Category Archives: award winners

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

great and terrible beautyFrom looking at the cover of this book, I assumed it would have been a historical romance novel.  I honestly thought it would have read like The Luxe or Manor of Secrets, and I was hoping for a Downton Abbey fix.  And though there was a touch of romance, my assumption was pretty far off.  Gemma Doyle’s experiences in a London finishing school [in 1895] were historically accurate, and she did experience some romantic entanglements, but the plot was primarily focused on the supernatural forces at play in Gemma’s life.  While part of me wishes I knew about this book when it first came out, part of me is happy that all three books were already published and available as audiobooks so I could listen to them in rapid succession!

Gemma had a fairly uncomplicated life until the day a strange creature attacked her mother in an Indian marketplace.  Rather than be captured by the creature, her mother committed suicide.  Gemma’s father insisted on telling everyone that his wife died of an illness, but Gemma knew the truth and was racked with guilt over the fact that her mother was only in that area of the marketplace because she (Gemma) had run off in a snit.  After witnessing the attack/suicide, Gemma started having visions — and the visions only got worse after she was sent off to Spence Academy.  Trying to make new friends and to succeed in finishing school while also figuring out what was behind the visions proved extremely challenging, but these challenges were no match for Gemma’s pluck and determination.

Happy Reading!

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate‎

One and Only IvanWhen this book won the 2013 Newbery Award, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to read it.  It just sounded too depressing.  Luckily, a friend read it and said it was actually funnier than it sounded, albeit sad at times, and that she thought my son would also enjoy it. I decided to get the audiobook because my son and I share 60-90 minutes of audiobook time per day in the summer driving together to my library and his day camp.  (We share a parking lot with the Y!)  This was our first audiobook of the summer, and it was a *HUGE* hit.  So much so that my son was pretty much devastated any time that his sister was in the car and requested that we “waste” any of our time listening to music.

Although Ivan and the other animals were being held captive in less than desirable conditions, their actions and stories they told one another were often funny.  The humor sprinkled throughout the story definitely helped to keep it light.  My son’s favorite new vocabulary word, and the discussion of which he often used to try to convince his sister to listen to the story with us, was me-ball.  You may be asking yourself, “What’s a me-ball?”  Why, it’s a rolled up, dried out ball of poop that gorillas like to throw, of course!  ;-)  He thought that was hilarious, and he loved the loving friendships between the animals.  The best part of the story, in my opinion, was at the end when the author’s note explained that this story was based on the true story of a gorilla named Ivan.  I think it will do a lot to help readers understand that, though the thoughts and specific stories told by the animals in this story were fictional, animals surely want (and deserve) companionship and appropriate living conditions.

Happy Reading!

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Ketchup CloudsAfter her boyfriend’s death, Zoe is so overcome with guilt that she finds it hard to function.  People assume that her reclusive behavior is owed to the fact that she’s grieving for Max, and she finds that their sympathy actually makes her feel even more guilty.  In an attempt to unburden herself, Zoe decides to confess to Stuart Harris — a Death Row inmate in Texas who was listed on a website of prisoners seeking pen-pals.  She thought writing to Stuart would be a good idea for a few reasons — 1. he killed his wife and would likely understand what she’s going through, 2. he is in the United States while she is in England, and 3. she could use a false name and address to avoid being turned in to the police.  (Yeah.  Her name’s not really Zoe.)  Through her letters to Stuart, which she writes while hiding out in the shed in her backyard, readers learn about the events that led up to Max’s death and why she feels responsible.  I’ll admit that I found myself getting a little frustrated at times, but I don’t think it was poorly done or anything.  I was just too impatient and wanted to know what happened!  I recommend this one to people who enjoy a little romantic drama with their mystery.

Happy Reading!

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

between shades of grayToday’s I Read YA Week post is supposed to be “If Movies Were YA,” so I am posting about a book that I think should be turned into a movie.  Between Shades of Gray is a story that I think should be required reading for all high school students when they study world history, though I think a movie might do a better job of increasing awareness overall.  As I listened to this audiobook, I kept thinking, “This needs to be the next Schindler’s List.  Why is it that everyone talks about the horrors of the Holocaust and nobody ever talks about the Soviet Holodomor?”  I mean, I didn’t even know the term Holodomor (which roughly translates to “death by hunger”) until this book inspired me to do a little research.

I remember briefly covering Stalin and being taught about his “purges”… but I think we pretty much glossed over it on the way to an in-depth study of the Holocaust.  I mean, I definitely didn’t recall that the total death count was right up there with the Holocaust.  It is estimated that somewhere between 3 and 60 million people died during the Holodomor, with many estimates putting the death toll at around 7 million people.  SEVEN MILLION!  People talk about the Holocaust all the time.  They lament the fact that the Nazis killed 6 million Jews and another 5 million people [including Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people, and Gypsies] under Hitler’s rule.  There are numerous Holocaust museums and memorials in addition to a Holocaust Remembrance Day.  But, no one really talks much about what Stalin did.  My Facebook feed doesn’t “blow up” once a year to remind me of what Stalin did.  And that is a crying shame.  Some people may debate the death toll and ask, “Was it genocide?”  But, regardless of the exact number and the terminology you use, there is no debating the fact that millions of people died under Stalin’s regime.

I appreciate the author interview at the end of the audiobook, in which Ruta Sepetys explained her personal connection to the story, and I love that the official website for the book includes resources like a book discussion guide and a video of Ruta Sepetys discussing the novel.  I’m glad that this book has started to shed some more light on the Holodomor , and I can only pray that this light shines brightly, and widely, from here on.

Happy Reading!

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkJust as it took me WAY too long to get around to listening to this audiobook, it has taken me WAY too long to post my review…  Not cool, Chrissie.  Not cool!  (Especially since it won a Printz Honor and that should have been excuse enough to post about it.)  I need to do something about my back log of books to be reviewed, and some of my readers are on February break this week, so I need to get down to business and start pumping out some extra book reviews.  Enjoy!

Eleanor & Park takes place in 1986, so it is technically “historical fiction” to the teens I serve today…  I mean, they weren’t even BORN yet!  (Wow, that makes me feel old!)  Though it was fun to reminisce about big hair, bold makeup, “Walkman” tape players, and phones on a cord, this story was not a fluffy look back on the 80s.  It was a touching story about how one person can make all the difference when the whole world seems to be against you.  About how halting conversations about shared interests, like comic books and music, can open the door to friendship.  And about how a barely-there friendship can blossom and turn into love.  Park’s family is “Leave it to Beaver” perfect, and he is relatively popular at school.  Eleanor’s home life is horrid and the kids at school take great pleasure in bullying her about her clothes, weight, and unruly red hair.  And yet, Park can’t help himself.  He doesn’t care what everyone else thinks about “his” Eleanor.  He only knows he will do whatever it takes to try and make her happy.

To be completely honest, there was only one thing I didn’t like about this book… It ended!  Seriously, though, I *really* hope that the ending was not just a “form your own opinion about what happened” thing but, instead, left it open for a sequel.  A girl can hope, right?!?  ;-)

Happy Reading!

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireI absolutely LOVED Code Name Verity, so I had a feeling that I would enjoy this book too.  Enjoy feels like a wrong word to use, though, considering all the terrible things that happen.  The story is narrated by young Rose Justice, an American ATA pilot who got lost, landed in the wrong airfield, and ended up a Nazi prisoner in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Though there was so much more to the Holocaust than Rose ever could have seen or experienced in her abbreviated stay in the one small portion of that one particular women’s camp, the horrors still added up rather quickly.  I was especially sickened to hear the details behind the medical experiments that were done on the “Ravensbrück Rabbits.”  I think readers who haven’t yet learned about the Nazi doctors and the Nuremburg Trials may find these details especially disturbing, since I found it hard to listen to even though I already knew a lot of what had been done.  Despite the darkness she revealed, though, I found it heartening that Wein managed to shine a spotlight on the friendship, generosity, and hope that helped so many people survive against the odds.

It’s evident that Elizabeth Wein was very thorough in her research, and the author’s note at the end of the story was a lovely added bonus.  I especially liked hearing about how Wein’s stay at European Summer School at the Ravensbrück Memorial site affected her.  (You can read journal entries about this stay on her website — http://www.elizabethwein.com/my-visit-ravensbr%C3%BCck-august-2012.)  There were only two things that I honestly didn’t like about listening to the audiobook.  One was that I had to pull over to cry a couple of times.  (That happened with Code Name Verity, too, so I came into the story expecting it would happen again.)  The other was when the narrator jarred me out of the story by saying “skuh-lee-tle” as she described the survivors of the concentration camps.  I re-played that sentence probably 4 or 5 times before I realized she had mispronounced the word “skeletal”…  All of Wein’s tireless research to get the story right, and everyone involved in the audiobook production missed this egregious mispronunciation — and not just once, but twice!  /sigh

Happy Reading!

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

The True Meaning of SmekdayThis has got to be one of the funniest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Seriously!  Adam Rex wrote a hilarious story and Bahni Turpin’s narration was absolutely fantastic.  It’s no wonder this book received the Odyssey Award!  My son and I listened to it together, and we loved it so much that we harassed my husband until he agreed to listen to it too.  Even though it’s been more than a month since we all finished listening, we keep talking to each other like the Boov (alien) named J. Lo — and it’s gone on long enough that even my 3-year-old has started to talk like a Boov!  I’m pretty sure it won’t matter how many times I hear it; I will always laugh when I hear my son shout, “SHOOT FORTH THE LASERS … FROM MY EYEBALLS!”  Priceless family bonding.  ;-)

You may be wondering, “What’s this story about?”  Well…  When an alien race [the Boov] took over Earth and claimed it as their own planet, they renamed Christmas as Smekday and forced all the humans in North America to relocate to Florida.  Later, after the Boov were vanquished, students across the US were given the chance to explain the true meaning of Smekday in an essay.  This story is Gratuity “Tip” Tucci’s story/essay.

Happy Reading!

P.S. Random House has an excerpt on their website if you want to check it out for yourself — http://www.randomhouse.com/book/202129/the-true-meaning-of-smekday-by-adam-rex