Monday, February 29, 2016

Kissing in America

Kissing in America 
By Margo Rabb
Harper, 2015. 391 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Eva Roth loves romance novels, much to the chagrin of her mother who is a women's studies professor and staunch feminist. Eva considers herself a feminist too, but ever since her father’s death she finds comfort in the predictably happy endings of romance novels. Then one day Will walks into Eva’s tutoring session, and Eva finds herself in what seems to be a romance novel come to life. Forced apart by Will’s sudden move to the West coast, Eva is determined to see him again. So,  Eva and her best friend, Annie, set off on a cross country journey that will teach them about themselves and about the complexities of love.

My favorite aspect of this book was the author’s ability to weave together so many female characters at different stages in their relationships. There’s Eva who is experiencing her first love and her mother who is contemplating a second marriage, but there’s also the secondary cast of characters who Eva and Annie meet on their  journey – Eva's aunt who is afraid of relationships, the Roth's family friend who's having a baby, Eva's potential step grandmother who has been married for years, etc. I liked that Rabb brought all of these characters together to portray love in a more substantial way than I’ve seen before in YA novels. And of course, not all relationships are romantic; In the end, Eva learns just as much about her relationship with mother as she does about her relationship with Will. I thought that message was very moving, and that this was an overall great read.

CNC

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better

By Tracey Stewart
New York: Artisan, 2015. 199 pages. NonFiction

Former veterinary technician turned animal rescuer Tracey Stewart takes readers on a journey to better understand animals; those in our homes, yards, and farms. She discusses topics such as how unique animals are in what they enjoy and dislike, how to read animal body language, and shines light on how even creepy crawlies creatures and pesky garden bandits have a place in the grand scheme of things. The book provides some creative, animal friendly recipes, training tips, and crafts, beneficial for both animals and humans alike. I tried some of the recommended dog massage techniques on my pooches, they seemed to respond positively, with tongues hangout out and eyes rolled back in bliss. 

This is a book for animal lovers of all ages. Stewart’s writing style is simple and approachable, yet informative. She advocates kindness and compassion for all beings, without being overly preachy or harsh, though she is clearly opinionated about factory farming and professes the benefits of the “Adopt, don’t shop” philosophy (meaning adopt an animal from a shelter as opposed to other means). The most striking part of the book are the lovely, vintage style illustrations by Lisel Ashlock on nearly every page that beg to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Paired with the useful and practical information, this was a light and enjoyable read. 

RC

The Dress Shop of Dreams

The Dress Shop of Dreams
by Menna van Praag
Ballantine Books, 2014.  336 pgs.  Fiction

Cora Sparks lives a safe, emotionally detached life as a research scientist in Cambridge. Since her parents’ mysterious death years ago, Cora has avoided relationships with anyone but her grandmother, Etta, whose magical dress shop offers customers what they need most. When Etta’s magical meddling forces Cora to face her emotions, she has to process the loss of her parents and her feelings for Walt, the boy next door who has loved Cora all his life.

The Dress Shop of Dreams was a pleasant read. Fans of the magical realism of Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen might enjoy the story, although I didn’t find van Praag’s writing or characters quite as compelling or fleshed out as those authors’. In general, though, The Dress Shop of Dreams was a cute, romantic, escapist read with a surprising element of suspense.

SR

A Song for Ella Grey

A Song for Ella Grey
by David Almond
Delacorte Press, 2015. 268 pgs. Young Adult

Set in current day northern England, this is a retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It is the story of two modern teenagers living the lives of doomed lovers from the past as told by Claire, the best friend of the Eurydice character, Ella Grey.

This book should be read for the shear pleasure of words. I love the lush, musical language mixed with Northern England slang. The lyrical phrases make the emotions of the story so much more powerful. It perfectly captures the heady rush of reckless youth, the ache of first love, and the otherworldliness of the myth it’s based on.

AJ

Monday, February 22, 2016

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family
by Amy Ellis Nut
New York: Random House, 2015. 279 pp. Non-fiction

In 1997, Wayne and Kelly Maines, after several years of struggling to become parents, adopt twin boys from a distant young relative unable to care for them properly. As Wyatt and Jonas grow up, it became rapidly and clearly evident that the two children were very different people. Wyatt, as soon as he was able to speak, made it clear he felt himself to be a girl and became increasingly frustrated in the body assigned to him at birth. Thus began a difficult journey for a family to adapt to this new and surprising reality, struggling not only with their unfamiliarity with the very notion of being transgender but also with the difficulties in getting school administrators, teachers and others to recognize and accept transgender as a real issue and provide the necessary resources and assistance so that people like Nicole can thrive in their communities. The book alternates between Nicole's personal and legal battles and concise summaries of current scientific research explaining how gender and sexuality develop prenatally. This is a very interesting and thought provoking examination of one person's struggle to live according her true self as a transgender girl.

CHW

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Noble Masquerade

Cover image for A noble masquerade
A Noble Masquerade
By Kristi Ann Hunter
Bethany House, 2015, 365 pages, Romance

Lady Miranda Hawthorne has spent years writing letters to her brother’s best friend, the Duke of Marshington--a man she only knows through hearing her brother’s stories of his wild adventures. Although she never sends the letters, she uses them as a journal, recording her frustrations with the restrictions of Regency high society to the one person she thinks might understand. When Marlowe, her brother’s new valet, finds one of these letters and mails it, Miranda is mortified. But when Marshington answers back, new possibilities open up. Miranda is intrigued by the little she knows of the Duke of Marshington, and by the odd actions of Marlowe. Suddenly, society isn’t as boring as it once seemed.

I originally picked up this book because I liked the idea of getting to know someone through letters. I wish Hunter would have explored this a little more, since we see the first letters sent, but we don’t get to see any of the others. However, Hunter adds a few twists to the plot that changes this from a romance realized through letters to a story one full of mystery and intrigue. While I was a bit frustrated, along with Miranda, that the guys got to have most of the fun in the action scenes, this book was a fun, light read full of mystery and romance. Perfect reading for on a cold, snowy day. Readers who enjoy Julie Klassen and Sarah Ladd will enjoy Kristi Ann Hunter.

MB

Friday, February 19, 2016

Red Queen

Red Queen
by Victoria Aveyard
HarperTeen, 2015. 388 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

This is a great read for fans of The Hunger Games and Divergent, though I would classify this book as fantasy instead of Sci-Fi/Dystopia.

Mare Barrow lives in a world where one's lot in life is determined by the color of one's blood. Red blooded people, or Reds, are enslaved to the elite ruling class of Silvers whose blood gives them magical abilities to manipulate the elements of water, fire, air, and earth. But when Mare develops supernatural abilities unseen before, the Silver monarchy are worried this might spark a rebellion and attempt to cover up her powers by claiming she is the lost daughter of Silver nobility.

There are many dystopian themes covered such as the harsh realities of war, class struggles, and the main character being played as a pawn by both sides. However, with the fantasy elements, you will find enough new material to make it worth the read. Also, with the movie rights already acquired and the sequel just released, this is a series you’ll definitely want to follow.

AJ

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
by Christopher Dickey
New York: Crown Publishers, 2015. 388 pp. Non-fiction

Starting in 1852, when Robert Bunch takes up his assignment as British consul in Charleston, South Carolina, and ending ten years later with the American Civil War in its third  year, this is an account of one person's efforts to navigate treacherous diplomatic waters. As one of the more active and able of Britain's representative's in the United States, Bunch struggles to maintain relationships with leading Charlestonians even as he attempts to defend the rights of British subjects, particularly black British sailors who are often jailed to avoid encouraging discord among the slave population. As Bunch provides his political masters in Washington and London information about the political affairs, he provides a good deal of input and analysis regarding the brutal realities of slavery, emphasizing how this inhumane practice runs contrary to both morality and core British interests. As the war progresses he is regarded with suspicion by influential persons in the North and South, each accusing him of bias in favor of the other. I found this to be a very interesting and engaging look at the American Civil War. By looking at the conflict from the perspective of a single British official, the book sheds new light on a war about which much has been written. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in American history. For other similar books, I would suggest Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire or The Cause of all Nations by Don Doyle.

CHW

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
by Steve Silberman
Penguin Random House, 2015.  534 pgs.  Nonfiction

     In NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman has created an encyclopedic history of autism from its first designation by Hans Asperger to contemporary efforts to understand those on the autism spectrum as a normal part of a neurally diverse society. Silberman's account is filled with kindness (Dr. Asperger) and wrongheadedness (Dr. Leo Kanner - who blamed "refrigerator moms"), with helpful therapies and brutal ones, and with enlightening explanations for autistic needs and expressions like "stimming [e.g., rocking and hand-flapping], avoidance of touch, focus on one subject to the exclusion of all others, and extraordinary gifts in mathematics, memory, physics, music, etc.  The contributions of Temple Gradin, Oliver Sacks, and Dustin Hoffman portraying the "Rain Man," to a more general understanding of the nature of autism are discussed here. Silberman provides and evenhanded assessment of the wrong-headed, self-serving attempts by various homeopathic practitioners and Dr. Andrew Wakefield (sample size: 12, with "doctored" results) to blame autism on vaccinations, and demonstrates that the recent upsurge in autism cases was predicted and can be explained by the expansion of the autistic spectrum and by better diagnostic techniques. Perhaps most importantly, Silberman has obviously listened very carefully to autistic people themselves, and he speaks very eloquently for them here, extolling the "virtues of atypical minds," and powerfully acknowledging that "people with cognitive differences could make contributions to society that so-called normal people are incapable of making." A profoundly important book.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Revenge and the Wild

Revenge and the Wild
By Michelle Modesto
Balzer + Bray, 2016. 373 pages. Young Adult

Seventeen-year-old Westie's a young woman on a mission: When she was a child, her family was murdered by cannibals who also managed to cut Westie's right arm off at the elbow. Ten years later, Westie wants revenge from the people who stole her family from her. Having been raised by Nigel Butler--an inventor local to Rogue City, California, one who replaced her arm with a machine prosthetic--Westie is shocked when the investors who arrive in-town to evaluate Nigel's latest invention turn out to be the people who killed her family.


But with a rough history of her own and time running out, Westie has to find a way to prove what she knows to be true . . . before the cannibals find a way to finish what they started ten years before. 

I was lucky enough to get an ARC (Advanced Reader's Copy) of this book from my agent in October, and was absolutely blown away by Modesto's style. Not only is this one of the most creative books I've read in awhile, but Modesto blends the fantasy, steampunk, and Western genres almost seamlessly. I adore Westie, Modesto's tough and somewhat irascible heroine, a girl willing to do whatever it takes to see her family avenged. Though its still early yet, REVENGE AND THE WILD is already one of my favorite books of the year.

CA



Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers



Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers
By Nick Offerman
Penguin Publishing Group: 2015, 400 pages. Nonfiction

In his sophomore effort, writer, actor, and woodworker Nick Offerman (who stars as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation) explores the profiles of 21 Americans he finds personally inspiring, whom he’s labeled as having “gumption”. Offerman eases the reader into his list with some notable figures from American history, like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, retelling some familiar stories, embellished with his humorous quips. He then moves on to modern personal heros, the likes of artist Yoko Ono, writer Wendell Barry, musician Jeff Tweedy, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to name a few. Offerman had the unique opportunity of meeting many of the living ‘Americans with gumption’, and we as readers live vicariously through his giddy-ness and star struck reaction. 

It is not many a book that has me reaching for the dictionary as often as this one did. Offerman’s vocabulary is as broad as the professions and contributions of the people on his list. His intelligence and thoughtful contemplative nature shine through as he recounts his experiences and the ways in which those he details have influenced him personally. 

I listened to the audiobook version of this title, which I would highly recommend. It is read by Offerman himself and you can hear the sarcasm, wit, and reflection in his voice, as well as some giggling and chortling at times, which made the experience that much more enjoyable.

RC

Monday, February 1, 2016

Brave Enough

Brave Enough 
By Cheryl Strayed
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 135 pgs. Nonfiction

In 2012 Cheryl Strayed published Wild, a memoir of her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Now, Strayed has published a collection of quotes that includes excerpts from Wild as well as her other various essays, interviews, and speeches. Strayed adamantly states in her introduction that she is not trying to be the boss of anyone, but that she hopes to inspire readers -- and herself -- to be kind, grateful, bold, honest, forgiving, generous, and brave enough.

This small book is beautiful both in its content and form. Strayed shares heartfelt and honest quotes that vary in length as well as font, making the visual experience as striking as the sentiment of the quotes. Having read and enjoyed Wild, I was excited to read Strayed's newest publication. I was not disappointed. I might not connect with all of the author's opinions and life experiences, but I sure appreciate her blunt and beautiful self-reflection.

CNC

The Thing About Jellyfish

The Thing about Jellyfish 
By Ali Benjamin
Little, Brown and Company, 2015. 343. Young Adult

Suzy Swanson is a scientific minded seventh grader who is trying to navigate a new school and new peers, but that's tough to do after her best friend’s sudden death. Then one day Suzy learns about the tiny, almost invisible Irukandji jellyfish whose venom is among the most deadly in the world. This fact sets Suzy off on a quest to learn all she can about Jellyfish and to prove what she thinks really killed her friend. Benjamin’s novel follows Suzy's path to emotional healing but also explores themes of communication, friendship, and ultimately self-acceptance.

This is a bittersweet but fantastic book. The characters are genuine, the themes are meaningful, and Benjamin's writing style is lovely. Although this might seem like a book for younger readers, I think older teens and adults will relate to Suzy's search for meaning and understanding when the only answer offered is, "Sometimes bad things just happen." This book is a must read.

CNC