November 13, 2019

Book Review - Victoria: Portrait of a Queen by Catherine Reef

Victoria: Portrait of a Queen

by Catherine Reef

Genres: Young Adult, Biography, Nonfiction, British History
Publisher: Clarion Books
Length: 256 pages
Published: November 7, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Catherine Reef brings history vividly to life in this sumptuously illustrated account of a confident, strong-minded, and influential woman.

Victoria woke one morning at the age of eighteen to discover that her uncle had died and she was now queen. She went on to rule for sixty-three years, with an influence so far-reaching that the decades of her reign now bear her name—the Victorian period. Victoria is filled with the exciting comings and goings of royal life: intrigue and innuendo, scheming advisors, and assassination attempts, not to mention plenty of passion and discord. Includes bibliography, notes, British royal family tree, index."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"If another princess had not died tragically and young, Victoria would have never been born.

The ill-fated princess was Charlotte. She was the only child of the prince regent, the man who occupied the British throne. The prince was ruling in place of his father, King George III, who had been deemed mentally ill. Upon his father's death, the prince regent would be crowned King George IV. Charlotte was twenty-one years old on November 6, 1817, when she delivered a stillborn son. Within hours hse sickened, and soon Charlotte too was dead.

The English people had loved the princess. 'She stood on high,' wrote a newspaperman. Charlotte had embodied 'images of young, and promise, and blooming womanhood.' Eighteen months before, the public had rejoiced in Charlotte's marriage to handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. They had felt secure knowing that she would reign one day, upon her father's death, all in good time."

My Book Review:

In Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, Catherine Reef presents an illustrated biography of Queen Victoria adapted to young adult audiences.

Though compared to other more exhaustive biographies of Victoria Reef's text is short and simplified, it is nonetheless a helpful starter for interested readers. Reef undoubtedly did an extensive amount of research before composing her text. While some aspects of Victoria's personal life, political views, and public perception are a bit more complicated and nuanced that what is presented, these are likely areas of Victoria's biography that are not of key importance to young adult readers.

Reef paints a clear portrait that helps her audience understand the significant role Victoria played in the nineteenth century. She does well explaining the unique position Victoria was in when she inherited the throne from her uncle at age eighteen, and shares details about Victoria's courtship with her cousin, Albert, their marriage, and her position as the queen.

I would recommend this book to any young adult audience who has an interest in women's history and biography. Victoria is a fascinating and complex figure, and it's exciting that Reef has composed this text with a young audience in mind.


September 5, 2019

Book Review - Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt


Angela's Ashes

by Frank McCourt

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Irish History
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 452 pages
Published: October 3, 2005 (first published September 5, 1996)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Imbued on every page with Frank McCourt's astounding humor and compassion. This is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

So begins the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank's mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank's father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy-- exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling-- does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father's tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.

Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank's survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig's head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors--yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance and remarkable forgiveness.

Angela's Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt's astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic."

Quote:

"You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace."


Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

My Book Review:

Reading the first two-thirds of Angela's Ashes is a five-star experience.

Listening to the audiobook and McCourt’s Irish accent as he tells the story of the heartbreaking poverty of his childhood growing up in Limerick, Ireland is so memorable. I was floored by the pain he went through: the hunger, the grief, the uncertainty, and the burden of his helpless situation. McCourt excels as recreating the setting and emotions of his painful coming-of-age. He experiences the deaths of siblings, his mother’s ill health and depression, Irish Catholic guilt, cruel schoolmasters, deadly illness, untreated chronic infections, and worst of all, an alcoholic father who is unreliable and increasingly absent. All of this is told in a very strong, powerful voice. I cannot recommend this section of the book strongly enough.

Sadly, however, the last third of the memoir is a disappointment. McCourt focuses on repeated and unnecessarily crude sexual content to describe his experience of puberty when what lies at the heart of his coming-of-age is his religious crisis of faith. Had he shifted frameworks and further explored how he reconciled his pain with his cultural heritage, I would have been on board. That not fully being the case, I was left wishing the book had ended a couple hundred pages earlier.

Overall, McCourt's memoir is amazingly powerful, but be warned about some of this concluding content.

August 30, 2019

Book Spotlight - Wilderness of Hope by Quinn Grover


Wilderness of Hope:
Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West

by Quinn Grover
(Outdoor Lives series)

Genres: Memoir, History, Nonfiction, Nature, American Literature
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Length: 248 pages
Published: September 1, 2019
Purchase Links: Amazon, University of Nebraska Press


Official Book Summary:

"Longtime fly fisherman Quinn Grover had contemplated the 'why' of his fishing identity before more recently becoming focused on the 'how' of it. He realized he was a dedicated fly fisherman in large part because public lands and public waterways in the West made it possible. In Wilderness of Hope Grover recounts his fly-fishing experiences with a strong evocation of place, connecting those experiences to the ongoing national debate over public lands.

Because so much of America’s public lands are in the Intermountain West, this is where arguments about the use and limits of those lands rage the loudest. And those loudest in the debate often become caricatures: rural ranchers who hate the government; West Coast elites who don’t know the West outside Vail, Colorado; and energy and mining companies who extract from once-protected areas. These caricatures obscure the complexity of those who use public lands and what those lands mean to a wider population.

Although for Grover fishing is often an 'escape' back to wildness, it is also a way to find a home in nature and recalibrate his interactions with other parts of his life as a father, son, husband, and citizen. Grover sees fly fishing on public waterways as a vehicle for interacting with nature that allows humans to inhabit nature rather than destroy or 'preserve' it by keeping it entirely separate from human contact. These essays reflect on personal fishing experiences with a strong evocation of place and an attempt to understand humans’ relationship with water and public land in the American West."

Author Bio:

"Quinn Grover teaches courses in writing and literature at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His research interests include the literature, lands, and cultures of the American West. Quinn's work has been published in national fly-fishing magazines such as the Flyfish Journal, the Drake, and American Angler as well as literary outlets such as Newfound, Cirque, and Juxtaprose."

Excerpt (from the Prologue):

"I caught my first fish using a fly rod on a Boy Scout outing. I was thirteen years old. We were camped along a small creek in central Utah, and I had insisted on taking my fly rod, even though I had yet to actually catch anything using it. The stream--just three or four feet wide in many places and bordered by bunches of willows--snaked through a meadow carpeted with the green grass of a wet summer.

"I spotted the fish rising in a flat, unprotected section of river between willow bunches and I felt suddenly--alarmingly--visible. I decided to kneel before making the cast because the landscape was so wide open. I felt exposed--as a fisherman, as a beginner, as an outsider in a wild place. I'd like to believe that I sensed something divine in the presence of the rising of a trout, some sort of holiness, something that demanded reverence. But really, I was just scared I was going to screw up my one chance." (Grover xiii)

Early Praise: 

Wilderness of Hope joins a long tradition of books—including The River Why and A River Runs through It—which remind us all that, of the many possible paths toward understanding the universe, few are as reliable as fly fishing. Quinn Grover makes a strong case for passion as the key ingredient of a meaningful life, but also for knowing how the planet might make best use of us.”—Brooke Williams, author of Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet

“Quinn Grover’s Wilderness of Hope provides a life compass for those of us who pursue wild and native trout on our public lands and waters. He preserves our capacity for wonder by weaving together the fabric of family and fishing friends, wilderness, and the importance of preserving and protecting our public lands and resources for future generations.”—Craig Mathews, author of The Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide

“On his first trip out, Quinn Grover lands a whopper! There’s a casting and reeling rhythm to his writing, long luxurious passages on nature’s elusive tributaries, then—zing!—thrilling bites of witty insight spilling into pools of reflection. He seems to have spawned a new genre, the Ichthysroman. In Grover’s own words, he’s a ‘middle-class man’ in love with places ‘worth knowing.’ I say he’s the high-class author of a book worth keeping. I’m hooked!”—Matthew James Babcock, author of Heterodoxologies

“With meditations born from experience, Grover conveys the mystery and pull of the trout rivers that run through the American West. These essays make one want to pick up a fly rod, wade into the nearest swift water, and revel Thoreau- or Dillard-like in the wild atmospheres found there.”—Braden Hepner, author of Pale Harvest


August 26, 2019

Book Review and Infographic: Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

by Angela Duckworth

Genres: Nonfiction, Self Help
Publisher: Collins
Length: 352 pages
Published: May 3, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars (infographic down below!)


Official Book Summary:

"In this must-read book for anyone striving to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows parents, educators, students, and business people both seasoned and new that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called grit.

Why do some people succeed and others fail? Sharing new insights from her landmark research on grit, Angela Duckworth explains why talent is hardly a guarantor of success. Rather, other factors can be even more crucial such as identifying our passions and following through on our commitments.

Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently bemoaned her lack of smarts, Duckworth describes her winding path through teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not genius, but a special blend of passion and long-term perseverance. As a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth created her own character lab and set out to test her theory.

Here, she takes readers into the field to visit teachers working in some of the toughest schools, cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. Finally, she shares what she's learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers; from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.

Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that not talent or luck makes all the difference."


Quote:

"Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare."


Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase--as much as the capture--that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn't dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.

"In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.

"It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit."



My Book Review (Plus My Infographic!):

The premise for Angela Duckworth's Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a great idea. Duckworth proposes many valid points about our individual ability to develop and increase grit to help further personal character. However, I'm not fully satisfied with many of her examples. Duckworth places extreme value and repeated emphasis on fame, celebrity, and money. She also dances around fully addressing issues like mental health, life-work balance, socio-economic disadvantages, gender, race, and prejudice.

I've translated some of my thoughts about Duckworth's key ideas and my responses into this infographic below:



 

August 7, 2019

Book Spotlight - Four Tales of Troubled Love by Matthew James Babcock


Four Tales of Troubled Love

by Matthew James Babcock

Genres: Fiction, Novellas, Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Harvard Square Editions
Length: 342 pages
Published: January 25, 2019
Purchase Link: Amazon

Official Book Summary:

"Enter this tetrad of tangled love tales at the turn of the last millennium when what were then the latest technologies--personal computers, fax machines, and mobile phones--started to short-circuit pacemakers. This tour de four of realistic love stories operates operatically, like a piece of music in four movements, sometimes zany and tragic, at times surreal and sublime.

'Help Phone Thirteen' (scherzando con misterioso): A young father moves his family across the country to escape his oppressive in-laws and, when his job and marriage implode, gets guidance from a mystical voice on a "help phone" at the local mall and a professional clown masquerading as social savior.

'Meer, Tarn, Water, Fell'
(marcia moderato con fuoco): A poetry-loathing Dutch tour bus driver on a stopover in The Lake District plots revenge on his German ex-wife, unaware that the daughter he never knew he had has followed him half way around the world for the love she was denied.

'Impressions'
(appassionato): An ex-military pilot turned tech CEO finds his unconventional marriage and newfound faith at odds when he discovers the joys and dangers that come with waiting for answers from heaven and the heart.

'The Seal'
(eroico non troppo): A young family, caught between the baby blues and the deep blue sea, battles professional and personal pressures, but thanks to a homeless benefactor and captive harbor seal, learns that loving the environment and loving each other are a matter of instinct.

T. S. Eliot had his Four Quartets of poetry, now comes a foursome of fiction. For beach readers, literature connoisseurs, and book club junkies alike, these tales will quadruple the pleasure in reflecting on how we live and love. Wherever you take them, they will find you once again, in love with trouble and troubled by love."


Author Bio:

A veteran presenter, professor, and reader, Matthew James Babcock has traveled, studied, and written in Utah, New York, Pennsylvania, Great Britain, Germany, and has come home to roost in the great basins of the Rocky Mountain Northwest. He lurks online under the code name ‘Wordman.’ He is also the author of Private Fire: Robert Francis's Ecopoetry and Prose, Strange Terrain, Points of Reference, and Heterodoxologies. You can visit his website here.

Interview and Excerpt:

Available here.

Praise: 

"Matthew James Babcock is charming with a poetic bent.... Throughout all the stories there is a push and pull for what love really means. For all those beach readers or book clubs looking for their next read -- this is it." ⎯J Bowen West, The Times News

"With sentences like, 'His sick heart swings like a clapperless bell,' Matthew James Babcock's Four Tales of Troubled Love is a banquet of rich, abundant and wildly inventive language. In these novellas, only oddly matched lovers survive, and the fantastic and hilarious are indistinguishable from the painful and dismal. A unique and exceptional book." ⎯John Vernon, Author of Lucky Billy


August 6, 2019

Interview with Josh Allen, Author of Out to Get You

Interview with Josh Allen
Author of Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe

Today, I'm happy to share my interview with middle-grade author, Josh Allen. Allen's book of scary stories,  Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe, is being published by Holiday House on September 3, 2019. Perfect for any reader aged 8-12 who loves mystery and creepy twists and turns, Out to Get You is highly anticipated and is already receiving great recognition. You can order the book here and read my review here (I gave the book 5 out of 5 stars for its creativity and fun).

Allen teaches creative writing and literature. His work has appeared in Cricket, Dialogue, Juxtapose, and other literary magazines. He lives in Idaho with his family.


What draws you to middle-grade audiences and the scary story genre?

I’m drawn to middle-grade audiences because I’m passionate about transforming kid readers into adult readers, about reminding kids as they age that books are wondrous and fun. I think that when a kid stumbles upon the right book at the right time, that kid becomes a lifelong reader. So I write for kids because my dream is to offer a book that will do that for just one kid.

I write scary stories for two main reasons.

First, I think kids today have a lot to be afraid of. The world is big and frightening, and too many of adults that kids encounter are angry—angry at their world leaders, angry at their televisions, angry at each other. Horror offers kids a catharsis for their fears, a safe space to experience and work out their anxieties, so that when real fears inevitably descend, which they will, kids will be better equipped to navigate those emotions. Basically, I’m trying to use horror stories to inoculate kids against a massively frightening world.

Second, and this is perhaps the more important reason I wrote scary stories, they’re massively fun.

Do you also write for young adult or children’s audiences? What other projects are you working on?

I write primarily for middle-grade audiences, that is, 8-12 year olds. I’ve got a second collection of horror stories in the works that I hope will be out there in the world soon, and I’m also working on a non-horror novel for kids set in the 1980s that’s all about family bonds, the healing power of music, our need for community, a man with eight fingers, the space shuttle explosion, and the death penalty. Trust me, it’ll all eventually make sense. I hope.


Who are your favorite writers of middle-grade fiction? Who are some of your other favorite writers?

I love Gary D. Schmidt, Jason Reynolds, Kate diCamillo, Lauren Wolk, Erin Entrada Kelly, and too many other brilliant middle-grade writers to name. There’s just so much talent in the genre right now.

I also love Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Doerr, Michael Chabon, and Alice Walker.

Your story collection features eerie conundrums and mysterious twists and turns. Where do your ideas come from?

This answer is a bit hippy-dippy, but I believe we exist in a creative universe that wants to help us be creative, that is actually designed to draw out our creativity. So, I believe that the universe is out there trying to give us what we need to fulfill our creative destinies, whether we’re trying to write, paint, sculpt, dance, or whatever (see, like I said, pretty hippy-dippy). The secret to getting ideas then, is to Pay Attention. As Anne Lamott says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention... Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that - the details, the nuance, what is. If you start to look around, you will start to see.”

Most ideas just kind of come to me when I slow down, breathe, and look around. When I Pay Attention.

What’s the editing process been like?

LONG! I revise a lot. A few months ago, I cleaned up my office, and every time I came across a printed draft of Out to Get You, I stacked it in the corner. Here’s how high that stack got by the time I finished:


And I should point out that this doesn’t include all of the drafts I never bothered printing.

How did you find your book agent?

I found an agent with the help of Gary D. Schmidt, who’s a fine writer and a fine friend. After I published a creepy story in a national magazine called Cricket, Gary put me in touch with Rick Margolis, who runs the Rising Bear Literary Agency. I sent Rick a manuscript, and fortunately for me, he liked it.

What’s the best reaction you could envision an 8-12 year-old having to reading your book?

Reading it, loving it, and then running out to find another book they love just as much.

Have your kids read your book? Do they think you’re cool?

They’ve read some of the stories. I’m not sure they think I’m cool. In their eyes, I think I’ve always been just their moderately geeky dad. (PROOF: I’m writing this in cargo shorts.) So I suspect that my publishing a book hasn’t raised my kids’ opinion of me as much as it has lowered their opinion of all writers in general.

Out to Get You features some great cover art and illustrations from Sarah Coleman. Were you able to collaborate or share ideas at all?

Not much, but I love Sarah’s work! Sarah is this fantastic illustrator who’s done work for so many amazing writers including Harper Lee, Cornelia Funk, and Lauren Wolk. She’s so good that I just got out of the way and let her do her thing.

But there was one day she reached out to me for collaboration. One of my stories is set in a boy’s bathroom, and Sarah was working on an illustration that had a bunch of graffiti on the walls. But because Sarah is British, her graffiti was very British. And because Sarah is a girl, her graffiti was a bit girly. So, she asked me one day to send her a list of the kinds of things that might be written on bathroom walls in American boy bathrooms. So, I spent a bunch of time that day brainstorming bathroom graffiti. It was a hoot!


Your book also has a glow-in-the-dark cover. What was your reaction to hearing your publisher was doing this?

The ten-year-old who lives inside my forty-five-year-old body completely took over. I think I actually squealed and jumped around like a madman. I’m glad there’s no video.

Could Out to Get You turn into a series?

I sure hope so! I’ve got a second book of spooky stories almost finished, and I’d love to continue this amazing ride.

You teach full-time as an English professor. When do you manage to fit in your writing time?

I sneak in writing time when I can. Evenings. Weekends. During boring meetings. Mostly, I write early in the morning before the day gets going because once I start with classes and students and grading papers, it’s very hard to eek out any time at all.
  

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write something every day. Read something every day.

In “The Voice,” the teacher has mastered a voice she uses to get her students to follow instructions. Have you mastered “the voice”?

Do I have an authoritative teaching voice? No way. When I completely lose control of my class, my go-to technique is to point out with some lame joke that I’ve completely lost control of the class. (“Wow, I’m a mess. I usually don’t lose control of a class this bad until at least the third week. Oh well.”) Then my students take pity on me and let me pretend I’m still in charge.

What’s more stressful, facing a pile of papers to grade or facing a story that needs rewriting?

Grading papers. I almost always want to write. I almost never want to grade. I generally like reading my students' work. I just hate grading it.

Lastly, in your “Sorry, Froggy” story, Brady eats a pizza bomb. That sounds amazing, but what exactly is that?

Pizza bombs are like calzones—bread dough stuffed with pizza toppings and cheese and sauce. Google them and check out the images. Your mouth will water. I chose pizza bombs for the story because I needed a food Brady could eat in the opening scene that would make him seem slightly barbaric. He couldn’t really be eating a chef’s salad or a lamb chop or anything that would include utensils. Also, I think the name pizza bomb is kind of hilarious.

But yes, they’re delicious.


July 30, 2019

Book Review - Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe by Josh Allen

Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe

by Josh Allen
illustrated by Sarah J. Coleman


Genres: Middle Grade (ages 8-12), Fiction, Short Stories, Scary, Paranormal, Ghost Stories
Publisher: Holiday House
Length: 176 pages
Published: September 3, 2019
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Thirteen ordinary kids. Thirteen ordinary towns. Danger lurks around every corner . . . where spooky things are hiding in plain sight.

Get ready for a collection of thirteen short stories that will chill your bones, tingle your spine, and scare your pants off. Debut author Josh Allen masterfully concocts horror in the most innocent places, like R.L. Stine meets a modern Edgar Allan Poe. A stray kitten turns into a threatening follower. The street sign down the block starts taunting you. Even your own shadow is out to get you!

The everyday world is full of sinister secrets and these page-turning stories show that there's darkness even where you least expect it. Readers will sleep with one eye open . . .

Thirteen eerie full-page illustrations by award-winning artist Sarah J. Coleman accompany the tales in this frightful mashup that reads like a contemporary Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark."


My Book Review:

Josh Allen's collection of scary short stories, Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe, is exactly what is middle-grade readers need right now. While great detective mysteries, graphic novels, and comic stories abound, really entertaining short stories that have the power to immediately captivate audiences and have even non-readers coming back for more have been missing: Out to Get You is the book we've been waiting for, just in time for Halloween.

Growing up, I had books like R.L. Stine's classic Goosebumps series and Alvin Schwartz's even creepier Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to haunt my sleepovers (Stephen Gammell's Scary Story illustrations still give me the shivers). Allen delivers what modern kid audiences have long needed.

In Out to Get You, Allen successfully proves he can capture readers' attentions in just a few lines, drawing them in to well-written stories of the odd, paranormal, unexplained, and horrifying. Twist-endings, dramatic irony, and characters' nightmares come to life and each story is a page-turner, engaging and delighting with "weirdness and woe." It's difficult to pick a favorite, but a couple contenders would be "When Daunted Vanished, They Said He Moved to Ohio" (a tale wherein a boy gets to pick the devil's brain) and "The Color of Ivy" that will make me think twice before writing on my hand in pen ever again. Below is a short synopsis of each of the thirteen tales.

"Vanishers"

After school one day, best friends Jacob and Jakob walk home and brainstorm how to write a scary story for a homework assignment. They invent “The Vanishers” and what horrifying things these monsters are capable of doing to their unwilling, child victims.

"Nine Lives"

Miranda’s mom gets fed up with the messes her cat, Licorice, keeps making. When Miranda doesn’t stick up for her feline friend, she learns what it means when they say cats have nine lives.

"The Stain on the Cafeteria Floor"

Malia and her klutzy friend, Janet, discover a weird stain on the cafeteria floor. Even weirder, the stain swallows dimes and turkey sandwiches whole, growing bigger and bigger. Janet wants to get help, but Malia wants to keep it a secret.

"When Daunte Vanished, They Said He Moved to Ohio"

This story has a great, most attention-grabbing first line. The plot: Daunte Frederick Coleman gets to meet the devil and ask him three questions.

"The Color of Ivy"

Ivy finds a sparkly, greenish-black marker and instead of turning it in to the lost and found, she uses it to draw an ivy with her name. But Ivy doesn’t just draw her name on a piece of paper--she draws in on her hand--and soon the marker starts drawing for her.

"Neat-o Burrito"

Matt feels like a fool after he says the words “neato-burrito” to his crush, Caroline Spencer. On his way home from school, he finds a magic lamp and a genie who can grant him one wish, but something about the genie makes Matt worry he’s in for trouble.

"Crossing"

Every day when they walk to school, Owen races his older sister, Hannah, up a hill in front of a school-crossing sign. Every day, Hannah wins. When Owen takes a closer look at the sign, he notices something unusual about the boy and girl on it.

"The Voice"

Cindy Watson’s teacher, Mrs. Huber, has mastered how to use a particular voice when yelling at her students to get them to listen to her. Cindy wants Mrs. Huber’s power to end.

"Goodbye, Ridgecrest Middle School"

One day when washing his hands in the bathroom wondering when he’ll ever stop mixing up his teachers’ names (Mr. Johansen and Mr. Johnson), a scary message is dispensed onto Wally's paper towel, warning him that he only has two days left.

"Mighty Comfy"

Heidi’s dad picks up a couch someone has left by the side of the road. While he’s excited to sit on it and watch old cowboy movies, Heidi’s worried about where it came from.

"Sorry, Froggy"

It’s frog-dissection day in biology class. Brady couldn’t be more excited, but Julia thinks Brady needs to learn a lesson.

"Staring Contest"

Livvy and her dad have just moved two-hundred miles to an old house in need of a lot of repair. For Livvy’s dad this is a dream come true, but Livvy feels like the house is watching her.

"The Shadow Curse"

Mason has had a month to do his book report, but on the morning it’s due he still hasn’t started. When it’s his turn to stand in front of the class to give his presentation, Mason invents the story of "The Shadow Curse," but his classmates and teacher aren’t the only ones listening.

I highly recommend Out to Get You: 13 Tales of Weirdness and Woe for any middle-grade reader (ages 8-12). It's just the right balance of creepy mystery and fun intrigue, without ever crossing a line to draw discomfort from teachers, parents, and librarians. My one hope is that the publisher will realize what a great book this is and quickly turn it into a series.

If you still need another reason to order Josh Allen's book, the glow-in-the-dark hardcover should seal the deal for you. Though I received a paperback advanced reader's copy from the publisher, I've seen (and tested) the glow-in-the-dark cover in person and let me tell you, it was pretty cool.

Advanced reader's copy received from the publisher.

June 18, 2019

Book Review: Nelly Dean by Alison Case

Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights

by Alison Case

Genres: Historical Fiction, Retelling
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Length: 474 pages
Published: February 8, 2106
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Official Book Summary:

"Young Nelly Dean has been Hindley’s closest companion for as long as she can remember, living freely at the great house, Wuthering Heights. But when the benevolence of the master brings a wild child into the house, Nelly learns she must follow in her mother’s footsteps, be called 'servant' and give herself over completely to the demands of the Earnshaw family.

But Nelly is not the only one who finds her life disrupted by this strange newcomer. As death, illness, and passion sweep through the house, Nelly suffers heartache and betrayals at the hands of those she cherishes most, tempting her to leave it all behind. But when a new heir is born, a reign of violence begins that will test even Nelly’s formidable spirit as she finds out what it is to know true sacrifice.

Nelly Dean is a wonderment of storytelling and an inspired accompaniment to Emily Bronte’s adored work. It is the story of a woman who is fated to bear the pain of a family she is unable to leave, and unable to save."


Quote:

"See, that's how it is when you tell a story. You can't help changing things, seeing the future lying curled in the past like a half-grown chick in an egg. But it's not so."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"It's that I'm writing to you about, Mr. Lockwood: The story I told you over those long, dark nights. And about the story I didn't tell. Don't mistake me, please, I told you no lies, or not what you would call lies. Or at least--well, we'll come to that. But there were things I didn't say, things I couldn't say, then, and perhaps shouldn't now. But they've weighed on me since, and my mind has kept returning to you listening, and me talking, and I've imagined myself again and again telling you all those other things, and you taking an interest in them, as a story, you know, as you did that other tale I told. I have fancied that you might pass this way again, to pay a visit and see for yourself how Hareton and Cathy were coming on, and perhaps you might sit with me by the fire in the sitting room, and I would tell you another story altogether, a homespun grey yarn woven in among the bright-dyed and glossy dark threads of the Earnshaws and Lintons."


My Book Review:

I loved every moment of reading this book.

To fans of the Brontë sisters, Wuthering Heights is twisted Gothic passion at its finest. I'm often intrigued by retellings, but I've learned to be wary of them. When you love a text, it's painful to see someone not capture what you love about the original. Alison Case does a masterful job staying true to the themes and emotions of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

It's evident that Alison Case is a Victorian scholar because numerous elements are accurate to the time period. Case is a professor of Victorian literature who has published numerous scholarly articles on British literature, gender issues, and female narrators (as a fellow 19th-century scholar, her work is very interesting). It's easy to see how Case's research informs her ability to recreate Nelly Dean's narration to stay true to her character, though she makes the purposeful choice not to fully adopt Nelly's original vernacular but to rather use a voice more accessible to modern-day readers.

Within moments of starting the story, I felt I was back on the moors. The narrative is Nelly's letter to Mr. Lockwood, the outsider who visits Wuthering Heights in Emily Brontë's original novel and finds himself drawn into the stories, ghosts, and nightmares that haunt the house and its residents. In Case's novel, Nelly discloses the full truth of her childhood, her life has a servant, and her emotional connection to the residents of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. I thoroughly enjoyed reading more about Nelly Dean as Case adeptly fills in the narrative gaps of the original novel without disrupting anything within that story. I believe that's a large part of why I loved this novel so much--it doesn't attempt to change the story readers love, but rather just adds to it.

If you're a fan of Wuthering Heights, I would highly recommend this book: if you love it, you'll likely love this. If your feelings are only lukewarm towards the original, I'd still give Nelly Dean a try as it's often the difficult dialect and confusing character doublings that make Brontë's novel difficult for modern readers to wade through. Since Case alters the voice in order to heighten its readability, this removes a hurdle that makes it increasingly accessible and readable.

All in all, I really hope Case writes more 19th-century historical fiction.


June 13, 2019

Book Review: Squeezed by Alissa Quart


Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America

by Alissa Quart

Genres: Nonfiction, Politics, Economics 
Publisher: Ecco 
Length: 320 pages 
Published: June 26, 2018 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"Families today are squeezed on every side—from high childcare costs and harsh employment policies to workplaces without paid family leave or even dependable and regular working hours. Many realize that attaining the standard of living their parents managed has become impossible.

Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, examines the lives of many middle-class Americans who can now barely afford to raise children. Through gripping firsthand storytelling, Quart shows how our country has failed its families. Her subjects—from professors to lawyers to caregivers to nurses—have been wrung out by a system that doesn’t support them, and enriches only a tiny elite.

Interlacing her own experience with close-up reporting on families that are just getting by, Quart reveals parenthood itself to be financially overwhelming, except for the wealthiest. She offers real solutions to these problems, including outlining necessary policy shifts, as well as detailing the DIY tactics some families are already putting into motion, and argues for the cultural reevaluation of parenthood and caregiving.

Written in the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich and Jennifer Senior, Squeezed is an eye-opening page-turner. Powerfully argued, deeply reported, and ultimately hopeful, it casts a bright, clarifying light on families struggling to thrive in an economy that holds too few options. It will make readers think differently about their lives and those of their neighbors."

Quote:

"There are people on the brink who did everything 'right' and yet the math of their family lives is simply not adding up."

Excerpt (from the Introduction):

"Michelle Belmont's debt haunted her. It was almost unspeakable, but it was a raw relief when anyone asked her about it. She wanted people to hear about her life as she lived it, how her debt trailed her like a child's monster, how it was there when she went to the supermarket, to her son's day care, and home to her one-bedroom apartment.

It began as it often does, with the student loans for the college her parents back home in Georgia thought would ensure the right future. Then there was the money she borrowed for her master's of library science degree. A bit later, when baby Eamon came along, she and her husband owed over $20,000 in hospital bills as well. What was shocking were the price tags, just for normal things, like Michelle's labor and her overnight stay. She had required a few days extra at the hospital: Eamon had been born weighing ten pounds, thirteen ounces, and she had pushed that hefty creature for five hours.


'I thought that insurance helps you get by,' Michelle told me. 'But my husband had a really cheap insurance, and you get what you pay for.'

Then the debt shadow monster just grew." 

My Book Review:

This book is not what I thought it would be.

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America starts really strong and pulls the audience in with topics that most U.S. citizens can agree need fixing: pregnancy discrimination, the plight of university adjuncts, overpriced graduate schools, and rising student loans. These issues are engaging and eye-catching; however, the book then starts to lose ethos by depending upon faulty logic and questionable soures.

Content includes an adult who is bitter her parents can’t gift her $25K, couples in areas like Manhattan who won’t relocate but willingly pay exorbitant rent and hire pre-school consultants to get their kids in overpriced private schools, individuals who think their lives should look like what they see glamorized on fictional TV shows, others who are disappointed they cannot afford lavish celebrity lifestyles, and on and on. This type of evidence weakens her argument and creates a disconnect between her introduction and her proposed conclusion: universal basic income and a socialist-run government.

For me, the book would have been much stronger if Quart had utilized stronger, more middle-class relatable examples, and really worked her way through the problems she referenced in the book's beginning. As it stands, her conclusions were faulty, the evidence lacked credibility, and redrafting to avoid logical fallacies would have been worthwhile.
 


May 21, 2019

Book Review: Escaping from Houdini (Stalking Jack the Ripper series #3) by Kerri Maniscalco

 

Escaping from Houdini (Stalking Jack the Ripper series #3)

by Kerri Maniscalco

Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
Length: 416 pages
Published: September 18, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"In this third installment in the #1 bestselling Stalking Jack the Ripper series, a luxurious ocean liner becomes a floating prison of scandal, madness, and horror when passengers are murdered one by one…with nowhere to run from the killer. .

Audrey Rose Wadsworth and her partner-in-crime-investigation, Thomas Cresswell, are en route to New York to help solve another blood-soaked mystery. Embarking on a week-long voyage across the Atlantic on the opulent RMS Etruria, they’re delighted to discover a traveling troupe of circus performers, fortune tellers, and a certain charismatic young escape artist entertaining the first-class passengers nightly.

But then, privileged young women begin to go missing without explanation, and a series of brutal slayings shocks the entire ship. The strange and disturbing influence of the Moonlight Carnival pervades the decks as the murders grow ever more freakish, with nowhere to escape except the unforgiving sea. It’s up to Audrey Rose and Thomas to piece together the gruesome investigation as even more passengers die before reaching their destination. But with clues to the next victim pointing to someone she loves, can Audrey Rose unravel the mystery before the killer’s horrifying finale?"

Quote:

“If you wish to go, I’ll never make you stay. I might not do and say the proper thing all the time, but I do know that I love you enough to set you free.”

Excerpt:

"'...if, of course, legends are to be believed. Named after a character from German folklore, Mephistopheles is a demon in the Devil's employ,' Captain Norwood said. 'Known for stealing the souls of those already corrupt, he's full of magic and trickery, and he happens to be one spectacular showman. Here, look at these tarot cards he's made for the tables. Each card features one of his performers.' He held up a gorgeous set of handpainted cards. 'I guarantee you're in for a week of unparalleled magic and mystery,' he continued. 'Each night will bring a new carnival performance, never before seen. This ship will be the talk of legends, mark my words. Soon every cruise liner will host similar entertainments. It will be the start of a new era of travel.'

I raised a brow at his near-reverent tone. 'Are you suggesting you've hired a demon to entertain us and it's sure to become all the rage, Captain?'

Thomas choked on his water, and Miss Prescott shot me a mischievous grin. 'Is there a church or a chapel on the ship?' she asked, all round eyes and innocence. 'What shall we do if we're tricked out of our souls, sir?'

The captain lifted a shoulder, enjoying the mystery. 'You'll both have to wait and see. It shan't be much longer now.'"


The final installment in Maniscalco's series, out September 2019

My Book Review:

I really enjoyed Escaping from Houdini. I've read each of the three installments in Kerri Maniscalco's young adult series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, and this one is my favorite thus far.

The narrator, Rose Wadsworth, is on a ship for America. After her near escape from the Dracula case, she, her detective partner and boyfriend Thomas, and her uncle, are all ready to return to a more normal and quiet life. The ship's passengers are being entertained by a troop of circus performers, including the real-life figure, Houdini, and all are led by a mysterious, masked-man named Mephistopheles. Under his guidance, the shows promises to be a life-changing experience. In fact, aside from Houdini, all of the performers are masked and remain so during the entirety of the ship's passage.

During the first night’s events, all passengers on board the ship enter the dining room excitedly anticipating the first performance, when partway through the grand production an audience member is found murdered. Even worse, each night thereafter, a new victim is found in a cruel and horrifying death. But the question remains, are the circus performers really to blame?

Sure, the writing isn’t without flaw in spots, but overall this was a great, fun, and fast-paced young adult read. Maniscalco's plots are getting better and better with each new book and I'm enjoying seeing where she's taking these characters on this detective journey and their run-ins with Gothic characters from our collective historical and literary past. Book one featured Frankenstein and Jack the Ripper, book two featured Dracula and vampire horror galore, and I liked the surprises in this installment when Houdini is present but it's the mythical Mephistopheles running the show.

I finished the book in just a few days and immediately wished I had the next and final installment in the series, Capturing the Devil, (due out September 10, 2019) already in hand.



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