Archive for the ‘Starred Review’ Category

Review of Arabella and the Battle of Venus

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

Arabella and the Battle of Venus

by David D. Levine

Tor (Tom Doherty Associates), 2017. 416 pages.
Starred Review

It took me a long time to get around to reading Arabella of Mars, which meant I could immediately pick up the sequel, for more adventurous fun. A blurb on the back cover calls this “Regency space opera,” and that’s about right. We’ve got an alternate history where sailing ships fly between the planets during the Napoleonic Wars.

In this book, Arabella is still on Mars, but her fiancé has traveled to Venus – and there was captured by the French. He sends Arabella a letter telling her not to worry about him, but of course Arabella comes up with a scheme to try to save him. She hires a privateer to fly her to Venus. Her brother permits this plan as long as she brings along a chaperone, Lady Corey.

This second book isn’t mostly about adventures between the planets, as the first was (though they definitely have some). Instead, the privateer’s ship – and everyone on board – also gets captured by the French and held on Venus. But there’s something big afoot in the shipyard where some of the prisoners are laboring. Now there’s more to do than simply plan a mass escape.

Arabella’s character is so much fun! She’s resourceful and smart. And not slow to act. I was surprised how much I came to enjoy Lady Corey, too.

The science of this interplanetary travel and “interplanetary atmosphere” is iffy, but seems to be consistent with itself. I still roll my eyes a bit at the automata magically gaining personality and coming up with results the programmer doesn’t understand. It can even hear Arabella speak without having ears!

But it’s all in good fun. This is an adventure yarn with a memorable heroine who tries to rescue the man she loves and faces danger, capture, and even dinner with Napoleon.

tor-forge.com

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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 Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, by Ada Calhoun

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give

by Ada Calhoun

W. W. Norton & Company, 2017. 192 pages.
Starred Review

Maybe I shouldn’t have picked up this book. My own marriage ended badly. I tried hard to keep it from falling apart, but finally figured out that if one party really wants to get out, one person can’t knit it back together by themselves. Now I’d like to get married again – and this book reminds me of that. It also reminds me that I don’t actually want some nice man to get divorced just so he’ll be available! I don’t actually want the sort of man who doesn’t try hard to stay in his marriage. And I don’t wish divorce on anyone. So in a way, thinking about what makes a marriage isn’t necessarily a place I should go right now!

But – the book was so much fun! And really does speak truth. Though I agree with the author that you wouldn’t necessarily want to point out these truths at the wedding of a dewy-eyed bride and groom. They’ll find out soon enough.

Here’s how she explains the book in the Introduction:

Now in the second decade of my second marriage, I can’t look newlyweds in the eye and promise they’ll never regret marrying. (Well, not sober. Maybe this is why weddings correlate with binge drinking.) I adore my husband and plan to be with him forever. I also want to run screaming from the house because the person I promised to love all the days of my life insists on falling asleep to Frasier reruns.

“The first twenty years are the hardest,” an older woman once told me. At the time I thought she was joking. She was not.

And this is why I don’t give wedding toasts – because I’d probably end up saying that even good marriages sometimes involve flinging a remote control at the wall.

She’s got some good insights.

The main problem with marriage may be that it’s not better than the rest of life. Suffering occurs in marriage because we think it will be different – purer, deeper, gentler – than other relationships. We expect our partners and ourselves to be better – more patient, more faithful, more generous – than we are. We believe ourselves exceptional, first in the depth of our passion and then in the breadth of our failure.

I like this take on it:

By staying married, we give something to ourselves and to others: hope. Hope that in steadfastly loving someone, we ourselves, for all our faults, will be loved; that the broken world will be made whole. To hitch your rickety wagon to the flickering star of another fallible human being – what an insane thing to do. What a burden, and what a gift.

But most of the book isn’t just musings. It’s also stories – stories from her own married life. And these stories do lead to musings, and truths, and some good thoughts about what marriage has to offer these days. She doesn’t offer a particularly religious perspective, so I wasn’t sure I’d really think I’d find them applicable – but she does offer a practical perspective. What does marriage do for you? This is worth thinking about, and she approaches it in a humorous way.

She finishes the Introduction this way:

Such are the thoughts I keep to myself, sitting in rented folding chairs, watching friends begin their married lives. To the newlyweds, I say congratulations, and I mean it sincerely. To say out loud the rest of what I’m thinking would be bad manners. And so I’ll say it here instead.

wwnorton.com

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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 Empty Grave, by Jonathan Stroud

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

The Empty Grave

Lockwood & Co. Book Five

by Jonathan Stroud

Disney Hyperion, 2017. 437 pages.
Starred Review

I finished The Empty Grave today, and with it the entire Lockwood & Co. series – and Yes! The series ends well. I can now officially say that from start to finish, this is one of the best children’s book series ever. These books make good family reading, since adults will enjoy them every bit as much. Children need to be old enough to be able to not be afraid of all the murderous ghosts (and murderous people). If your child doesn’t mind some severe spookiness, I highly recommend this series.

This series deals with an alternate reality England where there’s a “Problem” with ghosts roaming the countryside and haunting buildings and places where they died. These aren’t friendly ghosts – if they touch you, you’ll die. And only children can see them. Lucy, Lockwood, George, and Holly still have their independent agency for dealing with ghosts – but powerful forces are ready to put them out of business – or perhaps simply kill them.

In this final installment, all the threads come together. Can the smallest agency in London expose what’s at the root of the Problem? Or will they be silenced? We’re told at the beginning of this book that Lucy survives. But will any of her friends survive with her?

I really mustn’t say any more about the plot. Yes, this is a series you should read from the beginning – It’s brilliantly crafted, with important pieces revealed at just the right time. In this book, it all comes together in a satisfying, and very suspenseful, way.

Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series is brilliant – but Lockwood & Co. goes far beyond it. You come to care about all the characters deeply (even George!) and to understand the complex situation and all that’s at stake. This series is magnificent! Read it!

LockwoodandCo.com
jonathanstroud.com
DisneyBooks.com

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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 All’s Faire in Middle School, by Victoria Jamieson

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

All’s Faire in Middle School

by Victoria Jamieson

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2017. 248 pages.
Starred Review

This graphic novel is every bit as delightful as the author’s earlier one, Roller Girl. In fact, I liked it a little better, since I’m more familiar with Renaissance faires than I am with roller derby.

Imogene and her family have always been involved in the Florida Renaissance Faire all her life. Her father is an actor who plays the evil lord of the dragons, and her mother runs a craft store. Impy has always been homeschooled at the faire, along with her annoying little brother – but now she’s ready to go to middle school.

The middle school part of the story doesn’t have any big surprises – making friends and figuring out how to fit in, tough teachers, and eventually Impy has to face some not-very-nice things she does to please the so-called friends. All that makes a delightful parallel to the Renaissance faire, where Impy has a more responsible role this year as an actual cast member – her father’s squire.

Of course, the two worlds intersect when the leader of the mean girls has her birthday party at the Renaissance faire.

I’ve read other books about homeschooled kids adjusting to school, but this one’s a graphic novel, so it’s extra colorful (literally), and all the Renaissance faire parts make for great images.

And make no mistake about it, starting middle school is a whole lot like going on a quest and fighting dragons.

victoriajamieson.com
penguin.com/kids

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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 Maud, by Melanie J. Fishbane

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Maud

by Melanie J. Fishbane

Penguin Random House, 2017. 400 pages.
Starred Review

Maud is a novel based on the teen years of Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon.

I actually didn’t expect to like this book too much. I’ve read all of her journals, and they are wonderful – and I was skeptical that they could be written as a novel even close as good as the journals themselves. I have read a biography of L. M. Montgomery, written by Harry Bruce, and it was dissatisfying after reading the journals.

But though I still think the journals are better and L. M. Montgomery’s writing itself is unsurpassable, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Now, I knew what was going to happen, and the characters felt like old familiar friends. It’s been awhile since I’ve read that first journal, so I didn’t necessarily remember every detail, either. It was like someone telling me a favorite story I’d almost forgotten.

And I did really enjoy this book. It’s easier reading than the journals, told in a coherent story, with some themes throughout – Maud looking for a place where she belongs and determining to make her mark as a writer – and being willing to sacrifice the normal ambitions of her friends – finding a husband – in order to follow that dream of being a writer.

It has been awhile since I read the journals, but I do believe that Melanie Fishbane stuck very close to the actual details of Maud’s life. So readers can enjoy this book with the knowledge that it’s true and really happened.

And the novel did help me understand why Maud turned down her suitors, including boys she actually loved. Getting married young, in those days, really would have cut off her chance to go to college and to become a writer. I understood better the choices she made when they were presented in novelized form.

Bottom line, this book presents a lovely and inspiring story of L. M. Montgomery’s teen years and the rise of her ambitions to make her name as a writer – ambitions that she went on to fulfill. If you don’t know her story, I highly recommend this book. And it turns out, even if you do know her story, you will thoroughly enjoy this retelling.

@MelanieFishbane
penguinrandomhouse.ca

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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 Now, by Antoinette Portis

Saturday, September 9th, 2017

Now

by Antoinette Portis

A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, 2017. 32 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve said before that some of the best sermons are found in children’s books. This book speaks loads about contentment and joy and living in the present.

Here’s how it begins:

This is my favorite breeze.

This is my favorite leaf.

This is my favorite hole
(this one)
because it is the one
I am digging.

And that’s how it continues. The simple yet beautiful pictures (I love the way she draws the breeze!) show a girl with light brown skin enjoying each favorite thing on a double-page spread.

The one variation is when her boat goes into the storm drain, and we read, “That was my favorite boat.” No sadness or crying, just enjoying this moment.

The book winds up like this:

And this is my favorite
now
because it is the one I am having

with you.

The final picture is of the girl in her mother’s lap reading a book, so there’s a nice self-referential element.

This book just makes me smile!

And the next time I go for a walk around my lake, I’m going to be saying things to myself like:
This is my favorite breeze.
That is my favorite flower.
That is my favorite bird….

What a lovely concept to share with children!

mackids.com

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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 Arabella of Mars, by David D. Levine

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

Arabella of Mars

by David D. Levine

Tor, Tom Doherty Associates, 2016. 350 pages.
Starred Review

It was a year ago now that my sister Becky recommended this book to me – and in fact I’d had it checked out to read – but then I became a Cybils judge and needed to focus on reading Young Adult Speculative Fiction. I’m not completely sure why this particular book is marketed to adults rather than young adults, since Arabella is 17 years old – but since it’s fiction for grown-ups, I had to put it aside – and just managed to read it before I start reading for the 2019 Newbery Award.

Like my sister told me, this book is simply good fun. The premise is that instead of seeing an apple fall, Isaac Newton watched a bubble rise from his bathtub – and discovered flight. In the 1810s world of the novel, space ships are very like sailing ships, navigating the atmosphere and currents between the planets for interplanetary travel. How this could actually work is rather murky to me – but the implications of this world are a lot of fun.

The book starts with Arabella, who has grown up on Mars, being trained, along with her brother, by her Martian nanny in hunting and fighting and strategic thinking. But alas! A small accident results in a bloody cut on her head, and all is revealed to her mother, who uses this to finally convince Arabella’s father that Mrs. Ashby and her three daughters should go home to England.

Not long after arriving in England, they receive the sad news of Arabella’s father’s death. Then when she is visiting her cousin Simon, she unwittingly gives the cousin the information that at this time the passage to Mars would be at its quickest – so he is going to go to Mars, win her brother’s trust, and kill him for the inheritance of the family plantation, which is entailed on the oldest male heir.

He and his wife lock Arabella in a closet, but she didn’t receive all that training from her Martian nanny for nothing. When she escapes, though, she reasons that she must find passage to Mars and get there before Simon so she can warn her brother. But how to book passage without money? That’s when Arabella decides to disguise herself as a boy, and she gets a position as captain’s boy – because of her skill in working with automata, a passion she shared with her father. The ship she serves on has a mechanical navigator, and she is trained on how it works.

And so her adventures begin. The voyage isn’t at all uneventful. There were times I forgot it was a spaceship, the descriptions were so like a seagoing vessel. She must learn the ropes (literally) and about navigation. Along the way they deal with attack by French corsairs and mutiny, and there are new challenges when they finally land.

Like I said, the science is very iffy, but the story is told with enough confidence, you don’t often notice. I’m skeptical of the automaton acquiring sentience, but the atmosphere and currents between the planets was merely interesting.

This story is a whole lot of fun, and the advantage to being so slow to getting around to reading it is that now I can pick up the sequel.

tor-forge.com

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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 All the Way to Havana, by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

All the Way to Havana

by Margarita Engle
illustrated by Mike Curato

Godwin Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2017. 36 pages.
Starred Review

I fell for this book because of the wonderful, lilting use of language and onomatopoiea. The story is of a boy and his family going for a drive to Havana.

We have a gift, and we have a cake,
and today we’re going to drive all the way
to the big city to see my new baby cousin
on his zero-year birthday!

But before they set out on their drive, they need to figure out why their old blue car isn’t making its usual noises: “cara cara cara cara, cluck, cluck, cluck,” but instead sounds like “pio pio, pio pio, pfffft.”

Papá opens the trunk and lets me hand him
the heavy toolbox. Then he raises the hood
to show me all the rattling parts
that have been fixed with wire, tape,
and mixed-up scraps of dented metal.

The boy is involved in choosing tools and tinkering, twisting, and tightening – until “Cara Cara once again begins to sound like a chattering hen.”

The drive into town involves giving rides to neighbors – and a new set of noises. There’s a gorgeous and colorful spread as they come into town, driving on the curved road by the seawall, with many other old cars in all colors on the road along with them.

At the party, there fun and food with cousins, and then it’s time to come home again.

So we zoom and bump all the way back
to our little village, where we will soon
have a chance to
cara cara
taka taka
pio pio
clunk
sleep.

I love the Author’s Note at the back of the book. It adds depth to what is already such a lovely (for the eyes) and melodious (for the ears) story.

Due to a complex historical situation, many of the American cars on the island of Cuba are pre-1959 and so old that parts under the hood have been replaced many times, often with makeshift inventions. Despite more than half a century of poverty and hardship, the Cuban people remain so creative that they manage to keep machines of all sorts running long past the age when wealthier people would discard them. This simple poem about the island’s noisy old cars is intended as an expression of admiration for the everyday ingenuity of poor people everywhere who have to struggle, persevere, create, and invent on a daily basis, never losing hope. Undoubtedly, a boy like the one in this story would dream of modern cars and space-age inventions along with plans to keep his family’s antique car running smoothly.

margaritaengle.com
mikecurato.com
mackids.com

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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 Angels in My Hair, by Lorna Byrne

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Angels in my Hair

The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic

by Lorna Byrne

Harmony Books, 2011. First published in the United Kingdom in 2008. 319 pages.
Starred Review

Ever since she was a little girl, Lorna Byrne has been able to see angels and other spirits. This book tells her story. And it’s lovely.

Here’s how she begins the book:

When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was “retarded.”

When I was a baby, my mother noticed that I always seemed to be in a world of my own. I can even remember lying in a cot – a big basket – and seeing my mother bending over me. Surrounding my mother I saw wonderful bright, shiny beings in all the colors of the rainbow; they were much bigger than I was, but smaller than her – about the size of a three-year-old child. These beings floated in the air like feathers; and I remember reaching out to touch them, but I never succeeded. I was fascinated by these creatures with their beautiful lights. At that time I didn’t understand that I was seeing anything different from what other people saw; it would be much later that I learned from them that they were called angels.

As the months passed, my mother noticed that I’d always be looking or staring somewhere else, no matter what she’d do to try to get my attention. In truth, I was somewhere else: I was away with the angels, watching what they were doing and talking and playing with them. I was enthralled.

I was a late talker, but I had been conversing with angels from very early on. Sometimes we used words as you and I understand them, but sometimes no words were needed – we would know each other’s thoughts. I believed that everyone else could see what I saw, but then the angels told me that I was not to say anything to anyone about seeing them, that I should keep it a secret between us. In fact, for many years I listened to the angels and I didn’t tell people what I saw. It is only now in writing this book that I am for the first time telling much of what I have seen.

The author writes all about growing up with angels around her and about her marriage and children. She didn’t write the book until her children were grown. Now people come to her from all over, asking for prayer.

Her perspective is lovely. I like the way she talks matter-of-factly about how there are always lots of angels around places of worship – churches, synagogues, and mosques alike.

She also talks about souls that stay around after death to comfort their loved ones, or come back to comfort their loved ones. In fact, one of the first spirits she saw, and played with, was her older brother Christopher, who died as a baby.

She sees different kinds of angels – and tells us that everyone has a guardian angel who is with them all their live

Review of When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

When the Moon Was Ours

by Anna-Marie McLemore

Thomas Dunne Books, 2016. 273 pages.
Starred Review
2017 Stonewall Honor Book

Samir and Miel live in a small town and they are best friends. Sam’s family is from Pakistan. He paints moon lamps and hangs them all over town. He’s a gentle person, and when Miel fell out of the old water tower and seemingly materialized out of water, Sam was the one who calmed her down. He and his mother found a home for Miel with Aracely, who lived next door.

Hinting at her mysterious origins, the hem of Miel’s skirt is always wet. Even more mysterious, though, is that she grows roses out of her wrist. After one blooms and falls away, another grows. The color of each depends on what Miel has been thinking about.

As you can probably tell, this book is full of magical realism, which isn’t really my thing. I like fantasy with rules of magic that make sense, that seem understandable. This has several wild things going on, which I wasn’t crazy about, although I did enjoy reading the beautiful prose.

Here’s a section toward the beginning:

They’d touched each other every day since they were small. She’d put her palm to his forehead when she thought he had a fever. He’d set tiny gold star stickers on her skin on summer days, and at night had peeled them off, leaving pale constellations on her sun-darkened body.

She’d seen the brown of her hand against the brown of his when they were children, and holding hands meant nothing more than that she liked how warm his palm was in the night air, or that he wanted to pull her to see something she had missed. A meteor shower or a vine of double-flower morning glories, so blue they looked dyed.

All these things reminded her of his moons, and his moons reminded her of all these things. He’d hung a string of them between her house and his, some as small as her cupped palms, others big enough to fill her arms. They brightened the earth and wild grass. They were tucked into trees, each giving off a ring of light just wide enough to meet the next, so she never walked in the dark. One held a trace of the same gold as those foil star stickers. Another echoed the blue of those morning glories Sam could find even in the dark. Another was the pure, soft white of the frost flowers he showed her on winter mornings, curls of ice that looked like tulips and peonies.

The main problem of the book arises when the four Bonner sisters decide they want Miel’s roses, that those roses belong to them. Miel had been offering them to her mother by drowning them in the river. But now Ivy Bonner tells Miel that if she doesn’t give them her roses, they will tell the whole town that Sam’s name is really Samira.

Miel knows that Sam has a girl’s body, but she also knows that he is a boy, and his body doesn’t matter. In fact, the book opens with the first time they sleep together.

One thing I loved about the book was this dealing with a transgender person as the person he really is. Along with everything else, this book is fundamentally a love story, and a beautiful one. This is the first time I’ve read a love story involving a transgender person, and that aspect of it was beautifully done.

The Author’s Note at the back explains why Anna-Marie McLemore can write this so well. She met her own husband and fell in love with him when they were teens – but before he had admitted to himself that he was transgender. Combined with the questions she had about her own life, it sounds like this book came from a deep place in her heart, her own questions and struggles growing up beautifully expressed in magical realism.

This book is about secrets and truth and power. But it’s also a love story about two teens discovering who they really are.

http://author.annamariemclemore.com
thomasdunnebooks.com
stmartins.com

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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.

What did you think of this book?