Friday, February 27, 2015

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places
By Jennifer Niven
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 388 pages. Young adult fiction.

Finch and Violet meet at the top of the school bell tower. Finch talks her off the ledge; Violet gets credit from her classmates for talking "Theodore the Freak" down. And thus starts a beautiful and unusual friendship between two troubled teens. Thrown together on a school project to discover Indiana, the two develop a close bond that others can't understand and begin a desperate journey to heal one another.

This may have been one of the most beautiful books I've read in a long time. But be warned: I spent the last third of the book crying, so this may not be the best book to pull out while you're waiting in line at the DMV or on your lunch break. Niven has woven a story that talks understandingly to teens (and adults) about mental illness, abuse, bullying, and suicide without ever sounding preachy or condemning. Her characters are troubled, but sympathetic, and you want desperately for both Finch and Violet to find peace. I'm actually getting teary writing up this review, so I'm going to end by saying that the book does have some strong profanities and teen sexuality, although nothing is graphically described. She covers some difficult topics, but they're important topics and beautifully written. And even though there is a lot of sadness, it ends with a tone of hope that makes it a book that is emotional, but not soul-crushing.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Dearest (Woodcutter #3)
By Alethea Kontis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. 282 pages. Young adult fiction.

In the third adventure of the Woodcutter family, Friday Woodcutter is swept away by an unexpected sea that appears outside her house, only to be washed up on the shore near her sister's palace. While living there, Friday discovers a family of seven brothers who have been cursed to live as swans during the day and return to human form at night. Will Friday be able to help them break the spell before they are forced to remain as swans - permanently?

I really think this latest effort of Kontis is my favorite of the series so far. She weaves so many legends and fairy tales effortlessly into the plot that part of the fun is trying to see how she's manipulated and brought together so much that is familiar in oral and written literature. She does rely heavily on what has happened in the first two books, so if you might want to refresh your memory if it has been a while since you have read the first two books of the series.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

At the Drop of a Hat

At the Drop of a Hat (Hat Shop #3)
By Jenn McKinlay
Berkley Prime Crime, 2015. 292 pages. Mystery.

Milliners Scarlett Parker and Vivian Tremont are excited to be presented with the opportunity to renovate a hat their grandmother, the founder of their fashionable London hat shop, made for client Ariana Jackson's mother for her wedding. But when Scarlett goes to Ariana's work to get more details and finds the girl kneeling over her boss's dead body, she knows that hats were going have to go on the back burner while she tries to prove Ariana's innocence. But this time, will Scarlett bite off more than she can chew?

I've loved McKinlay's cozy mysteries for a long time and this one was no exception. Her Hat Shop characters are so entertaining and there is so much to watch in their interactions (outside of the mystery) that keeps you interested in all that is going on. Be warned: McKinlay leaves on a bit of a cliffhanger that, frankly, had me disappointed that her next Hat Shop book is not already out.


Saturday, February 21, 2015


by Alexandra Monir
Delacorte Press, 2014. 295 pages. Young adult fiction.

After her parents died on her grandfather's ducal estate in England when she was a child, Imogene Rockford returned to live with family friends in New York City and never looked back. But now, at seventeen, Ginny learns that her grandfather and older cousin have both died, making her the new Duchess of Wickersham. Imogene returns to England to run the estate, only to discover that things aren't as she remembered at her grandfather's house. Now she must make sense of the ghostly whisperings that roam the corridors, the strange secrecy surrounding her cousin's death, and an ancient family legend before it is too late.

A fascinating mix of gothic novel (think Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca), ghost story, and mystery with some magical elements, this book was a gripping read. And while it is definitely eerie and atmospheric, it never is actually scary. (Trust me - I have a low tolerance for scary.) Imogene is an interesting character, coming to grips with her new position in society while trying to understand her past in a way she couldn't when she was ten. You will have a hard time putting this book down.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated
By Alison Arngrim
IT Books, 2010. 302 pages. Biography.

If you are a fan of the Little House on the Prairie television series, you will love Arngrim's biography of her time as the arch-villain of the show, the stuck-up and manipulative Nellie Oleson. But more than just reminiscing about what happened behind the scenes, Arngrim shares how being the most hated teen in television changed her life and helped her succeed, in spite of her terrible home life. More than just a behind-the-scenes expose, Arngrim's biography is both a moving and comic look at overcoming difficult situations, coming out on top despite tragedy, and finding joy in life no matter what.


Hero Complex

Hero Complex (Keaton School #2)
By Margaux Froley
Soho Teen, 2014. 214 pages. Young adult.

After solving the mystery Jason Hutchings' death, Devon is hoping that things will get back to normal at school. But when a stranger attempts to kill her at her friend's New Year's Eve party, Devon knows that her life may never be normal again. Things get even stranger when a secret diary comes into her possession, revealing secrets about the men who founded the Keaton School 50 years ago. With all the mysteries surrounding her, will Devon be able to put together the clues in time?

Froley's second book flows much more smoothly than the first and presents a fast-paced and compelling mystery. Closely tied to the plot of the first book (don't try to read them out of order!), this second book really evokes the feeling of a Veronica Mars-type mystery, with one overt mystery on the surface but other plots, hidden even from Devon, that could change the outcome of everything. I couldn't put this one down.


Escape Theory

Escape Theory (Keaton School #1)
By Margaux Froley
Soho Teen, 2013. 272 pages. Young adult.

When the popular Jason Hutchings (Hutch, to his friends) is found dead of an overdose at a prestigious California boarding school, the assumption is that he committed suicide. But Devon, a peer counselor at the school who has been harboring a secret crush on Hutch since her freshman year, knows that suicide was very out of character for the easy-going teen. As she works to console his friends, she also starts gathering clues to try to discover what really happened the day he died.

Froley's debut novel is full of twists, turns, and surprises that will keep readers guessing what is going to happen next. It is very edgy and atmospheric and her plot is tightly woven, but it does get bogged down at some points. Keep pushing through - the end will be worth the wait!


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Age of Radiance

The Age of Radiance
by Craig Nelson
Scribner, 2014.  437 pgs.  Nonfiction

One could be forgiven for giving a miss to Craig Nelson's The Age of Radiance, a longish book with an indifferent cover had it not cropped up on so many of 2014's Best Books of the Year lists. And rightly so. A comprehensive but accessible, readable, and even fascinating history of the Atomic Era, Nelson's book is filled with bigger than life personalities, almost inconceivable scientific accomplishment, and a world poised at the edge of mutually-assured destruction. From Wilhelm Röntgen's 1895 discovery of X-rays to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, Nelson tells the tales of radiation tamed and run amok: who knew that the meltdown at Chernobyl happened during a test to see whether safety measures were adequate (apparently not), or that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were most likely cautionary exhibitions of power meant for the Soviets' consideration, rather than a necessary means for ending the war sooner. And what a cast of characters:  Enrico Fermi, what a remarkable person as well as scientist, and what a terrible driver. Edward Teller, brilliant, but also something of a chowderhead. One of my favorite parts was when the first nuclear reactor was built in an abandoned squash court at the University of Chicago and Russian agents translated the site as "pumpkin patch." Great, enlightening reading, The Age of Radiance is a fabulous companion to another classic description of the time, Dr. Strangelove.


The Walled City

The Walled City
By Ryan Graudin
Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 242 pages. Young adult fiction.

Every type of vice lives unchecked in the Hak Nam Walled City, a walled-off district outside a wealthy city. Inside, three teens have unique missions. Jin Ling, disguised as a boy, must try to find her sister. Dai is looking for information that will bring down the notorious Brotherhood of the Red Dragon - and save his life. Mei Yee is looking for a way to get out of the grips of the Brotherhood and return to her family. Will the three be able to work together to make it out of the notorious city alive?

This is a semi-historical novel. The setting is based on the stories of the Kowloon Walled City, which was located just outside of Hong Kong until it was razed in 1987 and turned into a park. Graudin has taken an interesting premise and made a riveting novel that is packed with action until the very end. Some of the images were a little disturbing, but, remember, we're talking about a city of vice - most of the inhabitants were not living in happy circumstances. There was nothing that was overly graphic or inappropriate for a teen audience.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

The Rumpelstiltskin Problem
By Vivian Vande Velde
Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 116 pages. Young adult fiction.

The fable of Rumpelstiltskin has been around for ages...but when you think about it, it really doesn't make a lot of sense. Why would a poor girl be able to spin straw into gold and yet live in poverty? Why would she consent to marry the king after he threatens to kill her the first few times they meet? Why does Rumpelstiltskin want her first born child, anyway? Vande Velde has written six short stories that tell the story of Rumpelstiltskin in a way that clears up all of these inconsistencies, in this wonderfully unique collection.

I had this book recommended to me by some of our teen readers and I instantly fell in love. The writing is very much in the style of a fairy tale, but is successful in clearing up some of the holes in the original story.


Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Cracklin' Cornbread

Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Cracklin' Cornbread (Jane Austen Takes the South #3)
By Mary Jane Hathaway
Howard Books, 2014. 296 pages. Fiction.

In a modern, Southern take on Jane Austen's Persuasion, Lucy Crawford's family has so much debt that the only way to salvage their antebellum home is to rent out half of it to the Free Clinic of Tupelo. The only drawback: Lucy will have to see her old high school sweetheart, Dr. Jem Chevy, on a regular basis. She broke his heart (and her own) ten years earlier when her aunt told her that she wouldn't be doing right by her family by dating a poor white boy from the wrong side of the tracks. But now that he's a successful doctor, will he be able to forgive her and allow them both a second chance at love?

I've really enjoyed Hathaway's series for her unique takes on modern Austen novels. This one was particularly interesting to me because the main character was a well-off African American woman and the idea of the two of them being separated by race concerns made for a real and contemporary concern. The author her case beautifully for why the two were initially separated and how they overcome their hurt and pride to value in each other the very traits that hurt them the most when they were younger. This was a great retelling of a story that has an amazing amount of depth and introspection to it.


The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #15)
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books, 2014. 227 pages. Mystery.

Things are busy at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mma Ramotswe must discover the identity of a woman who is only known as "Mrs." Her faithful assistant, Mma Makutsi, has decided to open her own restaurant, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe - but will she be able to run her restaurant and be a co-director of a detective agency? And what will become of Charlie, when Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has to let him go?

For anyone who is a fan of McCall Smith's pantheon of memorable characters, this book will be a charming edition to the series. What I love about this author's writing is his characterization. The plots are simple, but the characters themselves are so real as to make the story engrossing. The setting (Botswana) and the tone are completely unique and interesting. (In fact, I love to listen to his books, just to hear the African accents.) A very fun read.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
By Karen Abbott
Harper, 2014. 528 pgs. Nonfiction.

This book takes on the challenge of telling four important stories of the Civil War that involve brave women fighting for their cause. Whether Northerners or Southerners, these women were either outright belligerent to the other side, or secretly assisted where they could. Belle Boyd is a courier and spy that seduced men on both sides while exchanging messages for Confederate officers. Emma Edmonds took on the identity of Frank in order to hide her true self on the front lines. Rose O'Neale Greenhow gathered intelligence for the Confederacy, and Elizabeth Van Lew used her Southern reputation to spy for the North.  The stories go from bloody battles to running through fields to relay a message of armies coming.

The book was equal parts exciting and educational at the same time while approaching each story from unbiased perspective. The women were strong and took on near impossible tasks for both sides of the Civil War and the author took great care in not picking a side, but really showing how important these women were. It was a fascinating book and a quick read for the 500 plus pages. Any history fan will like this, and anyone looking for stories about women placed in an unusual setting will like the way they changed history.


The Hollow Ground

The Hollow Ground
By Natalie S. Harnett
Thomas Dunne Books, 2014. 336 pgs. Fiction.

Bridig Howley is growing up in actual hell on earth. The small mining town in Pennsylvania is constantly under siege of underground coal-mine fires. They are always waiting for homes and roads and parts of their town to disappear. Not only is Brigid's actual home in danger, her family is on edge as well. Her father can't work since he was involved in a mining accident (that also claimed the life of his brother) and her mother is over the coal dust and poverty. When they have to move in with her grandparents a dark tragedy is revealed and Brigid has to learn to stay strong for the pieces of her family she can keep together.

This story is beautifully written about a unique protagonist and a harsh environment. The details made me feel just as desperate as the Howleys. There is a mystery that brings up past loss and heartbreak and as Brigid learns to deal with it, she makes such a strong character in this really bleak world. I really enjoyed this setting as it was different from other books I have read lately, and the story came together so nicely in the end. I would recommend it to anyone that likes historical fiction or strong main characters.


We Are Not Ourselves

Cover image for We are not ourselvesWe Are Not Ourselves
By Matthew Thomas
Simon & Schuster, 2014. 620 pgs. Fiction

We Are Not Ourselves is a take on the classic American novel, tracing the story of a family from through the latter half of the 20th century. Eileen and Ed Leary were both raised in Irish immigrant households in Queens, and in their marriage and personally, aspire to transcend their rough upbringing and provide a different life for their son. Ed is a talented science teacher who cares deeply for providing equal opportunities for disadvantaged students--passing up offers from NYU and the position of Dean in order to keep teaching; while Eileen a nurse who quickly climbs the ranks of administrative duties and dreams of moving their family to the exclusive suburbs north of Manhattan. Ed's lack of upward motivation in his career is a source of great frustration for Eileen, but slowly his entire personality starts to shift as unbeknownst to either of them, Ed develops a very early onset of acute Alzheimer's disease. When he is finally diagnosed, their entire life, and dreams, shift drastically, leaving them all to contemplate and realize what ultimately matters most. 

Books about Alzheimer's and similar disease in families always get to me, as they strike close to home. Thomas is deft in the articulation of the mental, physical, emotional and social changes this condition brings about in the live's of those who have it, and those who love and care for them. The characters are engaging, frustrating, and endearing and your heart breaks for each as they struggle through the most human of circumstances we all can relate to. This is a beautifully written, emotionally deep book that is very character driven, and follows a somewhat slow, but steady plot. ZB 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Chili-Slaw Dogs

Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Chili-Slaw Dogs (Jane Austen Takes the South #2)
By Mary Jane Hathaway
Howard Books, 2014. 291 pages. Fiction.

In a modern take on Jane Austen's Emma, Caroline Ashley has given up her job to stay home with her mother after the death of her father. But three years is a long time to live in small town Mississippi. What a good thing she has her best friend, Brooks Elliott, to keep her sane. The two of them have always been there for each other. But when a mysterious stranger comes to town, will Brooks realize that Caroline is more than just his best friend?

I liked Hathaway's modern take on Emma. She created modern scenarios that were just as cringe-worthy as any Austen created for the heroine she felt that no one but she could like, but which were true to the time period. Hathaway didn't feel like she needed to follow the story exactly, but created a plot that remained true to the feel of the original Austen while maintaining a very original feel.


Autumn Falls

Autumn Falls
By Bella Thorne
Delacorte Press, 2014. 217 pages. Young adult fiction.

When Autumn's dad dies unexpectedly in a car accident, her life changes drastically: new home, new school, new friends. She's not quite sure where she fits in. But one day, as she's visiting her Great-Aunt Eddy at the nursing home, Eddy gives her a final gift from her dad - a diary. But Autumn soon learns this is not just any diary; any wish she writes down miraculously comes true. Soon Autumn is using the diary to try to get the upper hand on a bully at school...without knowing the consequences of getting what she wished for.

Let me just get two things off my chest. First, the magic diary was completely unnecessary. The plot would have gone on perfectly fine (or, in my opinion, better) if Autumn had just recorded her wishes in a normal diary and all of the high school bullying had played out in a non-supernatural manner. It was Mean Girls with a magic diary. Second, many of the characters spoke in really poorly constructed Spanish. I may not be a native speaker, but I know enough Spanish to know that what her characters were saying was just plain wrong. Both of these issues annoyed me pretty much from the start.

That said, in spite of these two flaws, this book actually had a really good message to it. It talked about the consequences of getting what we wish for, the pain of bullying, being true to yourself no matter what is going on around you. In fact, it had so much good stuff going on in it that it made me even more disappointed that they messed around with all the magic diary stuff, because I think it could have been a really fun but thought-provoking book without it. In the end, it was a fun read, but be prepared to suspend reality to get to the real message. The book was a clean read with only one or two instances of swearing.


As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Flavia #7)
By Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, 2015. 392 pages. Mystery.

In his latest mystery featuring the precocious Flavia de Luce, Flavia has been sent away -- exiled -- banished -- to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Canada. And, as if being in a different country and having to live up to her mother's school legacy weren't hard enough, a body falls from her chimney her first night in the school. It's up to Flavia to figure out who is missing and who did the deed. But can she succeed, in a completely foreign environment?

I have always been a fan of Flavia's and it was exciting to see her in a completely different setting. Somehow, this book made her more real to me because she had so many moments of doubt that she never had back on her estate in England. Bradley keeps you guessing with the mystery and just as focused on whether Flavia will succeed as a boarding school student as solving the mystery. This was just good, clean fun all around.


Friday, February 6, 2015


By Courtney Alameda
Fiewel and Friends, 2015. 384 pgs. Young adult.

Micheline Helsing is a tetrachromat, which is a person who can see the undead is a prismatic spectrum. Definitely pick up the book if you are thinking, what in the world is that? It's worth it. She is one of the last descendants of the Van Helsing family and the family business is to catch the spiritual undead. She uses her camera to get their energy on film. When a ghost hunt goes wrong, Michelline and her crew are cursed with a soulchain. She has seven days to get rid of the curse to save her friends and herself, and the story that follows is just crazy fun and scary good.

Courtney Alameda debuts with a fantastic horror book. The characters are original and the story line is completely different from all the young adult I have read lately. Michelline kicks butt and the rest of the characters are either ones I would love to meet, or ones I would hope to stay away from. The pacing is great, and I read it all in a few hours. If you want something scary and fresh, this is the book for you.


Diamond Boy

Diamond Boy
by Michael Williams
Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2014. 400 pp.Young Adult

Set in contemporary Zimbabwe, Patson Moyo and his family travel to the district of the Marange diamond fields, where his father is to take up a teaching position at the local high school. Only after they arrive, do they realize that the school is closed and both Patson and his father are forced to work the diamond mine operated by a less than sympathetic relative. Thus starts a fantastic story about a young man trying to find his fortune and help his family to survive an unstable, corrupt and violent world. This story has drama, tragedy, humor, hope and adventure in equal measure. As with YA fiction in general, the story moves with a quick tempo making this a real page turner. I particularly enjoyed this story as it is set in a time and place rarely explored in fiction, making it particularly fresh. The author incorporates details about the often brutal realities of life in Africa without a lot of pedantic information dumps while still presenting the characters as human beings struggling with their circumstances. I would recommend this book to just about anyone, teen or adult.


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Lizzy & Jane

Lizzy & Jane
by Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson, 2014. 344 pages. Fiction.

Fifteen years after the death of her mother to breast cancer, Lizzy finds herself back in Seattle, far from the New York culinary scene that comforted her in her grief, taking care of her sister, Jane, as she starts chemo for breast cancer herself. This is a story of love, hope, misunderstandings, and food as Jane and Lizzy seek to overcome the things that separated them so long ago and learn to love each other again.

This is Reay's second book and, after reading the first (Dear Mr. Knightley) I did not have high expectations for this one. I enjoyed her first book, but found it relied far too much on completely replicating a classic novel plot to really excite me as a new read. In Lizzy & Jane, however, Reay has masterfully interwoven her obvious love for the classics into a new and completely engaging story. Lizzy and Jane are not just modern incarnations of Austen's Jane and Elizabeth Bennet; they have their own story to tell that is moving and compelling. There were moments when the raw emotion of the book brought a little tear to my eye. I thought the writing was well done, the characterization was compelling, and the story, though sad at times, was moving and uplifting. This was a great feel-good read.


Rapunzel Untangled

Rapunzel Untangled
By Cindy C. Bennett
Sweetwater Books, 2013. 294 pages. Young adult fiction.

In this modern retelling of Rapunzel, our heroine is completely isolated in her tower, told by her mother that if she ever goes outside the immunodeficiency condition she has will make her unable to fight off infection. So she's never met any other people. But when Rapunzel, in a bold move, sets up a Facebook account, she starts to connect with a young man named Fane. And the more she talks to Fane, the more she begins to wonder about the possibilities of life outside of her secluded tower.

I had this book recommended to me by one of our teen patrons and it did not disappoint. I liked Bennett's modern version of this classic fairy tale. She balanced out Rapunzel's mission of self-discovery with a good portion of mystery and action and really showed what it would be like to try to enter our modern, jargonistic society if you had been completely shut off from the world. The characters were believable and fresh. This was just an all around fun story to read.