The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Darkest Part of the Forest
↑ Reserve a copy ↑

 

Let me just start off by admitting that I am a total Holly Black fangirl.  Aside from enjoying her style of writing, I appreciate the fact that she has written fantasies on so many levels.  She is a great go-to author for kids, tweens, and teens who enjoy fantasy.  The Spiderwick Chronicles are the perfect “gateway” series for early elementary kids.  From there, they can move on to (middle grade) The Iron Trial, and then graduate up to her YA works like White Cat, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and Zombies vs. Unicorns (for which she was an editor/”Team Unicorn” commentator).

The Darkest Part of the Forest is a modern, feminist fairy tale.  Rather than a tale of a girl waiting to be rescued by a prince or a knight in shining armor, this story was about a girl named Hazel who actually WAS a knight.  Rock on!  Having grown up in Fairfold, hearing stories of the Folk and the devastation they could bring upon careless humans, Hazel should have known better than to make a deal with the Faery King.  After waking up one morning to learn that the faery boy from the enchanted glass coffin in the woods was awake and missing, nevertheless, it became abundantly clear that Hazel was in way over her head.  With the help of her brother Ben and his best friend Jack, Hazel had to try to figure out the role she played in the faery boy’s waking and whether there was any way to save them all from the magical mayhem she unwittingly set into motion.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat
↑ Reserve a copy ↑

 

I seldom read biography, and certainly not sports biography, but this book was so highly recommended that I picked it up.  I’m so glad that I did.  This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  While it focuses on the life of Joe Rantz, one of the crew members at the University of Washington, it also presents the other crew members, captures the depths of the hardships filling this country during the Depression, and paints a grim picture of Hitler’s Germany.

Who knew crew was such a grueling sport?  I certainly didn’t.  These college men worked incredibly hard and sacrificed much to earn a place on the team that ultimately triumphed in the Berlin Olympics.  I was inspired by their dedication and by their commitment to each other and to their goal.  This is a story about strength of will, teamwork, and values.  Read it.  You’ll be glad you did.

Laughing at My Nightmare by Shane Burcaw

Laughing at My Nightmares
↑ Reserve a copy ↑

 

I was shocked to see that this book was a YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist.  Not because I didn’t think it was deserving, though, but because I was shocked it didn’t actually win!  Shane Burcaw’s self-deprecating sense of humor and unwavering positivity in the face of adversity have already garnered tens of thousands of readers for his blog [laughingatmynightmare.tumblr.com], so it comes as no surprise that the book has also been universally well-received.

Shane’s writing style made me feel as if I was hanging out with a friend and listening to crazy stories about his past.  Although I wouldn’t have held it against him if he had been bitter or angry about his lot in life, he was just so chill and goofy that it was hard to remember, at times, that he wasn’t a “normal” guy.  As I read about the many setbacks that came along with Shane’s spinal muscular atrophy, I found myself wondering how it was possible for Shane to keep his sense of humor.  More than that, I found myself wondering if I could train myself to look past the doom and gloom to find the silver linings in my own life.  It may take a bit of time and patience, but I think this is certainly a worthy goal.  Thanks so much, Shane, for sharing your story and inspiring people to rid themselves (and the world) of negativity.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Belzhar

Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue was devastated by the death of her British exchange-student boyfriend, Reeve.  Unable to function after her loss, Jam was sent away to a therapeutic boarding school in Vermont.  The Wooden Barn wasn’t a psychiatric facility, though, but more of a buffer zone for teens who were too “fragile” for normal high schools.  Upon arrival, Jam learned that she had been selected to be a student in the coveted Special Topics English class with Mrs. Quenell.  Her roommate, DJ, found it grossly unfair since she even wrote a letter begging for admission to that class, though she admitted that she didn’t even know what made the class so special.  No one ever did except for the select few who took the class each time.  The students who took the class always formed such an incredible bond and gushed about how much the class changed their lives, and DJ wanted to be a part of that.  When Jam and her classmates started their journal-writing assignment at the beginning of the semester, as a supplement to their in-depth study of the works of Sylvia Plath, none of them had the slightest clue what they were in for.  But, soon, they would find themselves wrapped up in the mystery of a place they called Belzhar, which helped them explore their lives before whatever made them “fragile.”

I picked this book up for a “short” reading break, and I read more than half the book.  I had to stop reading to eat dinner and to read bedtime stories with my kids, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Belzhar and had to finish reading it before I could go to sleep that night. If you’re looking for an “unputdownable” book, look no further!

The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen

The Secret of Pembrooke Park

This novel is set in England during the early 1800s.  Sisters Abigail and Louisa remain unmarried despite a sizable dowry until a poor investment forces the family to sell their London house and let (rent) the home of a distant relative they don’t even know in a small village outside London.  Younger sister Louisa initially remains in London with her mother for her season while older, responsible Abigail heads to Pembrooke Park with her father to set up their new home, despite the disappointment of leaving long-time friend, Gilbert, before his tour of Italy and without an offer of marriage.  Upon arriving at Pembrooke Park, she finds an old estate perfectly preserved from the last family living there.  It looked as if the family had fled suddenly, leaving behind everything just as they were using it.  Rumor has it there is hidden treasure in the haunted house, but nobody in the village will talk about it.  The past, the family, the treasure remain a mystery until Abigail starts receiving anonymous letters, possibly written by a former occupant.  As the intriguing story unfolds, does Abigail find love in unexpected places?  Can she overcome her insecurity about her younger, more beautiful sister?  And, is there really a secret room with hidden treasure?  You will just have to read it and see.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Ask the Passengers by A. S. King

Ask the Passengers

When Astrid Jones and her family moved from New York City to Unity Valley, PA, none of them quite realized how drastically their lives would change.  Astrid’s mom became so concerned with how other people saw her and so controlling that it seemed nothing Astrid did was ever even close to good enough.  Her little sister, Ellis, was so concerned with popularity and upholding her reputation that she’d probably have disowned Astrid if it would have guaranteed her immunity from the rumor mill.  This apparently pleased her mom, though, since she frequently invited Ellis to “mommy and me” nights out.  And their dad?  When he wasn’t moping about his lack of job prospects and smoking pot in the garage or attic, he seemed content enough to sit silently while his wife belittled him in front of the kids.

With a family like that, it’s no wonder Astrid decided she was better off “sending her love” to the passengers in the airplanes overhead.  Sending her love to the passengers meant that she didn’t have to worry about that love being thrown back in her face.  Because she was sending love to anonymous strangers, she had no expectation of getting love back, and that made it OK when the love wasn’t reciprocated.  Confronted by the possibility of love on the ground, nevertheless, Astrid had absolutely no idea how to handle herself.  So, she started asking the passengers questions.  I liked how Astrid’s questions somehow floated into the minds of the passengers and led to vignettes of the passengers’ own lives and the problems they were facing. I especially liked how such a sad story could end with such hope.  After all, sometimes a little hope is all you need to keep on going.

That Summer by Sarah Dessen

That Summer

Although my hubby and I are still sickeningly sweet on each other, I sometimes find my brain wandering and thinking about how it would change my life and/or the lives of our children if we were to get a divorce.  It’s not because I think it’s even a remote possibility, but rather because divorce is just so darn common.  I frequently hear about couples divorcing and about how hard it is for the kids who are caught in the middle and have to adjust to their “new normal.”  Since my parents are still married, as well, I can’t say for sure whether Haven’s experience rings true enough… but, based on the popularity of Sarah Dessen’s many books, I can’t imagine she got it wrong!

Haven managed to make it through her parents’ divorce, but she wasn’t so sure she could handle her father’s wedding/re-marriage. The event, in and of itself, promised to be agonizing enough — and things would only get worse as she adjusted to the reality of having the “Weather Pet” for a step-mom.  Maybe it would not have seemed so bad if Haven’s life were only changing on that one front.  Since her older sister, Ashley, was also planning a wedding for that summer, it felt as if  Haven’s whole reality was being torn apart. When she ran into Ashley’s old boyfriend, Sumner, Haven started thinking back to and idealizing the last summer her family had been whole.

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin

A Corner of the Universe

Back in elementary school, I was a HUGE fan of The Baby-Sitter’s Club.  For some reason, though, it took a long time before it occurred to me that Ann M. Martin would have written other books for tweens and teens.  I kept telling myself that I would read another of her books someday, but we all know what they say about the best laid plans.  Luckily, when I stumbled upon this audiobook over the summer, I didn’t put it off any longer.  I started listening when I went out to mow the lawn one morning, and then I found myself looking for every opportunity to plug in my ear buds and keep listening!

Hattie Owen’s parents owned and operated a boarding house, so she spent a lot of time around adults and was fairly comfortable in adult company.  During the summer of 1960, when Hattie turned 12, she met an adult unlike any other she’d ever known.  He was her Uncle Adam and, prior to that summer, she didn’t even know Adam existed.  Why? Because he had been sent away to a school for “special” kids when she was only a toddler.  (As I recall, Adam had both schizophrenia and autism.)  When Adam’s school closed, her grandparents had to bring him home until they could find a new place for him.  Adam was easily excited and sometimes got out of control, but Hattie didn’t seem to understand why the rest of her family found Adam so embarrassing.  She simply loved him for who he was and did her best to help in any way she could.  I think this story would be an excellent title for a book discussion or book display during Autism Awareness Month (April).

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

100 Sideways Miles

Ever the sucker for a cool book cover, it only took me one glance at this book to decide I “had” to read it.  The fact that I loved Winger, also by Andrew Smith, certainly didn’t hurt.  I have to admit, though, that I had a hard time getting into this story.  I felt myself getting lost in the beginning.  It reminded me of how I felt when I read The Marbury Lens — which makes a lot of sense, since Andrew Smith also wrote that book.  In the beginning, there were a few moments where I thought, “Wait!  Was that supposed to be the “real” Finn or the character (also named Finn) from his dad’s book?”  In hindsight, I guess it may have been written like that on purpose, since Finn often felt trapped in his father’s story, but it made me feel a little crazy not to know what was going on!  Fortunately, things got less confusing and everything fell (more or less) into place by the end of the story.

When Finn was a young boy, a dead horse on its way to a rendering factory tumbled out of a truck and fell “100 sideways miles” off a bridge to land on Finn and his mother.  (Finn frequently cited distances as a means for measuring time.)  The impact killed his mother, but Finn survived — with a broken back and a traumatic brain injury that caused him to have seizures.  Inspired by the strange scar on Finn’s back (a vertical line with two dots on either side   :|:   ), his father wrote a best-selling novel about aliens/angels who came to earth and cut off their wings to blend in with the humans.  Because the main character of the book was also named Finn, had heterochromatic eyes, and suffered from seizures, Finn sometimes wondered whether he might actually be a product of his father’s book rather than the inspiration.  I liked how Smith wove together typical teen insecurities and coming of age angst with the very outlandish circumstances of Finn’s life.  And I especially appreciated that the crazy immaturity of Finn’s best friend, Cade, was balanced out by the sweet sincerity of the new girl, Julia.  Their motley crew reminded me of some of the groupings of friends I’ve had through the years… 🙂

Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross

Kill Me Softly

OK everybody… I am geeking out BIG TIME over here because Emma Watson will be playing Belle in Disney’s new [live action] Beauty & the Beast movie!  So, since I am obsessing over *that* fairy tale remake, I thought it only made sense to do a book review for *another* fairy tale remake I recently enjoyed.  I read tons of book reviews as I make purchasing decisions, so I often forget what most of the books are about before they arrive.  Even though I must have read a review for this book, I didn’t remember a thing about it.  I honestly thought it was going to be a murder mystery or an action thriller when I saw in on the shelf a few months ago.  Color me surprised when I started listening and realized it was more like Beastly than Dark Song!

Mirabelle didn’t know much about her past.  All she really knew about Beau Rivage (her birthplace), for example, was that her godmothers wanted to keep her away from there ever since her parents’ tragic death.  Mira also thought it was odd that her godmothers forbade her to use many common objects, like scissors, but figured they were probably just being overprotective.  A week before her 16th birthday, though, her curiosity got the best of her and she decided she HAD to go to Beau Rivage.  She planned to visit her parents’ graves while she was there, hoping for a little closure, but didn’t necessarily have any other plans to speak of.  Imagine her shock when she made the acquaintance of some local teens who let her in on the secret that fairy tales are real and that the strange mark on her back meant that she had been cursed!  Albeit a little predictable, this was a fun story that might even inspire readers to take another look at traditional fairy tales.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

The Lost City of Z

I am not a huge reader of non-fiction.  For me to really get into a non-fiction title, it usually has to be about something I really care about (like Say Goodbye to Survival Mode) or read like fiction (like King of the Mild Frontier).  This fell into the latter category.  A friend had recommended this book to me when it first came out, but it kept getting pushed to the back burner.  Finally, I told myself that I needed to take a break from all the dystopias I was reading/listening to and dive into a non-fiction title.  I’m so glad I did!  The details were so vivid, and David Grann wrote such a fantastic narrative that I thought to myself, several times, “This would make an awesome movie.  It’s like a real life Indiana Jones adventure!”  Imagine my shock and elation, then, when I heard [on the radio this morning] that it is going to be made into a movie… produced by Brad Pitt, no less.  So awesome!

One of the things I liked so much about this book was the layered storytelling.  David Grann skillfully wove together his own research, planning, and travel experiences with stories from primary documents relating to British explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest to rediscover the “Lost City of Z.”  Though there were many stories about an advanced, ancient civilization in the Amazon (which some believed to be El Dorado), countless explorers failed to find evidence that the city actually existed.  Instead, many died in their search or brought back “evidence” that the native peoples were not nearly organized or advanced enough to have built the city of legend.  While many wrote it off as a fable, Percy Fawcett, a member of the Royal Geographical Society, became obsessed and refused to give up the search.  Fawcett became a legend among explorers because of his uncanny ability to avoid the injuries and illnesses that often killed other men, let alone his aptitude for communicating and negotiating with the various groups of natives he encountered.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see how this plays out on the big screen.

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

It’s always fun to escape real life in the pages of a book, and I find it somehow more satisfying to read a book about a sweltering summer heat wave when I’m living through a snow-filled winter storm.  Add that to the fact that all of Sara Zarr’s books are pretty darn amazing, and you have a fantastic reason to read this book right now!

Sam is having a really rough summer.  Not only is her mom in rehab (after hiding her alcoholism for years), but her father seems more concerned with fixing the problems facing his church’s congregation than the problems facing his own family.  When one of Sam’s friends, Jody Shaw, goes missing, Sam’s life falls even apart even further… and she’s left feeling extremely guilty for even thinking about her own problems when she could be putting all of her time and energy into the search for Jody.  Despite Sam’s mounting depression, the story doesn’t drag.  And although Zarr addresses Sam’s crisis of faith, she provides some seriously amazing insights without being didactic or preachy.  This may very well be tied (with How to Save a Life) as my favorite Sara Zarr story!