Archive for the ‘Stand-outs’ Category

Review of Grand Canyon, by Jason Chin

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Grand Canyon

by Jason Chin

A Neal Porter Book (Roaring Brook Press), 2017. 48 pages.
Starred Review
2017 Sonderbooks Stand-out, #4 Children’s Nonfiction

Here’s a stunningly illustrated and meticulously well-presented story of the ecology, geology and history of Grand Canyon.

First, the book explains that there are different ecological communities in different levels of the canyon. Then it also talks about the many different rock layers in the canyon.

Then we’re taken with a father and daughter on a hike through the different layers and different ecological communities. All around the borders, we’ll see drawings of different animals and plants that inhabit that layer.

But the most striking part about each layer is a cut-out window showing a fossil or rock found today – and when you turn the page, you see that thing in its habitat when the fossil was formed.

For example, the girl sees a fossil of a Trilobite in a rock today, then turning the page takes her back in time, under the sea, where Trilobites roamed the sea floor. Later the girl sees fossil footprints, and then in the past, she sees a lizard walking over windswept dunes and leaving those footprints.

It’s an interesting and imaginative way of presenting the material and is striking and easy to understand. There’s a fold-out spread with a panorama of Grand Canyon, and 8 pages of more details at the back of the book.

This is a fact-filled, gorgeously illustrated book that will reward multiple rereadings.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

2017 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Announcing the 2017 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

First, let me make it very clear that these are simply my personal favorites out of the books I read during the calendar year of 2017 (not counting advance reader copies of Newbery-eligible books to be published in 2018).

I am not making any claims that these books are more distinguished than the other books I read this year. I am not adjusting the list in any way to increase diversity or make it a better list for people I might recommend books to. No, this is simply a list of the books that stand out in my mind with fondness when I think back over my reading year. As such, it’s very personal. Talk with me about which books you might like best!

I like to post my Stand-outs on January 1st of the new year, but didn’t quite get to it this year, so I feel a tiny bit behind. My next step will be to post a page for the 2017 Stand-outs on my main website and to put the Sonderbooks Stand-outs seal on all of the review pages for these books. But first, I thought I’d say a little more about them here on the blog. You can follow the links for more detailed reviews.

And just to point out how big the competition was for these books, here are my stats for 2017:

I read 13 novels for adults
48 nonfiction books for adults
22 teen novels
53 children’s novels
142 nonfiction books for children (mostly picture books)
573 picture books
11 rereads (not eligible to be stand-outs – most of these were teen novels)

That comes to a grand total of 862 books – but approximately 715 of those were picture books, so only 147 others.

Just think – next year I’m going to *try* to read lots of books!

Children’s Fiction

I’ll begin with my favorite novel of the year: The Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stroud. Hooray! This was the fifth and final volume of the Lockwood & Co. series, which I’ve been following for five years. In fact, ALL the volumes in this series have been Sonderbooks Stand-outs, and now numbers 1, 3, and 5 have been #1 in the category of Children’s Fiction. It’s a wonderful series – one of my all-time favorites – and Jonathan Stroud pulled off an exciting and satisfying conclusion in this book.

That brings me to the category of Children’s Fiction. My second choice was Princess Cora and the Crocodile, by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca. I don’t often choose an early chapter book – they can be good, but don’t tend to stick in my mind. This one, however, hit all the right notes for me. I think of this as a perfectly crafted book. (I know, I’ll have to practice explaining in more detail what I love about a book for my Newbery committee service next year. But this isn’t a committee – this is just me telling you which books I loved.)

Third in Children’s Fiction was The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart, by Stephanie Burgis. I don’t have any illusions that this was a perfect book – even I can come up with a few quibbles – but this book just plain made me happy. It was good-hearted, with a happy ending for everyone, and it was a nice twist on the usual fantasy tale. I loved the food magic in that world combined with making chocolate, and I loved the dragon’s perspective as a human girl, and I loved Aventurine finding her passion.

My fourth choice in Children’s Fiction was The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, the sequel to my first choice last year. This one, too, had amazing detail and amazing writing. It didn’t hit me quite as hard as the first one, when Ada first deals with her life completely changed. But I was so glad to get to spend more time with her, a wonderful resilient character.

Fifth was The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, last year’s Newbery Medal winner. Yes, it was wonderful, and I’m happy that a fantasy book won the medal. I agree that it’s distinguished and is carefully and beautifully crafted. It didn’t win my heart quite as much as these other books I’ve listed first, but it was indeed a stand-out for me still.

Sixth I chose Me and Marvin Gardens, by Amy Sarig King, who always has a paranormal element in her books. My co-worker booktalked this one in the schools before our Summer Reading Program, and she convinced me to pick it up, and I was glad I did. It’s a warm and friendly look at a kid who discovers a new species – an animal that eats plastic – and the repercussions of that.

Finally, my seventh choice in Children’s Fiction was Frogkisser!, by Garth Nix. I’m a big fan of Garth Nix’s much more serious works – but this one is just plain silly fun, playing with standard fantasy tropes in amusing way. (For example, I like it that the girls’ stepmother isn’t evil, she’s a botanist.)

Teen Fiction

In Teen Fiction, my favorite novel was Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M. T. Anderson. I think it’s even better than his novel Feed, which was my number one Sonderbooks Stand-out in Young Adult and Children’s Science Fiction in 2003. M. T. Anderson is good at science fiction that has implications for today’s society. This one is also short and compact with no extra words. I thought it was fantastic, and made me think about the downside of remarkable innovation. Can we make sure that all of our society benefits?

My second choice in Teen Fiction was the much anticipated Thick as Thieves, the fifth book by one of my very favorite authors, Megan Whalen Turner. That series, beginning with The Thief, is one of my all-time favorite series. This particular installment doesn’t have as much of my favorite characters in it, so wasn’t quite my favorite teen fiction of the year. But it’s definitely a stand-out, and its publication gave me a great excuse to reread the whole series. (Report: It’s still wonderful! I’ve taken Rereads off my Stand-outs lists, though, because it’s not fair to list the same books again and again.)

Third in Teen Fiction is Scythe, by Neal Shusterman, a novel set in a future earth where mankind has conquered death – but still needs to glean some people to keep the planet from being overpopulated. Lots of things to think about in this book, plus a compelling story.

My fourth choice in Teen Fiction is Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. This book is long – but it whiled away the time as I was driving back from seeing the total eclipse in South Carolina. Laini Taylor has an incredible imagination, and her world-building in this book, again, is like nothing I’d seen before.

Fifth was Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds. To be honest, when I first read this, I was moved, but then it slipped my mind. What really made it stand out was when I listened to the audiobook read by the author a couple months later. I heard the poetry as it was designed to be read, and it made an impact. Now I can’t forget what I heard.

I also listened to my sixth Teen Fiction choice, The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. This book was about a black girl who goes to high school at a private school in the suburbs. She’s coming home from party in her neighborhood, and sees her unarmed friend murdered by a policeman who pulls them over for a broken taillight. Listening to the book I felt like I was hearing Starr tell her own story, and it was heart-wrenching.

Finally, my seventh choice was John Green’s latest book, Turtles All the Way Down. His earlier book got us into the head of a teen with cancer. This one helps us understand what it’s like to have OCD. Plus I always enjoy listening to John Green’s characters talk in their delightfully nerdy ways.

Picture Books

For my favorite picture book of the year, I can’t get past The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet, by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. The author read this to those of us at the ALSC preconference on Inauguration Day, the day before the Women’s March. Yes, the message in this book is needed – let’s not be quiet, despite bullying! But it’s also a marvelously and musically told tale. This book works on so many levels.

But my second favorite picture book was The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors, by Drew Dawalt, illustrated by Adam Rex. I had so much fun booktalking it to elementary school classes before the summer started! I can’t imagine a more fun book to read aloud. It makes me laugh every time.

On a more thoughtful but joyous note, my third choice is Now, by Antoinette Portis. This picture book makes you think about what you have right this moment and be grateful for it. In fact, while I was reading it, it was my favorite book of all.

Baabwaa and Wooliam, by David Elliott and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, is my fourth Picture Book Stand-out. A sheep who loves to read and a sheep who loves to knit! How could I not love them?

Fifth in Picture Books Stand-outs is The Fox Wish, by Kimiko Aman, illustrated by Komako Sakai. Those old-fashioned pictures and the well-told, magical tale – with a little self-sacrificial kindness coming from the child – won my heart completely.

My sixth Picture Books choice was A Different Pond, by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui. This is a serious book – an immigrant child going fishing with his father to catch food for dinner. It was the strong affection between the child and his father and the luminous pictures of their nighttime adventures that make it stick in my mind.

Seventh is the Picture Book whose title I love to say – Henny, Penny, Lenny, Denny, and Mike, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Mike Austin. This book is SO FAB! I love to read it aloud and it always makes me smile. It reminds me that a good attitude can go a long way.

And I’m listing eight in Picture Books, because I couldn’t bear to leave off The Antlered Ship, by Dashka Slater, illustrated by The Fan Brothers. The pictures are lovely, but what really makes this book stand out for me is the philosophical fox who discovers the best way to find a friend you can talk to.

Children’s Nonfiction

In Children’s Nonfiction, for my favorite book, I had to go with Shannon Hale’s graphic memoir, Real Friends, drawn by LeUyen Pham. Maybe this was influenced by the sketch LeUyen Pham drew of me when she signed my Advance Reader Copy. But it’s also true that I love Shannon Hale’s writing – and this was a memoir about an imaginative girl in a large-ish and very religious family. Yes, I related to Shannon’s story.

My second choice in Children’s Nonfiction is really nonfiction for teens and I actually feel guilty putting it second because it’s so amazing and so powerful and has won so many awards. (Remember, this is strictly about ranking my personal favorites.) That book is also a graphic memoir, March, Book Three, by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with art by Nate Powell. John Lewis’s life wasn’t remotely similar to mine – but he made a big difference in the history of our country. This story of trying to change things by using nonviolence against violence is magnificent.

Third in Children’s Nonfiction is a completely silly book by comparison – but I loved booktalking this book in the schools so much, I have to mention it. Your Presidential Fantasy Dream Team by Daniel O’Brien, with illustrations by Winston Rowntree, is the funniest – and most memorable – book about the presidents that you’ll ever read.

Fourth is Grand Canyon, by Jason Chin. This one is so stunning in its beauty and so wide-ranging in the facts presented, it has to be included.

Fifth in Children’s Nonfiction, I chose Dave Eggers’ Her Right Foot, which gives interesting facts about the Statue of Liberty – and then draws inspiring conclusions for today from something I’d never noticed before.

Sixth I chose Moto and Me, by Suzi Eszterhas, about her adoption of an orphaned serval in Africa. This one, too, was super fun to booktalk. And that Moto is just so darn cute!

My seventh and final choice in Children’s Nonfiction is Dazzle Ships, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victo Ngai. This one was striking but also surprising. It told a story about World War I that I’d never heard anything about – and the images alone make it memorable.

Now I’ll move to books for grown-ups.


My favorite novel for adults that I read this year was easy to choose: While Beauty Slept, by Elizabeth Blackwell. Just plain good writing here! I loved this story – an almost straight historical novel playing off the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.

It was a lot more difficult to rank the rest of the Fiction. But second I decided to go with My Italian Bulldozer, by Alexander McCall Smith. Quirky and cozy, it tells about a man who goes to Italy, and instead of a regular rental car, ends up renting a bulldozer.

Third I chose Provenance, by Ann Leckie. Though I wasn’t as crazy about the story of this science fiction novel as in some of her other books, I love Ann Leckie’s writing, her world-building, and her unique perspective on the universe.

Fourth in Fiction was The Simplicity of Cider, by Amy E. Reichert. Sometimes I need a nice romantic novel.

Fifth was The Reluctant Queen, by Sarah Beth Durst. This was the second in the series, but it was the one that dealt with a woman in midlife – so it was a little closer to my heart.

Sixth I chose The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova. If I were choosing by literary merit plus broad appeal, I might have chosen this one first. It’s got a mystery, flashbacks to World War II, and a chase across Bulgaria.

My seventh and final choice in Fiction was The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst, the predecessor to my #5 pick and an innovative fantasy novel for adults, which I almost always enjoy reading.

General Nonfiction

The General Nonfiction book that most stands out in my mind is A Beautiful, Terrible Thing, by Jen Waite. I related a little bit too much.

My second choice is Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook, which he reads himself – so you can hear all the African words pronounced correctly. Whether or not you agree with Trevor Noah’s politics today in America, this mesmerizing story deals with his growing up in South Africa with an African mother and a European father.

Third in General Nonfiction, I chose Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, the book behind the wonderful movie with the same name. A book about black female mathematicians at NASA in the 1940s through 60s. Who knew such a thing could exist and be so packed with information? There were a lot more than the three featured in the movie.

Fourth is a book I read for the sake of my job as a children’s librarian, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain: Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns, by Dana Suskind, M. D. The thirty million words in the title aren’t how many words a child needs to hear. They are how many more words a child in a language-rich family hears from their parents than a child in a language-poor family.

And my fifth and final choice in General Nonfiction is Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli, about the author’s experiences as a volunteer translator for teen immigrants who didn’t want to be deported. This is an eye-opening and deeply troubling book in the age of Trump.

Christian Nonfiction

I read so many Christian Nonfiction books this year that I loved, they get their own category.

My favorite had to be Angels in My Hair, by Lorna Byrne, who has been able to see angels all her life. I loved her perspective and her loving spirit – and her firm conviction that God is working in the world and His messengers personally care about each one of us.

My second choice in Christian Nonfiction is Flames of Love, by Heath Bradley. Yes, this is a book about Universalism – teaching that hell does not last forever, but is designed by a God of love to purify and restore. That, in fact, hell is almost nothing like the popular view of it. The book is well-written and persuasive, and I love to see what I believe laid out so clearly. It makes sense, and it is joyously good news.

Then my third choice takes on the theology of the cross – A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, by Bradley Jersak, speaks against theology that implies that Jesus came to save us from God. It presents a lovely view – and shows how it fits with Scripture – that Jesus revealed the Father’s love, that God is not mad at us.

Less theological and more personal is my fourth choice, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It’s a book about community and a book about broken people showing each other grace.

My fifth Christian Nonfiction Stand-out is another book on Universalism, Christ Triumphant: Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture, by Thomas Allin, edited and annotated by Robin A. Parry. This book was written in the nineteenth century and updated for today’s readers, but it’s still dense reading. What I love about it, though, is that it is extremely thorough in laying out the reason that the heart of the gospel is that Christ will at the end of the ages restore all things, not suffering the defeat of even one soul left suffering in hell. The middle section belabors the point that this is what the followers of Jesus believed for the first five centuries, while they were still mostly native Greek speakers.

Sixth in Christian Nonfiction is Love from Heaven, by Lorna Byrne, the author from Stand-out #1 in this category, the lady who talks with angels. This book isn’t so much autobiographical, but applies what she has learned from angels. The main point is to love. And that you are loved. And this book is uplifting and inspiring.

And my final choice, seventh in Christian Nonfiction is The Day the Revolution Began, by N. T. Wright. This one’s another look at the theology of the cross. It’s another dense read, but got me thinking about Christ’s death in new ways.

And that’s it! My favorite books among those I read in 2017! My next step will be to make them a page on my main website and mark every review page with my Sonderbooks Stand-outs Seal.

And now my Newbery reading year begins! Next year, I’ll make a list of Stand-outs again – but I won’t post them until after the Newbery Medal is announced. It will be interesting to see what kind of overlap there is.

Also this coming year, I’m going to be reading lots and lots and lots of American children’s books – and I will write reviews of the best ones (before talking with anyone else about them, so you know it’s just my opinion), but I won’t post any of those reviews until after the Newbery Medal. Fortunately, I have about 200 reviews written that I have not posted yet – so this year I will try to catch up!

Meanwhile, I hope some of my readers try some of my favorite books! Every one of these books is highly recommended!

Happy Reading!

Review of Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Thursday, March 9th, 2017


The Illuminae Files_01

by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 599 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #13 Teen Fiction
2016 Cybils Award – Young Adult Speculative Fiction

First, a nod to Illuminae for winning the Cybils Award! My committee chose the book as one of our Finalists in Young Adult Speculative Fiction, and the final team of judges chose it as the winner! (I think I was the one who first put it on my working shortlist, though definitely not the last. It was one of the first books I read for the Cybils, while I was treating myself to a reading weekend right at the start. It was a big contrast with the fantasy I had been reading.)

Illuminae is a science fiction thriller. It’s set up as a file — a file of information taken from ship’s records and other sources. There’s a memo at the front, addressed to Executive Director Frobisher from The Illuminae Group.

You’ll find all intel we could unearth concerning the Kerenza disaster compiled here in hard copy. Where possible, scans of original documentation are included. Fun Times commence with the destruction of the Kerenza colony (one year ago today) and proceed chronologically through events on battle carrier Alexander and science vessel Hypatia as best as we can reconstruct them.

I found this bit quite amusing:

Some written materials were censored by the UTA and had to be reconstructed by our commtechs, though profanity remains censored as per your instruction. Sure, the story kicks off with the deaths of thousands of people, but god forbid there be cussing in it, right?

Throughout, all swearing was blacked out. So no one can complain about profanity in this novel. It amused me how one’s mind fills in the words, though.

The story, though. The story begins with the transcripts of “extracts of debriefing interviews with the subjects of this dossier, Kady Grant and Ezra Mason. The interviews were conducted shortly after the evacuation of Kerenza.”

It all began on the day Kady broke up with Ezra and was staring out the windows of her classroom figuring out all the things she should say to him. So she saw the spaceships arrive and fire on their settlement.

Their settlement was illegal, but had been there for twenty years. But a ship from rival corporation BeiTech came to wipe them out. Kady had her truck in the parking lot because she didn’t want to ride the tube home with Ezra, so she got to her truck. When Ezra knocked on the window, they both were able — just barely — to make it to the shuttles and supposed safety, though they were shipped onto two different ships of the three escaping.

The largest ship is the Alexander, a UTA battlecarrier, going to escort the other two ships to the nearest wormhole, 7 months travel away. The Alexander suffered some damage. It is not able to create its own temporary wormhole for transport, and there’s damage to AIDAN, their artificial intelligence network.

Kady is “good with computers” and figures out how to communicate with Ezra, despite all communication being shut down. And she wants to know what’s going on.

And things rapidly get worse and worse. Ezra has been conscripted to be a fighter pilot, so he witnesses AIDAN blowing up the other ship they’re escorting, though he refuses to fire on the escape pods filled with civilians, which are now under quarantine in Landing Bay 4 — but then the powers-that-be blame the destruction on the Lincoln, a BeiTech fighter ship that is out there, closing on them.

AIDAN gets shut down, but they know they’ll have to turn it on again when the Lincoln catches up to them in order to have any chance of escaping the Lincoln.

And — from there, the situation rapidly gets worse and worse. In this book you’ve got a virus that turns people into what are essentially psychotic zombies on an enclosed spaceship, military types incompetently trying to keep secrets, artificial intelligence taking over control, and an enemy space ship quickly approaching to blow them out of the sky.

And it’s a lot more exciting than I made it sound.

I realized just how high the death count was when I read the Acknowledgments at the back. It included lines like this:

… we also hope you never find yourself unexpectedly shivved through the eyehole of your hazmat suit by a small child.

… May your throats never be snipped open by a lunatic with a pair of pinking shears.

… May you never die howling, abandoned in an escape pod at the end of the universe.

… May you never be run over by a seventeen-year-old in a stolen truck after you shot her ex-boyfriend.

… We hope you’re never incinerated in a nuclear firestorm initiated by a mostly insane artificial intelligence off the shoulder of Kerenza VII.

You get the idea!

I had a few quibbles, especially with the portrayal of AIDAN. But mostly, despite the body count, this book had me cheering for Kady and her quest to get out the truth about the attack on Kerenza. I did wonder, many times, how in the universe these files were going to survive.

I’m reading a lot of fantasy novels for the Cybils, so it was refreshing to read some hard science fiction, executed brilliantly.

And I must mention, in case you couldn’t figure it out from the subtitle, that this is only Book One of a longer series. However, that is forgivable, since this segment of the story is complete, so you’re not left in an agony of suspense — though you definitely want to find out what happens next. They hit the sweet spot of what a reader would like to see in a Book One.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart

Monday, March 6th, 2017

Lily and Dunkin

by Donna Gephart

Delacorte Press, 2016. 331 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Children’s Fiction

Neither Lily nor Dunkin is happy with the name they were given at birth. Dunkin doesn’t like his name because it’s Norbert Dorfman, after his grandfather and great-grandfather. Lily doesn’t like her name because it’s Timothy. Lily knows she’s really a girl, and is trying to be brave enough to wear girl’s clothes to school when eighth grade starts, but she doesn’t quite manage it.

Dunkin met Lily before school started, and even saw her wearing a dress, but when he asks about it, Lily backs down and says it was just on a dare. Dunkin would like to be friends with Tim at school, but when the guys on the basketball team take an interest in him because he’s so tall, he can’t stay away — even though they’re the same guys who bully Tim.

On the surface, this is an issue book. Lily is dealing with being transgender and trying to get up the courage to go public with that. She also wants to go on hormone blockers before it’s too late, but her Dad’s having a hard time with it.

Meanwhile, Dunkin has his own issues. He’s got bipolar disorder. His mother decided to trust him to take his own medication this year. But if he takes his antipsychotic pills, he doesn’t have enough energy to play basketball. So he sneaks a pill into the trash each day.

As an issues book, I enjoyed this. It’s for a slightly older reader than George but I like the way both books help you understand how it would feel to be transgender and some of the many difficulties you’d face.

But the book does have more to it. There’s navigating friendships and eighth grade, and there’s an old tree in front of the library that’s scheduled to be cut down. It’s a tree that meant a lot to Lily and her grandfather who is now deceased. As for Dunkin, he’s the new kid. He’s just moved to Florida, leaving behind some kind of family disaster involving his Dad. He knows nothing about basketball, but now he has a chance to be somebody because he got his growth early. If he can learn enough about the game before it’s time to play.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Blake

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

Three Dark Crowns

by Kendare Blake

HarperTeen, 2016. 398 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #12 Teen Fiction

I’m going to say right up front that the only bad thing about this book is that it’s apparently only Book One of a series. If I had realized that from the start, I might not have been so disappointed when the book stopped at an exciting place where the story is far from over.

This book takes place on the enchanted Island of Fennbirn, favored by the goddess. It is the queens’ 16th birthday. But there are three queens — a queen who is a Poisoner, a queen who is an Elemental, and a queen who is a Naturalist. Each queen is supported by those of her kind, who have particular powers from the goddess.

At Beltane, four months away, the queens will meet for the first time since they were children. There will be great ceremony and each queen will display her power at the Quickening. Then, in the next year, each queen will attempt to kill the other two. The last queen alive will rule over Fennbirn.

There’s a problem right from the start. Queen Katharine of the poisoners and Queen Arsinoe of the Naturalists have so far displayed no gift at all, unlike Queen Mirabelle of the Elementals, who is strong in her gift. But the families behind them aren’t going to lose power easily.

The author shows us each queen and her way of living, the people she loves and the plots around her — and I found myself hoping that, somehow, all the queens will survive.

Mind you, that still might happen — like I said, the book doesn’t finish the story. It takes us only up to the Quickening. Now the queens have a year to kill each other. But it’s more and more difficult to imagine how things could end so tidily.

The writing is wonderful. The author alternates between the three queens, but I never found myself impatient to skip one story — each queen has a fascinating and tension-filled story as they all progress toward Beltane. We also learn much about their friends and foster families. Arsinoe has a friend with a cougar as her familiar. Katharine has a young man teaching her how to attract the Suitors who will come to court the queens. And Mirabella, surrounded by priestesses, does have loyal servants who help her when she dreams of when she was young and still with her sisters.

The world-building is well-crafted. There’s no exposition hell, with the details of this world skillfully woven into the stories.

I will say that all three queens are still alive at the end of this book. And I desperately want to find out how long they will stay that way and what will happen next.

Buy from

Find this review on Sonderbooks at:

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, by Caren Stilson

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017


A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story

by Caren Stilson

Carolrhoda Books, 2016. 144 pages.
Starred Review
2016 National Book Award Longlist
2017 Sibert Honor Book
2016 Cybils Award, Middle Grade Nonfiction
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Children’s Nonfiction

This book is what the title says it is: The story of a survivor of the Nagasaki atom bomb.

Sachiko Yasui was six years old when the bomb fell on her city. The book first sets the stage, briefly explaining how the war was going and American attitudes toward the Japanese at the time. Throughout the book, background information is inserted with spreads on darker-colored pages, so it’s clear they are background. But we’re given a detailed, hour-by-hour account of what happened in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Of course Sachiko and her family lost their home. But one by one, she also lost all her family members.

The first to die was her two-year-old brother, who had a wooden stick go through his head in the initial blast. All of the girls Sachiko was playing with at the moment the bomb went off also died. Her other two brothers took longer to die of radiation sickness.

Fortunately, Sachiko had her parents to take her out of the city and to help her survive and to put her in school. Though years later, it was cancer that took their lives, a result of the radiation from the bomb.

Sachiko herself suffered from radiation sickness and was bullied in her new school because she lost her hair and had scaly skin. I do like the way the author weaves in stories of those who inspired Sachiko: Her father revered the teachings of Gandhi; Sachiko got to see Helen Keller when she visited Japan; and she was impressed by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was a long time before Sachiko was ready to tell her story, but since 1995, she has traveled around the world, especially speaking to students, and promoting peace.

Sachiko also tells young people that, as she was inspired by Helen Keller, she hopes to inspire them. “I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”

This book is illustrated with plenty of photographs and presents a powerful and important story, in a way that young people can understand and that will move anyone’s heart.

May her words be true: “What happened to me must never happen to you.”

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Keeper of the Mist, by Rachel Neumeier

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

The Keeper of the Mist

by Rachel Neumeier

Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 391 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 Teen Fiction

Here’s a fantasy story that warmed my heart. It had plenty of danger and suspense, but I liked these people. I enjoyed spending time with them. The fantasy world was unique and interesting.

Keri runs a bakery she inherited from her mother, and is struggling to keep it going. She’s the illegitimate daughter of the Lord of Nimmira, but she doesn’t have time to think about that, even when her best friend Tassel speculates which of the Lord’s sons will inherit his title and magic, the magic that keeps a mist around Nimmira.

Nimmira is a small country on the boundary of two countries at war with one another. On one side is Tor Carron, and on the other Eschalion, which has been ruled by a powerful sorcerer for hundreds of years and has a habit of conquering and absorbing its neighbors. But the mist around Nimmira magically makes outsiders forget that anything is there. Eschalion and Tor Carron think they have a border only with each other.

But when Lord Dorric dies, the magic of Nimmira chooses Keri to be the next Lady of Nimmira, much to her surprise. The Timekeeper comes to her door with the news, and right away her friend Tassel becomes the Bookkeeper and her friend Cort becomes the Doorkeeper.

However, immediately the Mist fails, and Keri’s ascension does not bring it back. A group of soldiers crosses the border from Tor Carron, and a sorcerer comes from Eschalion. Keri decides to pretend that she let down the Mist on purpose to get to know their neighbors and invite them to her ascension. But that can only hold off more trouble for a little while.

This story was creative. I’m not sure why the author chose the essential people of the magic to be a Lord or Lady, a Timekeeper, a Bookkeeper, and a Doorkeeper, but I like the way they worked out in the story. Though there were some questions about the magic of Nimmira and the other lands, it all did follow rules and didn’t change willy-nilly. During the course of the story, they’re threatened by a powerful sorcerer, and I like the way they used their own unique magic against him.

This book portrays a girl who’s always been underestimated who suddenly becomes the ruler of a magical kingdom when the magic may be failing. I like the part where she tries to make the representatives of the other countries think she wants a big strong man to take the burdens off her shoulders, though not so much when her half-brothers think that’s actually a good solution. I also like where Keri goes to the House kitchens and makes an exquisite cake when she’s feeling stressed.

Keri’s up against huge obstacles, and you root for her all the way.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Games Wizards Play, by Diane Duane

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Games Wizards Play

by Diane Duane

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 620 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Teen Fiction

Games Wizards Play is the tenth book in the brilliant Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. I’m very sorry to report that I didn’t get the ninth book read – but I was still able to follow this one.

However, this is a series that you will appreciate more if you start from the beginning. The way magic works in these books is very well-worked-out by the author and all follows definite rules – but it will be easier to understand those rules if you’ve been coming along on the journey from the start.

And things do get complicated and esoteric. Somewhere around Book Five, the characters started dealing with alternate universes. In Book Three, they dealt with other galaxies and planets and sentient computers.

The books have gotten longer and longer, too, which I confess is probably why I never got around to reading Book Nine, A Wizard of Mars. It’s also why I hadn’t gotten around to reading this book until I had a whole weekend where I was planning to spend as much time as possible reading.

This book was actually perfect for a Reading Interlude. I had a nice chunk of time set aside for reading – and how lovely to get to spend that time with these characters I’ve enjoyed so long. I think if I tried to read this book a little bit at a time, I might have got lost in the technical details of wizardry, which do fill a lot of the book. As it was, this was delightful weekend reading, and I put off going to my gaming group until I got the last chapter read.

In this volume, initially neither the universe nor the planet is even at stake. There’s an Invitational competition for young wizards to present new spells they’ve worked out. These Invitationals happen once every eleven years, and our heroes – Nita and Kit and Nita’s sister Dairine – are being asked to act as mentors.

Their mentees are interesting but talented characters. Penn, mentored by Nita and Kit, has a spell designed to protect earth from sunspots (as far as I can translate the technical language, anyway). Dairine’s mentee Mehrnaz lives in Mumbai and is from a large family of wizards, but has oppressive family dynamics.

Penn behaves like a jerk, especially toward Nita, but his wizardry is good – and there seems to be more going on there than meets the eye.

Meanwhile, Nita and Kit have decided to become boyfriend and girlfriend – and are bothered by how much that changes things between them. And everyone around them seems to be talking about sex. But they’re too busy being wizards.

The pace of the book is leisurely. There is tension and they’re in a hurry to get ready for the competition – but the author puts in more scenes than are absolutely essential and takes some time exploring subtleties and thoughts and feelings. You often read the point-of-view character’s thoughts in this book. And yet, in this case, I didn’t find that annoying. Maybe because I already know and love these characters? Maybe because I’m already interested in all the different relationships and the various subtleties of life as a Wizard. Anyway, that was partly why it was nice to have a long, concentrated span of time set aside to read this book. I wasn’t impatient to get to the end, and I enjoyed the journey.

I wasn’t surprised that a fairly significant earth-changing situation did come up at the end. Though mostly this book was about relationships between wizards when there was not an earth-shaking crisis.

If you haven’t started with this series and if you like science fiction at all, I highly recommend it! Go back to the first book, So You Want to Be a Wizard? It turns out that all over our world Wizards, dedicated to reducing Entropy, are helping the Powers That Be and fighting the good fight against the Lone Power. These books tell that story and take the reader all over the universe.

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

The Singing Bones

by Shaun Tan

Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Introduced by Jack Zipes

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016. 185 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 Children’s Nonfiction

This is a book of art. But all the art is based on fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. Shaun Tan has created sculptures based on the tales. On each spread, there’s a short excerpt from the featured fairy tale on one page, and a photograph of the sculpture on the other page.

In the Afterword, Shaun Tan tells us about the sculptures:

The main materials I’ve used are papier-maché and air-drying clay, carved back and painted with acrylics, oxidized metal powder, wax, and shoe polish. The resistance of clay in particular at a small scale encourages simplicity, especially where the key tools are blunt fingers and thumbs: Faces and gestures are abbreviated, just like characters in the tales themselves. The concept of a thing also becomes more important than a detailed likeness: A fox need only be a few red triangles, a sleeping man requires no body, and a queen’s face can be eroded away by the force of a single, elemental feeling: jealousy. What matters above all else are the hard bones of the story, and I wanted many of these objects to appear as if they’ve emerged from an imaginary archaeological dig, and then been sparingly illuminated as so many museum objects are, as if a flashlight beam has passed momentarily over some odd objects resting in the dark galleries of our collective subconscious. Like the tales themselves, they might brighten in our imagination without surrendering any of their original enigma.

He achieves this feeling of simple forms, of the bare bones of the stories. As Neil Gaiman says,

Shaun Tan does something else here: something profound. His sculptures suggest, they do not describe. They imply, they do not delineate. They are, in themselves, stories: not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be. These are something new, something deeper. They do not look like moments of the stories: instead, they feel like the stories themselves….

Here they gather for you, timeless and perfect, a mixture of darkness and light that manages to capture Grimms’ stories in a way that nobody, to my knowledge, has done before.

Shaun Tan makes me want to hold these tales close, to rub them with my fingers, to feel the cracks and the creases and the edges of them. He makes me want to pick them up, inspect them from unusual angles, feel the heft and the weight of them. He makes me wonder what damage I could do with them, how badly I could hurt someone if I hit them with a story.

All of Shaun Tan’s work is eerie, abstract, and creepy. But combining his images with timeless folk tales gives them whole new power.

In short, you really need to see these images. Check out this book and take a look!

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Goldenhand, by Garth Nix

Friday, January 27th, 2017


by Garth Nix

Harper, 2016. 344 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 Teen Fiction

This is now the fifth novel set in the Old Kingdom, not counting a novella and short story. The events of this book happen just as the title story of Across the Wall finishes.

You don’t necessarily need to read the prequel, Clariel, before you read this one. But reading the other books would be helpful, so you have a feel for how Charter Magic works. And Clariel gives you background about the Witch With No Face, who is behind the scenes in this book. It had been years since I read the earlier books, so I didn’t remember details, but I didn’t have any trouble following this story.

The title refers to Lirael herself. Right at the beginning, we learn how she got the name:

Lirael hurried up the steps to the mews. She flexed her replacement hand as she did so, marveling at how well it worked. When her own hand had been bitten off by the Disreputable Dog almost seven months before in order to save her life from the ravening power of Orannis, Sameth had promised to make her a replacement. He had lived up to that promise, and shown he was indeed a true inheritor of the Wallmakers’ engineering ingenuity and magical craft, though it had taken him a long time to get it right, with much tinkering and adjustment. It was only in the last few days that it felt entirely normal to Lirael, really just like her own flesh-and-blood hand.

It was mostly made from meteoric steel, but Sam had gilded the metal, and unasked had added an extra layer of Charter spells atop the ones that made the hand work and even feel like flesh, so it also glowed faintly with a golden light.

Already, many people were calling her Lirael Goldenhand.

Sabriel and Touchstone are taking a vacation while things are apparently quiet. This leaves Lirael in charge when a dangerous free magic creature emerges across the wall. The message comes from Nicholas Sayre.

Lirael deals with the creature and tries to heal Nick, but he’s got a strange combination of free magic and charter magic inside him (from what happened in Abhorsen). She decides she needs to take him to the Clayr. Perhaps they have a book in the Great Library that will help figure out his case.

Meanwhile, north of the kingdom, a girl of the Athask tribe named Ferin is trying to bring a message to Lirael. A message left from Lirael’s mother before she died. But all the other tribes are sending their sorcerers to stop her. When Ferin is turned away at the bridge, she takes a boat, but after some fisher folk save her, they are all in danger.

For most of the book, chapters alternate between Lirael and Ferin. Lirael travels with Nick to the Clayr, and Ferin is desperately traveling over water and over mountains to get into the Old Kingdom. When Ferin does finally deliver her message, an even more daunting danger faces the Old Kingdom.

This book had me enthralled from the start. Even though the story is complete in itself, it will be especially beloved by people who already know Lirael and care about her. In this book we’re rooting for her as she faces responsibility as the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, dealing with several crises as well as facing her family at the Clayr glacier and the Great Library.

Garth Nix’s world-building is flawless. The map’s been expanded and we learn about the northern tribes. His descriptions of the way free magic and charter magic work still sound plausible and consistent and true. You’re never drawn out of the story by hand-wavy descriptions.

When I started the book, Ferin’s desperate run from free magic sorcerers manipulating the Dead to chase her were so scary, I woke up one morning from a dream about it. (It was combined with drones from Railhead, which I’d finished before starting Goldenhand. Fortunately, I woke up before I got too scared.)

Yet another wonderful and captivating story of the Old Kingdom and the Abhorsens who travel in Death to fight evil, using a necromancer’s bells.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?