Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: The League of Seven by Alan Gratz

Title: The League of Seven
Series: The League of Seven #1
Author: Alan Gratz
Illustrator: Brett Helquist
Publication Date: August 19th, 2014
Publisher: Starscape
Genre: Middle Grade, Steampunk
Pages: 352
ISBN: 9780765338228
Source: ARC from Publisher


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
The launch of a middle grade fantasy trilogy set in an alternate 1870s America, where electricity is a dangerous and forbidden science, Native Americans and Yankees live side-by-side as a United Nations, and eldritch evil lurks in the shadows beyond the gaslights...

Young Archie Dent knows there really are monster in the world. His parents are members of the Septemberist Society, whose job it is to protect humanity from hideous giants called the Mangleborn. Trapped in underground prisons for a thousand years, the giant monsters have been all but forgotten -- but now they are rising again as the steam-driven America of 1875 rediscovers electricity, the lifeblood of the Mangleborn.

When his parents and the rest of The Septemberists are brainwashed by one of the evil creatures, Archie must assemble a team of seven young heroes to save the world.


Writer in Residence in 2011, living and writing in James Thurber's attic for a month while working with young writers from all around the Columbus, Ohio area. 

In addition to writing plays, magazine articles, and a few episodes of A&E's City Confidential, Alan has taught catapult-building to middle-schoolers, written more than 6,000 radio commercials, sold other people's books, lectured at a Czech university, and traveled the galaxy as a space ranger. (One of these, it should be pointed out, is not true.)

Alan was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the 1982 World's Fair. After a carefree but humid childhood, Alan attended the University of Tennessee, where he earned a College Scholars degree with a specialization in creative writing, and, later, a Master's degree in English education. He now lives with his wife Wendi and his daughter Jo in the high country of Western North Carolina, where he enjoys reading, eating pizza, and, perhaps not too surprisingly, watching baseball.

In a breakthrough novel for young readers, Alan Gratz brings a unique tale of adventure and sci-fi. In the spirit of steampunk, The League of Seven is unlike any other middle grade book I've read. The fresh idea definitely peaked my interest.

Set in an alternative 1870s steampunk America, the protagonist is Archie Dent, whose parents are librarians and have been affected by monsters called Mangleborns. The Mangleborns are trying to take over the world and one of their best weapons is that everyone thinks they're still trapped underground. They've been silenced for thousands of years, so naturally their appearance would be unexpected. 

But now Thomas Edison is on the scene, and he's not necessarily the nice guy we read about in our history books. Mangleborns feed off electricity, and Edison has just rediscovered its power. We also get introduced to another scientific legacy, Nikola Tesla, so in a way you could say this is the steampunk version of Percy Jackson.

Overall, this was a pretty cool book. I definitely think it will be enjoyable for young readers, especially those interested in this genre. It is unique enough from many other series that it'll provide new elements to the young sci-fi scene. The adventure factor is fast-paced and easily keeps the reader's attention, and I loved how they incorporated historical figures into the storyline so kids can get a little more excited when they hear those names in school. Plus, you learn some snazzy new tags like, "that's so brass!"

Some cons: Archie was really cool and brave in the beginning, but as other characters were added to the story he lost some of his enthusiasm. His bravery diminished with each event, and the female of the group picked up where everyone else lacked (huzzah for feminism!) While society writing about stronger female characters is great, I don't think we should keep emasculating the boys in the process. How about encouraging teamwork between the sexes and working on that whole 'equality' thing? I think that idea can pertain to all sorts of group dynamics.

My best relation to this series is Percy Jackson. If you're a fan of that series, then you'll likely enjoy The League of Seven. It's like the steampunk version, with less god-orphans, of course.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The National Book Award Winners 2014

National Book Awards 2014

Wednesday night, New York was a buzz with America's next wave of admired authors at the National Book Awards. With appearances from Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), who handed out free books before the ceremony, the night was filled with many successes for the talented authors that occupied the room. Below are the winners and finalists. 

Please take the time to visit the National Book Foundation to see the other notable nominees and stay up to date with other NBF events!

Phil Klay, Redeployment
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition
Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living
Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant
Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence
John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh

Louise Gl├╝ck, Faithful and Virtuous Night
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio
Fanny Howe, Second Childhood
Maureen N. McLane, This Blue
Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
Eliot Schrefer, Threatened 
John Corey Whaley, Noggin
Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50
Deborah Wiles, Revolution

Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

Title: The Book of Life
Series: All Souls #3
Author: Deborah Harkness
Publication Date: July 15th, 2014
Publisher: Viking Adult
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 561
ISBN: 9780670025596
Source: ARC from Publisher


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
After traveling through time in Shadow of Night, the second book in Deborah Harkness’s enchanting series, historian and witch Diana Bishop and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont return to the present to face new crises and old enemies. At Matthew’s ancestral home at Sept-Tours, they reunite with the cast of characters from A Discovery of Witches—with one significant exception. But the real threat to their future has yet to be revealed, and when it is, the search for Ashmole 782 and its missing pages takes on even more urgency. In the trilogy’s final volume, Harkness deepens her themes of power and passion, family and caring, past deeds and their present consequences. In ancestral homes and university laboratories, using ancient knowledge and modern science, from the hills of the Auvergne to the palaces of Venice and beyond, the couple at last learn what the witches discovered so many centuries ago. 

My life has been a series of left turns that nevertheless took me in the right direction (though it didn't always seem so at the time). I went to college to be a theater major and ended up studying the Renaissance. I went to grad school to become a college administrator and loved to teach so much I became a college professor instead. I thought I wanted to be a Tudor-Stuart historian, and found myself a historian of science. 

I started blogging because a friend needed help on a project in 2006 and am still blogging about wine today. I started writing a novel in the fall of 2008, and it became a New York Times Bestseller in February 2011: A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES. The second volume in the All Souls Trilogy, SHADOW OF NIGHT, came out in July 2012 and debuted at #1 on the NEW YORK TIMES Bestseller's List. 

If you've been to ANY major bookstore since July, then you'll know that Deborah Harkness' The Book of Life has been a focal point for front-of-the-house book displays since it's come out. It's also a nominee on several lists for Best Fantasy Novel of 2014.

First let me enter a disclaimer that I have not read the first two books in this series. When I requested it for review, I did not realize that it was part of a trilogy. 

So my review is subject to change, since I've gotten copies of the first two books. At least this time around I'll focus on this book as a standalone without any preconceived notions. Don't get me wrong, every book in a series needs its supporting books to get the full experience. I would never tell someone if they only read the 7th Harry Potter book they would get just as much out of it as someone who read the whole series. That's just ridiculous.

I love fantasy books, but it takes a special kind of magic to make me like what an author does with mythical creatures like vampires or dragons, because a lot of times it feels like people just recycle other authors' work. If I don't feel like your work is somewhat original, then I'll be turned off to it. Obviously there are some guidelines to these things, but there needs to be an element of creativity. Plus, I usually enjoy reading about witches regardless of what you decide to do with them. I think that fad needs to be brought back.

With that being said, I feel like Harkness accomplished this task. She was able to take several species of mythical creatures and create a unique magical world of her own. Her prose is fluid and strong, and it made me curious to read the other two books. It seems this author has a pretty solid and ever-growing fan base.

What I liked about this book was the unique world and the character dynamic. I loved the names used, because you got a sense that they were symbolic and meaningful. The flow, for the most part was consistent and kept my attention. 

What I didn't like was the amount of plot holes left. Without giving any spoilers, there were some things we thought were important, but we really never got any answers to them. There were also a lot of characters in the beginning. It's possible that if I read the other two books before this, it wouldn't be so extremely overwhelming, but just being introduced to this series I almost had to make a list to keep track!

From what I've seen from the author, she does seem to have some fun with her work. On her website I found this gem on how to entertain a vampire (in case you were wondering):

I look forward to reading the other books in this series. It reminded me a little bit of Terry Brooks Shannara series. If you're in the search for some compelling magical fantasy in your life, then turn to Deborah Harkness. But I would recommend starting at the beginning.


Also, be sure to check out Deborah’s wine blog, GoodWineUnder$20!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: Starry Night by Isabel Gillies

Title: Starry Night
Author: Isabel Gillies
Publication Date: September 2nd, 2014
Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux
Genre: Young Adult, Chick Lit
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9780374306755
Source: ARC from Publisher


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Sometimes one night can change everything. On this particular night, Wren and her three best friends are attending a black-tie party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate the opening of a major exhibit curated by her father. An enormous wind blasts through the city, making everyone feel that something unexpected and perhaps wonderful will happen. And for Wren, that something wonderful is Nolan. With his root-beer-brown Michelangelo eyes, Nolan changes the way Wren’s heart beats. In Isabel Gillies's Starry Night, suddenly everything is different. Nothing makes sense except for this boy. What happens to your life when everything changes, even your heart? How much do you give up? How much do you keep?

Isabel Gillies, a lifelong New Yorker and actress for many years, is the New York Times best selling author of Happens Every Day, A Year and Six Seconds and the upcoming Starry Night (FSG), a young adult novel about first love. 

Her work has been published in Vogue, The New York Times, Real Simple, Cosmopolitan and Saveur. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, kids and Maude the dog.

Reviews for this book are all over the place, so I was a bit reluctant to read it. However, I know I need more YA in my repertoire and I love the cover, so I went with it. I felt like I was time-traveling into my past and looking through the eyes of my teenage self as I read this book.

Wren is a young artist with ADD. She has a dynamic group of friends she's grown up with, her family is basically famous, and her brother makes friends with a dude she thinks is pretty fine. Mix in a fancy shmancy museum party, some late night mingling with attractive and successful people, and a few bad decisions among the posse and you've got Starry Night

All of the characters are in High School and pretty much all driven by hormones and blind dreams. I think that's what made this book feel real to me. It was exploding with the quirks and follies of teenagedom and I enjoyed every moment of it. I was totally that kid. It made me laugh at stupid things I thought and did back then. It blew little issues out of proportion, because back then everything did seem like a big deal, because you just haven't experienced the real world yet and nothing is really in perspective. When you're a teenager, your main concern is the person you like and whether people like you or not. Junior and Senior year you *might* start thinking about college and the rest of your life, but that's still only your #2 concern. 

This book totally brought me back to that time, and not only was I able to enjoy Wren's story and even all the heartbreak (because let's face it, most of us got our hearts broken by someone we thought was 'the one' in high school), but it also made me appreciate the fact that I went through all those things, because that's how I got to today. I don't care what they say, I liked this book.

Starry Night is a light YA Chick Lit and is a perfect "beach book" or "just for fun" book. For those who enjoy books like The Selection Series by Kiera Cass or the Blood and Snow Series by RaShelle Workman will enjoy this book. There isn't really any fast-pace adventure or anything, but it is definitely a journey.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review: Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Title: Nest
Author: Esther Ehrlich
Publication Date: September 9th, 2014
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Genre: Middle-Grade Fiction
Pages: 336
ISBN: 0385386079
Source: ARC from Publisher


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
For fans of Jennifer Holm (Penny from Heaven, Turtle in Paradise), a heartfelt and unforgettable middle-grade novel about an irresistible girl and her family, tragic change, and the healing power of love and friendship. In 1972 home is a cozy nest on Cape Cod for eleven-year-old Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein, her older sister, Rachel; her psychiatrist father; and her dancer mother. But then Chirp’s mom develops symptoms of a serious disease, and everything changes.
   Chirp finds comfort in watching her beloved wild birds. She also finds a true friend in Joey, the mysterious boy who lives across the street. Together they create their own private world and come up with the perfect plan: Escape. Adventure. Discovery.
   Nest is Esther Ehrlich’s stunning debut novel. Her lyrical writing is honest, humorous, and deeply affecting. Chirp and Joey will steal your heart. Long after you finish Nest, the spirit of Chirp and her loving family will stay with you. 

Praise for Nest:

"A poignant, insightful story of family crisis and the healing power of friendship."--Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"A stunning debut, with lyrical prose and superbly developed characters. . . . [Readers] will savor Nest and reflect on it long after its conclusion."--School Library Journal, Starred

"Ehrlich’s novel beautifully captures the fragile bond shared by Chirp and Joey and their growing trust for each other in a world filled with disappointments and misunderstandings."--Publishers Weekly, Starred 

"Chirp’s first-person voice is believable; her poignant earnestness is truly heartrending. Ehrlich writes beautifully, constructing scenes with grace and layers of telling detail and insight."--The Horn Book

Esther Ehrlich is the author of Nest, her debut novel forthcoming from Wendy Lamb Books/Random House in September 2014. Ehrlich was born and raised in Boston, graduated from Vassar College, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.

Here’s more you might like to know:
I’m the youngest of four children, all of us very close in age. In the neighborhood we grew up in, kids played four-square in the street, tag in the nearby field, and ice-skated at Crystal Lake in winter. The one rule that I remember? Be home by dinner. When life felt rough, school was a comfort. So were my best friends, two rabbits who lived in a hutch in our backyard. I spent as much time with them as I could and tried my hardest to teach them to come, sit, and stay. And books. I especially loved the sad but ultimately hopeful ones where kids took matters into their own hands and made things happen.

What else?
In my Jewish family, everybody talked at once and interrupting wasn’t considered interrupting and it was perfectly normal, expected even, to ask a ton of questions and answer a question with another question.
For a few weeks each summer, I ran wild on Cape Cod, tromping around the dunes, swimming across ponds, sleeping in a tent or throwing a sleeping bag down on the thick mat of bearberry and watching the stars until I drifted off to sleep.

My experience in math class, early on, wasn’t good. The class was set up to be competitive and it made numbers feel intimidating—rigid and harsh. Words, by contrast, felt wonderfully flexible, full of possibility, of light.

And so many years later, they still do. It feels like an amazing gift to spend my time choosing words to shape into sentences to create stories that I can share with others.

I'm sensing we have another runner up for that Newbery next year. I'm expecting to at least see this title on the list. Esther Ehrlich has introduced herself in a novel that will take the reader on a thoughtful and resilient journey of life, death, and friendship. This book is not for the faint of heart. 

As the reader experiences the world through our protagonist, Chirp, they will see the world in a coming-of-age transition. The story is set in Cape Cod, a location very familiar to the author. Naomi, or Chirp, is a young girl with a mother who is a dancer, a father whose job and hobby is to psychoanalyze the people around him, and her sister, Rachel, who is blossoming into her own as well. Down the street lives Chirp's classmate Joey and his troublesome brothers that add plenty of their own flavor to the story.

One thing I'd like to note is that Ehrlich made Chirp and her family Jewish. I'm currently doing an assignment for school about finding solutions to cultural gaps within our curriculum of approaching Children's Literature in Elementary Schools and Public Library programs. I know this is a reflection of the author's personal life, but there is evidence that Children read more if they feel like they can relate to the characters. Nest is a book that kids with a Jewish background can connect to, and non-Jewish kids can be exposed to some of the plights they have. I think it's wonderful to have a contemporary book for this age group taking on this task, and raising interest in good literature.

The cover illustrations are soft and esthetically pleasing. I love the detail and the title immediately grabs your attention with the intricacies representative of a bird's nest. 

Readers will enjoy the charm and depth of story between the pages of Nest. I fell in love with the characters, and I was laughing and crying right along with them. This is definitely one of my favorite middle-grade books I've read this year!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Title: Lucky Us
Author: Amy Bloom
Publication Date: July 29th, 2014
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 256
ISBN: 1400067243
Source: ARC from Publisher


Synopsis (from Goodreads):
"My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us."

Brilliantly written, deeply moving, fantastically funny, Lucky Us introduces us to Eva and Iris. Disappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star, and Eva, the sidekick, journey across 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris's ambitions take them from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.

With their friends in high and low places, Iris and Eva stumble and shine through a landscape of big dreams, scandals, betrayals, and war. Filled with gorgeous writing, memorable characters, and surprising events, Lucky Us is a thrilling and resonant novel about success and failure, good luck and bad, the creation of a family, and the pleasures and inevitable perils of family life. From Brooklyn's beauty parlors to London's West End, a group of unforgettable people love, lie, cheat, and survive in this story of our fragile, absurd, heroic species. 

Amy Bloom is the author of "Come to Me," a National Book Award finalist; "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You," nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; "Love Invents Us"; and "Normal." 

Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. 

She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University.

After receiving this book for review, I had heard good things about it on NPR. The reviews for Lucky Us are all over the place, so you may just have to read it yourself to decide what you think about it. It's definitely a unique work, and if you like a lot of dynamic and don't mind some explicit storytelling, then you will enjoy it. One reviewer didn't seem too impressed, and especially did not find the connection between the cover art and the pages that lie behind it. Related or not, the absurdity of a lion and a zebra stacked and balanced on a tight rope was appealing to me, but then again, my phone case looks like this:

Lucky Us is a story of two girls, Eva and Iris, who blindly feel their way through life after emerging from their dysfunctional and abandoned family unit. We are then catapulted into a series of quasi-unrelated events that somehow lead these girls from one experience to the next (and the reader isn't entirely sure how they got there).

Iris is an emerging starlet who carries the potential to be America's next sweetheart. In the hype of Hollywood's glamour, she begins experimenting with her sexuality and the reader suddenly finds themselves in the center of several scandalous sexcapades. Needless to say, this is not a family-friendly book. Iris is betrayed by her fellow starlet and femme-fatale lover and is banished from the limelight forever.

Eva, on the other hand, is the conventional one who lives in Iris' shadow, but she is also the storyteller and gives us a glimpse into the quiet-but-fierce persona of her own. She may not be another pretty face, but she definitely has a strong stomach, and so the reader learns to admire her through her narrative.

This book possesses an exceptional level of realism and artistry that will leave you dazed and charmed all at once. Truly, it's a ripple effect of serial events that keeps the reader's attention because of its unpredictability. It's impossible to guess the ending or what is going to come next, so be prepared to adapt quickly and spend moments wounded and thrilled simultaneously. Because of this, you can't help but feel dynamic attachments to the characters. It's almost comedic how bizarre and jarring it all is.

There are times when the plot seems to be in utter chaos, traveling around in strings weaving out and in between, but in the end they enter twine together to become a masterful design. If you enjoy a story that hybrids historical and modern society, and names its chapters after vintage song titles, then you'll love this book. Not to mention the mystery cover that leaves you both intrigued and scratching your head!