January 19, 2017

All Things Harry Potter

All Things Harry Potter

I recently finished reading J.K. Rowling's screenplay of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I still haven't seen the movie (her original writing was a greater priority), but on top of rereading the series twice last year as well as enjoying Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for the first time last fall, it's been an HP party round here.

My next stop will be slowly accumulating Jim Kay's new illustrated editions. So far copies of Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets have been released. Have any of you read those versions? What did you think of the new illustrations?

I'll be taking an HP break for some time (I'm averaging about five years between rereads). Instead, I'm looking forward to her two promised releases this year, one under her own name and another as Robert Galbraith. If you haven't read her Cormoran Strike series and you like gritty mysteries--very gritty, you've been warned--you should check them out.

Here's my review round-up on all things Harry Potter, with short takeaway thoughts and links to my longer reviews.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (#1)

[5 stars] 

I still cry every time Neville earns ten points. Full review here.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (#2)

[5 stars] 

(1) Why don't they study literature, humanities, or the arts at Hogwarts? (2) Fred is my favorite Weasley twin. Full review here.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (#3)

[5 stars]

I know that Sirius is beloved, but I've always favored Lupin--his illness and what he symbolizes as a rejected, misunderstood man is so heartbreaking. He lived in James and Sirius' shadows and was relegated to the fringes of society but he never becomes bitter. I love that he is one of JK Rowling's favorite characters in the entire series. Full review here.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (#4)

[5 stars]  

Mrs. Weasley's love and concern for Harry since she first spotted him alone on the train platform in book one is endlessly beautiful. Of course my heart warms when after everything Harry's been through at the conclusion of The Goblet of Fire, it's her maternal hug that comforts him: "He had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother." Full review here.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (#5)

[5 stars]

The first three hundred pages is my least favorite section in the series because Harry is so moody and annoying all the time. After Hermoine suggests they form Dumbledore's Army, however, it's pretty fantastic. I also love Fred and George's grand exit from Hogwarts and their parting words to Peeves. Full review here.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6)

[5 stars] 

I remember when I first read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince how intense everything felt when Harry finally gets Scrimgour's memory and learns about the horcruxes. Even though each book progressively heightens the danger, Harry's journey with Dumbledore and then the battle in Hogwarts and its outcome left me a bit shell-shocked. The burden Harry feels at having to finish these tasks alone is so great and I love how Ron and Hermoine immediately remind him they'll be there at his side without any hesitation which I find tremendously brave. Full review here.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (#7)

[5 stars] 

There's nothing like a great story. I adore the conclusion to this series, the adventure, the bravery, the sacrifice, and how it brings me to tears every time I read it. Thank you, J.K. Rowling! Full review here.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (#8)

[4 stars] 

Hooray for more Harry Potter, three cheers for a manuscript and stage directions that undoubtedly make for a fantastic performance, but some disappointment in the actual execution of the storyline and unevenness with beloved characters we know better than they were depicted here. Full review here.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay

[3 stars]

Newt is sweet and endearing, but I definitely preferred reading about the child characters--Modesty, Chastity, and Credence--more than the adults who bumble around and keep messing things up. The heart of the story lies within the children's pain.  

What did you think of Fantastic Beasts


January 12, 2017

Read in 2016: Children's Books, Comics, & Memoirs

Today is the second part in a series of posts about all of the books I read in 2016. This post highlights the 8 children's books, 6 comics/graphic novels, and 13 memoirs I read last year. I've sorted them by genre and then by my Goodreads rating (a scale of 1-5 stars, 1 being I didn't like and 5 meaning it was amazing).

Children's Books

by Roald Dahl

[5 stars] A childhood favorite full of deliciously ridiculous made-up words. Read my full review.

by Gary Paulsen

[4 stars] I reread Hatchet after learning it was actually the first of several novels about Brian. Along with My Side of the Mountain and The Long Winter, The Hatchet held a strong place within my child imagination of outdoor survival. Has anyone else read the whole series? How did I miss this?

Demon Dentist
by David Walliams

[3.5 stars] A funny middle-grade novel very reminiscent of Roald Dahl.

The River
by Gary Paulsen

[3 stars] Basically a repeat of Hatchet, so is it good or bad luck to be with Brian in the middle of nowhere?

by Sara Pennypacker

[3 stars] I completely understand why early reviewers hate the ending to this book, but I though it was absolutely the best and most poetic outcome for the story.

by Katherine Applegate

[3 stars] The writing has its flaws, but the messages about trauma and mental illness/escape are great for child audiences.

The Lightning Thief
by Rick Riordan

[2.5 or 3 stars] I liked the use of mythology and the premise is fun. At times the plot is kind of silly, unimportant events are described in great detail, and three or four major elements in the climax/conclusion happen far too quickly and easily.

The Jungle Book
by Rudyard Kipling

[2.5 or 3 stars] I thought I'd enjoy this book even more this time around, but I still feel the about same. The first two stories in the collection (the ones featuring Mowgli, Baloo, Shere Khan, Kaa, and company) are great, but generally the rest are OK but less engaging to me.


Heart and Brain: An Awkward Yeti Collection
by Nick Seluk

[4 stars]  Definitely one of my favorite current cartoonists. I love Heart and Brain and got their 2017 calendar for Christmas.

Adulthood is a Myth
by Sarah Andersen

[4 stars] Very funny and very accurate.

Roller Girl
by Victoria Jamieson

[4 stars] A great YA graphic novel, especially if you love roller derby as I do. (I root for the No Coast Derby Girls!)
Awkward Family Photos
by Mike Bender

[3 stars] The funniest section is themed "Strange not Awkward."

The Worrier's Guide to Life
by Gemma Correll

[2.5 stars] Not as funny as I thought it would be given that I enjoy her comics and Instagram feed. Many more misses than hits, but when she nails it her comics are perfection.

Charlie Brown and Friends: A Peanuts Collection
by Charles M. Schwartz

[2 stars] Not the best Peanuts collection: 80% baseball comics and not nearly enough Snoopy.


Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between
by Lauren Graham

[4 stars] Delightful. As a Gilmore Girls and a Lauren Graham fan, it was fun to listen to the audiobook and feel like I was getting to have some one-on-one time with her.

12 Years a Slave
by Solomon Northup

[4 stars] Solomon Northup was a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. After twelve years of horror, he was finally rescued. This is his autobiographical slave narrative, published in 1853. Along with Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and many others, these accounts are crucial to read, remember, and share. As you'd expect, the scene of his rescue is particularly emotional.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed

[3.5 stars] If the entire memoir were about her mourning the loss of her mother and her time on the trail, I'd rate this higher. Unfortunately, much of the book is littered with her unfailingly poor judgment, finger-pointing, navel-gazing, terrible relationships, drug use, rough language, etc. It's a bit of a pendulum ride.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
by Rinker Buck

[3 stars] Part memoir of his relationship with his father, part expedition to travel the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon. Interesting enough, but so, so much cursing cheapened it.

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi

[3 stars] Increasingly powerful, poignant, and sad as the author's cancer spreads and he bares his fears and vulnerability. You'll need some Kleenex at the ready.

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person
by Shonda Rhimes

[3 stars] Another strong anthem for women to love and support one another, dream big, work hard, and face your fears by saying "Yes!" to new opportunities and adventure.

Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

[3 stars] A powerful love story from a father to his son about racism, finding strength, and finding identity and place in an unfair world.

My Story
by Elizabeth Smart

[3 stars] I admire Elizabeth Smart's survival and applaud her work as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and abduction, though I didn't like some of the narrative choices in the book.

Scrappy Little Nobody
by Anna Kendrick

[3 stars] Sassy and funny when she's not detailing her love life (which unfortunately is much of the time). Not knowing anything about her theater background and childhood, I did gain respect for her long career and liked hearing her humorous dishes on celebrity behind-the-scenes life. 

Life Among the Savages
by Shirley Jackson

[3 stars] Signature Jackson style as she uses her dry humor to paint a portrait of her life and marriage raising four young children. The funniest stand-alone excerpt is her puzzled reflections on her family's sleep patterns and a missing blanket.

Where Am I Now?
by Mara Wilson

[2.5 stars] Engaging when she's writing about her childhood celebrity and her relationships with both the actors and characters that informed her youth but this makes up only half of the text.

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology
by Leah Remini

[2 stars] I sped through this, skimming sections that were more about her childhood and professional and instead focusing more on chapters about her former religion. Her experiences with the behind-the-scenes workings of celebrities and Scientology are definitely interesting, but overall I didn't love her narrative voice.
by Drew Barrymore

[2 stars] I think Drew is funny and charming, but this collection of stories was just okay.

 Do you have any children's, comic, or memoir recommendations?

January 9, 2017

Read in 2016: Picture Books

Last year I read 175 books, approximately 50,000 pages! Though many of the titles I read will be featured in more in-depth upcoming book reviews, I thought I'd break-down the list of everything I read this year in a series of posts over the course of January. Today's post will highlight all 30 of the picture books I read in 2016. I've sorted them by genre and then by my Goodreads rating (a scale of 1-5 stars, 1 being I didn't like and 5 meaning it was amazing).

5 Stars

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
by William Joyce

This book actually brought a tear to my eyes. A beautiful story about the power of reading? Yes, please! Just a great read. Read my full review.

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World's Most Famous Bear
by Lindsay Mattick

So cute. The real story about how there came to be a bear in the London Zoo named Winnie who would catch the attention of a young a visitor named Christopher Robin and inspire his father A.A. Milne to write the beloved Winnie-the-Pooh tales.

What Do You Do with an Idea?
by Kobi Yamada

A lovely picture book about the value of children's imaginations. The pencil and watercolor illustrations are frame-worthy. Read my full review.

The Three Questions
by Jon J. Muth

A picture book adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's short story, "The Three Questions." A profound story about moral philosophy as questioned by great thinkers and yet still deeply meaningful here rendered with animal characters. A great message for adults and children alike.

4 Stars

What Do You Do with a Problem?
by Kobi Yamada

Encouragement for little kids, affordable therapy for grown-ups.

Nanette's Baguette
by Mo Willems

Mo Willems in top form. Great illustrations, funny, and enjoyable for kids and their parents.

The Berenstain Bears Love Their Neighbors
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears learn humility after judging their atypical neighbors Clem, Shem, and Lem Bogg.

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories
by Dr. Seuss

The audiobook version of this collection is fantastic.

The Berenstain Bears Ready, Get Set, Go!
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

This is a good picture book for early picture book readers--it's one of the simplest Berenstain Bear books and the repetition and language predictability help kiddos become engaged in reading along. Plus, it's pretty awesome that Sister Bear is the best athlete in the family. Girl power!

The Berenstain Bears and the Wild, Wild Honey
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

I love this Berenstain Bear story about Papa Bear because it's so similar to Winnie-the-Pooh.

Amelia Bedelia Collection
by Peggy Parish

A childhood favorite.

3.5 Stars

by Aaron Becker

Picks up where Journey left off. The adventures here were a bit more fun to imagine than those in the previous book.

3 Stars

Snappsy the Alligator Did Not Ask to Be in This Book
by Julie Falatko

A humorous picture book for to kids who are tired of their parents taking their pictures and posting them on social media. Read my full review.

A Bad Case of Stripes
by David Shannon

Lima bean farmers' propaganda disguised in a story of self-acceptance.

by Aaron Becker

I love, love, love wordless picture books. The story is simple--a bored girl uses drawing and her imagination to explore new worlds. It starts stronger than it ends, but I liked the concept.

Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Pena

A brightly illustrated picture book about a boy riding the bus with his grandmother. Through their weekly Sunday rides, she teaches him about respect, life, gratitude, and community.

The Elves and the Shoemaker
by Jim LaMarche

Undoubtedly, the illustrations are the best part of this rebelling of the Brothers Grimm story.

2.5 Stars

Hensel and Gretel: Ninja Chicks
by Corey Rosen Schwartz

A Kung-fu animal retelling of Hansel & Gretel. I liked that in this version both characters are female and instead of being abandoned by their parents in the forest they set out to save their mom and dad. A fun, quirky premise but sometimes the plot and rhyme scheme felt forced and tired. Read my full review.

2 Stars

The Berenstain Bears: Kindness Counts
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

Too preachy, even for a Berenstain Bear book, and rather boring. Brother Bear gets frustrated when a younger friend named Billy ruins his model airplane and obviously has to learn to be more kind and patient.

by Adam Rubin

If you like this book, it's likely due to the brightly colored and interactive (fold-out) illustrations and not the poorly written text.

Remarkable Animals: Mix & Match to Create 100 Crazy Creatures
by Tony Meeuwissen

A cute, interactive picture book well suited for Kindergarten readers, just far too short. Read my full review.

The Berenstain Bears and the Substitute Teacher
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

Miss Viola Swamp is still the best substitute teacher in children's literature, but it was funny that the kids thought their new teacher meant business when she showed up in designer jeans, hoop earrings, tinted glasses, and a sports car--so random.

The Berenstain Bears Shoot the Rapids
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

Papa Bear is a moron, bless him.

The Berenstain Bears to the Rescue
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

Papa Bear is a moron, volume two. I'm not sure which was published first, but this book and The Berenstain Bears Shoot the Rapids are are basically the same story.

Guess How Much I Love You in the Winter: Deluxe Cut Paper Edition
by Sam McBratney

Fun paper cuts but nothing revolutionary.

The Berenstain Bears Get the Scaredies
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

Rhymes appropriate for early readers, but the concluding moral is a bit of an eye roll.

The Berenstain Bears' Nursery Tales
by Jan & Stan Berenstain

An illustrated compilation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Little Red Hen, and the Gingerbread Man. The Berenstain bears' name in the title is a bit deceptive.

1.5 or 2 Stars

River Rose and the Magical Lullaby
by Kelly Clarkson

A publisher would have passed on this picture book if its author weren't so famous.

1.5 Stars

Olivia and the Missing Toy
by Ian Falconer

I still don't fully understand the Olivia craze. Even though there's usually some sort of moral ending, she's annoying.

1 Star

Give Please a Chance
by Bill O'Reilly

Read the title, skip the book.

Which pictures books did you enjoy reading last year?

January 5, 2017

Books I Did Not Finish (2016)

2016 was a banner year for me in reading, largely due to the OverDrive app and access to free audiobooks and e-books. I still prefer reading print over e-books, but audiobooks are delightful and I've found them to be far more enjoyable than listening to music or watching reruns on TV.

According to Goodreads (follow me at goodreads.com/jactionary), last year I read 175 books (!) and attempted but did not finish an additional 18 titles. Granted this includes a large number of picture books as well as children's literature, but it's still an impressive number. I'll post a recap soon, but for now here are the books I started but decided to set aside. It used to be really difficult for me not to finish a book, but graduating and getting to once again control my reading list has been empowering. I'm usually open to giving books a try if they look at all appealing, but I've also learned that there's no shame in deciding a book is not worth my time.

Here they are in chronological order of when I started them over the course of last year:

Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds

by Carmine Gallo

Reads like an annoying person's sales pitch.

Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration

by David Roberts

I thought I'd love this (I've been on such a big historical nonfiction kick lately), but it never fully engaged me.

Secret Survivors: Real-Life Stories to Give You Hope for Healing

by Jen Howver

A lesson in what you'll attempt to read when nothing else is available for check out on OverDrive.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

by M.T. Anderson

This book is YA historical account of the life of Russian classical music composer Shostakovich and his life in Leningrad during Stalin's reign in Russia. I didn't finish the book when I became distracted, but I really enjoyed what I'd read this far and I would pick it up again.

The Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

For being a long novel, I read a full third before stopping. Derivative of Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated and, in my opinion, not executed half as well.

All the Bright Places

by Jennifer Niven

A YA novel that tries to foster a dramatic love story by romanticizing attempted suicide.

Everything, Everything

by Nicola Yoon

Interesting premise but it quickly turns into a Nicholas Sparks novel which is not my jam. 

Be Frank With Me

by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Adventures in babysitting minus anything funny or interesting.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

by Carrie Brownstein

I was enjoying what I was listening to thus far in the audiobook, but then I was playing around on my phone and accidentally returned the title to the library because apparently sometimes I forget how to use a smart phone. For a moment, I considered renewing my request on the title, but my queue was full and my to-read/to-listen wish list was packed. Oh, well. Didn't finish because I didn't feel compelled enough to try again.

You're Never Weird on the Internet

by Felicia Day

I thought it would make me laugh but after fifty pages with not a single chuckle or pathetic half-smile, I gave up.

Second Star to the Right

by Mary Alice Monroe

I wanted to like this book but the writing was just OK. I chose not to finish it after a privileged white character makes a joke about slavery and then the story proceeds as if that was completely normal. How did an editor approve this?


by Dan Vyleta

The premise for this YA historical fiction novel had me more excited than almost any other book announcement this year: in Victorian England, sin emits smoke, dirtying the city until two teenagers fight the system. Unfortunately, the writing is poor, jumbled, and ultimately the story is just unbelievably boring.

Hamilton: The Revolution

by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Ignorantly, I thought this was the play's script but it's actually the story of how Lin Manuel Miranda adapted Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton to the stage. That's an interesting, worthwhile read but not what I was looking for at the time.

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

by Erik Larson

I've read and really enjoyed four of Erik Larson's books (The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, In the Garden of Beasts, and Dead Wake), but this earlier historical nonfiction book about one of history's deadliest hurricanes just wasn't keeping my interest. The narrative seems to struggle to hit the ground running and instead after setting up the disaster that would follow flounders as it backtracks through the history of weather analysis. I gave up after sixty pages but still wholeheartedly recommend his other titles mentioned above. I would consider trying this one again but only as an audiobook since Edward Herrmann is the narrator.

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

by Jesse Andrews

I wanted to read this book after hearing the film was enjoyable, but after a handful of chapters I just couldn't tolerate the narrator any longer. I also don't find the term "gangbangers" and racial stereotypes to be at all humorous.

Anna and the French Kiss

by Stephanie Perkins

From the looks of it, I'm one of the only people who didn't immediately fall in love with this book. It was okay, but after a couple of chapters it wasn't good enough to keep reading. The main character felt a bit shallow and was kind of annoying.

The Woman in Cabin 10

by Ruth Ware

The book is trying very hard to be Agatha Christie, The Girl on the Train, and Gone Girl all in one. Aside from its wannabe nature, I gave up after eight chapters because the main character was annoying me.

The Thousandth Floor

by Katharine McGee

This is seriously a YA soap opera novel--drug use, lies, rehab, affairs, disappearances, sex, and even a girl in love with her adopted brother. Yikes. I felt like I was reading a script for The Young and the Restless.

Which books did you read and not finish during 2016?

November 10, 2016

Book Spotlight - The Darkest Hour by Caroline Tung Richmond

The Darkest Hour

by Caroline Tung Richmond

Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication Date: July 26, 2016
Length: 304 pages in hardcover
Tagline: "Dressed to kill."

This is my friend, Caroline Tung Richmond. We met years ago when we were both undergraduates and had mutual friends who enjoyed mid-week breaks from homework to watch reality TV and eat Mexican food. Caroline is a wonderfully successful YA author who has just published her third book, The Darkest Hour. Her first YA novel, The Only Thing to Fear, imagines the devastation of a world in which Hitler won World War II. Some eighty years after his triumph, a sixteeen-year-old girl named Zara has come up with a way to defeat his legacy and reign but she'll have to risk everything for a chance at freedom.

Caroline also recently contributed a story to Candlewick Press' A Tyranny of Petticoats. The collection features young adult fantasy and historical fiction stories featuring strong-willed heroines and includes works by authors such as Marissa Meyer, Beth Revis, Marie Lu, and others.

Caroline is also currently at work on yet another forthcoming title! Pretty awesome.

In The Darkest Hour, Caroline delivers a young adult historical fiction novel with a strong heroine taking the lead.

Official Summary:

Never underestimate a pretty face.

My name is Lucie Blaise.

I am sixteen years old.

I have many aliases, but I am none of the girls you see.

What I am is the newest agent of the CO-7.

And we are here to take down Hitler.

After the Nazis killed my brother on the North African front, I volunteered at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, DC, to do my part for the war effort. Only instead of a desk job at the OSS, I was tapped to join the Clandestine Operations -- a secret espionage and sabotage organization of girls. Six months ago, I was deployed to German-occupied France to gather intelligence and eliminate Nazi targets.

My current mission: Track down and interrogate a Nazi traitor about a weapon that threatens to wipe out all of Western Europe. Then find and dismantle the weapon before Hitler detonates it. But the deeper I infiltrate, the more danger I'm in. Because the fate of the free world hangs in the balance, and trusting the wrong person could cause millions of lives to be lost. Including my own.

Published by Scholastic Press in 2016, the novel is receiving really positive feedback from readers about Caroline's commitment to portraying strong heroines as she tackles difficult historical contexts. Here's the book trailer followed by an excerpt from Chapter One:


My good Catholic mother taught me to never lie, cheat, or steal.

I pray she can forgive me, then, for what I've agreed to do--for this sin will be far worse.

I hurry down the cramped streets of the Marais district, leaping over the fresh rain puddles and smoothing the creases of my habit. The black skirt drags at my feet, and I hope I don't look too much of a fraud--because I certainly feel like one.

It has been months since I've knelt for Communion and even longer since I was elbowed into a confessional booth. Yet here I am, rosay in hand, dressed like sour-faced Sister McDougal, who'd rap my kunckles in Latin class whenever she caught me reading Nancy Drew. But getting my knuckles bruised is small change compared to what I've been up to these last six months. If my mother could see me now, if she discovered what I've been training for, I'm sure shed weep for my poor blackened soul.

But I'll tarnish my soul if that means smashing the Nazis under my boot. I owe that much to Theo, don't I? 

Sounds thrilling, doesn't it? Will you be checking out The Darkest Hour? What are your current favorite YA novels?