Thursday, March 28, 2019

Book Review: Stain by A. G. Howard @aghowardwrites @jennybent @ABRAMSbooks

Stain by A. G. Howard book cover and review
I am pleasantly surprised by Stain. It is one of the best fairytale retellings I've ever read.

I'm getting tired of fantasy. Especially dark, ominous stories. So I had misgivings when I picked up Stain. But I had never read anything by Howard, and I wanted to.

Stain is its own story; a mashup of fairytales retold, which made it even more appealing. Even though you know the prince and the princess will eventually get together, you aren't sure how that's all going to play out. Howard includes The Princess and the Pea story at the end of the book, but I saw elements of Cinderella too. (Evil stepmother and stepsisters -- aunt and cousins in this case.) Although there is the bed of nails thing, and the prince needs to find her before he dies. Doesn't really matter. Just don't worry about what story this is supposed to be.

And about the Prince and Princess--Stain is full of peril and pain, but because it is written like a fairytale, you know there is a "Happily Ever After" (or, Hopefully, as Howard writes) in store for the ending. The characterizations are great--the evil characters are vile. And the heroes are...well, heroic! The writing is uplifting and compelling. At over 500 pages, I flew through Stain.

If I have to say anything negative about Stain, it would probably be that there are a lot of characters to keep track of. I did get confused once or twice, like, "now wait, who is that again??" But that's my own thing and might not apply to other readers.

Maybe Stain was just the right book at the right time for me, but I found it refreshing and fun. I'll be donating this to my high school library and can't wait to recommend it.

Published by Harry N. Abrams, January 15, 2019
Copy obtained from a freebie!
512 pages

Rating: 5/5

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Audiobook Review: The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard book cover and review
The Atomic City Girls is another World War II book that covers an aspect of which I was unaware and kept my interest as well.

We've all heard of the Manhattan Project and the research and development that took place at Los Alamos in New Mexico. But much of the actual production of the uranium was done in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town that didn't exist until 1942, when the Army Corps of Engineers built it just for this purpose.

Normal, everyday citizens came from all over the country to work here--not realizing what they were doing, except that they were helping to win the war. The Atomic City Girls is the story of June Walker, eighteen years old, who moved to Oak Ridge because it was a good job with good pay. June's roommate is Cici, who is much more worldly and experienced than June. Cici is at Oak Ridge to get a rich husband. There are many more available men here than in the general population. June eventually meets one of the scientists, Sam, and they begin an unlikely relationship.

Another point of view comes from Joe, an African-American construction worker. The conditions for these workers was, as you would expect, not nearly as nice as their white counterparts. But the pay was good, so they put up with a lot.

Security is everything. The workers are constantly being reminded to not talk about what they are doing, even to those in Oak Ridge. And it is a breach in that security that eventually turns everything upside down for June.

The Atomic City Girls is well researched and interestingly written. All of the characters are distinct and add to the rich atmosphere that Beard has created. I thought there were some slow spots, particularly before June meets Sam. Also, June has a sister, who works at Oak Ridge, that is just kind of left hanging. June never sees her, except a casual mention at Christmas and at the end of the book. If you needed her for the end of the book, she should have played at least some part earlier in the story.

These are minor niggles, and if you are interested in World War II history, The Atomic City Girls should definitely be placed on your list. Xe Sands, the narrator, does a superb job, so I highly recommend the audio version.

Published by HarperCollins and Blackstone Audio, 2018
Audiobook obtained from the library
384 pages

Rating: 4.5/5

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Book Review: Secrets of the Casa Rosada, by Alex Temblador

Secrets of the Casa Rosada by Alex Temblador book cover and review
Secrets of the Casa Rosada is a riveting, mysterious story of a teen who is dragged kicking and screaming into a Hispanic heritage she knew nothing about. 

Martha and her single mother have had a hard life picking up an moving often, so when her mother tells her they are going to visit her grandmother, she assumes they have been evicted again. But a grandmother? Sixteen-year-old Martha knows nothing about her mother’s family. And she's never lived anywhere in the South. She is totally overwhelmed when they arrive in Laredo, Texas. For one thing, it is unbelievably hot all the time. But worse than that, her grandmother doesn’t speak English, and Martha doesn’t know any Spanish. She is stunned when her mother starts communicating in fluent Spanish. This is not the mother that she has known. And while she is totally confused by her surroundings, Martha’s mother suddenly says goodbye and leaves her with her grandmother. 

Things move very quickly and while Martha is still disoriented, and hating her grandmother, she is enrolled in school, attending church, and learning about her extensive extended family. The more she learns, the more she realizes that there are many secrets that her new family is keeping from her. She is also learning that her grandmother is a highly respected curandera--a healer. Her grandmother drags her around to her appointments, and Martha is confused about what exactly her grandmother does.  Is it magic?

Complicating her life is the fact that she has a mortal enemy at school, and she has no idea why she is hated. This girl thinks Martha's grandmother is training Martha to be a curandera. And this girl, for some reason, thinks she should be the one being trained. Another mystery...

All Martha cares about is finding out about her mother -- why she left and what secrets Laredo holds. Coming from my white perspective, the Hispanic experience seems authentic, but how would I know? Martha’s quest to find out her mother’s secrets is what keeps the anticipation building. Martha is sympathetic and easy to root for. The ending is quite dramatic--even life-threatening--and includes a spiritual/supernatural element. I would recommend this one to teens who enjoy family mysteries that will keep you guessing. It is a quick and captivating story.

Published by Pinata, 2018
Copy obtained from School Library Connection Magazine
160 pages

Rating: 4.5/5

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Book Review: Fake Plastic Girl, by Zara Lisbon

Fake Plastic Girl by Zara Lisbon, book cover and review
Fake Plastic Girl really isn't my type of book, and I'm not sure why the description appealed to me, but I flew through it and was not disappointed.

Justine is mostly an average teen, although some emotional issues are alluded to. Her psychologist mother and artist father are getting a divorce. Her mother leaves Justine with her aunt over the summer, but Justine bribes her aunt and ends up going home to stay by herself.

A new neighbor has move in across the street, and it is Eva-Kate Kelly, an ex-child star. Eva-Kate pulls Justine into her circle, and a wild summer begins, full of drinking, partying, and drugs. It all ends in tragedy, which is foreshadowed at the beginning of the book.

First, some issues. It is really far-fetched that Justine doesn't get caught by her parents or her aunt. Really? No one is checking on her, given her history? Actually, it is pretty far-fetched that her mother would even leave her to begin with. Although, her problems are left very vague. We know she spent time at Bellevue, and she's on medication. We don't really get a clear picture of what Justine's issues are. Also, everything Justine is doing is all over social media and no adults find out? But without suspending our disbelief, there is no story. And teens, who are much more the target audience than I am, usually have an easier time of doing so.

There is tragedy at the end, and then that is it. Except for the assurance that the story will continue in March, 2020. I hate cliffhangers like this. 'Nuff said.

But, in Fake Plastic Girl's favor, the story moves very quickly and is easy to read. Great for starstruck reluctant readers. I think younger, mature teens (who can handle the drug and alcohol references) would be the target audience.

Published by Henry Holt & Co. (BYR), March 26, 2019
eARC obtained from Edelweiss
288 pages

Rating: 3.5/5

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He book cover and review

Descendent of the Crane will sweep you along and keep you rooting for our heroine.

Princess Hesina, who wants nothing to do with ruling her country, finds herself Queen after the sudden death of her father. His death was ruled a natural one, but Hesina has reason to believe he was poisoned and with her evidence demands that a trial be conducted. She risks everything and commits treason by consulting a soothsayer. The woman leads her to a mysterious convict, who Hesina must see released from prison and put in charge of representing her at the trial. This trial will change everything for Hesina. Secrets beyond her belief are revealed. She loses people she loves and must fight with everything she has to keep her kingdom. 

Readers are engrossed as Hesina tries to follow the tenants written by the historical figures, ONE of the ELEVEN and TWO of the ELEVEN, who saved her country from collapse many years ago. Each chapter begins with two of these tenants. These ELEVEN outlawed the soothsayers and executed all they could find. Hesina’s dilemma is palpable, as she feels sympathy for these people and must deny it or lose her throne and possibly her life. 

As you turn pages, the danger continues to mount and none of Hesina’s options seem acceptable. At each turn, she is thwarted. And the betrayals are stunning. The epilogue gives the devastating ending closure but definitely leaves the door open for a sequel. 

In a market rife with stories where “strong, royal women face impossible odds,” this one includes a supernatural element and will appeal to fans of fantasy set in a different world.

Published by Albert Whitman & Co., April 2, 2019
ARC obtained from School Library Connection Magazine
416 pages

Rating: 4.5/5

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Review: Brawler by Neil Connelly

Brawler by Neil Connelly book cover and review
While I readily acknowledge I am not the target audience, Brawler was not the book for me.

Mac has hopes and dreams of getting a full ride scholarship to the college of his dreams because of his wrestling skills. He blows everything when he throws a punch at a referee at the state competition semi-finals. Not only does this get him expelled from finishing high school, but he is also going to be charged for the assault.

I have so many problems. First of all, Mac has a lot of baggage from when he was little and his father beat his mother almost to death. Mac witnessed the whole thing. So he has anger issues. No counseling? Just throw him out? This problem was obvious way before his final wrestling match--his coach knows it, his mother knows it...uh...come on.

Mac gets "saved" by a mysterious guy who gets him involved in an illegal fighting ring, the Brawlers, run by a gang boss. He is allowed to beat guys to a pulp now and makes a lot of money doing it. But, he's also beholden to the boss, who makes him beat up other people who he is unhappy with. He's being trained by a high school girl, who for some reason knows how to fight. She is also indebted to the boss, so she must do this. Ummm....right.

So this goes on for most of the book, and every fight is explained in meticulous, gory details that I ended up skimming. Mac barely feels any guilt for what his life has become and what he is doing. And he is enjoying more money than he has ever seen.

In the last thirty pages, he decides what he is doing is wrong and fixes it. Very easily and quickly with barely any consequences. Really? Where's the moral? You want high school kids to read this and know that after all that, everything turns out okay for Mac?

The writing is good (very descriptive) and the plot moves quickly. High school wrestlers who are reluctant readers might be pointed to Brawler. But only if they are unimpressionable and realistic. This isn't a book I would have chosen to read on my own. It was sent to me for review. And to reiterate, I know I'm not the target audience. But still...I'm having a hard time picturing who is.

Published by Arthur A. Levine, March 26, 2019
ARC obtained from School Library Connection Magazine
320 pages

Rating: 3/5

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Book Review: American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, by Stephanie Marie Thornton @BerkleyPub

American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, book cover and review
What a character Alice Roosevelt was, and American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt did such a good job of telling her story. I was captivated.

I love historical novels.  American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt starts out when the Roosevelts find out that Theodore is president because of the assassination of President McKinley. They really had fun in The White House. Alice was the oldest, the only child of Theodore's first wife, who died two days after Alice was born. Because of this, she and her father weren't very close, because she reminded him too much of his first wife. Alice was a rebel and very outspoken, without much thought of the consequences. Alice was also extremely intelligent and politically savvy.

She fell in love with a congressman, Nicholas Longworth, who eventually became Speaker of the House. I could go on and on and tell you all sorts of juicy stories about her life. She lived to be 96, so there was a lot to tell. Lots of cheating husbands (and wives), backstabbing, political maneuvering, and secrets to keep you entertained. It reads like a soap opera, and it's pretty much true. Another tidbit to whet your appetite -- she had an illegitimate child!

At the end of the book, Thornton explains the parts that were not precisely true. She messed with the timelines a bit, some quotes were credited to the wrong people, a few minor characters were combinations of people, etc. But mostly, it is all true. You will learn so much about the Roosevelts and the general politics of the time. Alice attended the Bicentennial State Dinner at The White House in 1976! Just think of everything she lived through, like two world wars and the depression, to name a few.

It was a coincidence that my husband wanted to start watching the Ken Burns documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History while I was reading this. We have only watched the first episode, but I am excited to watch the rest and compare. If you are at all interested in this historical time period, don't miss this one.

Published by Berkley, March 12, 2019
eARC obtained from NetGalley
448 pages

Rating: 5/5

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Monday, March 4, 2019

Audiobook Review: This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel

This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel book cover and review
This is How it Always Is is a thought-provoking, beautifully written story about a transgender child and the family surrounding her.

Frankel does  a good job setting the stage for the family dynamics and their background before the birth of their fifth child, Claude, who joined four brothers. At the age of three, Claude told his parents that when he grows up he wants to be a girl.

Claude always prefers wearing dresses and other trappings of little girls, including fairy wings. When Claude starts school, he tries to fit in as a boy, but every day when he gets home, he changes into his preferred clothes. His parents are very supportive -- maybe too supportive. When things get difficult, they move to Seattle, uprooting the entire family for the sake of Claude. In Seattle, they keep a secret. Claude becomes Poppy, and everyone is happy except for Poppy's older brother who was torn from a school and activities and friends that he loved. He never recovered.

But of course, things get complicated as Poppy grows up, and no matter how supportive you are, as parents you realize life is not going to be easy for Poppy.

The language is descriptive and the characterizations make you feel like these people are your neighbors. The pacing is on the slow side, but the narrator helped make that okay. I really enjoyed the audio version, and as I often say, I'm not sure I would have persevered if I were reading the print copy. But maybe I would have.  Because I really liked the way This is How it Always Is is written. Apparently Frankel writes from personal experience, and it shows.

Anyway, I'm going to recommend this to a bunch of people. I have a lot of teacher/social worker/counselor/psychologist friends that will enjoy it. Not that I think those are the only people that would. This is How it Always Is will make you think about these people and their place in society like never before. I love a book that makes you think.

Published by Flatiron, 2017, Macmillan Audio
Audiobook obtained from the library
336 pages

Rating: 4/5

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