Tuesday, March 26, 2013

“What's the point of not taking chances? I don't know if I could stand living my whole life afraid.”

Drowning Instinct - Ilsa J. Bick
352 pages
Genre: Contemporary; YA; Realistic Fiction

Summary: Jenna Lord, a sixteen-year-old trying her best to navigate her way through high school, has anything but an ideal life. When she was younger, she was caught in a house fire that left burns all over her body. As if that wasn’t enough, she also has an ambivalent mother, a psycho father, a brother who is half a world away in a war zone, and nobody that she can really lean on. That is, of course, until she meets Mr. Anderson, a chemistry teacher at her high school. Will things ever go right in Jenna’s life?

Review: Holy wow, where do I even begin with Drowning Instinct? I’ve always been drawn to dark, heavy subject matter, and Bick certainly delivers here. This book shook me up, made me uncomfortable, and caused my heart to ache for the protagonist, Jenna. While the gloominess here won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it is certainly mine, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading this.

Do you ever read one of those books where you’re trying your best not to read ahead because, even though you’re dying to know what happens, you don’t want to miss a single word? Drowning Instinct definitely elicited that reaction from me. A sense of foreboding shrouded this entire book, yet I couldn’t pull myself away from it. The tension within the pages was incredibly well done, and I couldn’t wait to see how everything came together in the end.

Viewing the story through Jenna’s eyes was distressing and wonderful at the same time. I felt really badly about her lot in life, yet if the story was told from a different characters’ perspective, it would not have had the same impact on the reader. Even though things in Jenna’s world were extraordinarily bleak, she still kept on resiliently. She made a ton of questionable decisions throughout the book and it was sometimes hard to distinguish whether Jenna really was telling the whole truth, which made her an authentic teenager.

The side characters were also really well done, and most of them were just as interesting as the narrator herself. One of the standout characters for me was definitely Jenna’s arch nemesis, Danielle. I would have loved to learn more about what was going on in her life, as it seemed just as twisted as Jenna’s.

I also need to comment on Mr. Anderson. Towards the beginning of the story, having Jenna as the narrator almost made me sympathetic toward Mr. Anderson, which shocked and horrified me. I knew exactly what was coming in this regard, yet I was still fascinated enough to see what would happen. I also liked how Bick developed his character further as the novel went on, effectively highlighting who he really was, which added to the illusory theme that was rampant in Drowning Instinct.

Additionally, the twists and surprises in this story often had me reeling, especially the things that came spilling out towards the end. The web of deceit was intricate and wholly believable, and the book moved at a really good pace to keep things interesting.

If you enjoy dark, suspenseful YA books that draw attention to the fact that life isn’t always a bed of roses, Drowning Instinct is a must read!

Rating: 4.5/5

Author Read-alikes: Laurie Halse Anderson, Ellen Hopkins

Monday, March 25, 2013

“Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.”

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell 
341 pages 
Genre: Literary Fiction

Summary: Told from two distinct perspectives, The Hand That First Held Mine follows Lexie Sinclair, a twenty-something who made the move to London during the 1950’s, and Ted and Elina, a couple from the present day.

Review: I first discovered Maggie O’Farrell a few years ago when I found The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox in a bargain bin at a local book store. I read the book with rapt attention, barely pulling myself away long enough to get other things done, so I went into The Hand That First Held Mine with extremely high expectations. Fortunately, this book held my attention just as well as my first foray into O'Farrell's body of work, and I can’t wait to read more of her books.

The characters were extremely well-drawn, and I was fascinated by both stories. Lexie was independent and brave, and following her transition from a small town to the big city was very exciting, indeed. She makes plenty of mistakes along the way, as all twenty-somethings do, and watching her grow into an even more resilient person was a pleasure.

The storyline feature Elina and Ted was also quite interesting. I really liked puzzling together what happened to Elina when she couldn’t remember anything about the birth of her child, while also trying to figure out what memories Ted was repressing. This provided an incredibly interesting dynamic, and their story was quite complex, as was their relationship.

I had a feeling the storylines tied together somehow, and when I finally figured out what was going on, I think I may have audibly exclaimed “Oh my god!” All of the clues and pieces of the puzzle left throughout the text made perfect sense, and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t pick up on it before.

O’Farrell does an incredible job with character development and suspense, her writing is lovely, and you will run the gamut of emotions while reading her books. If you like literary fiction that will make you think, while also delving into the lives of an incredible cast of real, imperfect characters, give The Hand That First Held Mine a try. I think I have a new favorite author.

Rating: 4/5

Other Books by Maggie O’Farrell: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, After You’d Gone, The Distance Between Us, My Lover’s Lover, Instructions for a Heat Wave

Friday, March 15, 2013

“He would talk to them of stories and books, and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read, and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books. And some of the children understood, and some did not.”

The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly
339 pages
Genre: YA; Fantasy; Bildungsroman

Summary: While mourning the death of his mother, David finds himself transported to a world where fairytales are brought to life. Will David be able to find the thing that’s led him there and get back home, or will he die trying?

Review: This book came highly recommended to me by two different friends whose opinions I value highly. I found The Book of Lost Things to be a highly entertaining, engaging read, and I enjoyed it from start to finish.

One of the biggest strengths of this book was the world building. Connolly imagined a fantastical world for this effort, and the descriptions made it incredibly easy for me to see everything through the characters’ eyes, from the trembling bridge to the thorny castle.

At the heart of this story is, of course, the fairytale component. Instead of giving the fairytales a “happily ever after” feel, the author chose to make them dark and gory, which is how many of the originals actually were. I especially enjoyed the section about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which turned the wilting, jovial princess notion on its head, while also providing apt social commentary. The wolves were also really well done, and when how they came to be was revealed, it made perfect sense.

While grief was something David experienced throughout the book, I liked that it wasn’t the only focus. This could have easily turned into a depressing read really quickly, but the way in which David’s grief was woven into the plot worked really well, and it was very believable. It did, of course, factor into many of David’s decisions, but he was also able to live in the moment.

David himself was a wonderful narrator, and I liked viewing the story through his eyes. He did a ton of growing over the course of the book, and when he finally figured some things out, I wanted to stand up and cheer.

If you like fairytale re-tellings with a dark side, give The Book of Lost Things a try.

Rating: 3.5/5

Read-alikes: Tender Morsels - Margo Lanagan, Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

Sunday, March 10, 2013

“But what is certain is that in five, ten or twenty years, this problem unique to our time, according to him, will no longer exist, it will be replaced by others...Yet this music, the sound of this rain on the windows, the great mournful creaking of the cedar tree in the garden outside, this moment, so tender, so strange in the middle of war, this will never change, not this, this is forever.”

Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky
431 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction, France, WWII

Summary: Suite Francaise chronicles the lives of people living in France under German occupation in WWII.

Review: I will read pretty much anything related to WWII, as it’s always been one of those historically significant periods of time that I find endlessly fascinating. The complexity of events surrounding the war itself are extraordinarily intricate and interesting, and even when it seems like I know every nuance of the incidents therein, I almost always learn something new when I read another account.

It probably goes without saying that as soon as I saw Suite Francaise, I wanted to read it. As much as I’ve read about this particular war, I haven’t really read all that much from the French perspective, and the intriguing cover and blurb drew me in like a moth to a flame. I was completely absorbed in Suite Francaise from start to finish, and as the hours ticked by and I got more and more involved in the plot, it was very hard for me to pull myself away.

Suite Francaise is much more than a book about a country at war; it is also an examination of what it means to be human. This book explores what happens to one’s psyche when one lives through a war, both from the the perspectives of civilians and soldiers. I really liked that many of the characters had conflicting emotions regarding many things, including their marriages, as it made them seem wholly real.

Similarly, I really liked the fact that the author portrayed the Germans as humans with thoughts and emotions, too. Instead of just being cold, calculating people like books often portray them to be, they had families, passions, and as one of the characters pointed out, he was just following orders. As horrifying as the Nazi regime’s atrocities were, underneath their maniacal nature, they were people, too, and I’ve never really read a book that has highlighted that before.

Perhaps just as intriguing as the book itself was the author’s life. Irene Nemirovsky was a famous Jewish author that was ultimately killed in a concentration camp, and I found her story to be extraordinarily compelling and sad. The section about her life at the book’s end almost read like a thriller novel. When her background is taken into account, it’s even more interesting that she chose to let the reader get to know a few of the Nazis that occupied France during the war, and it is truly a tragedy that she died so soon.

If you like WWII historical fiction and would like to take a trip into the heart of Nazi occupied France, Suite Francaise is a must read.

Rating: 5/5

Read-alikes: The Book Thief - Markus Zusak, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer

Monday, March 4, 2013

“Don't forget - no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.”

The Blue Girl - Charles de Lint
385 pages
Genre: YA, Urban Fantasy

Summary: Imogene, a seventeen-year-old who just transferred to a new school in a town called Newford, isn’t your average teen. This girl is extremely rebellious, and she only plays by the rules when they suit her interests. After arriving in Newford, she befriends a girl named Maxine, and they are complete opposites in almost every way, aside from the fact that both are social outcasts. Maxine is a straight-laced girl that completely contradicts Imogene’s unruly personality, yet somehow, their friendship works. Things start getting really weird when Imogene can no longer separate dreams from reality, as she believes a malicious band of fairies may be after her. Can she find the truth in the confusion?

Review: I’ll be honest: fairy books aren’t really my thing. I can’t put my finger on what it is about them that I don’t really like, but typically, I’m less than impressed; however, I have heard a ton of positive buzz about Charles de Lint, so I decided to put my pre-conceived notions aside and give The Blue Girl a try. After reading this, perhaps I was wrong about my dislike for fairies, as I absolutely loved this book and was hooked from start to finish.

Imogene, the main character, was so strong, and I loved that she was able to take care of herself. She was the hero of her story, and while she had a few close friends that helped her along the way, she was never a damsel in distress. Her flagrant disregard of the rules and conventionality made her extremely interesting, and her wit really propelled the book forward. Some of her brazen comments had me absolutely laughing out loud. Maxine was also a great character, and I really liked how she grew over the course of the book, especially once her overbearing, but well-intentioned, mother wasn’t looking over her shoulder.

Even though the plot had many fantastical elements, it was still very believable. I really liked that Imogene couldn’t always separate fiction from reality as she tried to make sense of her dreams, and when the ball really got rolling towards the end, it was hard for me to pull myself away from the book in order to be a functioning member of society. I actually lived in the world de Lint created here for a few days after I finished, turning the plot over and over in my head, which doesn’t always happen for me.

Ultimately, this was an incredibly interesting, fast paced book packed with awesome characters. If you like fantasy, definitely check it out!

Rating: 4/5

Read-alikes: Wicked Lovely - Marissa Marr, I Was a Teenage Fairy - Francesca Lia Block

Sunday, March 3, 2013

“You can't just plan a moment when things get back on track, just as you can't plan the moment you lose your way in the first place.”

Someone Like You – Sarah Dessen
281 pages
Genre: YA, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Romance

Summary: Halley and Scarlett are best friends. While Halley is away at summer camp, an unthinkable tragedy occurs: Scarlett’s boyfriend is killed in a motorcycle accident, and shortly thereafter, Scarlett discovers she is pregnant. Can Halley help her through this difficult time?

Review: Someone Like You was my first experience with Sarah Dessen. I’m really not sure what took me so long to read one of her books, as she’s consistently ranked as one of the most popular YA authors around. After finishing this book, I completely understand the appeal she holds for readers, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her body of work.

The themes that stood out the most in this book were friendship and grief. Scarlett went through something that nobody should ever have to experience, and in the midst of grieving her loss, she also received news that she was pregnant. Halley was a wonderful friend to her throughout and their relationship never faltered.  When big things occur in one’s life, it’s so important to have a best friend to lean on, and Scarlett definitely found one in Halley.

I really enjoyed that Scarlett and Halley were sort of like foil characters for one another.  Scarlett had always been the one in the spotlight that everyone liked, while Halley stuck in the background. Despite their differences, their relationship just worked. It almost seemed that nothing could really shake Scarlett until these terrible things happened to her, and it gave Halley a chance to shine. Both were incredibly supportive of one another, and it was nice to see that portrayed in a female friendship, as many books feature characters where there is a great deal of backstabbing and gossip.

The storyline was really believable and flowed seamlessly from one event to the next.  I could also see teens being able to relate to the emotions that the characters experienced throughout the novel. The characters were often confused, conflicted, and doing their best to deal with the circumstances laid before them, which mirrors what teens feel pretty accurately as they try to figure out their places in the world.

If you’re looking for a great read with compelling characters and authenticity, give Someone Like You a try.

Rating: 3/5

Other Books by Sarah Dessen: Just Listen, The Truth About Forever, This Lullaby, Along for the Ride, Keeping the Moon

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Top 5 Picture Book Read-Alouds

As a children’s librarian, one of my favorite tasks is storytime. Introducing children to awesome books, planning activities that they will love, and keeping them engaged with songs and fingerplays is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

Here are my top 5 favorite read-alouds for storytime.

5. How Do Dinosaurs? series by Jane Yolen 
Everyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I love dinosaurs. I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a child, so when I stumbled across Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs? series, I got really excited. Not only are these books concise and easy for children to understand, but they also teach manners and what you should and should not do in a given situation.  The kids tend to be completely absorbed in these books, and if you ask them if dinosaurs should or should not be doing something depicted in the book, they’ll yell out “Yes” or “No!” Anything that engages kids in the plot is a winner in my book.

4. "I’m Not Cute" – Jonathan Allen 
I’m Not Cute is one of the books in a series featuring a baby owl. Even though this owl insists that he isn’t cute, everyone tells him otherwise, and we all know that he is, in fact, absolutely adorable. The kids love the owl, and with this book in particular, it’s easy for them to relate, as they’re also told how cute they are all the time.

3. I Need My Monster - Amanda Noll 
 My friend, Christina, actually introduced me to this book during a mock storytime in a Children’s Resource class, and I have been hooked on it ever since. I love the style of the art, and the plot, a kid auditioning other monsters to take on the role of “monster under the bed” after his designated monster goes on a trip, is a wonderful combination of awesome. The kids laugh and “eww” simultaneously, and I’ve found this book to be especially great for Kindergarten and First Graders. It is one of my favorite books to use for Halloween.

2. Anything by Mo Willems 
 Honestly, who doesn’t love Mo Willems? His characters are hilarious, and the kids crack up the entire time I read them anything he has written. It’s also really easy to incorporate the kids into the book, especially his Pigeon series, as the characters often talk directly to the reader. Funny picture books are my personal favorite, and really, how can you go wrong with these books?

1. Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes – Eric Litwin   
 Without a doubt, Pete the Cat is my absolute favorite book to read to kids. The message of the book, to keep calm even if things aren’t going your way, is an important one for children to understand, and best of all, children love Pete!  His “I love my ___ shoes” song is an easy one for the kids to memorize, and they love singing along as Pete steps in one thing after another. They also beg me to re-read it whenever I bring it with me (and, of course, I happily oblige), so if that isn’t a sign of an awesome picture book, I don’t know what is.


What are your favorite read-alouds?

Friday, March 1, 2013

"When the exquisitely impulsive Louise Brooks, a teenage Ziegfeld Follies girl, stepped off the train from her native Kansas and glanced up at the soaring Manhattan skyline, she "fell in love with New York forever.""

All Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913-1930 by Andrea Barnet

256 pages

Genre: Non-fiction, Women’s History, GLBT

Summary: All Night Party gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of women that shaped Harlem and Greenwich Village from 1913-1930.

Review: Confession time: I’m pretty sure I bought this book as a resource for an undergrad project I was working on many moons ago. My bad! Fortunately, my interest in women’s history has not waned since that time, and I was very happy to discover that I still had All Night Party in my possession.

As a whole, I found this book rather fascinating, and I read through it quite quickly. While All Night Party doesn’t go too deeply in depth about each of the women it showcases, it does offer interesting anecdotes from each woman’s life. I hadn’t heard of many of the women mentioned throughout the course of the book, but seeing this brief glimpse into what their lives were like really made me want to learn more.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on Edna St. Vincent Millay. I had heard of this poet before, but had never read anything she had written,and I found her story to be really thought-provoking. Bessie Smith’s story was also intriguing, and I loved how fearless, strong, and resilient she was.

Of the people I hadn’t heard of, I found Mina Loy to be the most memorable. She led an extremely interesting life, and I can’t wait to read more about her and her literary exploits.

Up All Night provides an excellent jumping off point if you’re looking for information on counterculture American women from 1913-30. If you’re at all interested in women’s history, especially if you don’t know very much about the women being discussed, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

Rating: 3.5/5