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis—I read this first volume of Lewis' classic Narnia series when I was in elementary school (a loooonnnngggg time ago) and yet, many of its vivid scenes have stuck with me through the years.  I'm way overdue for a re-read of this one, as well as a first-read of the rest of the books in the series.

What do you think?  Love winter or hate it?  What are your favorite cold weather books?  With a long, scorching Arizona summer just around the bend, I'd love lots of shivery book recommendations to keep me cool.  Leave me a comment and I'll happily return the favor on your blog.    

Happy TTT!   

Monday, February 01, 2016

New Adult Travel Novel Fluffy But Fulfilling

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

At 23, Kika Shores isn't quite ready to dress in big girl clothes and commute to the city for an adult job with all the other suits.  She'd rather be backpacking across Europe or scouring an African bazaar for unique jewelry to sell on her blog.  Too bad traveling requires so much dough.  Working for a corporate travel agency in New York City helps pad her checking account, but that doesn't mean Kika has to enjoy acting like a grown-up.  

When she screws up one too many times on the job, Kika finds herself unemployed, with so little coinage she can barely afford a trip to the dollar store, let alone overseas.  Then, fate steps in.  A wealthy friend asks Kika to come to London and nanny for her daughters.  Overjoyed, she accepts.  Not only will Kika be able to hang out with her favorite girls, but she'll also be much closer to Belfast where her "roadmance" boyfriend, Lochlin O'Mahone, lives.  She especially can't wait to reconnect with the gorgeous Irishman, the memories of whom still keep her warm at night.  

London soothes Kika's wanderlusting soul, but that doesn't mean it's a problem-free zone.  Not at all.  Kika's charges are having trouble fitting in; she's lying to their parents; and for some weird reason, she's thinking more of stuck-up Aston Hyde-Bettencourt than of Lochlin.  When a series of shocking revelations rocks Kika's world, she has to decide what she really wants and how much she's willing to risk in order to get it.  For a Peter Pan girl, Kika's suddenly having to make some very adult decisions.  And she doesn't like it.  Can she grow up enough to go after what she wants?  Or will she grab her passport and head for the hills like she always does when things get dicey?

I wasn't expecting to like Girls Who Travel, a debut novel by travel writer Nicole Trilivas, quite as much as I did.  Why not?  I'm not a huge fluff reader.  And the novel is undeniably fluffy.  At least sometimes.  Not always, though, which is the part that surprised me.  Yes, Girls Who Travel is a zany, funny romp with a sometimes annoyingly immature heroine, but it also makes some deeper points about growing up and getting real.  A messier ending would have been more true to life, but still ... Overall, this is a satisfying novel voiced by a woman who matures over the course of the tale while never losing her unique, free-spirited perspective.  Like I said, I enjoyed Girls Who Travel much more than I thought I would.  Needless to say, I'm looking forward to seeing what Trilivas comes up with for her sophomore voyage.

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  Suggestions?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a dozen or so F-bombs, plus milder expletives), sex, violence, and depictions of alcohol abuse

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Girls Who Travel from the generous folks at Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Books).  Thank you!

Tender MG Novel Talks About Finding Oneself While Struggling With Family Life and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Verbena Colter has always been embarrassed by her older-than-everyone-else's father and her overweight, scrapbooking-obsessed mother.  Lately, she can't quite keep her disdain for them, or any of her other boiling emotions, inside.  When she discovers her parents aren't actually her parents, things begin to make sense.  Verbena's biological father is in prison, which explains her recent mean streak.  Bad blood, clearly.  Her biological mother isn't much better.  As a result of the woman drinking while pregnant, Verbena has fetal alcohol syndrome.  The condition is to blame for the 11-year-old's small size, poor eyesight, and learning disabilities.  Not that these revelations make anything easier.  Really, they just make Verbena's misery worse.

As Verbena agonizes over her unlucky situation, a younger boy moves in across the street.  Pooch, who's from New York City, will be staying upstate with his mother for the summer.  Considering the history of the house Pooch lives in (a girl died in the pond nearby), Verbena decides to shed her unwanted identity for that of another.  She convinces her 9-year-old neighbor that she's the ghost of the dead girl.  Pooch is the gullible sort, which leads to all kinds of fun for Verbena.  

Despite her duplicity, the friendship between Verbena and Pooch grows, leading her to some startling realizations.  Maybe she's genetically wired for trouble-making, but maybe not—maybe it's her choices that determine her destiny.  And maybe the life she's living isn't so bad after all.  Sure, it's got its bumps and it's certainly more complicated than it appears.  Still, it's hers and maybe, just maybe, she'll keep it after all.  

As Simple as It Seems by Sarah Weeks tells a warm-hearted, thoughtful tale about a young girl's struggles with herself, her parents, and the realities of growing up.  With no wasted words, the novel's taut, but also tender and real.  Anyone who's ever felt out of place will identify with Verbena.  It's difficult not to root for her in her fight to find herself.  With a sympathetic heroine, a compelling storyline, and a touching message, As Simple as It Seems is an impacting tale that I very much enjoyed.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't really think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for scenes of peril and references to alcohol abuse

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Poignant, Heartbreaking Inside Out and Back Again Based on Author's Unique Immigrant Experience

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kim Há loves Saigon, where she's lived for all of her ten years.  She adores the bustling marketplace, all of the city's familiar sights and tantalizing scents.  Most of all, she loves her mama and her papaya tree.  But as the violence of war tears Saigon apart, it becomes necessary for the family to flee.  As Kim sails across the sea, bounces from refugee camp to refugee camp, finally landing in a strange land called Alabama, she experiences every emotion—anxiety, fear, wonder, and excitement.

Life in America is vastly different from Kim's experience in Vietnam.  There, she felt smart.  Here, people think she's dumb just because she can't speak English.  There, she had lots of family nearby.  Here, she's lonely.  There, she ate familiar food, chatted in her native tongue, understood her world.  Here, everything is different, everything is new.  Does she have any hope of fitting in?  Will America—a place so foreign—ever feel like home?

Based on the author's own experience as a child, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai offers a uniquely authentic perspective on immigration.  Written in verse, it's a spare narrative, but one that's nevertheless vivid, poignant, and heartbreaking.  It's a story that will resound with anyone who's ever felt out of place, while teaching all of us a valuable lesson about acceptance.  Inside Out and Back Again proves that everyone has a story worth knowing—if only we'll take the time to listen.  A beautiful, award-winning book, this poignant novel-in-verse should not be missed.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Girl in the Torch by Robert Sharenow and other stories about immigrant children)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, January 29, 2016

Middle Grade Historical Perfectly Captures the Immigrant Experience

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As violence against Jewish people grows increasingly worse in her European village, 12-year-old Sarah holds fast to her one beacon of hope—a postcard from America showing the grand Statue of Liberty.  The edifice symbolizes everything for which her family yearns: freedom, peace, the chance for a new life.  But it's only Sarah and her mother who cross the great ocean to see the face of the Lady.  And Sarah, alone, who survives Ellis Island.  Unable to stay in the country by herself, Sarah is on a boat back home when she makes the daring decision to jump off.  Dragging herself to the shores of the Lady's island, the young girl takes refuge inside the magnificent statue.  

Although the Lady offers her relative safety, Sarah still has to figure out a way to eat, to dodge the nighttime security guard, and to find a way into Manhattan.  Even when she receives help from some surprising sources, she still has to struggle in order to survive.  Life in America is difficult and strange—will it ever feel like home to a lost, lonely foreigner?  Will the land that promised so much make good on its lofty vows?  Or will Sarah find America just as unwelcoming as the country she left behind?

Like Sarah, I dream of someday seeing the Statue of Liberty in person.  Maybe that's why stories about immigrants flocking to her feet intrigue me so much.  The Girl in the Torch by Robert Sharenow is no exception.  Not only does the book tell an exciting adventure tale, but it also captures perfectly the wonder and fear immigrants must have felt upon arriving in a new land.  With plenty of vivid historical detail, Sharenow brings turn-of-the-century New York alive.  As Sarah navigates her way through that forbidding landscape, readers get a glimpse of the kind of pluck and courage it took for an immigrant to survive the experience.  Atmospheric and engrossing, The Girl in the Torch kept me completely engaged.  I enjoyed it.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a little of The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), brief nudity, and vague references to alcoholism and prostitution

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Ever Wonder What It Would Be Like to Be a Wolf? So Did Jala ...

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As part of the festivities for Multicultural Children's Book Day, I was matched with author Marti Dumas.  Yesturday, I featured the first two books in her upbeat Jaden Toussaint series, which stars a genius kindergartner who uses scientific reasoning (and ninja dance parties) to solve everyday problems.  

Dumas' standalone novel, Jala and the Wolves, focuses on another child who uses knowledge to overcome challenges.  Jala is a 6-year-old who lives in New Orleans.  She hates getting her hair combed, but she loves to eat, read, and learn facts about animals, especially wolves.  One day while she's waiting (very hungrily) for her mom to make her breakfast, Jala notices something strange in her room—a magic mirror.  Just as she's settling down to read a favorite book, her room starts to change.  Then, Jala begins to transform.  Suddenly, she can leap and smell and hear like a wolf because somehow, she is a wolf.  
When Jala meets Milo, a nervous cub who needs her help to save his pack, she has to use all her skills to figure out what to do.  With the pack, which is made up of very young pups, counting on her, she needs to come up with a plan—or else the cubs will die just like their parents did.  Can she teach the babies what they need to know to survive?  They're looking to her for
help, but what about her family back in Louisiana?  Which is her real pack?  How can Jala choose?  She can't think her way out of this one—this time, it's her heart that must decide.

Like Jaden, Jala is an admirable character.  Not only is she kind and loving, but she's also smart, logical, and brave.  Throughout her adventures in the wolf world, she has to use all these traits to bring a struggling pack together.  Her plight shows young readers the power of compassion, putting another's needs before your own, and using teamwork to solve problems.  Not only does Jala and the Wolves teach some valuable lessons, but it's also a fast, exciting story that will appeal to anyone who's ever wondered what it would be like to be their favorite animal.  And, really, who hasn't done that?  Personally, I very much enjoyed this quick, engaging read.  

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for a little bit of blood/gore related to hunting

To the FTC, with love:  I received a copy of Jala and the Wolves from the generous Marti Dumas as part of the festivities for Multicultural Children's Book Day.  Thank you!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Multicultural Children's Book Day 2016: Because "She Looks Like Me!" Is Music to My Ears

I've been reading children's literature since I was a young'un (so, for a loooonnnggg time) and I honestly never noticed how little cultural diversity existed in kids' books.  Not when I inhaled them myself, not when I shared them with my three oldest children.  It wasn't until my beautiful, bi-racial daughter came into my life via adoption that my eyes started opening.  At 7, she doesn't necessarily notice that most of the characters in the t.v. shows, movies, and books she enjoys are white, but her reaction to seeing little girls onscreen or in books who "look like me" are always so surprised and euphoric that it's apparent how few of these depictions she actually views each day.  Despite my best intentions as a parent, it's obvious she just isn't seeing enough little girls with brown skin and curly black hair represented in the media she consumes.

While the situation has definitely improved over the years, there's still much that can be done.  That's why I'm so thrilled to be taking part in the festivities for Multicultural Children's Book Day 2016.  Started in 2014 by Valarie Budayr and Mia Wenjen, the annual (January 27) event not only celebrates and promotes diversity in children's literature but also pushes to get more such books into classrooms and libraries.  In the founders' words:  "Our young readers need to see themselves within the pages of a book and experience other cultures, languages, traditions and religions within the pages of a book. We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians to follow along the fun book reviews, author visits, event details, and multicultural children’s book linky and via our hashtag (#ReadYourWorld) on Twitter and other social media." 

MCCBD is made possible by generous support from the event's sponsors:

Bronze: Pomelo Books* Author Jacqueline Woodson*Papa Lemon Books* Goosebottom Books*Author Gleeson Rebello*ShoutMouse Press*Author Mahvash Shahegh*China*  


As part of the MCCBD festivities, bloggers are matched up with authors of culturally diverse books.  I was thrilled to be paired with Marti Dumas, a teacher from New Orleans.  She's written three chapter books, two of which I will chat about today.  The other will be reviewed tomorrow.  

Featuring a kindergartner with a brain that's even bigger than his afro, Dumas' Jaden Toussaint series is upbeat, funny, and empowering.  Using his smarts to solve his own problems, our hero shows kids what they can do when they use their heads.  As he perseveres through failed experiments, brain blocks, and other challenges, Jaden teaches kids to keep trying until they find a workable solution to whatever problem they may be facing.  

In the first "episode," The Quest for Screen Time, Jaden longs to spend more time playing on the computer.  His parents regulate his online hours to avoid the brain frying that comes from Internet overindulgence.  Jaden isn't convinced his noggin's in any trouble.  In fact, he'll be using all the knowledge stored in his mighty mind to show his folks he means business.  When begging doesn't work, he calls in the big guns: science,
experimentation, his kindergarten buddies and, of course, a 3-minute ninja dance party.  If that doesn't sway his parents, nothing will ...

In The Ladek Invasion, Jaden Toussaint is faced with a new problem—an alien attack at his school.  Ms. Bates tells his class the creatures on the playground are moth buck caterpillars, but Jaden's not so sure.  The little monsters bear an uncanny resemblance to the space invaders he saw in his sister's super-scary comic book.  Whatever they are, the bugs need to be exterminated or the kids will never enjoy outside recess again.  What's a genius kindergartner to do?  Use his mad smarts to find a solution, of course.  Space aliens or stinging caterpillars, Jaden's got to find a way to stop the invasion ...

Not only are the Jaden Toussaint books cleverly worded, but they're brilliantly illustrated by Marie Muravski, whose unique artistry really brings these entertaining stories to life.  Middle graders will enjoy both the prose and the pictures, which work together to make the books fast, fun reads.  Besides a few distracting typos in the text of the second installment, I have no complaints about this engaging series—except that there aren't more "episodes" for me and my daughter to enjoy.


Be sure to come back tomorrow to read my review of Jala and the Wolves by Marti Dumas.  In the meantime, check out her website for fun activities and lots of great recommendations on multicultural books to enjoy.  Also, visit the Multicultural Children's Book Day website for more information on MCCBD, additional multicultural book recommendations, and sponsor details.  You can also follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Terrible Typhoid Mary Tells Fascinating, True Tale

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Most of us have probably heard of Typhoid Mary, but what do we really know about the woman behind the headline?  Not much, probably.  In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Susan Campbell Bartoletti seeks to remedy that by telling the true story of Mary Mallon, a healthy woman with a nasty habit of passing typhoid to those she served.  Using newspaper accounts, historical photographs, and personal letters, Bartoletti shares the relatively little that is known about Mallon, weaving a fascinating tale of disease, fear, and paranoia in turn-of-the-century America.  

Born in Ireland in 1869, Mallon immigrated to The United States as a young teenager.  She became a cook, who worked for wealthy families in New York.  Hardworking and dependable, she was a trusted member of those households.  It was only when members of all the families for whom she worked became sick with typhoid (at least one of whom died) that Mallon came under suspicion.  George Soper, a 36-year-old sanitation engineer who investigated the cook, accused her of carrying the deadly disease.  He urged her to stop cooking for others and to give herself over for scientific study.  Rarely ill, Mallon found the suggestion that she was making others sick utterly ludicrous; that anyone could be a "healthy" carrier of typhoid seemed beyond ridiculous.  And yet, that's exactly what she was.  Soper's aggressive quest to stop Mallon eventually led to her arrest, quarantine, and many years of exile on isolated North Brother Island.   

The story of Mary Mallon is as sad as it is compelling.  Bartoletti's sympathetic but balanced telling brings the time period to life, showing the ignorance and fear that prevailed when it came to deadly, communicable diseases.  How Mallon got caught up in the murky ethics of it all is also brought to light.  Right or wrong, what happened to the cook makes for engrossing reading.  Although the biography is written for children, Terrible Typhoid Mary is not for the squeamish.  It's got plenty of blood and guts type detail that will turn delicate stomachs.  Nevertheless, it's an engrossing account, one that will definitely keep the curious riveted to its pages.  

(Readalikes:  Um, I can't think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for vague references to sex, and blood-and-guts descriptions

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Quiet Middle Grade Novel An Affecting Little Gem

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Everyone knows Trent Zimmerman didn't kill Jared Richards on purpose.  Although Trent hit the puck that struck Jared in the chest, resulting in a fatal response due to the boy's heart condition, Trent certainly didn't intend to cause Jared's death.  It was a heartbreaking accident, a rotten streak of bad luck, a cruel twist of fate.  And yet, Trent can't stop blaming himself.  Guilt and grief eat him up inside, manifesting themselves in an uncontrollable rage that boils just below the surface.  Sketching out his feelings helps Trent a tiny bit, but he knows if he's not careful, his anger will explode and destroy what little peace he still has in his life.

Enter Fallon Little.  The eccentric sixth grader already stands out enough with the big, mysterious scar that mars his face.  So, why does she insist on drawing even more attention to herself by wearing crazy clothes and just being ... weird?  And why can't she leave Trent alone?  Everyone else has learned to steer clear of him, so why won't Fallon?  Instead, she chats him up, tries to sneak peeks at his sketchbook, and invites him to her house to watch boring old movies.  The screwy thing is, after a while, he doesn't really mind.  In fact, he kind of likes being with bright, funny Fallon.  Even if she won't tell him what really happened to her face.

As the kids—each scarred in their own way—grow closer, they both find surprising chances to start over, to mend fences, and to heal.

Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff is a quiet book.  It moves slowly, without melodrama, without pretense.  It simply tells a story about two wounded kids who find strength in friendship.  Through Trent and Fallon, the reader learns some important, but not heavy-handed, lessons about forgiving oneself and healing through helping others.  Although Lost in the Sun doesn't offer a lot of action or suspense, it's a perfect novel to hand to reluctant readers, especially sports-minded boys who can identify with a good-kid-consumed-by-overwhelming-emotions character like Trent.  Personally, I found it to be an affecting gem of a book.

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing's coming to mind.  Help?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for mild language (no F-bombs) and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Monday, January 18, 2016

Affecting Never Said Still Missing Something

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Except for a shared birthday, fraternal twins Sarah and Annie have little in common.  Where Annie is friendly and popular, Sarah is crippled by social anxiety.  Annie craves attention, while Sarah shies away from it.  Annie lives for beauty pageants, Sarah prefers reading and playing her violin.  Annie is the one who shines; it's her around which the family—and the world—has always seemed to revolve.  Sarah accepted her second-tier status long ago.

Then, for no apparent reason, Annie changes.  She gorges herself, resulting in massive weight gain; cuts her hair; and starts acting differently.  Frustrated, the girls' mother harangues Annie constantly, begging her to lose the extra pounds.  And that's not the only flak she's getting because of her strange transformation.  As Annie's brightness fades, Sarah suddenly finds herself in the spotlight—somewhere she doesn't belong and doesn't want to be.  Besides, she's got her own problems.  Her boyfriend has just broken up with her.  She's devastated by the break, concerned about her sister, and worried that her whole life is crumbling to pieces around her.  How can she reach Annie, the girl who should be her BFF but isn't?  Will helping her twin bring things back to normal? Is that what Sarah wants?  Or is it time to get real, no matter what the cost?

Although Carol Lynch Williams is a must-read author for me, I don't adore every one of her books.  Some (The Chosen One; Signed, Skye Harper) I do, some I don't.  Never Said belongs in the latter category.  Although I enjoyed its format (Annie's sections are in verse; Sarah's are in prose), I just didn't connect all that well with this story.  It's affecting, yes, but it also comes off as heavy-handed and depressing.  Plus, the characters just lack something, especially the girls' parents, who seem unrealistically cold and over-the-top.  In the end, I found Never Said compelling enough to finish (it's a quick, well-written read), but not to earn my undying adoration.  

(Readalikes:  Reminded me of Just Listen by Sarah Dessen)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for references to disturbing subjects (sexual abuse, rape, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find
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