I've discovered that posting only two times a week (rather than four) means that I don't post very many reviews (like, pretty much none). In a way, I'm okay with that, because who really has time to write all these reviews? But on the other hand, I love having that record of my reading and my opinion to look back on. So I thought I would write a few two sentence reviews of books I've recently read.
The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Story Thieves by James Riley
Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein
This is the sequel to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, which is one of my all-time favorite middle grade novels. Kyle Keeley and several of his classmates are locked in the brand-new library for the night, and they have to solve clues to escape. The first one out becomes the new face of the Lemoncello game company. In Mr. Lemoncello's Library Olympics, other middle school book lovers have demanded a rematch and a chance to participate. There are new characters from across the country, new games and clues to solve, and of course, more utter wackiness from Mr. Lemoncello. It's just as much fun as the first book in the series, as Kyle and his friends race to win the Library Olympics - and to save the library as well.
Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine
What if the Great Library of Alexandria never burned down? And what if it now controls the dissemination of information to the entire world? What if real, paper-and-ink books are only found on the black market? Jess' family's business is exactly that - black market trading of books. But his family wants him on the inside, so he is sent to be trained to work for the Library. It turns out working for the Library is a lot more dangerous and full of secrets than you would ever expect. Rachel Caine has created an interesting alternate history, full of mystery and suspense. My only complaint is that it seems too much like a set-up for the rest of the series. It suffers from "second book of a trilogy"-itis, except it's only the first book. Despite this, I was definitely drawn into the world she created, and I'm glad the second book was just published so I can continue to follow Jess' story!
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch
Have you ever dreamed of owning a bookstore? I most certainly have! So did Wendy Welch and her husband Jack. When they moved to Big Stone Gap, Virginia, they found a beautiful house that would work perfectly for a bookstore, and they dived in with both feet. They soon discovered they were a little in over their heads, but that didn't stop them from giving everything they had to keep their little bookstore going. This is a delightful book. It is chock-full of funny anecdotes and book love and crazy customers. It also is an ode to the power of both books and community, as Jack and Wendy slowly find their place in a small town. Read this book curled up in a comfy chair, sipping a mug of tea, and prepare to fall in love with the little bookstore of Big Stone Gap.
The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander was one of my favorite series as a kid. I read it several times, but that was all long ago. I had never reread it as an adult, so I decided this year to reread one book a month. I was hoping that it would live up to the rosy glow of my childhood view. And it did!
Now I just need to enumerate all of the many reasons why you should read (or reread) it, too.
1. It's an epic fantasy, the ultimate battle between good and evil.
2. As an epic fantasy, it has the great and glorious hero (Prince Gwydion), but he really takes a back seat to the true hero of the books - Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper.
3. If you couldn't tell from a hero like that, these books are funny. Not rolling-on-the-floor, telling-jokes funny. Just humorous in a light-hearted way. And you will definitely laugh out loud.
4. The characters grow throughout the five-book series. Taran has a lot of maturing to do from his beginning as a hapless Assistant Pig-Keeper, and he does it very believably as the series continues.
5. There are creatures of all sorts, from a fortune-telling pig to a giant cat to a hairy creature of undetermined nature (Gurgi. He's one of my favorites.).
6. Prydain is loosely modeled on Wales, and takes some of its inspiration from Welsh folklore. It's just as magical a place to escape into as Narnia or Middle-Earth.
In short, you will enjoy these books if you are a fan of:
Image credit: http://oldkingdom.com.au/author_books.html
Farmer Boy is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's future husband, Almanzo, as a child. It was interesting to see the similarities between the two. There is still a lot of time spent describing the food they ate (it made me hungry), as well as all the work they did to survive. The differences were pretty interesting also. Since Almanzo's family lived near a town, they weren't in pure survival mode. There were stores that were still a bit of a trip away, but decently convenient. And they had neighbors to visit with - even a parlor in which to receive them!
What struck me most, though, was the innocence of Almanzo. He was a nine-year-old boy. I teach fourth grade, so I'm fairly familiar with nine-year-old boys. They're not like that anymore. It was refreshing to see Almanzo treat his parents with such respect and obedience, even when he got up to some boyish shenanigans. I think this is one of the reasons why the Little House books are still so beloved. They not only give us a picture of a lost time; they give us a picture of a lost childhood innocence.
I reread the Chronicles of Narnia this year for about the twenty billionth time (seriously, I have completely lost track of how many times I have read this series. It's probably not that many, but close!) No matter how many times I read these books, I never get tired of them. They are still some of my all-time favorite books. This time around, I've been trying to figure out why, even after so many visits to Narnia, it never gets old.
1. Memories. An emotional connection to a book lasts a long time. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is one of the first books I remember my mom reading to me. We laid out a blanket in the hallway, camped out, and I entered Narnia for the first time. Rereading these books means revisiting that moment.
2. Adventure. These are great adventure stories! Trekking across the country to take down an evil witch. Or sailing to the end of the world. Or putting on a ring to take you who-knows-where. The adventurer in each of us calls out to join in.
3. Humor. Despite the sometimes scary situations, there is always someone who provides comic relief. It could be a talking animal (beavers and bears come to mind), a dwarf (our DLF), or a pessimistic Marshwiggle. C.S. Lewis also has a genius for inventing names - Queen Prunaprismia, Reepicheep the mouse, Pattertwig the squirrel, Wimbleweather the giant. . . Genius!
4. Layers. The Chronicles of Narnia are books that you can read as a child and as an adult, and get two completely different things out of them. The older you get, the more you see the layers of hidden Christian meaning that Lewis included. It's found to a certain extent in all the books, but some more than others. I have to admit that The Last Battle was a book I never really got as a kid. But this time around, all the imagery of heaven just leaped out at me. I think it may end up being one of my favorite books of the series.
Narnia is a place I will enjoy visiting for the rest of my life. If you haven't ever been there, I hope I've inspired you to try it out. If you have been there, leave your thoughts in the comments. What's your favorite part of Narnia?
I don't honestly remember how I first stumbled across The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens. My guess would be a review from a fellow book blogger. But I've actually seen very little in the blogosphere about The Books of Beginning series. It could have just been a random library find. I guess it doesn't really matter, though, how I discovered this series in the first place. The point of this post is that you need to read them, too.
1. Kate, Michael, and Emma are the heroes of the series. They've been sent from orphanage to orphanage, believing that the parents that abandoned them would never come back for them. And yet, despite - or because of - that, they cling to each other with ferocity. Their love for each other is what gives these books their heart.
2. Just because they love each other doesn't mean they always get along. John Stephens perfectly captures sibling interactions (maybe he stole these from his own kids?). The dialogue between the siblings seem so authentic.
3. Plot twists like you wouldn't believe. When you add time travel and magic to the mix, anything can happen.
4. There are three siblings and three books - each character gets a chance to shine in their own book, but the plots are entwined throughout the series.
5. It's an extremely satisfying series. I just read the third book in the trilogy, which is what prompted me to write this post (I reviewed the first book when I read it a couple of years ago). This is a series that will not let you down. I'm not saying it won't make you cry. I'm just saying the author did a good job of upholding the integrity of the series.
6. These books are funny. Elves and dwarves and their rivalries provide comic relief, as do the siblings' interactions and teasing. I laughed out loud more than once. This alone could hook any middle grade reader, and it certainly hooked me.
Even though I teach fourth grade, I really don't read much middle grade fiction. But this was a series I could not put down and I could not forget about. I couldn't wait for the third book to be released this year, and I devoured it as soon as I could. If you like Narnia or The Hobbit or Harry Potter - or if you would just like to meet some really great kids - then you should most definitely read The Books of Beginning by John Stephens!
So I recently discovered (to my absolute horror) that my mother had never read the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery. Now, this is a series I have read and reread and reread some more. How is it possible that my mom missed out on such beloved books? That has now been remedied. She has read Anne of Green Gables, and I asked her if she would be willing to share her thoughts about it on Smiling Shelves. Here they are!
For some reason, I missed reading some of the childhood classics until I was older. I don’t know why. My mother devoured books when she had time, read to us often, and took us to the library frequently. Before every vacation we made a trip to the library and came home with bags of books. Still, I only discovered The Chronicles of Narnia when I was 25, read Tolkien in my 40’s, and am reading Anne of Green Gables for the first time now in my 60’s (early 60’s, mind you. :) )
It’s different reading books intended for a younger audience when you’re older. I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia three times now, I think, and find new insights each time. I remember being totally absorbed in the Tolkien trilogy. (And, with my imagination, being glad I hadn’t read it as a child).
Anne presents some different thoughts. Had I read these books when I was in middle school, I think I would have reread them a number of times and romanticized them. Now I can enjoy L. M. Montgomery’s thoroughly developed characters and appreciate them from a different point of view. A teacher by trade and also a mom, I keep wanting Marilla to hug Anne, encourage her, praise her for trying to “behave”, and just basically let some things go. That Anne can accept her own imperfections with the experiences she has had in her life is pretty amazing. But what an engaging optimist! Montgomery has you cheering for her in every chapter.
Matthew is consistent as well, with his drawling, “Well, now….” as he gathers his thoughts. His trying to buy Anne a dress and coming home with farm implements was hilarious!
Anne, of course, is my favorite character. One of my favorite chapters was when she nursed Diana’s little sister through the croup, endearing herself (finally) to Diana’s mother. And the walk through the Haunted Wood, when her own imagination had her terrified was laughable. Her rapturously expounding on natural beauty makes one appreciate one’s surroundings a little more.
All in all, I think I am fully enjoying Anne more than I would have had I read it in my teens. Some books can be discovered and savored at any age.
The Underneath is the story of one dog, two kittens, a giant alligator, and a vengeful snake. It’s not a cute book, like I expected a book about kittens to be. Instead, it’s very serious, tackling some big issues like love and forgiveness. It’s a story that matters, one not to be taken lightly.
I can’t say as I really enjoyed the writing style. The author tended to repeat the same phrases over and over, and it often made it feel like the plot wasn’t really going anywhere. However, this writing style is really what creates the atmosphere of the book, drawing you into the bayous of Texas.
This is a good, literary book. I can see plenty of merit in it. The story is well-written and well-told. But I didn’t find it especially gripping, and I honestly don’t think many kids would either. It’s almost as if the author is trying too hard to be profound.
Why would kids enjoy this book? Good question. The kittens are cute and all, but I honestly would have been bored reading this book as a child.
Why would adults enjoy this book? The writing. Appelt’s writing is musical and really paints a picture of the world she is trying to create.
Ivan is a gorilla. His best friends are an elephant and a stray dog. People come to visit him and watch him every day. But he’s not in a zoo. Instead, he lives at a mall, where he’s known as the One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback. He draws pictures which are sold in the gift shop. And he tries to forget his former life in the jungles of Africa. When Ruby, a baby elephant arrives at the mall, Ivan decides that, for her sake, he must find a better life for both of them.
Ivan narrates his own story, and that’s what makes this book so powerful. We see the world through his eyes; we see humans through his eyes – the good and the bad. We see the moment when he takes charge of his own future. We see the love he has for his friends. Ivan reminds us of the glimpses of humanity that every animal has.
Why would kids enjoy this book? The characters: Bob the stray dog’s commentary on the happenings in the zoo is always amusing. Ruby is adorable and relatable, elephant though she may be.
Why would adults enjoy this book? Adults will get more out of the treatment of animals message, as well as Ivan’s backstory. There is a lot of wisdom in Ivan’s view of the world and humans that can be found in this book.
The Graveyard Book tells the story of Nobody Owens, a young boy adopted by the inhabitants of a graveyard. The rest of his family was murdered when he was a baby, and the murderer is still after him. Staying in the graveyard keeps him safe. But once he’s explored and learned all about the graveyard, staying inside is not enough for him anymore. If you liked Gaiman’s Coraline, then you will like this book. The two have much in common – the slightly creepy atmosphere, real characters and unreal characters, heroic deeds that save the day. The Graveyard Book felt a little less focused to me, covering a wide range of Bod’s experiences instead of just telling the main thread of the story. But it turns out that it all comes together in the end, as one would expect from a master of storytelling like Neil Gaiman.
Why would kids enjoy this book? It’s creepy! It takes place in a graveyard, for goodness’ sake. No zombies, but plenty of ghosts to enjoy and get to know.
Why would adults enjoy this book? The atmosphere that Gaiman creates really draws you in, and actually makes this book less scary than it could have been. Being friends with ghosts that lived hundreds of years ago means that there are snippets of history dropped in here and there. And Bod is a wonderful kid, always trying to do right for himself and those around him.
There are books that you enjoy reading and can think of one or two friends to recommend it to. There are books that you love and recommend to all of your friends. Then there are books like Wonder, that you are convinced everyone in the world should read and you would press it on random strangers, telling them how wonderful it was. Yup, Wonder is definitely one of those books.
August Pullman has a birth defect that caused his face to be deformed. People have difficulty looking at him, and he has become a master at noticing even the most subtle reaction. For the most part, he has been in a cocoon of love – his mother has homeschooled him, and his family loves him unconditionally. But then fifth grade comes, and his parents have decided that it’s time for him to go to school like everyone else.
Anyone who remembers their school days remembers that fifth grade was not an easy year. Kids are growing up, trying to figure out who they are, trying to fit in with the cool kids. And then along comes August, brave and terrified, and his classmates’ reactions to him are both typical and life-affirming.
As a teacher myself, I can vouch that this book is spot-on in describing life in a school. The students, the teachers, the parents – they are all out there, just as they are in Wonder. I’ve read plenty of middle grade fiction, but this one gets the prize for a realistic view of daily school life.
And one of the amazing things about this book is that we don’t just see August’s point of view. We start there; we can see life through his eyes. And then in the next section, we switch to his sister’s point of view – and suddenly everything is different from how we saw it at first. R.J. Palacio gets so completely inside the heads of her characters that you can’t help but see everything that way, too.
August is a wonder, and so is this book. So true to life, so poignant. So filled with hope. So inspiring. Family, friends, random strangers – please read this book.
I'm so glad I've been participating in the Reading to Know Book Club this year. It's introduced me to books that I should have read as a child yet hadn't even heard of before. The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge was one of these books. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken is another.
(It's also another book club book that I had some difficulty getting my hands on. The local library didn't have their copy on the shelves. They finally tracked it down in the Bookmobile, and said it hadn't been checked out in 14 years. How sad! Hopefully my checking it out bought it a few more years of life on the library shelves.)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase embodies an element that all great classic children's literature has and that modern children's literature seems to be missing - simplicity. Life is simple and straight-forward, and the story is told simply and straight-forwardly. That doesn't mean that it's a happy book. A lot of terrible things happen to Bonnie and Sylvia. And you have to wait for the happy ending until nearly the last page. Life was scary and sad for them for a long time.
But I still came away from the book feeling refreshed. All the clutter of modern life was stripped away. Decisions were black and white; people were good or evil. Love and family were all-important. Loyalty to those you loved existed. Strangers would help you.
There's nothing wrong with modern children's books. But every once in awhile, it's necessary to read a classic like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to remind us of the basics of life and how we should (and shouldn't!) treat one another.
My name is Julie, and I own a lot of books. As in, they are stacked on the floor because I've run out of room on the shelves. And those shelves? There are so many books on them that they smile -- not sag; smile. This blog will cover book reviews and all manner of other bookish things.
You can contact me at email@example.com.