Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Wolf's Boy - Susan Williams Beckhorn

Summary: An outcast boy and a young wolf have only each other against an Ice Age winter . . .

Kai burns to become a hunter and to earn a rightful place among his people. But that can never be. He was born with a club foot. It is forbidden for him to use or even touch a hunter’s sacred weapons.

Cut off from the other boys, Kai turns to his true friends, the yellow wolves, for companionship. They have not forgotten the young human they nurtured as an abandoned infant. When Kai discovers a motherless cub in the pack, he risks everything to save her, bringing her back to live with him.

But as winter draws near, Kai’s wolf grows ever more threatening in the eyes of the People. When the worst happens, Kai knows that they must leave for good. Together, they embark on a journey into the north—a place of unimaginable danger—that tests the power of friendship and the will to survive.

Award-winning author Susan Williams Beckhorn delivers a tale set in Paleolithic times. Inspired by modern discoveries, Susan’s careful research creates a vivid picture of a time when the first wolves came to live with humans and forged a bond that lives on to this day. (summary and image from goodreads.com)


My Review: This was a delightful happenstance of a book--I was at the library searching for an entirely different novel, and when it wasn't there I happened to glance down and saw The Wolf's Boy.

I ate this book up.  I loved our main character Kai from the off, an underdog, considered tabat among his people, an outcast, a curse.  He doesn't even have a true name.  Yet even with that hanging over him, he longs to be a hunter, something a person of his standing can never be according to ancient traditions of his people.  Despite being outcast, Kai was kind and caring, and I loved the interactions between him and his younger siblings, and of course his love and care for the wolf cub he adopts.  As well as his longing for the relationship lost between him and his older brother.

This book was filled with awesome words that related to people and things that gave this world a very real feel.  Words like Ama and Apa for mother and father, keerta for a warrior's weapon, and bah and bu for girl and boy.  Simple things woven through the text and dialogue helped this feel like an authentic world.

I always love a good boy and his dog story.  This was a tale set in ice age France, when the first dog began to work with the first human.  I loved Kai's dedication to his wolf, named Uff, and how he needed her as much as she needed him. 

This was a great character story, and also a great adventure and survival story set in a prehistoric time where mammoths, cave bears and saber tooth cats roamed the land.  A quick read too, but very fulfilling.

My Rating: Four Stars

For the sensitive reader: Kai lives in a harsh eat or be eaten world, but it's handled with taste.  There are several accidents where characters are injured, sometimes very badly, and there is talk of blood.  Animals are also killed for food.

Monday, November 12, 2018

When Elephants Fly - Nancy Richardson Fischer

Summary: There are some battles worth fighting even if it means losing yourself.

T. Lily Decker is a high school senior with a twelve-year plan: avoid stress, drugs, alcohol and boyfriends, and take regular psych quizzes administered by her best friend, Sawyer, to make sure she's not developing schizophrenia.Genetics are not on Lily's side. 

When she was seven, her mother, who had paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill her. And a secret has revealed that Lily's odds are even worse than she thought. Still, there's a chance to avoid triggering the mental health condition, if Lily can live a careful life from ages eighteen to thirty, when schizophrenia most commonly manifests.

But when a newspaper internship results in Lily witnessing a mother elephant try to kill her three-week-old calf, Swifty, Lily can't abandon the story or the calf. With Swifty in danger of dying from grief, Lily must choose whether to risk everything, including her sanity and a first love, on a desperate road trip to save the calf's life, perhaps finding her own version of freedom along the way. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: There are a lot of steps you can take to prevent getting sick. Wash your hands. Eat well. Exercise. Get your flu shot. Sadly, the answer isn't as clear when you're talking about schizophrenia. T. Lily Decker is bound and determined to do everything she can do to stave off the genetic predisposition to the disease. She's avoided boys, coffee, stress, stimulus, even learning to drive. Her best friend gives her monthly not-schizophrenic-yet quizzes. She is determined to beat the disease. However, what happens when something more important than your desires come up? Do you walk away? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Honestly, this is one of those books that seems like it would be a quick, set-and-forget kind of books, but it asks the hard questions. What's more important to you than you? Are you willing to sacrifice what you want for what someone else needs? How damaging can our own unintentional narcissism be to our relationships? What if your parents aren't perfect? What if you're not?

Lily is a flawed main character, and not because she's fearful of her future. She's flawed because she's an 18-year-old girl. She's self-obsessed. Her problems create a myopic view of her world - sound like any other eighteen-somethings you know? The best part, however, is that she's able to learn. Her flaws are room for growth, not stereotyped and fluffed up for the reader. The fixes are raw, they're messy, and they're open-ended--almost like real life fixes tend to be. The result is a relatable (at any age, let's be honest, I have T-shirts older than Lily!), real character I couldn't help but root for. The supporting characters are equally as complex and realistic. It was a breath of fresh air.

Even better, this book brings up and highlights two well-researched and pertinent topics: mental health and the plight of elephants around the world. Are they related? Not at all, but in Fischer's hands, they become inseparable. Included at the back of the novel are lists of resources for both issues when readers' interested are piqued and they want to learn more. (My teachy-sense got a little giddy at that.)

Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader: There's a sex scene that, while necessary to the plot, goes further than I'd prefer. There is mention of pedophilia, attempted filicide, animal abuse, and a murder most foul. Trigger Warnings: abuse, schizophrenic breaks 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Nightbooks - J.A. White

Summary: A boy is imprisoned by a witch and must tell her a new scary story each night to stay alive. This thrilling contemporary fantasy from J. A. White, the acclaimed author of the Thickety series, brings to life the magic and craft of storytelling.

Alex’s original hair-raising tales are the only thing keeping the witch Natacha happy, but soon he’ll run out of pages to read from and be trapped forever. He’s loved scary stories his whole life, and he knows most don’t have a happily ever after. Now that Alex is trapped in a true terrifying tale, he’s desperate for a different ending—and a way out of this twisted place.

This modern spin on the Scheherazade story is perfect for fans of Coraline and A Tale Dark and Grimm. With interwoven tips on writing with suspense, adding in plot twists, hooks, interior logic, and dealing with writer’s block, this is the ideal book for budding writers and all readers of delightfully just-dark-enough tales. (summary and picture from goodreads.com)


My Review: Nightbooks was a fun, dark adventure that's a mix of Hansel and Gretel and Scheherezade.  It's filled with witches and curses and clever kids, the perfect mixture for any good story.

Our villain is properly spooky and the haunting dilemmas Alex and his friend Yasmin get caught up in are frightening.  Only by reading a different story he has written every night can Alex keep himself alive another day, and the stories he's concocted are pretty creepy and delightful.

The characters are fun and full, and the magical apartment always has something up its sleeve that adds to the spooky atmosphere, and is definitely not always as it seems. This book is a must for those who love ghost stories or dark fairy tales.

I always like a story about stories, and that theme runs strong in this novel.  Alex has been gifted with a mind for telling dark tales, something which sets him apart from others around him, and something he thinks he needs to squelch in order to fit in.  But as the book goes on, he realizes that gift is something that makes him special, something that he loves to do, no matter how creepy or dark the tales he tells.  I totally understand where he's coming from too--when you're 12 and you hit that middle school stage, you want to do whatever you can to fit in, even if it's going against who you really are inside.  We've all done it, I think.  What's cool is coming out of that and realizing who you're supposed to be, and this ordeal helps Alex come to that point, and how his stories, and stories in general, help him--and us--to be.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: the stories Alex tells are spooky, and some deal with death, and the witch can be scary at times.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Girl Who Smiled Beads - Clemantine Wamariya

Summary: A riveting story of dislocation, survival, and the power of stories to break or save us.

Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when her mother and father began to speak in whispers, when neighbors began to disappear, and when she heard the loud, ugly sounds her brother said were "thunder." In 1994, she and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety--perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. They did not know whether their parents were dead or alive.

When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey--to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.

Raw, urgent, and bracingly original, The Girl Who Smiled Beads captures the true costs and aftershocks of war: what is forever destroyed; what can be repaired; the fragility of memory; the disorientation that comes of other people seeing you only as broken--thinking you need, and want, to be saved. But it is about more than the brutality of war. It is about owning your experiences, about the life we create: intricately detailed, painful, beautiful, a work in progress.

Review: Remember that scene when Oprah reunited the family split apart by the Rwandan genocide? There were tears and cheers, the whole audience cried, Oprah solidified herself as  America’s fairy godmother, and it was super heartwarming. But what about after the cameramen shouted “Cut!”? What happened to get them to that point? What happened to their relationship after?

Clemantine Wamariya was so young when she and her sister fled the genocide. The goal was to stay with her grandmother until things calmed down, but the mobs that engulfed Rwanda didn’t stick to the cities. Her story, the story of flight and survival, the story of bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp, of growing up without a country, relying on her sister to be mother, father, family, and friend, and of her eventual asylum in America is the side of the stories we don’t know. 

With the struggles in Sudan not settling down anytime soon, and with the ongoing debate of what to do with refugees, The Girl Who Smiled Beads aims to change the ignorance that surrounds the label of refugee. Wamariya’s experiences, so beautifully and hauntingly detailed here, give the reader the opportunity to see more than a byline. These experiences throw off the shroud of stereotype that those who have never been a refugee all carry, exposing the truth of the struggle refugees have of supporting themselves, of fear of becoming obsolete or nothing but a burden, of the loss and uncertainty that comes with admittance into a camp.

I don’t know about many, but I always thought I understood it as much as I could without having been in this experience. I’d never thought of the boredom that comes with running. The fear of trying to join the black market had never occurred to me. The nuance and the reality struck me, so much so that this book stayed with me for weeks. I found myself literally incapable of starting another book until I’d come to grips with what I’d read, and encouraging everyone I knew who knew how to read to join me in this incredible, heart wrenching, life-altering journey. Even better, I’ve lost count of how many friends who heard about the book when I obsessively posted about it, and who have turned around and asked me “Have you heard of this incredible book!? Wait, did you tell me about it? Isn’t it amazing??”

Trust me, it’s that good. It’s not an easy read, but it’s definitely worth your time.

Rating: Five stars


For the Sensitive Reader: Given how difficult and how terrifying life is for two young women on their own, this is quite clean. There are some beatings that are described. At the end of the book, Wamariya addresses sexual assault in the most respectful acknowledgement and condemnation I’ve ever read.

Monday, November 5, 2018

A Taste For Monsters - Matthew J Kirby

Summary: It’s London 1888, and Jack the Ripper is terrorizing the people of the city. Evelyn, a young woman disfigured by her dangerous work in a matchstick factory, who has nowhere to go, does not know what to make of her new position as a maid to the Elephant Man in the London Hospital. Evelyn wants to be locked away from the world, like he is, shut in from the filth and dangers of the streets. But in Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, she finds a gentle kindred who does not recoil from her and who understands her pain.

When the murders begin, however, Joseph and Evelyn are haunted nightly by the ghosts of the Ripper’s dead, setting Evelyn on a path to facing her fears and uncovering humanity’s worst nightmares. (summary and image from goodreads.com)


My Review: This book took me completely by surprise, meaning I didn't really expect to like it as much as I did.  I don't often delve into historical fiction, but the premise excited me and from the moment I began reading, I didn't want to put it down.

This is a proper ghost story, though as the book's tagline states, the scariest ones might not be the dead.  I loved our main character, Evelyn--she is fully rounded  and feels so vividly real and believable.  We get to experience this gritty world through her eyes in a way we don't often think of.  

Because this book was so visual.  This is London in the late 1800s, the slums and its peoples, their way of life.  Kirby doesn't powder it up--I could just feel the grime of the dirty streets, the degradation, the fear, hopelessness.  Evelyn wishes to escape that, not only because she's a woman and hopes to avoid prostitution, but because of her facial deformity which makes everyone gawk and stare.  And it is in the London Hospital where she becomes a maid servant to Joseph Merrick that she believes she's finally found safety.

What I love about how Kirby spun the narrative of this book is that he took two simultaneous timelines, that of Joseph Merrick's stay in the London Hospital, and the Whitchapel murders, and wove this theme of monsters.  We have Leather Apron (a name of Jack the Ripper), the killer murdering and slicing up women in Whitechapel slums, we hear his horrible deeds as the characters ponder on who it could be and if he will be caught.  This comes in stark contrast to Mr. Merrick, who has been seen by the world as monstrous, put in freak shows as the Elephant Man with a disability and disfigurement that keep him separate from the world, and even exploited by his doctor, but was known to all as the most sincere, kind and guileless man.  This book showed how tender and gentle he was.

It further goes on to address the theme of monsters in our main character, Evelyn.  She sees herself as a monster, she has lived a difficult life that has hardened her, done things she's not proud of, and we can see that fight in her demeanor--but that hard life has not taken away her kindness.  She is a stalwart if ever there was one, facing up to her fears over and over again, caring only for the safety of her friend Mr. Merrick even over her own position or safety.

I must also add I like how Kirby humanized those who were murdered--often they are seen as merely victims, faceless names attached to a notorious killer--but this book gave us stories behind the women, let us see their hopes and dreams and eventual peace. 

Gripping ghost story, murder mystery, and character piece.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: The descriptions of the Whitechapel murders are fairy vivid.  There are numerous ghost hauntings, some more frightening than others. There is also an attempted (but thankfully halted) sexual assault, brief discussion of men's anatomy, and some mild language.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil's name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: It will be no surprise to you, I’m sure, from just reading this title, that this book is very emotionally charged. I feel like this is a good time for me to give a disclaimer—I am not from nor do I live in a city where there is a large African-American population. I did grow up where there were other minority groups, and indeed I live in a place right now where the minority population is 25%, but I did not grow up in a place where there was a ghetto to avoid or shootings going on. Sure, there were things that happened, and there were places we did not go at night, but there was nothing like the situations in this story. That being said, maybe I’m the worst person to review this book. Then again, maybe I’m the person perfect. Although I am not unfamiliar with the police shootings and racial profiling, reading a first person account of these situations is something I have not done before. This is obviously a fictional book, but it is based on current events and situations that many people experience on a daily basis.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. I think it wouldn’t be nearly the book it is if it weren’t for was the voice of Starr, the main character. She was basically our guide through the book, and I loved her sassy attitude and her strength and vulnerability. I also loved how it felt like she took the reader along on a little cultural excursion, letting us into her teenage life complete with slang, social situations, parents, school, and living the dual life of being a kid from the “ghetto” (her words, not mine) but going to a private school in a privileged area. She felt real and made bad decisions just like a normal teen would, but she was also really strong and a force for good. I liked her a lot. I wouldn’t be nearly cool enough to be her friend, but I really liked her.

Another thing I really appreciated was how the author created a very authentic-feeling neighborhood. I don’t believe that all people in the ghetto are all bad. Of course not. I love how Thomas created a vibrant neighborhood full of people who loved and took care of one another. There were the neighborhood kooks like every neighborhood has, right alongside the giving and sharing people who are essential to making it like it is. That being said, Thomas didn’t pull any punches. There was gang activity and scary things, and ultimately that leads some big life changes for Starr and her family, which I won’t give away here. I just really appreciated how honest and authentic it felt.

I really appreciated the humanizing of the victim. Yeah, Khalil was a kid from a “bad” neighborhood and yeah he was selling drugs, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to die in a situation where he was innocent. I find it so hard that this kind of thing happens still, and this book was an eye-opening experience, not because I wasn’t aware of these things that are going on, but because I am aware and yet this insider perspective really fleshed out what it all means. I thought it was a very powerful book, and very worth a read, especially for the young adult audience. Maybe they’ll be able to create a better world than the one they were raised in.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a lot of bad language, drugs, and some violence. There is teenage sexual fooling around but nothing too drastic.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Tale Dark and Grimm - Adam Gidwitz

Summary: In this mischievous and utterly original debut, Hansel and Gretel walk out of their own story and into eight other classic Grimm-inspired tales. As readers follow the siblings through a forest brimming with menacing foes, they learn the true story behind (and beyond) the bread crumbs, edible houses, and outwitted witches.

Fairy tales have never been more irreverent or subversive as Hansel and Gretel learn to take charge of their destinies and become the clever architects of their own happily ever after. (summary and picture from goodreads.com)

Note: this book was previously reviewed on our site and can be found by clicking here.

My Review: Reading this book was like watching the second act of the play Into the Woods.

You know, the act where it stops being fun and whimsical and starts being dark and deep and full of consequences and meaning.  Yeah I love that act.

Because fairy tales, you know, they're pretty messed up.  But you know what?  So is life.  Personally, for me, stories and fairy tales are a way to prepare one for life--you need to understand and know about the darkness if you are to face it.

That also being said, this book is not for the queasy.

What Gidwitz has so wonderfully done is take the original Grimms tales and portray them as they are, no watering down, no simplifying themes to make it light and airy, no pandering down to his audience.  He gets right into the nitty gritty of these tales, which of course includes plenty of violence and blood.

Because I'm an absolute nerd, I knew most of the obscure Grimm's stories Gidwitz referenced in this book.  He uses Hansel and Gretel to weave all the stories together, they become the characters that take part in other less well known fairy tales, from Brother and Sister, to Faithful Johannes to the Robber Bridegroom (here titled as A Smile as Red as Blood, and boy, it's spooky, even I had my mouth hanging open and I knew the story!)

The clever twist that Gidwitz does is give you a 'Get Out Of This Terrifying Situation Free' card.  Just before something gory or frightening is about to happen in the story, he will interject (in bold print) that what is to follow will be frightening.  (Example: "[Hansel and Gretel] show up.  And then they get their heads cut off.")

And here's the thing: kids like to be scared, and it's good when they can feel that emotion in a place where they're safe.  At a conference I attended, Gidwitz said that kids know what they need, and if something gets too much for them in a book, they have the power to close it (not so with scary things in a movie or TV show, where they have no control and no notion that something scary is coming before it's too late).

I loved this book.  I loved the characters and the lesser known fairy tales brought to light.  I liked how Gidwitz said it as it was--how raw and real and fresh it felt to hear these stories without being cleaned up and edited for content. I loved the deeper themes woven through, one in particular of under-standing (explained time and again that it's not just understanding another, but the literal sense of the word, literally standing under another, bearing up their burdens, bearing them as if they were your own).  This was a key point in both Hansel and Gretel's growth, as well as our own as a reader.  Because by participating in stories, we gain empathy to others and their situations, and it helps us when we end up facing those situations in real life. And stories help us be ready, because we will have to be ready.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: hoo boy, you ready?  Decapitations, child endangerment, souls suffering in hell, chopped up bodies, souls being wrenched from throats, possessions, the devil, and blood, lots and lots of blood.  For younger children I would definitely suggest reading the book yourself first before determining if they can handle it, because tinier kids will be scared.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Aru Shah and the End of Time - Roshani Chokshi

Summary: Twelve-year-old Aru Shah has a tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at school. While her classmates are jetting off to family vacations in exotic locales, she'll be spending her autumn break at home, in the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, waiting for her mom to return from her latest archeological trip. Is it any wonder that Aru makes up stories about being royalty, traveling to Paris, and having a chauffeur?

One day, three schoolmates show up at Aru's doorstep to catch her in a lie. They don't believe her claim that the museum's Lamp of Bharata is cursed, and they dare Aru to prove it. Just a quick light, Aru thinks. Then she can get herself out of this mess and never ever fib again.

But lighting the lamp has dire consequences. She unwittingly frees the Sleeper, an ancient demon whose duty it is to awaken the God of Destruction. Her classmates and beloved mother are frozen in time, and it's up to Aru to save them.

The only way to stop the demon is to find the reincarnations of the five legendary Pandava brothers, protagonists of the Hindu epic poem, the Mahabharata, and journey through the Kingdom of Death. But how is one girl in Spider-Man pajamas supposed to do all that? (summary and picture from goodreads.com)


My Review:  I love learning stories from other cultures, and so I was excited to pick up Aru Shah and the End of Time.  This book was a fun romp into Indian folklore and mythology, which has some pretty fantastical stories, many of which Aru gets to delve into.

I love stories about stories.  Aru has been taught Hindu mythology since she was a little girl, and I love how as she goes on her adventure, she's able to recall certain stories that let her know which deity or demon she's dealing with, and how those stories can help her get past the trials she's faced with.  And if you know me, I love when stories can help you survive.

Aru herself was a snarky, sarcastic character and it was enjoyable to go on the adventure with her.  She had a sly wit, which was fun to read.  She has serious flaws too, which made her well rounded in my opinion. Her friend Mini took a little getting used to (and at times I felt she sounded a little too old for 12), but her character was also unique and I liked to see how the two went from complete strangers to sisters.

It was also delightful when they met the ancient gods and demons, to see how they've evolved from ancient times to now (for example, the night bazaar is located inside a Costco).  It's fun to think about how these folkloric beings have carried on over time, and thinking how they could be right there on another plane in our world.

But on that note, (and this could totally be a personal preference) I'm not a fan of pop culture references in stories.  I can take one or two, especially if it is thoroughly explained and has context and meaning for a character, but if there are too many references, I feel it dates a piece.  There were quite a few pop culture references in this book.  I'm fine with things taking place in a modern setting and hearkening back to old folklore, just many of the things Aru talked about or referenced made me think how in the future her references will fall flat.

I understand this is also going to be a series, which I'm fine with, but that being the case, I don't think the last several chapters were needed.  The main problem was (mostly) sorted (obviously open ended for future adventures), but then it started to carry on as if it were a whole new book.  Those last few chapters felt like the start of book two to me, out of place at the end of this cool adventure.

Overall, I recommend this book.  It's fun to venture out and learn about others' cultures from the people who live and have heritage in that culture, because stories open our minds, hearts, and imaginations.

My Rating: 3.5

For the sensitive reader: There are some fantastical and sometimes scary moments in the story, but Aru always manages to keep it light with her sarcasm, which was a fun twist and helped to keep it from getting too dark or scary, but didn't undermine the seriousness.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow - Alyssa Palombo

Summary: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo's The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won't erase. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: This was a great read for the Halloween season. What is more Halloweeny than the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman? Basically nothing. Reading this book led me down a little rabbit hole of things I needed to do in order to put it into context and really feel like I could review it. After finishing the book it became evident to me that I needed to read the original gangster, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The more I read of The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel the less I remembered what I thought I remembered from the OG (original gangster, cause I’m hip). But I didn’t stop there. After I finished both those books, I wanted to watch the Johnny Depp movie Sleepy Hollow. I saw that movie when it originally came out, but since that was decades ago I didn’t even remember that I had, and it wasn’t until my husband and I actually watched it that some faint stirrings of remembrance came back to me. I feel it is a fair comparison, though, because obviously the author is contemporary and probably would have seen this movie. And with all of the research she did, I can’t help but think that she did dabble in some pop culture references to the OG as well as her research into more non-fiction sources. So, with those two references to compare it to, I am here to present to you my review of The Spellbook.

First off, after reading The Spellbook I found Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to be a mere shell of this book. That’s not to say that Washington Irving wasn’t brilliant and didn’t create an awesome story, because he did. Indeed, Spellbook would not exist if it weren’t for the OG. However, I think Palombo did an excellent job of taking the fairly short story of the OG and creating a fairly long novel about it. She was able to look at each of the characters and expand them to where they felt more realistic and more authentic. Some of these characters and story arcs were not in the OG, but they did feel like they could be a part of it, like Irving had created an outline and this story was believable in that it took that outline and expanded on it. Would Irving have taken the story in the direction it took? I don’t know. Some of it I would think he wouldn’t, especially because he obviously didn't have a modern view of women, and that is putting it mildly. One of my favorite pieces of evidence of this is from the OG describing Katrina Van Tassel, "She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress...and withal a provokingly short petticoat, to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country around." So, ya know, he wasn't a feminist, as you can see. Palombo's take all made for a compelling story with a rich history and a fun lore and presence all its own.

I am glad I watched Sleepy Hollow because I do think the author created a book that felt more like the movie than it did the OG. This is a compliment, by the way, because the movie’s set is just beautiful and it has some really cool elements in it that Palombo either expanded upon or took in a direction that I really liked. There were some major differences about it (for instance, Ichabod Crane remains a schoolteacher in The Spellbook, just like the OG, whereas in the movie he is a criminal scientist with a completely different back story. And Johnny Depp. He is not to be underestimated in the awesomeness of a character, either).  However, there was quite a bit about the movie that I could see in the book, and so I found that the book was an interesting mix of both the original story and the movie, and probably many other current pop culture mediums that I didn’t partake of for this particular review.

So how does this book measure on its own? Well, I think it was a really fun read, actually. There was quite a bit of romance in it, and so I would say it borders on the women’s lit category instead of just straight adult fiction or fantasy, but I feel like it lent itself well to that. I really liked the female characters, and I liked the fleshing out of the original story and the original characters as well; I think Palombo did a good job of staying true to what they were in the OG as well as making them something of her own as well. The writing was pretty good, and the story was certainly Halloween-esque and creepy. Sleepy Hollow remained a character in its own right, which is key to maintaining the integrity of the story, in my opinion. It transported me back to that time and place, and I even did some research into Washington Irving’s home and Sleepy Hollow. I’d love to go there someday!

If you love The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in any of its forms, I highly recommend this book. It’s a fun, fresh take on a classic story. The characters are good, and I think it’s written in a way that nods to the existing stories and lore as well as creates some of its own.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and several love scenes, some pretty descriptive, although not raunchy.

Monday, October 22, 2018

People - Peter Spier (author and illustrator)


Summary: A celebration of diverse world cultures from the brilliant Peter Spier, one of the most beloved children’s illustrators of the last fifty years. In this breathtaking tour around the world, young readers can pore over the many details that make each country and culture unique and special—illuminated by Spier’s detailed and witty illustrations of festivals and holidays, foods, religions, homes, pets, and clothing. In print since 1980, this classic, boundary-pushing book is a must-have in today’s global age—a tribute to the ways in which we as the world’s citizens are at once both different and the same.  (Summary from - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  People is remarkable children’s book and the winner of the 1980 Christopher Medal, an award given to books and other forms of media that affirm the highest values of the human spirit.  And you know what?  It does exactly that. 

People is simply drawn, but visually stunning with plenty of color and detail to interest even the most grown-up eye.  In a few short, but engaging pages, it manages to both highlight and celebrate the varied cultures of the world and the differences (and similarities) among all people.  Without straight up plagiarizing the book, I’d like to give you a sense of what to expect so I’m going to summarize the book in my own words: 

Basically, each person born on the earth is unique.  We may have all started as babies but we come in all sizes, shapes, and colors.  We live in different places, in a variety of homes, with different clothing, food, languages, hairstyles, religions, jobs, and ways we like to spend our time.  Most pages focus on one or two specific ways in which we might be different and provides drawings to illustrate those differences.  For example, there are pages dedicated to drawings of different types homes, styles of dress, written languages, physical characteristics, food, pets, jobs, and games from around the world.  

All of the above is certainly true and thoroughly engaging, but the most important part comes towards the end, where the author reminds the reader that what seems normal to us might seem strange to someone else. Or what seems ugly to us, might be beautiful to someone else.  He stresses (without being preachy) that we don’t need to be afraid of one another or hate someone because they don’t look the way we do, believe the things we do, or behave the way we think they should.  In his words, a world without differences would be “dreadfully dull.”  Our differences don’t have to define or separate us; in fact, they what makes this world and its people so very beautiful.    

My Rating: 5 unique & beautiful stars

For the sensitive reader:  There is a small drawing of two naked people from behind. It's a safe assumption that they are Adam and Eve but I didn't feel this book was particularly inclined towards any particular faith.  One line of the book talks about how ultimately everyone dies and is accompanied by the illustration of an open grave, shovel, and headstone.  A little morbid, but I didn’t find it offensive. 


Friday, October 19, 2018

Snow White: A Graphic Novel - Matt Phelan

Summary: The scene: New York City, 1928. The dazzling lights cast shadows that grow ever darker as the glitzy prosperity of the Roaring Twenties screeches to a halt. Enter a cast of familiar characters: a young girl, Samantha White, returning after being sent away by her cruel stepmother, the Queen of the Follies, years earlier; her father, the King of Wall Street, who survives the stock market crash only to suffer a strange and sudden death; seven street urchins, brave protectors for a girl as pure as snow; and a mysterious stock ticker that holds the stepmother in its thrall, churning out ticker tape imprinted with the wicked words "Another . . . More Beautiful . . . KILL." In a moody, cinematic new telling of a beloved fairy tale, extraordinary graphic novelist Matt Phelan captures the essence of classic film noir on the page—and draws a striking distinction between good and evil. (summary and picture from goodreads.com)

My Review: The cool thing about fairy tales is similar to the cool thing about Shakespeare--you can place them in different times and settings and get a cool new interpretation.  These are seriously old stories, yet they hang around for a reason, because they continue to resonate with people.

I got to hear Matt Phelan at a conference this summer, and one of the things he spoke on was his process for creating this graphic novel.  He said the story of Snow White has always been one of his favorites, but when he wanted to adapt it to comic form, he knew he wanted something special.  He loves old movies, particularly films like Citizen Kane, and he wanted to give Snow White that vibe.

His research into the subject was fascinating, adapting a magical fairy tale into the world of Great Depression America.  The cruel stepmother is a fading theater star.  The seven dwarfs are street boys. The prince is a detective.  It's a really fun twist where you can still see inklings of the original fairy tale while getting whole new take.

I loved the boys who take Snow in, who call themselves 'The Seven.'  These are hardened boys who have had to grow up quickly, who know the streets and how to survive, who even refuse to give their names because that is what they hold most dear.  Their relationship with Snow was a integral part in the story, and I loved it.

I've mentioned before in my review on Matt's 'Bluffton'--his art is so beautiful.  He invokes so much emotion with a few pencil strokes and a wash of watercolor, and in Snow White, he grasps the feel of old black and white films, which were an art of themselves. 


Snow White could be a quick read, but you don't want to read it quickly. It's a joy to linger on each page and let it wash over you like you're watching an old black and white film.  You can almost hear the scratchy audio and vintage soundtrack as you follow Snow's story.

My Rating: Four Stars
 
For the sensitive reader: The stepmother character is a little spooky, and her demise is pretty dramatic and frightening.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Dragonwatch: Wrath of the Dragon King - Brandon Mull

Summary: War has come to the dragon sanctuaries of the world and nowhere is the danger more intense than at Wyrmroost. After a humiliating defeat at the hands of Kendra and Seth, Celebrant, King of Dragons, prepares to unleash his fury and take control of his native preserve. Armed with information from a new ally Ronodin, the dark unicorn Celebrant seeks a legendary talisman the dominion stone.

However, the powerful stone is protected by a cursed castle. Upon entering the castle fortress, an unyielding power strips all magical beings of their power and forces Celebrant to take his human avatar form. Kendra and Seth must enter the cursed castle as well. The race is on. Will the two young caretakers rally enough support from the creatures of Wyrmroost against the greatest threat the magical community has faced in ages? Can they foil Celebrant's plan and beat him to the mighty dominion stone? Or will all hope be shattered by the wrath of the Dragon King? (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a preview copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Kendra and Seth have their work cut out for them as the caretakers of Wyrmroost, not to mention dealing with the wounded pride of Celebrant. With trepidation, they accept an invitation to dinner - but what they are to find there will certainly have ramifications much more dangerous than their last encounter.

Not much can be told about a book by its first few chapters, and the review copy I was sent only covered those first few. That being said, this looks to be an action-packed, breakneck novel. In the few chapters I received, my head was spinning from all the information and action packed into such a short preview. There's a lot of ground to cover, both figuratively and literally, there are bigger, badder, more treacherous, deadlier villains and allies, and this book definitely looks to keep even the most reluctant reader satisfied.

That being said, it felt a little harried. Granted, I only saw a preview, but so much happened, I didn't feel like I had a chance to absorb or process the action before I was required to move on. It's tricky to fully review a book without reading the whole thing, so based upon what I have read - will I continue? Definitely. Am I a bit more wary than I was? Yes.

The book releases next week - and I fully plan to revisit it once I've had a chance to devour the whole thing. As for now, my rating is

Rating: TBA

Monday, October 15, 2018

Zombie Abbey - Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Summary: 1920, England

And the three teenage Clarke sisters thought what they’d wear to dinner was their biggest problem…

Lady Kate, the entitled eldest.
Lady Grace, lost in the middle and wishing she were braver.
Lady Lizzy, so endlessly sunny, it’s easy to underestimate her.

Then there’s Will Harvey, the proud, to-die-for—and possibly die with!—stable boy; Daniel Murray, the resourceful second footman with a secret; Raymond Allen, the unfortunate-looking young duke; and Fanny Rogers, the unsinkable kitchen maid.

Upstairs! Downstairs! Toss in some farmers and villagers!

None of them ever expected to work together for any reason.

But none of them had ever seen anything like this. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

Review: How do you feel about this new trend of reworking classics to include zombies? I’m torn - but I’m also curious enough that when I saw this pop up on our library feed, I really wanted to give it a shot. My expectations were LOW. Like, bordering nonexistent low. I loved Downton Abbey, and I love the zombie genre when it’s properly done, and I really needed brain fluff. Sometimes, you just need brain fluff, you just do!

I’m still surprised at how pleasantly surprised I was.Okay, let’s get the expected stuff out of the way. The characters are fairly one-dimensional. They’re extremely trope-y. There’s not a ton of character development, and when there was any, it was like “oh, this character has hormones! That’s development, right?” Uh, no. The characters are likable enough when they’re supposed to be, but don’t expect to find your newest literary dreamboat. But, again, I don’t expect massive development from brain fluff. 

That being said, the story is intriguing. This isn’t like most zombie “in medias res” stories, which I greatly appreciated. One of the under explored facets of this genre are the beginnings. How does a zombie outbreak start?How long does it take to figure it out? What is the first warning, and what do people actually do? Zombie Abbey does actually delve into that. It’s fascinating, and quite fun, to see the characters come to the realization that something unnatural is happening, how they come to that realization, and then to see them try to fix it and fit this new knowledge into their rigid and rapidly outdated thinking.

Look, high literature this is not. However, if you’re looking for some fun zombie-lit to get you in the Halloween spirit, this may be exactly what you’re looking for.

Rating: Three and a half stars


For the Sensitive Reader: It’s fluffy. And as for zombie lit, it’s clean!

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr (A Novel) - Frances Maynard

Summary: Elvira Carr believes in rules.  She also strongly believes in crisp schedules, clear guidelines, and taking people at face value.  Not that the twenty-seven-year-old sees many people.  After several unfortunate incidents, her overbearing mother keeps her at home.  But when her mother has a stroke, Elvira is suddenly on her own.  To help her navigate a world that is often puzzling, she draws up seven ironclad rules.  Armed with these, a notebook full of questions, and guidance from a helpful neighbor, she takes charge of herself, and realizes that something isn't quite right about the life she thought she new.  She'll need all the courage, perseverance, and curious charm she can muster to unravel the mystery of what happened to her family and to manage her own life, her way.  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I am often drawn to stories told from the perspective of those who are frequently misunderstood by society at large, people that for one reason or another don't quite fit into the perfect little box the world has constructed for them.  I feel that seeing life through a different set of eyes, however briefly, helps me be more sensitive to the needs of others and more compassionate about the challenges they may face in their daily lives.  The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr offered a compelling glimpse into the difficulties someone with an autism spectrum disorder might face as they attempt to venture out into society.

In The Seven Rules, the main character, Elvira (Ellie), has her own way of doing things and a mind that works differently than most.  While Ellie is a capable caregiver for her controlling, but elderly, mother, she struggles to relate to the outside world.  She has a Condition that thrives on detail, predictability, and absolutes, but struggles to interpret social cues, sarcasm, figures of speech, and the unwritten rules of behavior that everyone else seems to understand implicitly.  When her mother suffers a stroke and is moved to a nursing home, Ellie is forced to become more independent and adapt to life on her own terms or risk being taken away herself .  To cope, she develops a set of seven rules for behavior designed to help her fit in with the "NeuroTypicals" in her life -- absolutes she can cling to in a world she finds confusing and chaotic.  These rules are developed fairly early on in the book so that most of the story has to do with Ellie applying the rules (with varied results) and learning that personal interaction isn't as easy as following a set of rules.  Overtime, the rules change and grow to incorporate the things that she has learned and Ellie gains the confidence to embrace a world she had once feared.

I enjoyed my time with this book.  If I were to look at it strictly from a story perspective (and not an empathy-building one), I would say that it had a good plot and interesting characters, with enough mystery to keep a reader engaged, but that it didn't knock my socks off so much as make them slip down in my shoe a little.    However, there is more to this story than the STORY.  Ellie's perspective is similar to others I have read (see a little further down), but I always appreciate the reminder that everyone's brains function differently and something that seems simple to one person might seem completely foreign to another.  While the author never specifically named Ellie's disorder, calling it only her Condition, it bore a strong resemblance some disorders on the autism spectrum.   For example, Ellie is very direct and literal. Tact just isn't her thing and phrases like "have a fit" or "up to my eyeballs" will "fly right over her head".  Some people are bothered by this behavior and think that she is rude or unintelligent, when it's just her way of seeing the world.  It was hard to see how some people reacted to her differences, but there were other times when you wanted to just reach into the book and hug those who got her.

Nearly everyone I know has been touched by autism in some form or another and while I know that autism disorders manifest differently in each person, I find it particularly helpful to understand how someone with an autism spectrum disorder might think or feel when approached a certain way.  To me, that is where this book has true value.  It gives us a chance at understanding the "Ellie's" of the world and being more sensitive to their particular brand of thinking, being, and doing. I recommend it to anyone who would like to broaden their understanding of the human experience, and perhaps gain a little compassion along the way.

NOTE:  There are a few books, like this one, that I believe can help a reader understand the perspectives of those in our midst who might feel like they don't fit in.  I've gone ahead and linked our reviews so you can dig deeper if you'd like.

Wonder by RJ Palacio
Mockingbird by Katherine Erskine
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Out of My Mind - Sharon Draper

Have you read any of these books (or ones like them)?  Comment below with your favorite living-thinking-doing-being-outside-the-box kind of books.

My Rating: 3.25 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some instances with language (one particular secondary character tends to profanity when angry and another is just a creep).  Two instances of sexual assault/attempted rape.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Ghosts of Manor House - Matt Powers

Summary: Edmund and Mary Wilder are very much in love. But the death of their young son, Tommy, has shattered their family. Edmund is determined to bring them back together, drawing on the only bit of strength he has left—his love for Mary and their daughter, Stephanie. But Mary sinks deeper into depression while little Stephanie’s anger grows. Edmund flounders in his attempts to rescue his family from the brink of collapse and doesn’t know where to turn.

Then Mary receives an invitation for the family to become guests at Manor House, a seemingly quaint Bed and Breakfast. This, she assures her husband, is the answer to all their troubles.

Edmund arrives ahead of his family to spend a couple days working on his long-delayed novel. But his growing curiosity about the old house leads Edmund to an encounter that will change him forever. 

What will you sacrifice for love?

An old fashioned psychological thriller with a nod to Stephen King, Manor House will keep you guessing and compel you to turn the page to the very end. 

A mother will sacrifice anything for her children. A husband will risk everything to save his wife. Manor House will take them all. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: ‘Tis the season for scary ghost stories, AmIRight? It wouldn’t be Halloween without a few. We at Reading for Sanity wouldn’t feel right about you living your Halloween season all non-scary and such, so today I’m bringing you a review of a haunted house book.

Haunted houses are, without a doubt, one of the funnest scary things about Halloween, ya know? I’ve talked about my love for non-human characters in the past, and haunted houses are definitely on my list of Fave Characters that are not human. I’m not saying not living, you see, because there are many lovely books about animals as main characters. There are even books about non-living things as the main character, but for Halloween, the choice du jour is definitely a haunted house. Maybe Dracula, too, but I guess we can debate whether or not vampires are living at a later date.

So imagine my excitement when I was given the opportunity for a book about haunted houses. And ya’ll, this haunted house book is definitely creepy. This house is uber evil. It’s not just that bad things have gone on there, but the very land it is on is cursed. And a tree. A big ol’ scary tree that does very nasty things to people. It has a secret as well, but I’ll let you discover that on your own.

This book was full of fun Halloweeny-type situations—mysterious disappearances, deaths, furnishings that appear and re-appear, not-quite-living and not-quite-dead house staff, a house that is hard to find to outsiders, a deep and troubled past…this haunted house has it all. I really enjoyed the back story of this haunted house. It was a great addition to my Halloween reading.

My complaint about this book is that it was at times confusing. I know that the author had intentions of the mystery surrounding the house to be confusing, but I don’t think the story ended up being confusing in the way he hoped. Instead of there being a delicious mystery about what had happened, I ended up wondering if the editing had been messed up and a chapter replaced. I figured it out and the story marched on just fine, but it did take me a little while to confirm what was going on. I don’t think this is because the author had an unformed story, instead, I think it was just a slight inexperience about how to transition smoothly in a situation where the main character is forgetting and letting the reader in on the secret without ruining the shtick. Don’t worry, though. This particular issue resolves as time goes on and the haunted reading commences!

This is a short little read with a creepy vibe. If you’re looking for a fun haunted house story that isn’t a huge time commitment or a big emotional drain, this book is for you!

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some slight language and Halloween-esque themes (nothing too gory, although think witch trials-esque). This book is clean.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Hundred Dresses - Eleanor Estes (Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin)

Summary:  Wanda wears the same faded blue dress to school every day -- yet she says she has one hundred beautiful dresses at home, "all lined up." The other girls don't believe it, and when Peggy starts a daily game of teasing Wanda about the hundred dresses, everyone joins in.  Maddie, Peggy's best friend goes along with the game, but secretly wonders whether she can find the courage to speak up in Wanda's defense.

It's not until Wanda fails to come to school one day that her classmates learn the truth about the hundred dresses -- and Maddie and Peggy learn the meaning of kindness and generosity of spirit.  (Summary from book - image from )

My Review: The Hundred Dresses was given to me by my husband's aunt (a former elementary school teacher) with her hearty recommendation. As a Newbery Honor books (and a 80-page one at that), I thought it might be a good read-aloud book for a few of my kiddos, so I decided to sit down and "pre-read" it this week while they are on their end-of-summer backpacking trip with their dad. 

(Yes. A week of  potentially uninterrupted reading = *BLISS*).  But on to the review.

In The Hundred Dresses we meet three young school girls: Peggy, Wanda, and Maddie.  Peggy is a popular, well-to-do student, who isn't always kind.  Wanda, is a rather poor student, whose habit of wearing the same dress to school every day (all while making outrageous claims about the contents of her closet) makes her the target of much teasing.  Maddie follows Peggy's lead in tormenting Wanda, even though she doesn't feel quite right about it, because she doesn't want to become the target of abuse.  Then one day Wanda stops coming to school.  I'll leave it at that, so I don't spoil things, but needless to say, the girls learn a valuable lesson.

I imagine I'm not the only person who has regrets -- moments in life that I desperately wish I could take back.  An unintended slight.  An unkind act.  A flippant or cutting remark.  It makes me wince in shame when I think of who I have hurt with my careless behavior, though in many cases there is nothing I can do to take back what I said or undo what I did.  Well, Eleanor Estes wrote The Hundred Dresses because of her own regrets, and as the only way she could make up for being unkind to someone else in her youth.  I don't know about you, but knowing that, and knowing that this story is in some ways autobiographical, makes it mean so much more.  While I do think The Hundred Dresses will be a nice little read-aloud book for my kiddos when they get back, it is really so much more than that; it's bittersweet, easy to read children's book with a gentle reminder that we can all be a little more compassionate, generous, and forgiving with one another.  And, let's face it, young or old, that is a message we all need to hear.

Oh, and the illustrations are pretty good too.  I'm not an art critic, so I don't have the appropriate words to describe the artist's style, but the faces aren't particularly detailed, which seemed rather intentional so that readers can put themselves in the story.  With that thought in mind, whoever you might have been in the story before.... be an end-of-the-story Maddie today. 

My Rating:  4 Stars.

For the sensitive reader:  This book was written in 1944.  The only thing I can think of that someone would find even remotely "offensive" is that the school had a contest where the boys designed outboard engines and the girls designed dresses.  My more-feminist side wrinkled its nose a little at the disparity, but it's perfectly appropriate within the setting of the story. 

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