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Mini Reviews for THRONE OF GLASS & THE LADY’S GUIDE TO PETTICOATS AND PIRACY

Mini Reviews for THRONE OF GLASS & THE LADY’S GUIDE TO PETTICOATS AND PIRACYThrone of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Also by this author: A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #1)
four-stars
Series: Throne of Glass #1
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on May 7, 2013
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 406
Source: Purchased
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In a land without magic, where the king rules with an iron hand, an assassin is summoned to the castle. She comes not to kill the king, but to win her freedom. If she defeats twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition, she is released from prison to serve as the king's champion. Her name is Celaena Sardothien.

The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her. But something evil dwells in the castle of glass--and it's there to kill. When her competitors start dying one by one, Celaena's fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival, and a desperate quest to root out the evil before it destroys her world.

Review:

After three years of saying I wanted to read Sarah J. Maas’ popular fantasy series Throne of Glass, I have finally started it. It was totally worth the wait too!  I was hooked from the moment we meet the main character, Celaena Sardothien, who is only 18 years old but is already a famous assassin.  When the story opens, Celaena is a prisoner working in the Endovier salt mines. The harsh conditions the prisoners work in make it a death sentence for most, but somehow Celaena has managed to survive thus far.  I’m always looking for a underdog to root for, so Celaena had my support and sympathy from the first pages of the book and especially after she is approached by Crown Prince Dorian of Endovier, who wants her to compete as his champion in a tournament which will determine who will be the next royal assassin.  If Celaena wins and serves as the King’s assassin for four years, she will then be granted her freedom.  It’s a deal too good to pass up, as a few more months in the salt mines will mean certain death for Celaena.

The cast of characters and the tournament itself are what really made this book a hit for me.  I had mixed feelings about Celaena because she sometimes came across as way too cocky and arrogant, but even with that tendency, she really grew on me as the story progressed (especially when it was revealed that she’s a book nerd and she uses her charms to get the Prince to allow her access to his library, lol).  I also really liked Prince Dorian, who was quite charming and funny.  My favorite character though was actually Chaol, the Captain of the Guard. I’m a sucker for a seemingly gruff guy who turns out to be a softie and that is Chaol all the way.  I loved all of his scenes with Celaena because you could tell that even though he was hard on her while they were training and pushed her to the limit, he was growing to care about her very much.  I have a feeling this is going to turn into a love triangle, which kind of bums me out because I didn’t think the chemistry felt very realistic between Celaena and Dorian, but I’ll reserve judgment for now.

Aside from this cast of characters, I was especially drawn in by the assassin’s tournament.  The challenges themselves were all very exciting, and Mass paced them well so that I never found myself bored even though there were so many of them to get through.  The menacing atmosphere throughout really kept me on the edge of my seat, especially once competitors started turning up dead in the middle of the night with no signs of who or what could have possibly killed them.  The story becomes an exciting race against time to find the killer as I found myself rooting for Celaena to not just win the tournament, but to also find and take down the killer.

Throne of Glass was a riveting first book in what I think is sure to become one of my favorite fantasy series.  I can’t wait to read the second book and see what happens next! 4 STARS

 

Mini Reviews for THRONE OF GLASS & THE LADY’S GUIDE TO PETTICOATS AND PIRACYThe Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
Also by this author: The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue
four-stars
Series: Montague Siblings #2
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on October 2, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 450
Also in this series: The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue
Source: Purchased
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In this highly anticipated sequel to the New York Times bestselling The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Felicity Montague must use all her womanly wits and wiles to achieve her dreams of becoming a doctor—even if she has to scheme her way across Europe to do it. A must-have for fans of Mackenzi Lee’s extraordinary and Stonewall Honor-winning novel.

A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Review:

Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was one of my favorite reads last year.  The story was just so much fun and I loved everything about Monty and Percy and all of their antics. My favorite character in that book was actually Monty’s younger sister, Felicity, so I was over the moon when I heard that the sequel, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, would put Felicity front and center.

Felicity is a sassy young woman whose dream is to become a doctor.  I admired her fierce determination to make her dream come true, especially considering this series is set in the 18th century so the odds are, unfortunately, not in her favor.  This book is all about Felicity’s adventures as she, fed up with the way she is  constantly dismissed by academics in her own country, travels across Europe in hopes of securing an opportunity to study medicine. Her adventure is funded by a mysterious Muslim woman named Sim, and the dynamic between Felicity and Sim is fantastic.  I wouldn’t say they were quite as entertaining a duo as Monty and Percy in the first book, but they’re right behind them.

Speaking of Monty and Percy, my favorite duo also makes several appearances in this book, and I was so happy to see them again and know that they are still madly in love with one another.  They also brought some of the hilarity from the first book with them, which in many ways, was my favorite part of this book.  Without them, the overall story wasn’t nearly as funny as the first one was, and I missed that humor.  The Gentleman’s Guide was laugh out loud funny from start to finish and this book was a little more serious in tone.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but since I was expecting a repeat of that, I was a little bummed that the same level of humor wasn’t there.  Still a fantastic read though. 4 STARS

four-stars

About Mackenzi Lee

Mackenzi Lee holds a BA in history and an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults, and her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Crixeo, The Friend, and The Newport Review, among others. Her debut novel, This Monstrous Thing, won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award. Her second book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, a queer spin on the classic adventure novel, was a New York Times bestseller (what is life?), and ABA bestseller, earned five starred reviews, a #1 Indie Next Pick, and won the New England Book Award.

She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home, where she works as an independent bookstore manager.

About Sarah J. Maas

Sarah J. Maas is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Throne of Glass series and A Court of Thorns and Roses series, as well as a USA Today and international bestselling author. Sarah wrote the first incarnation of the Throne of Glass series when she was just sixteen, and it has now sold in thirty-five languages. A New York native, Sarah currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and dog. Empire of Storms, the fifth Throne of Glass novel, released on September 6th, 2016.
She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Hamilton College in 2008 with a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Religious Studies.

Backlist Briefs: Reviews for MUSE OF NIGHTMARES & VENGEANCE

Backlist Briefs:  Reviews for MUSE OF NIGHTMARES & VENGEANCEMuse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor
Also by this author: Strange the Dreamer
five-stars
Series: Strange the Dreamer #2
on October 2, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 514
Also in this series: Strange the Dreamer
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Sarai has lived and breathed nightmares since she was six years old.

She believed she knew every horror and was beyond surprise.

She was wrong.

In the wake of tragedy, neither Lazlo nor Sarai are who they were before. One a god, the other a ghost, they struggle to grasp the new boundaries of their selves as dark-minded Minya holds them hostage, intent on vengeance against Weep.

Lazlo faces an unthinkable choice—save the woman he loves, or everyone else?—while Sarai feels more helpless than ever. But is she? Sometimes, only the direst need can teach us our own depths, and Sarai, the Muse of Nightmares, has not yet discovered what she's capable of.

As humans and godspawn reel in the aftermath of the citadel's near fall, a new foe shatters their fragile hopes, and the mysteries of the Mesarthim are resurrected: Where did the gods come from, and why? What was done with thousands of children born in the citadel nursery? And most important of all, as forgotten doors are opened and new worlds revealed: Must heroes always slay monsters, or is it possible to save them instead?

Love and hate, revenge and redemption, destruction and salvation all clash in this astonishing and heart-stopping sequel to the New York Times bestseller, Strange the Dreamer.

Review:

I’m just going to start off by saying that Laini Taylor’s writing in this series is about as close to perfection for me as it gets.  There’s just something so special about the world she has created with Weep and with her Godspawn characters that enchanted me from the first pages of Strange the Dreamer and that continued to captivate me all the way through her latest installment, Muse of Nightmares.  This has truly been one of my favorite fantasy reads and I’m probably just going to babble incoherently in this review and not do justice to the story at all.

Muse of Nightmares has an epic, sweeping storyline that is hard to talk about without giving away spoilers, so I’m just going to say that it not only revisits all of our favorite characters from Strange the Dreamer and takes each of their stories to the next level, but it also answers any and all questions that we were left hanging with at the end of that first book.  Then, Taylor ramps up the worldbuilding even more by taking us inside of the world that ultimately creates the Godspawn and gives us that origin story.  This aspect of the novel and the new characters that are introduced end up becoming crucial to the original storyline and I just found it so impressive how smoothly Taylor ties together all of the intricate threads that she creates between the two books.

The characters were of course still my favorite part of the series.  My love for Lazlo and Sarai and their relationship only grew as they continued to defy all odds to be together in Muse of Nightmares.  Ruby, Feral, and Sparrow are still as delightful as ever, and I even developed a soft spot for characters that I really didn’t care for in the first book, like Eril-Fane, Thyron Nero, and especially Minya.  My newfound love for Minya was what surprised me the most about this second book.  As much as I despised her in the first book, I actually cried for her in Muse of Nightmares.  Totally did not see that coming, lol.

I’m sure I haven’t begun to do justice to what a beautiful fantasy story this series really is, but trust me, it’s one of the most beautifully crafted stores I’ve read in a long time.  It’s not a fast-paced story by any means, but I thought the pacing was just perfect as Laini Taylor wove her exquisite tale and captured both my heart and imagination.  5 STARS

 

Backlist Briefs:  Reviews for MUSE OF NIGHTMARES & VENGEANCEVengeful by V.E. Schwab
Also by this author: A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)
four-stars
Series: Villains #2
Published by Tor Books on September 25, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction
Pages: 478
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Eli Ever and Victor Vale were only medical students when their mutual discovery that near-death experiences can, under the right conditions, manifest extraordinary abilities.

They were best friends, and rivals, and then enemies. They were dead, then alive, and then---Eli killed Victor, once and for all.

Or so he thought---but Sydney Clarke felt otherwise, and used her own superpower to tip the scales. Now, a trio hides in the shadows, while another takes advantages of post-death life to take over the city of Merit.

If there can be life after death—will there be calm after vengeance, or will chaos rule?

Review:

Vengeful is the much anticipated sequel to V.E. Schwab’s immensely popular Vicious, and man, what a sequel it is!  It’s everything I hoped it would be and more.  Schwab revisits the world of the EOs (Extra Ordinaries) and all of my favorite morally gray characters and even adds a couple of new ones with cool EO powers to the mix.  If you’re into villains at all, you’re going to love Marcella because The Villains series really lives up to its name with the addition of her character.  I don’t want to give away too much about Marcella and what she’s after so I’ll just say that I spent much of the book waiting with bated breath to see what was going to happen once she finally crossed paths with either Eli or Victor.  I just knew from the moment we were introduced to her that it was going to be an explosive encounter!

The story picks up five years after the events of Vicious and we learn that when Sydney used her power to resurrect Victor the last time, something went wrong with his powers and now he keeps dying, each time staying dead longer and longer.  He’s in a fight for his life at this point.  As if Victor’s desperate need to find a way to save himself doesn’t make for an intense enough story, there’s Eli at the other end of the spectrum.  Eli has actually been captured and imprisoned by an anti-EO group and used as little more than a science experiment for years. The predicaments they find themselves in are clearly not what they had in mind when they first started trying to secure EO powers for themselves years ago.

Eli is perhaps the most surprising element of Vengeful for me.  He is, of course, still driven by his belief that he is good and every other EO, especially Victor, is evil and needs to be destroyed, but at the same time, we are given insight into Eli’s past (growing up with an abusive father, etc.) that brings such a level of humanity to him that I honestly felt tremendous sympathy for Eli. Aside from my unexpected sympathy for Eli, what I loved most about Vengeful, as with Vicious, are the scenes with Victor and his found family.  Those domestic scenes between Victor, Mitch, Sydney, and Sydney’s dog, Dol, just gave me such warm fuzzies and perfectly offset all of the danger and violence that infuses every other scene in the series.

I did struggle a bit with Schwab’s use of multiple timelines in Vengeful, mainly because there were so many of them to keep track of.  Thankfully though, I got used to them fairly quickly and settled in for the ride.

My love for V.E. Schwab’s writing continues to grow with each book that I read and Vengeful is no exception to that.  I love the intricate worlds that she builds, the flawed morally ambiguous characters that she makes me fall for, and the deliciously dark and dangerous storylines that she crafts.  4 STARS

five-stars

About Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor is the author of the National Book Award Finalist Lips Touch: Three Times, as well as the novels Blackbringer and Silksinger. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, and their daughter.

About V.E. Schwab

ve schwab

Victoria “V.E.” Schwab is the #1 NYT, USA, and Indie bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Vicious, the Shades of Magic series, and This Savage Song. Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured by EW and The New York Times, been translated into more than a dozen languages, and been optioned for TV and Film. The Independent calls her the “natural successor to Diana Wynne Jones” and touts her “enviable, almost Gaimanesque ability to switch between styles, genres, and tones.”

She is represented by Holly Root at Root Literary and Jon Cassir at CAA.

All appearance and publicity inquiries should be directed to her PR rep, Kristin Dwyer, at: kdwyer@leoprny.com

MIni Reviews: SEA WITCH & GOOD LUCK WITH THAT

MIni Reviews:  SEA WITCH & GOOD LUCK WITH THATSea Witch by Sarah Henning
three-half-stars
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on July 31, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction, Retelling
Pages: 368
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Everyone knows what happens in the end. A mermaid, a prince, a true love’s kiss. But before that young siren’s tale, there were three friends. One feared, one royal, and one already dead.

Ever since her best friend, Anna, drowned, Evie has been an outcast in her small fishing town. A freak. A curse. A witch.

A girl with an uncanny resemblance to Anna appears offshore and, though the girl denies it, Evie is convinced that her best friend actually survived. That her own magic wasn’t so powerless after all. And, as the two girls catch the eyes—and hearts—of two charming princes, Evie believes that she might finally have a chance at her own happily ever after.

But her new friend has secrets of her own. She can’t stay in Havnestad, or on two legs, unless Evie finds a way to help her. Now Evie will do anything to save her friend’s humanity, along with her prince’s heart—harnessing the power of her magic, her ocean, and her love until she discovers, too late, the truth of her bargain.

Review:

What always impresses me about fairytale retellings is how authors are able to take a beloved story that we all know so well and somehow manage to put their own completely unique spin on it to turn it into something fresh and new.  Sarah Henning’s Sea Witch is the third Little Mermaid retelling I’ve read recently and I found myself wondering if Henning could really bring anything to the table that I hadn’t already read.  Well, spoiler alert, she can and does!  With Sea Witch, Henning offers up a compelling origin story for resident villain, Ursula the Sea Witch.  It’s filled with memorable characters, a vivid and atmosphere setting, and a storyline peppered with mystery, secrets, and lies.

I was sympathetic to Evie, the main character, because of a tragedy that takes the life of her best friend, Anna.  Evie and Anna were out swimming and while they were racing each other, Anna drowns.  Evie survives but is shunned as an outcast by everyone in the small fishing town she lives in.  They see her as a witch or curse.  The exception to that is Prince Nik, who although he is royalty, has never cared what anyone thinks of him or Evie.  She is one of his best friends and like a sister to him.  Nik is a fantastic character for a lot of reasons.  He’s handsome and kind, hilarious and somewhat of a dork at times, and really just downright loveable.  Honestly, he was my favorite character.

I was also drawn in by both the worldbuilding and the storyline itself, which is a fairytale wrapped in a mystery.  The story is set in Havnestad, a small fishing town, and the author paints such a vivid picture that I could practically hear the waves crashing and the wind whipping through the ships’ sails, and taste and smell the salt in the air.  I also liked that the story had a dark, almost moody feel to it at times. It was so atmospheric that it was very easy to slip into the mystery and follow it until it leads to the “birth” of the Sea Witch.

Sea Witch is pretty well-paced overall, although I’ll admit it did lag a little for me during a festival early on in the story.  However, once the mysterious Annemette, who bears an almost eerie resemblance to the drowned Anna, appears on the scene and unloads her secrets on Evie, the mystery intensifies and the pace quickens.  The mystery of who Annemette really is, why she has come to Havnestad, and what she wants from Evie kept me eagerly turning the pages.  Even with my slight issue with the pacing and my liking a secondary character a little more than the main character, I still quite enjoyed Sea Witch and think fans of The Little Mermaid will love it.  3.5 STARS

 

MIni Reviews:  SEA WITCH & GOOD LUCK WITH THATGood Luck with That by Kristan Higgins
four-stars
Published by Berkley Books on August 7, 2018
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
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Emerson, Georgia, and Marley have been best friends ever since they met at a weight-loss camp as teens. When Emerson tragically passes away, she leaves one final wish for her best friends: to conquer the fears they still carry as adults.

For each of them, that means something different. For Marley, it's coming to terms with the survivor's guilt she's carried around since her twin sister's death, which has left her blind to the real chance for romance in her life. For Georgia, it's about learning to stop trying to live up to her mother's and brother's ridiculous standards, and learning to accept the love her ex-husband has tried to give her.

But as Marley and Georgia grow stronger, the real meaning of Emerson's dying wish becomes truly clear: more than anything, she wanted her friends to love themselves.

Review:

Wow, talk about a book that packs an emotional punch!  Good Luck with That was my first time reading anything by Kristan Higgins and I was not at all prepared for how hard hitting this story was going to be.  This is a story that tackles a tough but all too relevant issue for many of us – that of body image and how so many people have a tendency to define their sense of self-worth based on how they look and, especially in this story, how much they weigh.

The story follows three friends, Emerson, Georgia, and Marley, who have been friends since they were teens and met at a weight loss camp.  When Emerson tragically passes away, her dying wish is for her two best friends to complete the tasks on a list they made as teenagers, a list of things they would do when they finally became skinny.  While some of the items on the list now seem silly to Georgia and Marley, they make it their mission to fulfill Emerson’s last wish.  This becomes an emotional and sometimes painful journey for both women as they not only strive to face their lifelong fears and complete the tasks on this list but are also forced to reflect on choices that they’ve made throughout their lives.  Their perspectives are rounded out as we are also given Emerson’s thoughts as her life and health become increasingly fragile, as seen through the pages of the journal she kept.  It was hard to read at times but I thought Higgins did an incredible job of making it all sound so real and so honest.

While Good Luck with That can be an emotionally draining read at times, ultimately I think it just has such an important message and it’s one that I hope will stick with me long after having finished this book. Emerson wants Georgia and Marley to come away from that list knowing that life is too short and it’s so important to just love yourself as you are.  You can’t sit around and not live your life to the fullest just because you aren’t whatever your eyes or society’s eyes thinks is the ideal body shape and size.

This may not be a read for everyone as it does deal with such a tough topic, but I think Higgins handles it with great sensitivity and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is in search of a powerful read about body image and self-worth.  4 STARS.

three-half-stars

About Kristan Higgins

Kristan Higgins is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of more than a dozen novels. Her books have been honored with dozens of awards and accolades, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, the New York Journal of Books and Romantic Times. She is a two-time winner of the RITA award from Romance Writers of America and a five-time nominee for the Kirkus Prize for best work of fiction. She is happily married to a heroic firefighter and the mother of two fine children.

About Sarah Henning

Sarah Henning is a recovering journalist who has worked for the Palm Beach Post, Kansas City Star and Associated Press, among others. While in South Florida, Sarah lived and worked through five hurricanes, which gave her an extreme respect for the ocean. When not writing, she runs ultramarathons, hits the playground with her two kids and hangs out with her husband Justin, who doubles as her long-suffering IT department. Sarah lives in Lawrence, Kansas, which, despite being extremely far from the beach, happens to be pretty cool.

ARC Mini Reviews for THE SPY WITH THE RED BALLOON & UNSTOPPABLE MOSES

ARC Mini Reviews for THE SPY WITH THE RED BALLOON & UNSTOPPABLE MOSESThe Spy with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
Also by this author: The Girl with the Red Balloon
four-half-stars
Published by Albert Whitman Company on October 2, 2018
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Siblings Ilse and Wolf hide a deep secret in their blood: with it, they can work magic. And the government just found out.Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty—and find a way to help her brother—before their time runs out?

Review:

The Spy with the Red Balloon is the second installment in Katherine Locke’s imaginative series, The Balloonmakers.  I fell in love with the first book in the series and so couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this one.  The Spy with the Red Balloon employs the same magical system that we saw in The Girl with the Red Balloon, a unique combination of blood magic combined with a scientific element that allows the wielder to write equations on balloons which can then be used as a mode of transportation for people, objects, etc.  This time, however, we are taken to an earlier period in time, back to World War II, where Allies who are aware of the existence of this magic want to use it as a way to stop Hitler.

This series fascinates me with the unique way it infuses important historical events with magical elements, but what I loved most about this installment were the two main characters, Jewish siblings Ilse and Wolf.  Both siblings possess the ability to do blood magic but have been trying to keep it a secret.  When the U.S. government finds out, Ilse and Wolf are forced into service.  Ilse, a 16 year old with a brilliant scientific mind, was my favorite character.  She’s smart, feisty, and has an unbreakable bond with her big brother.  I loved their sibling relationship so much – the way they constantly worried about each other and had each other’s backs no matter what, even as they are sent to work in separate countries.  Ilse is assigned to a top secret lab in Tennessee.  Her job?  To come up with a way to use her magic to transport an atom bomb.  The challenge?  The bomb hasn’t even been developed yet, so she’s working blindly.  Wolf is a great character too.  While he’s equally as smart as Ilse, his smarts are of a more practical sort.  He, therefore, is trained as a spy and sent to Germany to try to sabotage Hitler’s efforts to develop an atom bomb of his own.  I thought the author did an incredible job of creating such a tremendous sense of urgency around the building and transporting of the atom bomb.  It’s basically a race against the clock, with Ilse and Wolf, each playing key roles.

In addition to the intense situation surrounding the effort to stop Hitler, The Spy with the Red Balloon also tackles other important issues, such as the ethical dilemmas that both Ilse and Wolf face.  Neither of them wants to be involved in something that kills people, but at the same time, as Jewish teens, they are torn because they would definitely love to be directly involved in crushing Hitler and his Nazis.  Diversity is also well done in this book, with both Ilse and Wolf being queer, and with one of the most brilliant scientists on Ilse’s team, Stella, being African American.  The diversity Locke incorporates into her story also allows her to touch on the fact that during the time period she is covering homosexuality was a crime, and racial segregation was still in place.

If you’re looking for a riveting historical read, infused with unique magical elements, and of two Jewish queer teens who are determined to kick Hitler’s butt, I’d highly recommend The Spy with the Red Balloon.  4.5 STARS

 

ARC Mini Reviews for THE SPY WITH THE RED BALLOON & UNSTOPPABLE MOSESUnstoppable Moses by Tyler James Smith
three-half-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on September 25, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

After accidentally burning down a bowling alley with his cousin and best friend, Charlie, Moses has one week as a camp counselor to prove to the authorities—and to himself—that he isn't a worthless jerk who belongs in jail, when Charlie doesn't get that chance.

Review:

Tyler James Smith’s debut novel Unstoppable Moses is a powerful coming of age story that explores what happens when boys just being boys takes a tragic turn.  Seventeen year old Moses Hill and his cousin and best friend, Charlie, accidentally burn down a bowling alley.  It is a prank gone wrong, but things escalate when the police arrive and Charlie is killed.  In the aftermath of this tragedy, Moses is left trying to pick up the pieces of his life and figure out how to deal with the loss of his beloved cousin.  Moses and Charlie had been nearly inseparable so without Charlie, Moses doesn’t even know who he is anymore.  In the midst of dealing with his grief and the legal fallout from the deadly prank gone wrong, Moses is court-ordered to serve as a counselor at a children’s camp.

I thought the author did a wonderful job of portraying the raw emotions of grief, confusion, and even anger that Moses experiences in the aftermath of this tragedy.  He’s angry at himself, he’s angry at Charlie, and he’s really just all around lost.  Being sent to work at the children’s camp is a blessing in many ways because it actually gets him out of his own head a bit and also gives him a clean slate where he can interact with people who don’t know him as the kid who burned down a bowling alley and got his cousin killed.

The character who actually stole my heart in this book was not Moses, however, and this is why my rating is a little lower than it would normally be.  For me, the shining star of Unstoppable Moses was a secondary character, a young camper named Lump.  Lump, whose real name is Allison, has struggled to make friends at camp in the past and so Moses is assigned the task of taking her under his wing and to look out for her.  Lump, whose hero is Amelia Earhart, is easily one of the most endearing children I’ve ever read about.  She’s clever, brave, and just has the biggest heart.  When a fawn goes missing from the petting zoo, Lump makes it her mission in life to find the fawn and bring her home.  Even though she’s tiny, Lump is a character who is just larger than life and, at times, I honestly found myself more interested in Lump’s story than I did Moses’.  While both of their stories were compelling, Lump was just a little easier for me to relate to than Moses.

Even with that issue, I still found Unstoppable Moses to be a riveting read and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of contemporary fiction, especially if stories of how to cope with grief and loss are of interest.  3.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Katherine Locke

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a small town outside Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, magic, and time travel. She secretly believes all stories are fairytales in disguise. Her YA debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 2017 from Albert Whitman & Comapny.

About Tyler James Smith

Tyler Smith was born and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan. A lot of typical kid-stuff happened, then he went to college at Western Michigan University, where he studied Creative Writing under and around people who were much smarter and more talented than he could ever hope to be. Funnier, too.

He tried to write a book about zombies when he was in college, then he wrote a bad NaNoWriMo book, then he tried to write another NaNo book but it fell apart around 20,000 words, then he started reading YA and fell in love with the genre which caused him to write a book at the speed of one chapter per week, and then he wrote his debut novel, Unstoppable Moses, which took three years to edit. While all of that was happening, he worked at various times as a mailman, as a freelance writer, as a deli punk, at a book store, as a bartender, and eventually as a SECA in Chicago Public Schools.

He only brings all of this up to emphasize that the process can be long and weird, but it’s also really, really fulfilling and beautiful in its own screaming way, and that even some random schlub from a Detroit suburb can get this far along.

He currently lives in Chicago with his partner and an old Australian Cattle Dog named Dioji.

Backlist Briefs: Mini Reviews for THE CHEERLEADERS & MY PLAIN JANE

Backlist Briefs: Mini Reviews for THE CHEERLEADERS & MY PLAIN JANEThe Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas
four-stars
Published by Delacorte Press on July 31, 2018
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 384
Source: Library
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

There are no more cheerleaders in the town of Sunnybrook.

First there was the car accident—two girls gone after hitting a tree on a rainy night. Not long after, the murders happened. Those two girls were killed by the man next door. The police shot him, so no one will ever know why he did it. Monica’s sister was the last cheerleader to die. After her suicide, Sunnybrook High disbanded the cheer squad. No one wanted to be reminded of the girls they lost.

That was five years ago. Now the faculty and students at Sunnybrook High want to remember the lost cheerleaders. But for Monica, it’s not that easy. She just wants to forget. Only, Monica’s world is starting to unravel. There are the letters in her stepdad’s desk, an unearthed, years-old cell phone, a strange new friend at school. . . . Whatever happened five years ago isn’t over. Some people in town know more than they’re saying. And somehow Monica is at the center of it all.

There are no more cheerleaders in Sunnybrook, but that doesn’t mean anyone else is safe.

Review:

Kara Thomas’ The Cheerleaders is a gripping mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  The story focuses on Monica Rayburn, who attends Sunnybrook High, where five members of the school’s cheerleading squad died five years ago.  Two of the girls were killed in a tragic car accident, and very soon after that, two more were murdered by a neighbor for reasons no one has ever determined.  The final tragedy was when Monica’s own sister died in an apparent suicide.  The school decided to disband the cheerleading squad because no one wanted to be reminded of the losses they had suffered.  When the administration decides five years later that they want to do a memorial service to remember the girls, it opens up old wounds for Monica, who has never come to grips with the idea that her sister could have possibly killed herself.

Monica’s step father was one of the police officers who worked the murder case, and Monica decides to sneak into his office and see if there’s still anything there that has to do with the Cheerleaders’ case.  What she finds makes her realize that things may not be as they seem when it comes to this case and she becomes determined to find out the truth of what happened to those murdered girls. Her sleuthing takes her on a wild and potentially dangerous ride and the author builds so much suspense into the narrative that I was literally on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next!  I thought her use of flashbacks was especially effective.  She shows us scenes from five years ago from the perspective of Monica’s sister.  Those scenes really fleshed out the story and added a lot of depth that we couldn’t have possibly gotten from Monica.  I was thoroughly engaged not just because like Monica, I wanted to know what really happened to these girls, but also because I was terrified that Monica was going to open up a can of worms that was going to put a target on her own back if the murderer really is still out there somewhere.

What really made The Cheerleaders an even more engaging story, however, was that it was so much more than just an entertaining mystery/thriller.  It also packs a raw and emotional punch as we watch Monica try to work through the loss of her sister.  There’s a part of her that really wants to find evidence that proves her sister did not take her own life because it kills Monica to think that she did.  If you’re looking for a riveting thriller that also packs an emotional wallop, I’d highly recommend The Cheerleaders. You won’t be disappointed! 4 STARS

 

Backlist Briefs: Mini Reviews for THE CHEERLEADERS & MY PLAIN JANEMy Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, Brodi Ashton
three-half-stars
Series: The Lady Janies #2
Published by HarperTeen on June 26, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 464
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

You may think you know the story. After a miserable childhood, penniless orphan Jane Eyre embarks on a new life as a governess at Thornfield Hall. There, she meets one dark, brooding Mr. Rochester. Despite their significant age gap (!) and his uneven temper (!!), they fall in love—and, Reader, she marries him. (!!!)

Or does she?

Prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportions, in which all is not as it seems, a certain gentleman is hiding more than skeletons in his closets, and one orphan Jane Eyre, aspiring author Charlotte Brontë, and supernatural investigator Alexander Blackwood are about to be drawn together on the most epic ghost hunt this side of Wuthering Heights.

Review:

After the success of their Monty Python-esque My Lady Jane, the Lady Janies are back at it again, this time bringing their readers a highly entertaining retelling of the classic novel Jane Eyre.  For those familiar with the classic tale, Jane is still an orphan who is preparing to secure a job as a governess. The primary difference is that in the Lady Janies’ version of the tale, Jane also has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts.  Her talents are recognized by famed supernatural investigator Alexander Blackwood who becomes determined to recruit her to join his ghost hunting society.  I don’t want to give anything else away, but as the book’s synopsis states, “prepare for an adventure of Gothic proportion!”

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels, so I of course adored Jane in this book too.  She’s smart and feisty, and every bit as likable as her classic counterpart.  I also loved that the Lady Janies managed to effectively incorporate Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre, into their story as well. In many ways, young Charlotte was actually my favorite character.  I thought it was brilliant how they wrote her in as an aspiring young author who is struggling to get people to take her seriously.  Ah, the life of a woman in Victorian society.  Those who follow my blog know I’m always a big fan of the underdogs, and orphan, penniless Jane and unappreciated author Charlotte were the underdogs I was cheering on in My Plain Jane.

While I really enjoyed My Plain Jane overall, especially its Gothic atmosphere with a Ghostbusters twist, my one complaint is that it didn’t quite have that same feeling of whimsy that My Lady Jane had.  I laughed out loud so many times when I read that book, but with this one, while I did find myself laughing a few times, there were several other times where the humor felt a little forced and fell flat for me.  I definitely still plan to continue the series, especially since the next book focuses on Calamity Jane, but I’ll probably lower my expectations a bit based on my experience with this book. 3.5 STARS

four-stars

About Brodi Ashton

From Brodi Ashton Writer (In Ms. Ashton’s own words):

Because of two parents who were Greek myth geeks, I grew up thinking the latest fashion trends were inspired by Aphrodite, and a good conversational opener was, “So, which mythological character do you most resemble?” Despite these social shortcomings, I found a great husband who’s always my first reader. We live in Utah with our two young boys, who still have no idea why I’m at the computer all the time.

I received a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Utah and a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

 

About Cynthia Hand

Cynthia Hand is the New York Times bestselling author of the Unearthly series with HarperTeen: UNEARTHLY, HALLOWED, RADIANT (an enovella) and BOUNDLESS, and the NYT bestselling contemporary, THE LAST TIME WE SAY GOODBYE. She lives with her family in Idaho, where she teaches courses in creative writing at Boise State University. Her latest book, MY LADY JANE, (cowritten with Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows) was released on June 7, 2016.

About Jodi Meadows

Jodi Meadows wants to be a ferret when she grows up and she has no self-control when it comes to yarn, ink, or outer space. Still, she manages to write books. She is the author of the INCARNATE Trilogy, the ORPHAN QUEEN Duology, and the FALLEN ISLES Trilogy (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen), and a coauthor of MY LADY JANE (HarperTeen). Visit her at www.jodimeadows.com.

About Kara Thomas

Kara Thomas is a true crime addict and the author of THE DARKEST CORNERS, LITTLE MONSTERS, and THE CHEERLEADERS, all published by Delacorte Press. You can find her on Twitter (@karatwrites), Instagram (@kara__thomas), or at http://www.kara-thomas.com.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for LETTERS TO THE LOST and LOVE & GELATO

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for LETTERS TO THE LOST and  LOVE & GELATOLetters to the Lost (Letters to the Lost, #1) by Brigid Kemmerer
Also by this author: More Than We Can Tell
five-stars
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 4, 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Purchased
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Juliet Young always writes letters to her mother, a world-traveling photojournalist. Even after her mother's death, she leaves letters at her grave. It's the only way Juliet can cope.

Declan Murphy isn't the sort of guy you want to cross. In the midst of his court-ordered community service at the local cemetery, he's trying to escape the demons of his past.

When Declan reads a haunting letter left beside a grave, he can't resist writing back. Soon, he's opening up to a perfect stranger, and their connection is immediate. But neither Declan nor Juliet knows that they're not actually strangers. When life at school interferes with their secret life of letters, sparks will fly as Juliet and Declan discover truths that might tear them apart.

Review:

Brigid Kemmerer’s Letters to the Lost is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.  What really hooked me from the beginning is its exploration of loss and the grieving process through the use of anonymous letters.  Juliet and Declan have both lost loved ones and are struggling to move through their grief and both feel alone because no one seems to understand what they’re going through.  Juliet tries to work through her grief by writing letters to her dead mom and leaving them in the cemetery where Declan works.  When Declan sees and reads one of the letters, he relates to the sense of loss in the letter so much that he replies to it.  Declan and Juliet begin writing to each other anonymously and immediately form a deeper connection than either of them could have imagined because they are able to say things to each other that they’ve not been able to say to anyone else.  I thought this aspect of the story was just so beautifully done.  The letters themselves were so raw and emotional, like reading someone’s diary and peering down deep into their souls, and they had me in tears on more than one occasion while reading.

In addition to the powerful exploration of grief, Letters to the Lost was also a wonderfully engaging read for me because of all the relationships.  And not just Declan and Juliet’s either.  They both have two of the most amazing best friends a person could ask for.  I had already met Declan’s best friend, Rev, and knew how precious he was because I read Kemmerer’s More Than We Can Tell first and fell in love with him there, but Juliet’s best friend Rowan is equally amazing.  Plus, there are also several adults (parents, teachers, and work supervisors) trying to be as supportive and non-judgmental as possible, which was just lovely to see, especially since a secondary theme of the book is about how wrong and unfair it is to judge people without ever bothering to get to know them first.

After reading and falling in love with both Letters to the Lost and More Than We Can Tell, Brigid Kemmerer has become an auto-buy author for me.  Her writing is exquisite, and her stories are filled with such incredibly realistic characters that you won’t be able to stop yourself from becoming fully invested in their lives.  If you’re looking for a read that will tug at your heart strings, I would highly recommend something from Kemmerer. 5 STARS

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for LETTERS TO THE LOST and  LOVE & GELATOLove & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
four-stars
Published by Simon Pulse on May 3, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 389
Source: Purchased
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

“I made the wrong choice.”

Lina is spending the summer in Tuscany, but she isn’t in the mood for Italy’s famous sunshine and fairy-tale landscape. She’s only there because it was her mother’s dying wish that she get to know her father. But what kind of father isn’t around for sixteen years? All Lina wants to do is get back home.

But then she is given a journal that her mom had kept when she lived in Italy. Suddenly Lina’s uncovering a magical world of secret romances, art, and hidden bakeries. A world that inspires Lina, along with the ever-so-charming Ren, to follow in her mother’s footsteps and unearth a secret that has been kept for far too long. It’s a secret that will change everything she knew about her mother, her father—and even herself.

People come to Italy for love and gelato, someone tells her, but sometimes they discover much more.

Review:

Jenna Evans Welch’s  Love & Gelato follows American teen Lina, who is sent to live in Florence, Italy after her mother passes away.  Lina’s mother had cancer and knew she was dying, so she made arrangements for Lina to go to Italy and get to know her father, whom she has never even met.  Although Lina doesn’t want to leave her friends and move to Italy, she feels like she has to respect her mother’s dying wish and at least visit.  Upon her arrival, she is handed an old journal that belonged to her mother that dates back to her own experiences living in Florence as a student.  It’s this old journal that takes Lina on a journey that she never expected to – one that leads her to discover never-before-known truths about both herself and her parents.

Although she was a bit stubborn and irritable at first, I found Lina to be a very likeable and relatable character overall.  It was easy to understand her attitude, given that she was being separated from everything she has ever known and sent off to live with strangers.  At the same time, I liked that once she was in Florence, she became determined to make the best of the situation.  I especially enjoyed reading along with her as she pored over her mother’s journal.  Her mother adored Florence and so it was fun to watch Lina slowly but surely discover a similar love for the city.  It was also fascinating to follow along as Lina learned more and more details about her mother’s life that had previously eluded her.  In many ways, it felt like we were both just getting to know Lina’s mother for the first time.

While Lina’s journey is mostly about discovering truths about her family, she also meets some wonderful friends while in Italy.  Ren, in particular, was just such a charming young man and I liked the friendship that developed between him and Lina, with its promise of becoming something more if Lina were to decide to stay in Florence.

My absolute favorite part of Love & Gelato though was that the author did such a magnificent job of capturing the essence of Florence and why it’s such an easy city to fall in love with.  I’ve visited Florence once and, after reading this book, I’m dying to go back!  4 STARS

 

five-stars

About Brigid Kemmerer

BRIGID KEMMERER is the author of LETTERS TO THE LOST (Bloomsbury; April 4, 2017), a dark, contemporary Young Adult romance; THICKER THAN WATER (Kensington, December 29, 2015), a New Adult paranormal mystery with elements of romance; and the YALSA-nominated Elemental series of five Young Adult novels and three e-novellas which Kirkus Reviews calls “refreshingly human paranormal romance” and School Library Journal describes as “a new take on the supernatural genre.” She lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and four sons.

About Jenna Evans Welch

Jenna Evans Welch was the kind of insatiable child reader who had no choice but to grow up to become a writer. She is the New York Times Bestselling author of LOVE & GELATO and the upcoming LOVE & LUCK. When she isn’t writing girl abroad stories, Jenna can be found chasing her children or making elaborate messes in the kitchen. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and two young children.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SAVE THE DATE & NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SAVE THE DATE & NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FORSave the Date by Morgan Matson
four-half-stars
Published by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers on June 5, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 417
Source: Library
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Charlie Grant’s older sister is getting married this weekend at their family home, and Charlie can’t wait—for the first time in years, all four of her older siblings will be under one roof. Charlie is desperate for one last perfect weekend, before the house is sold and everything changes. The house will be filled with jokes and games and laughs again. Making decisions about things like what college to attend and reuniting with longstanding crush Jesse Foster—all that can wait. She wants to focus on making the weekend perfect.

The only problem? The weekend is shaping up to be an absolute disaster.

There’s the unexpected dog with a penchant for howling, house alarm that won’t stop going off, and a papergirl with a grudge.

There are the relatives who aren’t speaking, the (awful) girl her favorite brother brought home unannounced, and a missing tuxedo.

Not to mention the neighbor who seems to be bent on sabotage and a storm that is bent on drenching everything. The justice of the peace is missing. The band will only play covers. The guests are all crazy. And the wedding planner’s nephew is unexpectedly, distractingly…cute.

Over the course of three ridiculously chaotic days, Charlie will learn more than she ever expected about the family she thought she knew by heart. And she’ll realize that sometimes, trying to keep everything like it was in the past means missing out on the future.

Review:

Prior to reading Save the Date, I had never read a novel from Morgan Matson before.  I had always heard great things about her books though so when I was recently looking for a fun summer read and saw this book’s hilarious cover, I knew this was the book I had been looking for.  Everything about that cover just screams fun!  And let me tell you, this book seriously delivered too.  I devoured it in just over a day and was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Save the Date follows the Grant family and is set over the course of the three days leading up to daughter Linnie’s wedding.  And wow, what a three days it is!  Seriously, everything that can possibly go wrong with the wedding preparations goes wrong and then some.  The wedding hijinks had me literally laughing out loud and oh so grateful that my own wedding went so much more smoothly than poor Linnie’s.  In addition to the wedding chaos and its ensuing hilarity, however, Save the Date has a heartwarming focus on family that I adored even more than the humor.  The Grant family is what I would call perfectly imperfect and Matson does a beautiful job making each family member so loveable, flaws and all.  I was able to relate to each of them easily, especially Charlie, the youngest Grant.  It is from Charlie’s perspective that we watch the story unfold and it’s such an interesting perspective because she has always seen her family as picture perfect and practically worshipped the ground they all walked on.  Now that she’s older and watching her family reunite for Linnie’s wedding, she has to come to the somewhat painful realization that no one is perfect, not even the family that she idolizes.  It really makes her rethink her own identity and choices in life, and I loved that the novel had that coming of age theme included to really add some depth to the overall narrative.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced read that will make you laugh out loud but also shed a tear or two at a flawed but loving family coming together as a team when it counts, I’d highly recommend Morgan Matson’s Save the Date.  As I said, this is my first Morgan Matson read, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last!  4.5 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SAVE THE DATE & NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FORNot the Girls You're Looking For by Aminah Mae Safi
three-half-stars
Published by Feiwel & Friends on June 19, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Library
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Lulu Saad doesn't need your advice, thank you very much. She's got her three best friends and nothing can stop her from conquering the known world. Sure, for half a minute she thought she’d nearly drowned a cute guy at a party, but he was totally faking it. And fine, yes, she caused a scene during Ramadan. It's all under control. Ish.

Except maybe this time she’s done a little more damage than she realizes. And if Lulu can't find her way out of this mess soon, she'll have to do more than repair friendships, family alliances, and wet clothing. She'll have to go looking for herself.

Review:

I’m a complete sucker for books that center around female friendships, so as soon as I heard that Aminah Mae Safi’s Not the Girls You’re Looking For features Lulu Saad and her best girl friends, I knew I had to read it.  While I did love getting to know Lulu and her friends and watching them go through their ups and downs, I have to say that overall, this was just a good read for me, not a great one.

I thought the author did a brilliant job of accurately portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to friendship dynamics.  I also liked that even though these girls clearly loved each other and would have each other’s backs no matter what, it’s definitely not all sunshine and roses for them.  Some of their fights really took me back to my own high school days and made me think back to my core group of friends back then and all of the ups and downs that we managed to make it through.  Safi perfectly captures all of those messy high school relationships that we’ve all experienced and it made the book so relatable (almost too relatable at times, lol).

Along similar lines, I was also a huge fan of the portrayal of Lulu’s family, both immediate and extended.  Lulu’s family on her father’s side is Muslim and I loved seeing that side of the family interact, both with each other and with Lulu’s mother, who is not Muslim.  The awkwardness is palpable as Lulu is caught in between and then gets herself into hot water when she disrespects one of her relatives.  I have a thing for messy family dynamics so Lulu’s family was a highlight for me.

So, what didn’t I like?  There were a few times in this book where it just felt like I was following Lulu around waiting and hoping for something exciting to happen.  Thankfully, exciting things eventually did start to happen, but for a few chapters there, my attention was starting to wander.  I was also a little disappointed because I found what I think was supposed to be a huge plot twist regarding Emma way too predictable.  I still loved the plot twist and her friends’ reactions to it; I just wish I hadn’t guessed it so early on.  All of that said, however, I still think this is a wonderful read, especially if you’re into realistic and sometimes messy portrayals of families and female friendships.  3.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Aminah Mae Safi

Aminah Mae Safi is a Muslim-American writer who explores art, fiction, feminism, and film. She loves Sofia Coppola movies, Bollywood endings, and the Fast and Furious franchise. She’s the winner of the We Need Diverse Books short story contest. Originally raised in Texas, she now lives in Los Angeles, California, with her partner, a cat bent on world domination, and another cat who’s just here for the snacks. NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR is her first novel.

About Morgan Matson

Morgan Matson was born in New York City and grew up there and in Greenwich, Connecticut. She attended Occidental College as a theater major, but halfway through, switched her focus to writing and never looked back. She received an MFA in Writing for Children from the New School, and then a second MFA in Screenwriting from USC.

She is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, all published by Simon & Schuster.

She currently lives in Los Angeles with her rescue terrier, Murphy, in a house with blue floors that’s overflowing with books.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKS

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch
four-stars
Published by Atria Books on July 15, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 337
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

Review:

Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove follows the story of, you guessed it, a man by the name of Ove.  Ove is the quintessential grumpy old man in pretty much every way.  I actually couldn’t stand him for the first few chapters of the book.  He’s set in his ways, incredibly opinionated, and can be downright mean and rude at times.  What we also learn about him early on, however, is there’s a lot more going on with Ove than just your average grumpiness.  Ove is suffering from depression and having thoughts of suicide because his beloved wife has passed away and he’s just completely lost without her.  I felt much more sympathetic to Ove after learning this news and found myself wanting to know more about him.

My favorite part of the story therefore is how the author presents us with such a complete portrait of Ove. In addition to chapters that take us through Ove’s present circumstances, the author also includes chapters that feature life-shaping events from Ove’s past.  The more I learned about Ove, both past and present, the more lovable I found him.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on how Ove met his wife.  This grumpy old man was actually downright adorable as he awkwardly pursued the girl of his dreams.

The secondary characters also added a lot of depth to the story.  The author does a wonderful job fleshing them out and making them feel like people you might actually run into in your own neighborhood. I was an especially big fan of Ove’s new neighbors.  They’re loud, kind of obnoxious, and basically introduce themselves to Ove by nearly mowing his house over with their moving trailer.  This family, especially the wife and her two daughters, are determined to make Ove an extended part of their family, whether he likes it or not, and they are always inserting themselves into his days, shaking up his entire routine.  They bring a lot of comedy and a lot of heart to the story, and they also bring their own brand of chaos to Ove’s way too orderly existence and I loved every minute of it!

If you want an utterly charming read that focuses on family, unexpected friendships, and the evolution of a grumpy old man into a not-quite-so-grumpy old man, then definitely give A Man Called Ove a try.  The humor and sarcasm is sure to make you laugh, and the overriding heartfelt message of compassion will bring a tear to your eyes.  4 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 6, 2016
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Meet thirtysomething dad, Alex

He loves his wife Jody, but has forgotten how to show it. He loves his son Sam, but doesn't understand him. Something has to change. And he needs to start with himself.

Meet eight-year-old Sam. Beautiful, surprising, autistic. To him the world is a puzzle he can't solve on his own.

When Sam starts to play Minecraft, it opens up a place where Alex and Sam begin to rediscover both themselves and each other . . . When life starts to tear one family apart, can they put themselves back together, one piece at a time?

A Boy Made of Blocks is a beautiful, funny and heartwarming story of family and love inspired by the author's own experiences with his son.

Review:

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I first started reading A Boy Made of Blocks, but what I got was a beautiful, heartfelt story of Alex Rowe, a man who has somehow taken a wrong turn in life and lost his connection to both his wife and their 8-year old autistic son, Sam.  The novel follows Alex’s journey as he is determined to figure out where he went wrong and how he can turn things around so that he can get his family and his life back.

I have to admit that it did take me a while to warm up to Alex.  I couldn’t understand how he couldn’t see what he was doing wrong, that he was either treating everything to do with Sam as a chore or even worse, was ignoring it all together, saying that he was busy at work, and leaving the brunt of raising Sam on his wife.  I kind of wanted to throttle him and tell him to grow up and stop being so selfish.  The more I got to know Alex, however, the more I realized how much he truly did love his son and that he just needed to find a way to connect with him on a real level so that everything else would sort its way out.  And even though I was initially annoyed at Alex for having gotten himself into such a self-inflicted mess with his family in the first place, I grew to admire his effort and determination to right his wrong.  No matter how many missteps and wrong moves he makes, he never gives up on trying to reconnect with Sam.

I thought the author did an especially beautiful job of portraying the vulnerability of a child who has autism, the strain that trying to raise such a child can put on a marriage, and the overall determination of parents to do whatever it takes to make sure their child feels safe and secure and has every opportunity to live a happy and successful life.  Sam was also absolutely precious and I was moved to tears watching his own emotional growth as he and his Dad begin to reconnect in a meaningful way.

A Boy Made of Blocks was an emotional and moving read for me.  I think my favorite quote from the book best sums it up:  “Life is an adventure, not a walk.  That’s why it’s difficult.”  Alex and Sam’s adventure is one you won’t want to miss.  4 STARS

FTC Disclosure: I received A Boy Made of Blocks for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

four-stars

About Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove (soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, Beartown, Us Against You, as well as two novellas, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime. His books are published in more than forty countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and two children.

About Keith Stuart

Keith Stuart is an author and journalist. His heartwarming debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller, and was inspired by Keith’s real-life relationship with his autistic son. Keith has written for publications including Empire, Red and Esquire, and is the former games editor of the Guardian. He lives with his wife and two sons in Frome, Somerset.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for LEAH ON THE OFFBEAT and I HAVE LOST MY WAY

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for LEAH ON THE OFFBEAT and I HAVE LOST MY WAYLeah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
Also by this author: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
four-half-stars
Series: Creekwood #2
Published by HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray on April 24, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 339
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Leah Burke—girl-band drummer, master of deadpan, and Simon Spier’s best friend from the award-winning Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda—takes center stage in this novel of first love and senior-year angst.

When it comes to drumming, Leah Burke is usually on beat—but real life isn’t always so rhythmic. An anomaly in her friend group, she’s the only child of a young, single mom, and her life is decidedly less privileged. She loves to draw but is too self-conscious to show it. And even though her mom knows she’s bisexual, she hasn’t mustered the courage to tell her friends—not even her openly gay BFF, Simon.

So Leah really doesn’t know what to do when her rock-solid friend group starts to fracture in unexpected ways. With prom and college on the horizon, tensions are running high. It’s hard for Leah to strike the right note while the people she loves are fighting—especially when she realizes she might love one of them more than she ever intended.

Review:

Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is one of my favorite reads from the past few years.  Simon and his fabulous group of friends just made me smile the entire time I read that book so when it was announced that Albertalli was doing a follow up book called Leah on the Offbeat about Simon’s best friend, Leah, I couldn’t pass up the chance to read it.  I don’t even know where to start aside from to say that I absolutely adored everything about Leah on the Offbeat, especially the main character herself.  How do I love Leah Burke?  Let me count the ways!  I love her snark, her sarcasm, her badass drummer girl persona, that she’ll let an F bomb drop without batting an eye, and most of all, I love that she is so much more than all of the things I just listed.  She is a teenage ball of angst just like most of the rest of us were when we were in high school.

It was just so wonderful to visit Creekside High again and see Simon and the gang as they are going through their senior year and getting ready for college.  I know it’s been ages since I was a senior but Albertalli so vividly portrayed all of the quintessential senior activities – like senior prom and applying to colleges and stressing while you waited to here if you got into your first choice, and of course constantly thinking about how this is the last time you’re going to hang out with your best friends before everything changes, etc. – that I felt like I was right back in high school myself. Her dialogue is fantastically spot-on, and I especially loved how many Harry Potter references she had sprinkled throughout the book.

Albertalli also does a fantastic job of realistically portraying all of the relationship turmoil that inevitably happens in high school and the impact it can have on even the most solid of friend groups.  I think many people will find Leah’s predicament relatable as she feels stuck in the middle watching couples in her friend group break up and not knowing what to do about it.  The angst that she experiences as she realizes she is attracted to one of them is also very relatable, not to mention the added stress that she is bisexual but has yet to come out to any of her friends, even though at least two of them are openly gay themselves.  Leah’s life is just a big ball of awkwardness beneath that cool drummer girl persona.

One of my favorite qualities about Albertalli’s books is that on the surface, they feel like light, fluffy, feel good stories, but at the same time, they’re also filled with meaningful messages about family, friendships, and love.  This is the third book by Albertalli I’ve read and I look forward to reading many more from her. 4.5 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for LEAH ON THE OFFBEAT and I HAVE LOST MY WAYI Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman
four-half-stars
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers on March 27, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 258
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

A powerful story of empathy and friendship from the #1 New York Times Bestselling author of If I Stay.

Around the time that Freya loses her voice while recording her debut album, Harun is making plans to run away from everyone he has ever loved, and Nathaniel is arriving in New York City with a backpack, a desperate plan, and nothing left to lose. When a fateful accident draws these three strangers together, their secrets start to unravel as they begin to understand that the way out of their own loss might just lie in help­ing the others out of theirs.

An emotionally cathartic story of losing love, finding love, and discovering the person you are meant to be, I Have Lost My Way is best­selling author Gayle Forman at her finest.

Review:

Set in New York City, Gayle Forman’s I Have Lost My Way is a poignant story that follows three young people – Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel – each of whom has lost their way in life and needs help getting back on track.  Freya is an almost famous singer but has mysteriously and unexpectedly lost her singing voice right in the middle of recording her debut album and doesn’t know what will become of her or her career if it doesn’t come back.  Harun is a gay Muslim who is desperately trying to figure out how to come out to his parents.  He is sure his family will react badly, but he also knows if he doesn’t come out soon, he is in danger of losing James, the love of his life.  Nathaniel is a young man who has come to New York with nothing but a backpack.  All we know when we meet him is that he seems confused and disoriented upon his arrival to the city, keeps calling a phone number and listening to a message from his father, and that he also appears to be starving.  Nathaniel definitely appears to be lost, both physically and in other ways, but it doesn’t become clear until much later in the story just how lost he really is.  An accident of fate brings these three lost souls together and as they slowly bond with one another, they realize that perhaps helping each other is a way for them to find themselves again.

I Have Lost My Way is a relatively short book but it packs a huge emotional punch, particularly if, like me, you’re a fan of character-driven stories.  Forman presents her story from the perspectives of Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel so that we are able to dive deep into their minds and see firsthand just how lost and alone all three of them are feeling.  I also loved the way the book was structured in the sense that even though the story itself only spans the course of a single day, through the use of flashbacks throughout the novel, Forman is able to really flesh out each of these characters and give Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel each a rich history as we explore their complicated relationships with various family members and other loved ones and how exactly they found themselves in the emotional states that they’re in when we meet them.  Those flashbacks allowed me to quickly become very invested in the well beings of all three characters even though I only really met them for one day.

I Have Lost My Way was also a captivating read for me because it explored so many themes that we can all relate to.  It touches on love, loss, family, loneliness, the healing power of friendship, and acceptance.  If you’re looking for a beautifully written and moving read, I would highly recommend this book.  The only reason it’s not a 5 star read for me is that there is a romance involved between two of these characters and I think the story would have been even more powerful without that as it was a little distracting.  Still an incredible read though.  4.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who has had the privilege of conducting therapy with dozens of smart, weird, irresistible teenagers. She also served for seven years as co-leader of a support group for gender nonconforming children in Washington, DC. These days, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons, and writes very nerdy contemporary young adult fiction. Her debut novel, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, released from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins on April 7th, 2015.

About Gayle Forman

Award-winning author and journalist Gayle Forman has written several bestselling novels for young adults, including the Just One Series, I Was Here, Where She Went and the #1 New York Times bestseller If I Stay, which has been translated into more than 40 languages and in 2014 was adapted into a major motion picture.

Gayle published Leave Me, her first novel starring adults in 2016 and her latest novel, I Have Lost My Way, came out in March of 2018.

Gayle lives with her husband and daughters in Brooklyn.