Friday, January 31, 2020

Freeform Friday -- America's Battle of the Books

Today's spotlight is Battle of the Books. Have you heard of Battle of the Books? If you've got kids in school, chances are you have. Not all schools participate, and schools must purchase memberships in order to officially participate, so it's not required and not all schools do it. It's a lot of fun! It's a good incentive for kids to read, and the competitions are a good motivation to read your books, work in a team, and have a good time talking about books and literature.

This year is only the second year my kids' elementary school has held a Battle of the Books, and so we're still learning and working out some kinks. However, I'm excited because I get to be on the PTA team and we're taking on the third grade teachers. We'll see how this goes! We have a team of five and we're each reading four books, with the goal of all of us reading as many of the books as we can and just being specialists of our five. We will be dressing up in themed costumes, of course, and we fully intend to make a good showing against those teachers.

Due to copyright  of the book lists I can't post the books directly onto our page, but here is the book list menu for all different grades. I was pleased to see a lot of really fun books on all of the different grade level lists--a mixture of new books and some old classics. It was fun to see what books I read when I was a kid that are considered classics and worth reading even now (some I was a little surprised by). I recommend you go check out Battle of the Books and browse around their website if you think this is something you'd like to have your child participate in, or even if you're just interested in seeing what young readers are up to!

America's Battle of the Books

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Roar Like a Dandelion - Ruth Krauss (Illus. Sergio Ruzzier)

*I was given this book for free in exchange for an honest review*

Summary: Dance with a leaf. 
Jump like a raindrop. 
Sit in the sun and shine.

Not since A Hole is to Dig and Open House for Butterflies have we seen such electric and playful words on a page. This never-before-published story from Ruth Krauss -- one of the most beloved children's book authors of all time-- and celebrated artist Sergio Ruzzier is a remarkable collaboration that captures the timeless spirit of Krauss's signature wit and humor. Paired with Ruzzier's playful and irresistible drawings, this story will delight readers of all ages and inspire them to roar like dandelions. (Summary from book sleeve - Image from

My Review:  When Roar Like a Dandelion showed up in my mailbox, I was delighted by the front cover.  The illustration (of a roaring bee) was adorable and its title hinted at a cleverness inside I couldn't wait to explore, so I sat down my youngest (age 7) to give it a go. 

Roar Like a Dandelion
 is an ABC book with action phrases that begin with letters of the alphabet.  Some of the phrases are cute or silly (e.g. Butt like a billy goat, Kick away the snow and make spring come, Jump like a raindrop, Roar like a dandelion) while others were rather puzzling for both of us (e.g. Eat all the locks off the doors, Open your eyes, see the sea. Shut them fast, lock it inUndress to match trees in winter, Vote for Yourself).  It is in the artwork that this book truly shines.  The illustrations are filled with colorful, quirky animals acting out each phrase, be they silly or serious, and I could tell my daughter liked them by the way her eyes darted around as I read.

From an adult perspective, I felt a little let down by the book.  I think that some of the ''humorous' wording might go over the heads of younger readers, as if the reading level and the type of book didn't quite match up.  I could tell that my daughter didn't understand parts of it because she didn't laugh much while I was reading and I kept having to stop and point out what was 'funny.'  However, she did LOVE looking at the pictures and at the end of the book.  When I asked her if she liked the book, she gave me an enthusiastic 'Yes!' and proceeded to "butt" me like a billy goat. WHAM! So that's something.  For my part, I think the artist outdid the writer on this one, but it might be worth a look at your local library to see if it is your kid's kind of quirky.

My Rating:  2.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  All clear.  Unless you take issue with animals behaving in a human-like way.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Old Bones - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Summary: Nora Kelly, a young but successful curator with a series of important excavations already under her belt, is approached by the handsome Historian, Clive Benton, to lead an expedition unlike any other. Clive tells his story--one involving the ill-fated Donner Party, who became permanently lodged in the American consciousness in the winter of 1847, when the first skeletonized survivors of the party stumbled out of the California mountains, replete with tales of courage, resourcefulness, bad luck, murder, barbarism--and, finally, starvation and cannibalism.

Captivated by the Donner Party, Nora agrees and they venture into the Sierra Nevada in search of the camp. Quickly, they learn that the discovery of the missing starvation camp is just the tip of the iceberg--and that the real truth behind those long-dead pioneers is not only far more complex and surprising than they could have imagined...but it is one that puts them both in mortal danger from a very real, present-day threat in which the search for the lost party, and its fabled fortune in gold, are merely means to a horrifying end. (Summary and pic from

My Review: As avid readers, I know that you complete understand what I’m about to say—there are some authors I just really, really like, and I will read pretty much all of their stuff. That’s it. No surprise really, right? There are authors that I’m proud to say that I do this for—Barbara Kingsolver is one of them, Alice Hoffman, Kristin Hannah, and many others. I feel cool and literary when I say such things and name drop. Then there are some authors that I really love that write really long series of books that aren’t necessarily super serious or known for their ability to win the Pulitzer. They’re just good. They’re fun, they’re comfortable, they feel like home. When a new book comes out in one of the much-beloved series, I read it. If they start a new series, I’ll read at least the first one, knowing that even if I don’t love it I still love the authors so much and there are so many things in the canon that I do love that it’s all good. Three authors come to mind—Alan Bradley (Flavia de Luce is possibly my fave character of all time), Alexander McCall Smith (Precious Ramotswe is infinitely wise and I love the stories), and the writing duo Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (because Agent Pendergast is the coolest). It was easy to pick these three authors, of course, because they are all enormously popular and well-loved and if you haven’t read anything from even one of them, I suggest you do that right now. Like RIGHT now.

Today I am excited because Preston and Child have started a new series. I am an avid fan of the Agent Pendergast series, and as soon as those books come out I read them and love them and just appreciate how cool Pendergast is and what great storytellers Preston and Child are. This is a new spinoff series based on two acquaintances of Agent Pendergast, and although he makes an appearance at the very end, the two leads are two cool and empowered women that have been mentioned before in other stories—Dr. Nora Kelly, an archaeologist, and Special Agent Corrie Swanson of the FBI. Both of these women are educated, talented, and no-nonsense kind of gals. They’re good at what they do, they know it, and they are competent. Preston and Child have other cool female characters in the Pendergast series, and those women are often way cooler than their male counterparts, which, ya know. Reality? However, having two female leads is a fun and interesting change to the typical Pendergast novels. It adds different elements to the story and the relationships are different as well, which is also a fun change.

One thing I really enjoy about the Preston and Child books is that they have interesting backgrounds for their stories. There is always something compelling and mysterious or exotic about topics they have chosen, and I find that endlessly delightful. This book is of no exception. Not only does it include murder and mystery, but it includes an archaeological dig for the Donner Party. I mean. Talk about fascinating. Who isn’t equally disturbed and fascinated with the Donner Party? The idea of a lost diary found from one of the Donner Party that not only mentions a lost camp but also a potential treasure of gold worth $20 million? This is thriller novel gold, people.

This book has the strengths that I love in the Pendergast series—a fast-paced, interesting story; great characters who are interesting and relatable, including some that are incredibly flawed; an enjoyable reading experience where the writing is so practiced and honed that you can speed along and finish a book in just a few hours, should that be your thing (it should). I just really enjoy the opportunity I have to appreciate a good book without having to be super committed to series concepts or very difficult literary concepts and ideas. Sometimes I just want to binge on brain candy. These books are just that—brain candy with interest and facts and cool characters and great storytelling. Like I said—it’s got it all.

If you have read any of the Lincoln and Child series (they have several), or are looking for a fast-paced thriller that can either stand alone or allow for more reading later when the next one(s) come out, I highly recommend this book. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s fast-paced, it’s well-written.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and discussion of violence, although nothing is too descriptive or extreme.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Freeform Friday - 17 Books We Don't Like to Talk About (That You Should Probably Read)

Like it or not, life isn't always cupcakes and rainbows.  There is a lot of darkness and misery in the world that no amount of sugar can sweeten and no amount of wishing can will away.  We can either go through life with blinders on or dive into the abyss, tackle the tough issues, gain some perspective, and try to help those who are struggling. 

Though this is by no means a comprehensive list, here are seventeen non-fiction books that delve into subjects we often find unpleasant to discuss (but probably should anyway): sexual abuse, domestic violence, racism, war, genocide, child abuse, medical disorders, terrorism, and more.  We've read them all and highly suggest you pick one up.

Things We Haven't Said: Sexual Violence Survivors Speak Out

Make no mistake, this is not fluffy chick lit.  It's the ugliest kind of waking nightmare, but a book that I highly encourage you to read if you feel up to it.  In doing so, you honor a survivor's voice and give them an opportunity to tell you their story on their own terms.  I promise, you will come away changed in some way. 

Read our full review here...

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya

Clemantine Wamariya was so young when she and her sister fled the genocide. The goal was to stay with her grandmother until things calmed down, but the mobs that engulfed Rwanda didn’t stick to the cities. Her story, the story of flight and survival, the story of bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp, of growing up without a country, relying on her sister to be mother, father, family, and friend, and of her eventual asylum in America is the side of the stories we don’t know. 

Read the rest of our review here.

Facing the Beast by Jackie Bluu

In a collection of simple poems and illustrations, author Jackie Bluu brings to light many of the lasting consequences of sexual assault -- depression, anger, fear, grief, apathy, dysfunction, and the tendency towards self-harm and self-isolation.  Her poetry is raw but powerful, with an authentic voice.  A brief, but favorite example:

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
All I fear are people.     -Jackie Bluu

You can read more about her book here.

Auschwitz Testimonies (1945-1986) by Primo Levi & Leonardo de Benedetti
There is no one who can deny that the Holocaust is one of the—if not the definitive—darkest moments in human history. ...Shortly after the liberation of the camps, and shortly after the survivors started to trickle home, those who hadn’t been exposed to the truth (or those who chose not to believe what was happening miles from their doors) denied their experiences as a vilification of their captors. Men like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, and Victor Frankl were instrumental in speaking for those whose voices were silenced, in bringing to light the atrocities they had suffered under the hands of the Nazis, and in giving us a realistic glimpse into what humanity is capable of with a little nudge—both good and evil.

Read the full review here.

We're Not Leaving: 9/11 Responders Tell Their Stories of Courage, Sacrifice and Renewal 

We're Not Leaving is a brilliant collection of first-person accounts gathered from those who survived and responded to the September 11th terrorist attack on the Word Trade Center.  These powerfully compelling narratives offer revealing perspectives -- from the policemen, firefighters, and EMT's who managed to survive the collapse of the towers, to the pastors, podiatrists, and massage therapists who arrived soon after the attacks to offer aid to wearied workers.  Each account is a poignant and riveting chronicle of their own thoughts and experiences on 9/11 and their role in the many days of rescue, reconstruction, and renewal that followed. 

Read the rest of our review here.

Push (aka Precious) by Sapphire

This is the story of a young girl who endures unimaginable abuse at the hands of her parents.  At school she is ignored by teachers, despite her obvious illiteracy, and tormented by classmates.  She is nothing.  She is no one.  And every night she goes home knowing it will happen again. ...This book is not pretty.  It isn’t pleasant.  It made me want to kill, cry, and throw up – but it is honest, inspiring, and powerfully compelling. 

Read more of our review here.

The Rape of Kuwait: The True Story of Iraqi Atrocities Against a Civilian Population by by Jean P. Sasson

The Rape of Kuwait was quickly written after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in an effort to bring attention to the horrific treatment of the local people by the Iraqi army, and encourage intervention.  Except for a brief history of Kuwait, this book is comprised almost entirely of first-hand accounts of the atrocities committed by the Iraqi military against the citizens of Kuwait.  I don't think I can possibly convey my horror at the depth of cruelty perpetrated by the invading army and condoned by its leaders.  Though it occurred over twenty years ago, I am still haunted by the people whose lives were cut short, whose stories might never be told. 

Read the full review here.

My Little Red Book by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
In years past, women have tended to shy away from discussing topics like sexual development-- which has led to a wealth of misinformation among younger generations as they hit puberty.  My Little Red Book is a rather unique compilation of essays that, through a series “first period” accounts, stresses the lack of communication as women and between women about our bodies. These first-period narratives come in a variety of forms, from poetry to rant to the purposely fictionalized. Many of the experiences are tragic, some mortifying, and others riotously funny.  Each narrative was deeply moving in its’ own way, and collectively insightful.  

Read the rest of our review here.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

This is the diary of a white journalist who temporarily darkens his skin to pass as African American in the deeply segregated southern states. I read it a while ago, when I was on my hiatus and I remember it as deeply powerful and thought-provoking.  Although much has changed since 1961, I strongly suspect know that we still have a long way to go in the fight for racial equality.

(Not reviewed by RFS)

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld

In Rwanda, the spring of 1994 was a season of genocide, as the Hutu people slaughtered over 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors. Their weapon of choice: A machete.  In this book, Jean Hatzfeld interviews nine of the Hutu killers as he tries to get at the root of the issue and understand how an act this horrific could ever been considered 'justifiable'.  Not for the sensitive reader in. any. way.

(Read our full review here.)

So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood, and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids by Dianne Levin & Jean Kilbourne In recent years, a startling number of children, tweens, and teens have demonstrated an alarming interest in sexual behavior, language, and the exploration of sexual relationships, long before such behavior is considered developmentally appropriate. If you’re like me, and this trend scares you senseless, then So Sexy So Soon might be one of the most important parenting books you’ve ever read. Through a series of unsettling examples and well-researched studies, this book shows the negative effects that early exposure to inappropriate imagery can have on our children. It also serves as a scathing indictment of industries that value profit over principle, targeting children through advertisement and spreading the idea that appearance determines an individual’s worth or personal happiness.  (Read our full review here...)

Good Pictures, Bad Pictures: Porn-proofing Today's Young Kids by Kristen A. Jensen

In a world where the number one portal for pornography is in nearly everyone's pocket, it's really not a matter of if  your child will be exposed to pornography's a matter of when.  While I haven't reviewed this book for the blog, I do own it and have used it to prepare my children for what they should do if they encounter pornography.  It only took a week before one of them had to use the strategies this book teaches.  It helps talk about pornography in a way that is easy for children to understand (and for parents to say).

(Not reviewed on RFS).

The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge by Seng Ty

The Years of Zero tells the story of one boy's experience with the Khmer Rouge and subsequent Cambodian genocide.  The boy, Ty, was born to a large family in pre-war Phnom Penh.  His life was devastated when at five years old, the Khmer Rouge took over the city and drove all residents out. Ty fled with his family, was separated from four of his siblings shortly after, and as the youngest, had to watch helplessly as his parents and his closest brother died, eventually making it to a refugee camp and adoption by an American family.  It's a quick read, but not an easy one.

See our full review here

Facing Foward: A Life Reclaimed by Reba D

Facing Forward is a heartbreaking account of one woman's struggle to endure nearly two years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her husband. It is a story both compelling and disturbing. Once I picked it up, I could think of little else. I read it all in a day because I could not go to sleep without seeing the author safely out of her marriage.  The author shared her story in the hope that it could serve as a wake-up call for someone currently living in an abusive relationship or lend some perspective to those trying to support a love one who is being abused.

Read our full review here.

A Child Called It: One Child's Courage to Survive - David Pelzer

A Child Called It is one child's story of unspeakable brutality at the hands of someone who should have loved him.  It is incredibly difficult to read, but will open your eyes and raise awareness of the horrors of child abuse and an incredibly informative read for someone who is trying to understand the subject.

Read the complete review here.

Lucky by Alice Sebold

In Lucky, Sebold takes you from the forefront of a violent crime committed against her, to the depths of the legal system, as well as the depths of a young woman's soul. Starting with the gruesome scene of her attack, she picks her words skillfully, giving great detail, but also not scaring you off from the rest of the book.  In her quest for justice, Sebold gets raked over the coals by the legal system, takes you through the turmoil that soon engulfs her life and back.  A truly exceptional read. 

See our full review here.

The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible...on 
Schindler's List (A Memoir) by Leon Leyson

In this book, Leon Leyson recounts his time as a Polish Jew, the confusion of being expelled from school, the terror of witnessing his brother’s arrest, the difficulties and horrors of the ghetto and camp life in Plaszow and offers a firsthand experience into living under Schindler’s protective shadow. 

Read the complete review here.

Elena Vanishing: A Memoir by Clare B. Dunkle and Elena Dunkle

Elena Vanishing is the story of one girl's battle with anorexia nervosa, and the voices in her head that constantly degrade her.  It helps you get inside the head of someone battling the disease and understand a bit of how their mind works.  A definite must-read for anyone hoping to gain a little insight into anorexia.

Read the full review here.


I won't say 'Happy Reading'....because that's probably not likely.  But you should pick up one of these "hard to read" books, today.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Rose & the Dagger - Renée Ahdieh (The Wrath & the Dawn, Book #2)

The Rose & the Dagger is the second book in The Wrath & The Dawn duology.  Read our review of the first book here.

Summary:  The darker the sky, the brighter the stars.  In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad is forced form the arms of her beloved husband, the Caliph of Khorasan.  She once thought Khalid a monster -- a merciless killer of wives, responsible for immeasurable heartache and pain -- but as she unraveled his secrets, she found instead an extraordinary man and a love she could not deny.  Still, a curse threatens to keep Shazi and Khalid apart forever.

Now she's reunited with her family, who have found refuge in the desert, where a deadly force is gathering against Khalid -- a force set on destroying his empire and commanded by Shazi's spurned childhood sweetheart.  Trapped between loyalties to those she loves, the only thing Shazi can do is act.  Using the burgeoning magic within her as a guide, she strikes out on her own to end both this terrible curse and the brewing war once and for all.  But to do it, she must evade enemies of her own to stay alive.

The sumptuous saga that began with The Wrath and the Dawn takes its final turn as Shahrzad risks everything to find her way back to her one true love again.  (Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review:  Duologies are my new favorite thing.  No waiting for book after book after book after book to come out to get a little resolution.  It's WHAM.  BAM.  Thank you very much.  There's something to be said for not dragging things out.  The Rose & the Dagger is a folkloric retelling and the latter half of a duology inspired by One Thousand and One Nights (better known in the states as Arabian Nights).  If you haven't read the first book, The Wrath & the Dawn, I suggest you read our review which posted back in December 2019. 

The Rose & the Dagger picks up roughly where The Wrath & the Dawn leaves off.  Jahandar's magical temper tantrum has abated, leaving massive casualties and destruction in its wake.  Shazi has been 'rescued' by her well-intentioned ex and spirited away to a rebel encampment in the middle of the desert.  Khalid remains behind to try to repair his kingdom, retain his throne, and learn to live without the woman he cannot bring himself to kill.  Surrounded by her enemies, and desperate to keep her family safe, Shazi must learn to control the strange magic that flows through her veins and find a way to save her husband before it is too late.

The Rose & the Dagger story line wasn't particularly deep, but it was enjoyable.  Thankfully, I wasn't looking for a deep dive anyway.  Sometimes that's great and all, but this time I needed some straight up easy-to-read mind candy and R&D fit the bill.  I enjoyed the principle romance, but also loved the secondary romances that wove through the book.  Where The Wrath & the Dawn occasionally leaned towards 'overly descriptive' in terms of things that set the scene (clothing, food, architecture), this book felt adequately balanced with a flourish of description here and there and nothing too heavy handed.

My least favorite part of the book was a new character named Artan.  From the very beginning, he was a bit much for my taste and, try as I might, I couldn't see him and his dragony-thing as anything other than Atreyu and Falkor from The Neverending Story.  I didn't want to see them that way.  It just kept happening and it reaaaaaaaaally didn't work for me.

The ending was my favorite part of the book because it contained a few twists (and a secondary twist aka 'a twist on a twist') that I did not see coming.  Eventually, the right people get their comeuppance, the women get some serious jabs in, and nearly everyone gets their happily ever after.  When it comes to books like this (entertaining, escapist, easy-to-reads), that is exactly the ending I am hoping to find.  I enjoyed the series and plan to pick up her next duology, beginning with Flame in the Mist, very soon.

My Rating:  4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  A handful of swear words, some making out and one very vague sex scene, if you can call it that. Less face-to-face romance than last time, owing in part to the fact that the main couple were apart for a good chunk of the book. One half-hearted rape attempt.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Iron Flower (Black Witch Chronicles #2) - Laurie Forest

Summary: Elloren Gardner and her friends were only seeking to right a few wrongs, but their actions have propelled them straight into the ranks of the realm-wide Resistance against Gardnerian encroachment. As the Resistance struggles against the harsh rulings of High Priest Marcus Vogel and the Mage Council, Elloren begins to realize that none of the people she cares about will be safe if Gardneria seizes control of the Western Realm.

With tensions heating up in Verpacia, more and more Gardnerian soldiers continue to descend upon the university…led by none other than Lukas Grey, now commander of the newly rebuilt Fourth Division base. Though Elloren tries to keep him at arm’s length, Lukas is determined to wandfast to her, convinced that she has inherited her grandmother’s magic—the prophesied power of the Black Witch. As his very nearness seems to awaken a darkness inside her, Elloren finds it more and more difficult to believe that she’s truly powerless, as her uncle always claimed.

Caught between her growing feelings for the rebellious Yvan Guriel and the seductive power offered by Lukas Grey, Elloren must find a way to stay true to what she knows is right and protect everyone she loves…even if that means protecting them from herself. (Summary and pic from

My Review: Well! So continues the saga. If you haven’t read the first book, The Black Witch, I don’t think it’s completely necessary, but you’ll wish you had. You can read my review here.

This book was a lot of things the first installment wasn’t. First off, it’s way more in the fantasy genre. Whereas the first one felt Harry Potter-esque in that they were at a magical school and everyone was just discovering their powers, this book goes full-on into the different races of magical beings and addresses more their differences and their backgrounds, including their looks. In a more main-stream book that had magic in it (like the Harry Potter series, which is always my go-to for a good fantasy/magic crossover) races wouldn’t look as different or be as deeply fantastical. At first this was difficult for me, as I’m not a huge reader of high fantasy and am not as completely familiar with all of the vernacular as some. There is definitely a learning curve for someone like me who doesn’t read a lot of high fantasy, whereas someone who does may be more familiar with the terms. Being a YA fic novel, though, these things were well-addressed and I didn’t feel completely lost. By the end I felt pretty well-versed in what was going on, even though the terms weren’t completely familiar at the beginning of the read.

Another thing that this book really leaned into was the romantic element. There was a lot of discussion of “affinity lines” and different character’s “affinity lines” moving towards each other, entwining together, getting all hot and heavy about affinity lines…and because of this, I would say that this book is probably for at least mid to older teens. It would be pretty intense for a young teenager, and although the discussion is always about “affinity lines,” it is heavily nuanced and very suggestive. I’ve read all of the novellas in between these novels, and they definitely have a lot more romantic discussions and goings-on than the main installments of the series. However, that is something that definitely needs to be mentioned.

Things got a lot darker in this book. I liked that, actually, because it upped the stakes. It made for some difficulty in reading about the abuse and injustice going on, but I think this is a good way for readers of this age to experience and witness oppression and those who are willing to fight against it. Although it takes place in a fantastical realm, it definitely has real-world echoes and implications and I think this is a great way to get the youth thinking about these situations.

One complaint that I have about this series so far is I’m really ready for this girl to come into her magic already. I’m not giving anything away here, I don’t think; it’s completely obvious what’s going to happen (or what should happen! Maybe I’m wrong!). It’s happening slowly, everybody in All the Land knows what’s up and yet we’re still waiting. It’s been two books already. C’mon! Let’s do this! I feel like at this point she’s a little clueless. Maybe it would be this way in real life? I don’t think so, though. C’mon girl. Figure this out. Anyway, I’m hoping that I’m rewarded for my patience.

If you’re into fantasy, especially high fantasy (because this is basically that). This book is YA, although many of the themes and content is bordering on New Adult, so I think older teens and adults alike would enjoy it.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There isn’t a lot of language, but there is a lot of sexual innuendo.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Freeform Friday: Where to Find Your New Fave Book

Hey there! Do you have a hard time finding a new book? Are you sick of the Facebook "hive mind" as your only option to get a recommendation? Check out this video about LOTS of different places to find new books. I hope you find a new fave place to find a new fave book!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Stepsister - Jennifer Donnelly

Summary:  Isabelle should be blissfully happy -- she's about to win the handsome prince.  Except Isabelle isn't the beautiful girl who lost the glass slipper and captured the prince's heart.  She's the ugly stepsister who cut off her toes to fit into Cinderella's shoe...which is now filling with blood.

When the prince discovers Isabelle's deception, she's turned away in shame.  It's not more than she deserves.  She cut away pieces of herself in order to become pretty.  Sweet.  More like Cinderella.  But that only made her mean, jealous, and hollow.  Now she has a chance to alter her destiny and prove what ugly stepsisters have always known:

It takes more than heartache to break a girl.

Evoking the darker, original version of the Cinderella story, Stepsister shows us that ugly is in the eye of the beholder, and uses Jennifer Donnelly's trademark wit and wisdom to send an overlooked character on a journey toward empowerment, redemption...and a new definition of beauty.

(Summary from book sleeve - Image from

My Review:  I'm not going to waste your time by beating around the bush.  Stepsister is ah-mazing.  It's the best kind of fairy tale retelling -- instantly captivating, achingly familiar in an original way, and graced with an unbelievably compelling message.  Go ahead and add it to your shopping list/cart or reserve it at the library.  I'll wait. ........ Are you back?  Okay, I'll elaborate.

There have been numerous versions of the Cinderella story, and a fair few that focus more on the stepsister side of things, but none have hit me quite as hard as this one did.  Stepsister was utterly riveting, with brilliant phrasing, and ominous, lyrical prose reminiscent of the old Grimm fairy tales but with a more modern message.  If I'm being perfectly honest, Connelly hooked me with the dedication, which read "To everyone who's ever felt that they're not enough" and sealed the deal with the following foreword:
This is a dark tale.  A grim tale.  It's a tale from another time, a time when wolves waited for girls in the forest, beasts paced the halls of cursed castles, and witches lurked in gingerbread houses with sugar-kissed roofs.  That time is long gone.But the wolves are still here and twice as clever.  The beasts remain.  And death still hides in a dusting of white. It's grim for any girl who loses her way. Grimmer still for a girl who loses herself. Know that it's dangerous to stray from the path. But it's far more dangerous not to.
It gave me chills! The dazzling story that follows is a blend of dark, ancient magic, perilous adventure, and sweet romance, with an electrifying lesson on fairy tale feminism.  I was straight up swept away.

Stepsister is one of those rare YA fiction books that I plan to hand to my teenage daughters in the hopes that they not only enjoy the ride, but actually internalize the message.  I'm also not above buying several copies and leaving them strategically placed around the house.  There were many  times where I was so floored by the real life application of the story, I would have started highlighting if I hadn't been reading a library copy.  Isabelle's story begins rather bleakly, but her character arc is immensely empowering and laced with deep observations on human nature that might have felt out of place in a fairy tale retelling, if the book weren't so startlingly well-written.    Along the way, she learns lessons about the importance being authentic, listening to her own voice, loving herself and others, embracing her own strengths, and not letting others define or diminish her.  I can't think of anything a teen needs to hear more.

Now, I could blather on appreciatively for days, but I suspect Connelly's own words will do more to illustrate what I mean, so here are ten of my favorite quotes from the book:
History books say that kings and dukes and generals start wars.  Don't believe it.  We start them, you and I.  Every time we turn away, keep quiet, stay out of it, behave ourselves.
...cruelty never came from a place of strength; it came from the darkest, dankest, weakest place inside you.
Ella is the beauty.  You and I are the ugly stepsisters.  And so the world reduces us, all three of us, to our lowest common denominator.
Most people will fight when there is some hope of winning, no matter how slim. They are called brave.  Only a few will keep fighting when all hope is gone.  They are called warriors.  Isabelle was a warrior once, though she had forgotten it.
Here are the things girls die of: hunger, disease, accidents, childbirth, and violence.  It takes more than heartache to kill a girl.  Girls are tough as rocks., I can't make myself likable. I've tried.  Over and over. It doesn't work. If I don't like who I am, why should you?
This world, the people in it...they sort us. Put us in crates. You are an egg. You area potato.  You are a cabbage. They tell us who we are.  What we will do. What we will be. "Because they are afraid. Afraid of what we could be," Tavi said. "But we let them do it!" Hugo said angrily, "Why?"  Tavi gave him a rueful smile. "Because we're afraid of what we could be, too. 
They were not pretty, these women.  Pretty did not begin to describe them. They were shrewd.  Powerful.  Wily. Proud.  Dangerous.  They were strong.  They were brave.  They were beautiful.
Every war is different, yet each battle is the same. The enemy is only a distraction.  The thing you are fighting against, always, is yourself.
She'd listened to him.  She'd believed him.  She'd let him tell her who she was. And after him Maman, suitors, the grand duke, Cecile, the bakers wife, the villagers of Saint-Michel.  "They cut away pieces of me" she whispered in the darkness."But I handed them the knife."
There are countless more moments of solid gold wisdom...but they give away too much to share without spoiling things.  Long story short, I loved this book.  If you love fairy tale retellings or if you've ever felt less than, stuck in a situation you cannot change, or shoved into a mold of someone else's making, I highly recommend this book.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  Some battle-field violence.  A girl cuts off her toes, but it is not described.  Four or five swear words (of the B, A, and H variety). A little kissing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Finale - Stephanie Garber

Summary: A love worth fighting for. A dream worth dying for. An ending worth waiting for.

It’s been two months since the Fates were freed from a deck of cards, two months since Legend claimed the throne for his own, and two months since Tella discovered the boy she fell in love with doesn’t really exist.

With lives, empires, and hearts hanging in the balance, Tella must decide if she’s going to trust Legend or a former enemy. After uncovering a secret that upends her life, Scarlett will need to do the impossible. And Legend has a choice to make that will forever change and define him.

Caraval is over, but perhaps the greatest game of all has begun. There are no spectators this time—only those who will win, and those who will lose everything.

Welcome, welcome to Finale. All games must come to an end… (Summary and pic from

My Review: Ah, the end of a series. I know a few people who, when they love a series, will re-read the entire thing each time a new book comes out. I haven’t done that, I must admit, and if I did do it, it would have to be in a series that I absolutely loved. I loved the Harry Potter series, but I didn’t do that, and there were a few things I couldn’t remember each time I started, but within a short while I was caught up. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I don’t have a picture perfect memory. When it’s been a year or more since I’ve read something, sometimes I’m a little fuzzy on the details unless I’ve spent a ton of time with the characters or watched the movie. That brings me to this book. I remember the first books, I certainly remember how I feel when reading them (it’s a very immersive world), but it took me a little while to jump back in to what was happening. Part of the issue was that it picked up exactly where the last book left off, which is sometimes a little confusing just because there is very little back-story to kick you into gear and figure out where you should be. Luckily, I figured it out and was able to read along and pick up details as needed as I went.

Have you read the other two books in the trilogy? You can read my reviews for both: Caraval and Legendary.

So what is great about this book? Well, I think the world-building is really fun, and the creation of the atmosphere of it. This book has a very specific, magical fantasy feel to it. It’s unlike other books I’ve read. There are a lot of YA books that delve into the fantastic and dystopian, but they can often feel alike. This book feels different. It has a very specific feeling and she uses very specific words to describe it. That is, in part, one of my complaints about it as well. And I think I’ve mentioned this in the past reviews—it gets a bit excessive and a bit wordy. In addition, some of the descriptions are like mad libs. Sometimes they’ll make sense, and sometimes they’re two words that don’t even go together and don’t necessarily bring a new way of thinking about the (scent, look, feel, etc.), but instead are just silly and at times ridiculous. I’m sure younger readers will eat this kind of stuff up, but I’m old and cynical and sometimes I like my metaphors and descriptors to make sense. I’m not asking a lot, ya know?

The story in this book is fun. It’s got a lot of twists and turns (and sometimes it’s a little difficult to keep track of them because of it) but it certainly makes for a quick and fun read. It’s a long book, but it moves quickly. The story and characters are interesting, and I especially like the idea of the Fates and the magic that goes with them. I think there is potential for many spinoffs to this trilogy. It’s a rich world with lots of potential, and that’s a lot of fun. Some prequels would also be in order, as the Fates are really interesting and could make for their own adventures and stories.

If you are into YA Fic, especially magic and fantasy, this would be a fun book. I feel that teenage boys probably wouldn’t go for it as there’s quite a bit of romance and it’s quite fluffy in some aspects in that way (i.e. the descriptors and the clothes and the romance) but I know many teenage girls who would love this series. If that’s your jam, you should check this out.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean, actually, with no language. It was a lovely surprise.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Freeform Friday: 15 of My Favorite Reading Challenges for 2020

It's that time of year when a lot of people starting thinking about goals.  Most of them seem to revolve around fitness, but why not set a goal to strengthen your brain with a few good books?!  There are a million reading challenges out there, but I've compiled/created a few of my favorites to give you a little inspiration.  If the numbers feel a little too hard/easy, feel free to tweak them to fit your needs, age, and abilities.  Several of them might even work well for your kiddos.

  • A Book a Week Challenge:  Read 52 books in 52 weeks. If this seems a little high, that's ok.  Maybe 12 books in 12 months is more your speed.  Set a goal that works for you!
  • The ABC Challenge: Read a title/author for every letter of the alphabet. (e.g. Ahab's Wife, Bird Box, Catch-22... OR Austen, Bradbury, Cisneros...)  
  • The Rainbow Challenge: Read books with colors in the title (e.g. A Clockwork Orange, Blue Asylum, Red Road, The Color Purple, White get the idea.)  
  • The Get Out of Your Comfort Zone Challenge: Read in a genre you've ordinarily snubbed.  Try some poetry.  Maybe read in the classics.  You might be surprised by what you find!  
  • The Book Swap Challenge - Get together with a friend and select 12 books for the other friend to read.  One for each month!
  • The 2020 Challenge:  Read 20 Fiction and 20 Non-fiction titles!  Not your thing?  Read 20 NYT Bestsellers and 20 Classics! 
  • The Read Outside Your Ethnicity Challenge:  Read a set number of books by authors from a different ethnic background/experience than your own.  
  • The Genre Gauntlet:  Read a book from 12 different genres.  Use this list or create your own: Classic, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Crime, Biography, Thriller, Self-Help, Mystery, Romance, Western, Dystopian Fiction, Memoir). 
  • Around the World Challenge:  Read books either set in or written by authors from around the world.  How many you read is up to you!
  • The Spiritual Feast Challenge: Read a book a month that feeds your soul.  This could be scripture or simply spiritual in nature.  Get ready to be uplifted!
  • The (Inter)Personal Improvement Challenge:  Read a book a month designed to help you become a better person or improve your personal relationships.  (e.g. The Anatomy of Peace, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Five Love Languages, etc.)
  • The Long Lost Love Challenge:  Sick of being disappointed with your TBR pile?  Re-read all your old favorites this year!  You already know it will be great!
  • The I'm Too Busy To Read Challenge:  Don't have time to sit down with a good book?  No worries!  'Read' with your ears!  Try listening to 1-2 books a month throughout the year, while you are busy doing other things. Folding laundry just got a gazillion times more fun!
  • The Clean Out Your E-Reader Challenge: We've all fallen victim to the free/reduced E-book.  Read 'em and delete that aren't worth keeping.  
  • The Trust Your Librarian Challenge:  Go to your local library and ask your favorite librarian(s) for their recommendations without giving them any qualifiers. I'm fairly certain they won't run out of suggestions, so your reading list can be as long or as short as you need.
BONUS CHALLENGES (for the serious reader only ;)
  • The TBR Challenge: We all have that To-Be-Read Pile.  Make it disappear!  Bwahahaa! Okay, we admit it.  This one might be a little unrealistic. 
  • READ THE BOOKS YOU ALREADY OWN:  Okay, this one is for me.  Clearly.
We hope you find a challenge that inspires you this year!  Let us know which challenge you like that best (or if you have one you'd like to share!)

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Odd Dog Out - Rob Biddulph


For busy dogs
a busy day,
of busy work
and busy play....

And one small dog is finding out what being
different is all about.  All Odd Dog wants is
to fit in and she's prepared to go around the
world to find her place in it.  But sometimes
it takes becoming part of the crowd to show
that, actually, it's better to stand out from the
rest.  From award-winning and tremendously
talented Rob Biddulph comes a heartwarming,
funny, and poignant picture book about the
power of being yourself and blazing your own

(Summary from book sleeve - Image from

My Review:  I was delighted to find Odd Dog Out in my mailbox in early December.  I don't remember requesting it for review, so I can only assume that Harper Collins just wanted to make my day (and they did). 

Odd Dog Out is stinking adorable.  It's about a dog who doesn't fit in with the crowd and ends up hitting the road in an attempt to find her tribe.  Eventually, she finds a town where everyone is just like her.  Well, almost everyone.  When Odd dog meets another dog who doesn't fit the mold, she beings to realize that being different isn't all that bad.  In fact, it can be amazing!

Odd Dog Out has a wonderful message of self-acceptance.  It teaches readers that it's okay to be different, to embrace those qualities that make you you, and to love yourself for who you are inside and out.   I adored the colorful pictures (see right, click to enlarge), adorable dachshunds, and rhythmic, rhyming prose.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to encourage tolerance and acceptance, and most especially to those parents of young ones who march to the beat of their own drum.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  You should be fine.  At least, I didn't find anything to offend in this book.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Wren Hunt - Mary Watson

Summary Every Christmas, Wren is chased through the woods near her isolated village by her family's enemies—the Judges—and there’s nothing that she can do to stop it. Once her people, the Augurs, controlled a powerful magic. But now that power lies with the Judges, who are set on destroying her kind for good.

In a desperate bid to save her family, Wren takes a dangerous undercover assignment—as an intern to an influential Judge named Cassa Harkness. Cassa has spent her life researching a transformative spell, which could bring the war between the factions to its absolute end. Caught in a web of deceit, Wren must decide whether or not to gamble on the spell and seal the Augurs’ fate. (Summary and pic from

My Review:  One thing I love about YA Fic is that it’s not afraid to be brave and just have a book that is both real and that also includes magic. There are adult books that do this, of course, but it seems like they are almost always ensconced in the “fantasy” or “sci-fi” realm and it’s really just a certain kind of book. It probably won’t reach someone who is not into that kind of thing, simply because they probably won’t even be looking in that section. YA Fic is not so definitive. Just like the youth are not so set in their ways regarding magic and what is real and what is not, the literature is also more free-flowing. I’m all about it. Now—this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of adults who aren’t into that kind of thing. Of course there are! However, as adults, they know that they’re “into that kind of thing.” If someone asks them if they believe in magic or witchcraft or ghosts, their answer is much more certain and definitive. And if it’s not, like, “I’m not sure. There’s so much evidence to point to there being ghosts. However, I just don’t know.” That is also definitive. You see what I’m saying? I guess what I really want to say is that I like the young adult ability to just dispense with the judgment already and just enjoy a book that includes the real world and magic. This is just such a book.

I loved the magic in this book. It felt old, it felt ingrained in the culture; it felt real. I really enjoyed that it was just part of the characters’ lives, like it was never questioned or confusing about whether or not it was real magic or not. It was just part of them and their family and their family rituals and lore. There’s something magical about that—practices and beliefs so deep that it just becomes part of who you are. I loved that the characters related to it on a fundamental level. Even if they thought that some of the rituals and magic weren’t working, or if they questioned it, it wasn’t that they questioned the existence of it; they merely questioned the efficacy. That alone gave the magic an ancient feeling and believability that was fun. I also enjoyed that this book took place in the real world as opposed to a paranormal world or something more fantastical. That made the magic feel more realistic and ingrained and interesting. It's almost like when not believing is not an option, what to believe and how to incorporate it becomes more fundamental and more interesting. I loved that these teens were faced with this alternate option to the world and to the existence of magic.

I enjoyed the characters in this book as well. This wasn’t my all-time favorite female protagonist, but I think that’s because she is not completely developed in this book yet. I’m giving her the next book or so to see what comes of her and her ambitions. I enjoyed what I saw so far, I just think there could have been more there. There were definitely some promising moves at the end of the book that I’m thinking will lead to some awesomeness upcoming. There were also some good villains, which is key. It’s hard to fight against evil when the evil just isn’t that…evil. There were definitely some legit foes that could cause some drama in the upcoming books. That being said, I'm hoping that the female protagonist can step it up or the evil is going to take it over and I'm not sure I'm all about a book like that. 

I liked the story of this book. I’m hoping there’s more to it in the books to come. There were definitely some holes and some weaknesses in the storyline, but I am letting it slide for now because I know there are more books coming. A good author doesn’t give away all the secrets in the beginning otherwise there’s nothing to look forward to! Now, if my questions aren’t answered and there are lots of holes in the books to come, I’ll start to wonder, but for now I’m definitely intrigued and looking forward to the next installment!

If you are a lover of YA Fic, especially the kind that deals with old magic and magical cultures, this book is for you.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is pretty clean with some minor language.


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