Friday, February 5, 2016

Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Title: The Book of Unknown Americans
Author: Cristina Henriquez
Year Published: 2014

Genre: Adult fiction (but really goof for YA)
Pages: 286
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2015 Google Reading map)USA (DE)

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school library

Summary (from the back of the book):
 A boy and a girl who fall in love. Tw families whose hopes collide with destiny. An extraordinary novel that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be American. Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she'll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.

When Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel in a Dollar Tree store, it is love at first sight. It's also the beginning of a friendship between the Rivera and Toro families, whose web of guilt and love and responsibility is at this novel's core.

Woven into their stories are testimonials of men and women who have come to the United States from all over Latin America. Their journeys and their voices will inspire you, surprise you, and break your heart.

Review: I think this book would be a really good one for high school students. It would give non-immigrants an honest and touching look at what it is like to arrive in the US legally, but without resources. I also think immigrant students would like this book as they would relate to it well and see that there is literature out there that has connections to their experience.

The story centers on a family of three (mom, dad, and 15-year old daughter) who arrive legally in Delaware. During their first few weeks in the apartment building they make friends with the neighbors whose stories of arrival are interspersed throughout the book. Each story is different and equally poignant, showing us the varied lives of immigrants.

About fifty pages from the end I started to wonder how the book would end as it feels like more of a character study than a plot driven novel. However, there is an end. Definitely. I want people to read this book.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne

Title: The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
Author: John Boyne
Year Published: 2015

Genre: YA historical fiction
Pages: 272
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2015 Google Reading map): France and Austria

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the back of the book):
 Pierrot knows nothing about the Nazis when he is sent to live with his aunt in a mysterious house at the top of the mountains. But this is no ordinary house, and this is no ordinary time. It is 1935, and this is the Berghof.

Taken under Hitler's wing, Pierrot is swept up into a dangerous new world of power, secrets, and betrayal--and ultimately, he must choose where his loyalties will lie.

Review: When we saw this book in a bookshop in Muscat, Oman, my daughter and I knew we wanted to buy it right away. We both really liked reading Boyne's earlier book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and we figured this one would be good as well. We were right.

Like Pajamas, I liked the second half of this book better than the first, but I think that must be Boyne's style: set the scene, build the story and characters in the first half, then WHAM! Hit the reader with the tough stuff in the second half.

There are a myriad of characters in this novel, some real and some imagined. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Eva Braun all make appearances as do servants at Berghof (Hitler's get-away home), Pierrot, his friends, and family. While many of the characters are only fleeting, we get to care about a number of characters that help us to see how Pierrot changes as the book progresses. It's funny, I didn't ever feel empathy for Pierrot once he arrived on the mountain and only a bit before that, but he is the main character and I grew to hate him and all he represented.

The story is well done and I can definitely see Pierrot's transition as realistic. The author also did a good job with blending fiction and historical fact to make an interesting novel. It's an easy read, but will get teenagers thinking about peer pressure and the influence of "belonging."

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Review: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Title: All American Boys
Author: Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Year Published: 2015

Genre: YA Fiction
Pages: 311
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2015 Google Reading map)USA

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my school library

Summary (from the inside flap of the book):
 "Rashad is Absent Again Today." That's the sidewalk graffiti that started it all... Well, no, actually, a lady tripping over Rashad at the store, making him drop a bag of chips, was what started it all. Because it didn't matter what Rashad said next--that it was an accident, that he wasn't stealing--the cop just kept pounding him. Over and over, pummeling him into the pavement. So then Rashad, an ROTC kid with mad art skills, was absent again... and again... stuck in a hospital room. Why? Because it looked like he was stealing. And he was a black kid in baggy clothes. So he must have been stealing. And that's how it started.

And that's what Quinn, a white kid, saw. He saw his best friend's older brother beating the daylights out of a classmate. At first Quinn doesn't tell al soul.... He's not even sure he understands it. And does it matter? The whole thing was caught on camera anyway. But when the school--and nation--starts to divide on what happened, blame spreads like wildfire fed by ugly words like "racism" and "police brutality." Quinn realizes he's got to understand it, because, bystander or not, he's a part of history. He just has to figure out what side of history that will be.

Rashad and Quinn--one black, one white, both American--face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn't die after the civil rights movement. There's a future at stake, a future where no one else will have to be absent because of police brutality. They just have to risk everything to change the world. Cuz that's how it can end.

Review: What a good book. I think it's important that this story was written by two authors. Hearing both of their voices and perspectives has a great impact on the characters and story. And what a timely story this is. Police stepping over the line, an unarmed black male suffering the consequences.

I don't have a lot to say except that I think high school students will like this book, relate to it on a number of levels, and will understand where both sides are coming from. And, it just won the Coretta Scott King Award!

This book covers so much: race relations; teen issues; consequences; being raised black in America; friendship; betrayal; loyalty; and more.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reviews: What I read on my Winter Break in Muskat, Oman

This winter break I traveled to Muscat, Oman with my daughter and her father. Yes, we're divorced and yes, we traveled together. :-) I read just over 3 books while we were away and since we didn't have good internet access I decided to do quick reviews of the books I finished while we were away.

Title: Boy21
Author: Matthew Quick
Pages: 272
Genre: YA fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary: You can lose yourself in repetition--quiet your thoughts; I learned the value of this at a very young age. Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights, and Finley is left to take care of his disabled grandfather alone. He's always dreamed of getting out someday, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay.

Russ has just moved to the neighborhood, and the life of this teen basketball phenom has been turned upside down by tragedy. Cut off from everyone he knows, he won't pick up a basketball, but answers only to the name Boy21--taken from his former jersey number. As their final year of high school brings these two boys together, a unique friendship may turn out to be the answer they both need.

Quick review: This book has good characters and plot even though it is weird in the first half. However, in the second half all of the pieces come together and, in a sense, it becomes a very different storyline that is quite poignant. I borrowed this book from my school's library e-reader collection. I hadn't done that before and it was an easy process.

Title: Yes Please
Author: Amy Poehler
Pages: 352
Genre: Adult non-fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary: Do you ever wish your life was just a little bit more dangerous? Yes Please
Do you look in the mirror and think mean thoughts about your face? Yes Please
Do you want to know more about the day you were born? Yes Please
Do you think you would make a terrific ninety-year-old? Yes Please
Do you have a ridiculous, obsessive, and ultimately unsatisfying relationship with your phone and are you missing that phone right now as you read this? Yes Please
Do you believe in time travel? Yes Please
Do you want to hear advice about treating your career like a bad boyfriend? Yes Please
Do you like to look at the moon and think about how small we are in this big universe? Yes Please
Do you want to find the thing you love most and go for it no matter what? Yes Please
Do you need world-famous sex tips that cannot be disputed and would hold up in a sex court of law? Yes Please
Great news. Amy Poehler is here for you.
Yes Please is her collection of ideas, stories, and questions about the stuff of life, big and small, funny and sad. Now, Yes Please can be yours.
Thank you.
Quick review: Amy Poehler is funny. I found her memoir to be interesting, but quite different from other books that I've read by comedians--Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, and Mindy Kaling. Amy's book is more stream of conscious and snippets from her life rather than a traditional memoir.

Title: Madam Tussaud
Author: Michelle Moran
Pages: 480
Genre: YA fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary: The world knows Madame Tussaud as a wax artist extraordinaire . . . but who was this woman who became one of the most famous sculptresses of all time? In these pages, her tumultuous and amazing story comes to life as only Michelle Moran can tell it. The year is 1788, and a revolution is about to begin.
 
Smart and ambitious, Marie Tussaud has learned the secrets of wax sculpting by working alongside her uncle in their celebrated wax museum, the Salon de Cire. From her popular model of the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, to her tableau of the royal family at dinner, Marie’s museum provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics. Her customers hail from every walk of life, yet her greatest dream is to attract the attention of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI; their stamp of approval on her work could catapult her and her museum to the fame and riches she desires. After months of anticipation, Marie learns that the royal family is willing to come and see their likenesses. When they finally arrive, the king’s sister is so impressed that she requests Marie’s presence at Versailles as a royal tutor in wax sculpting. It is a request Marie knows she cannot refuse—even if it means time away
from her beloved Salon and her increasingly dear friend, Henri Charles.
 
As Marie gets to know her pupil, Princesse √Člisabeth, she also becomes acquainted with the king and queen, who introduce her to the glamorous life at court. From lavish parties with more delicacies than she’s ever seen to rooms filled with candles lit only once before being discarded, Marie steps into a world entirely different from her home on the Boulevard du Temple, where people are selling their teeth in order to put food on the table.
 
Meanwhile, many resent the vast separation between rich and poor. In salons and caf√©s across Paris, people like Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre are lashing out against the monarchy. Soon, there’s whispered talk of revolution. . . . Will Marie be able to hold on to both the love of her life and her friendship with the royal family as France approaches civil war? And more important, will she be able to fulfill the demands of powerful revolutionaries who ask that she make the death masks of beheaded aristocrats, some of whom she knows?

Quick review: I have had this book on my TBR shelf for years and have tried starting it twice with no luck getting past the first couple of pages. However, on this third try I zoomed right through it, enjoying every minute! I like the era of the French Revolution so that was a good setting and the storyline is cleverly intertwined. I really feel like I got to know the characters of the Revolution, big and small, what they wanted, and what it felt like to be there.

I also loved that the author stayed so close to reality, but that this reads as a novel, not a history book. When the story ends she included a historical update on all the characters, which is great!

My 15 year old daughter also read a number of book while we were away:

Title: The Edge of Nowhere (here's my review)
Author: Elizabeth George
Rating: 4 out of 5

Title: Thirteen Reasons Why (here's my account of meeting the author, Jay Asher)
Author: Jay Asher
Rating: 5 out of 5

Title: Bridget Jones' Diary
Author: Helen Fielding
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Monday, December 14, 2015

Review: The Illusion of Innocence by Jacqueline Jacques

Title: The Illusion of Innocence
Author: Jacqueline Jacques
Year Published: 2015

Genre: Adult fiction (mystery)
Pages: 270
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2015 Google Reading map)UK

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review


Goodreads:

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Purchase Links: Honno Press | Amazon US | Amazon UK

Author Links: Website and Twitter

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Three people on a crowded train, brought there by the same crime. Archie Price, painter and police artist, blessed with a photographic memory, is traveling to Chelmsford to testify in a murder trial. The accused, Freddie Porter, is under police escort in the guard's van. Freddie's sister, Polly, is desperately trying to escape her brother's gang before they realize what she's done, unaware he's on the same train. When the locomotive is derailed, Archie and Polly are injured, and put up by the same local family while they recover. Where is Freddie? Polly is so terrified she is driven to desperate measures and Archie finds himself being drawn into her nightmare....

Review: Trish at TLC Book Tours knows that I love mysteries and she always seems to find ones that suit me. Thank you Trish! This one promised to be right up my alley as it is a historical mystery set just outside London in the late 1800s. I was mostly pleased.

Victorian England is such a complicated time: our perception is that everyone behaved themselves and followed Queen Victoria's example of prudish behavior, but in reality, there were women seeking the vote and a stronger voice in society and there were seedy underpinning that sought to control women and degrade them. These nasty attitudes are brought to light in this novel when we find our antagonist, Freddie, stealing pornographic photos. In the early era of photography, pornography certainly had its place. But these photographs are sick. Yes, there are women who chose to pose, but many of the women in the photos in this novel were raped, murdered, and forced to be photographed.

The other side of photography is Polly. She is a strong female character who is striking out on her own as a young woman and opening her own photography business. She is trying to avoid her adopted brother Freddie at all costs, but that is proving quite difficult. After the train accident she takes on a new identity, seems to be falling for Archie, and is fighting to survive.

I liked the characters of Archie and Polly and hated Freddie. I suppose that's the way it's supposed to be. I found beginning of the book slow to pull me in, but by the end was glad that I had read this book.