Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

As a lover of WWII historical fiction, I had heard that Between Shades of Gray would most likely be a book I would enjoy. When I happened to find it by chance at a used bookstore in Center City Philadelphia, I knew I needed to get it. After meeting Ruta Sepetys back in January of 2016, I was even more excited to read it!

Synopsis

A knock comes at the door in the dead of night, and Lina’s life changes in an instant. With her young brother and mother, she is hauled away by the Soviet secret police from her home in Lithuania and thrown into a cattle car en route to Siberia. Separated from her father, Lina secretly passes along clues in the form of drawings, hoping they will reach his prison camp. But will her letters, or her courage, be enough to reunite her family? Will they be enough to keep her alive?

Review

First, I read Salt to the Sea (review to come later), in a day and a half – for a slow reader like myself, that was quite speedy. Then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ruta’s storytelling and gnawing, sinking feeling I felt while reading, knowing the MV Wilhelm Gustloff’s fate. And I realized that any writer who can tell a story that I cannot forget must be amazing, so it was time to read Between Shades of Gray.

Ruta turned her magic storytelling to a topic near and dear to her heart – the plight of Lithuanian refugees. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee who spent years in refugee camps after suffering horrors during the war, she has a unique perspective on a war story not often told. She made the world of the Soviet gulags so real. The absolutely terrifying world of Siberia and the horrors of what the Soviets did to their prisoners. To women and children. I cried. I bawled my eyes out.

Not only to I love Ruta Sepetys’ storytelling. But, I also love how open and welcoming Ruta herself is. I had the opportunity to meet her again last month and when I ran into her outside of her autographing session, I asked her kindly if she had a quick moment. She said yes, and I proceeded to tell her how much not only I love her books, but my sister, Laura, does as well. She was exceptionally sweet and asked if Laura was with me. I said, alas she was not, but would love to have been able to come. Ruta then asked if she could send Laura a message, so I went digging for a notebook, and she said she wanted to send her a video! The result is below.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780142420591 • 352 pages • originally published March 2011, this edition published April 2012 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

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Contemporary, Fiction

Royal Wedding by Meg Cabot

As with my review of Royally Screwed, I’ve admitted that I am an unapologetic royalist. When I was in middle school, the movie of The Princess Diaries came out and I loved it – I was mildly obsessed with the idea of finding out I was a long lost princess. When I discovered there was a book series, I immediately went out and got the first three books. While they are nothing like the movie, I did enjoy the series. So naturally, when Royal Wedding, the unbelievable 11th book in the Princess Diaries series came out in 2015 shortly after I got engaged, I figured it was high time I caught back up with Princess Mia and Michael.

Synopsis

For Princess Mia, the past five years since college graduation have been a whirlwind of activity: living in New York City, running her new teen community center, being madly in love, and attending royal engagements. And speaking of engagements. Mia’s gorgeous longtime boyfriend, Michael, managed to clear both their schedules just long enough for an exotic (and very private) Caribbean island interlude where he popped the question! Of course, Mia didn’t need to consult her diary to know that her answer was a royal oui.

But now Mia has a scandal of majestic proportions to contend with: her grandmother has leaked “false” wedding plans to the press that could cause even normally calm Michael to become a runaway groom. Worse, a scheming politico is trying to force Mia’s father from the throne, all because of a royal secret that could leave Genovia without a monarch. Can Mia prove to everyone – especially herself – that she’s not only ready to wed, but ready to rule as well?

Review

Oh Mia. Royal Wedding is the first “adult” installment in the Princess Diaries series and to be honest, it doesn’t feel like Mia’s grown up as much as I would have liked. In fact, none of the characters seem to have grown, up or otherwise, very much. Grandmere is still a shrew, Mia’s father is still making poor decisions in regards to the press, and Michael is still dutifully sticking to Mia’s side.

The Princess Diaries is a series I grew up with – pretty much year for year with Princess Mia – and it is only in the process of growing up that I’ve realized how unrealistic her story is. And I don’t mean the long-lost-princess bit. But the way she goes through life and interacting with other people. She doesn’t feel like she’s evolved as a character at all in the 15+ years that I’ve been reading about her adventures and escapades. Mia and Michael are still together, and while I’m not knocking first love and high school sweetheart relationships, the relationship between Mia and Michael doesn’t seem to make any sense outside of the high school halls. I find myself constantly confused about why they’re together. Yes they love each other, yes Michael is willing to put up with all the craziness, but why? Why?

The whole time I was reading, I just kept asking myself that question. Why should I care? Why are they behaving the way they are? Why, why, why do the characters keep making the same mistakes over and over again? Why is this book about marriage and babies when Mia could be doing so much more? SOOOOO much more with her life as princess and heir apparent of Genovia? This book was written when the idea of a princess is being re-imagined – we have Kate Middleton, we have Disney movies with princesses who are not obsessed with finding princes, we have fierce female leaders standing up for what they believe in, and Mia’s forced away from her one community passion project?

I have enjoyed so many of Meg Cabot’s books over the years, I probably have 15 of them on my shelves. I love her writing, and I thoroughly expected to love Royal Wedding. But in this day and age, Mia is not the princess character we need. Royal Wedding is not the princess narrative our world needs.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780062379085 • 448 pages • published June 2015 by William Morrow & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.93 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Meg Cabot’s Website

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Royal Wedding

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Screenplay

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling

I have loved the Harry Potter world since I was in 5th grade and one of my friends brought in the first book of the series and asked our teacher to read it. When Cursed Child was announced as a published stage play, I couldn’t wait – especially for the format – I’d written so many plays, I wanted to see one professionally published. Alas, I was disappointed, but that review will come later. I still had hope, though, and was very pleasantly pleased by the script for Fantastic Beasts!

Synopsis

When Magizoologist Newt Scamander arrives in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when his magical case is misplaced and some of Newt’s fantastic beasts escape, it spells trouble for everyone…

Inspired by the original Hogwarts textbook by Newt Scamander, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay marks the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling, author of the beloved and internationally bestselling Harry Potter books. A feat of imagination and showcasing a cast of remarkable characters, this is epic, adventure-packed storytelling at its very best. Whether an existing fan or new to the wizarding world, this is a perfect addition to any film lover’s or reader’s bookshelf.

Review

There are certain things to consider when sitting down to “read” a screenplay, the first being the fact that it is not particularly intended to be read – it is meant to be seen and experienced beyond the page. Second, reading a screenplay requires understanding that the format is different than that of a novel – it is primarily dialogue and stage directions.

One of the things that I love about stage- and screenplays is the opportunity to interpret so much more than what is on the page in one’s imagination. To read about the fantastical beasts before seeing the movie meant that I got to picture all of them in my head. Beyond the magic coming to life, the characters are very well developed, the thought and care that J. K. Rowling put into Newt’s backstory is evident – I have to imagine she’d been mulling over the story since she first started writing the Harry Potter series, or at least since Prisoner of Azkaban.

I loved the setting – I’m a sucker for a good Roaring Twenties story, and I’d always wondered what the magical world of the United States was like compared to the British world in the original 7 books. I highly recommend it, for anyone who loves Harry Potter, or just magical adventures set in the recent past.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $24.99 • 9781338109061 • 304 pages • published November 2016 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.22 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Website

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Fantastic Beasts

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

Back in October, when this beautiful tome arrived at the bookstore, my coworkers were debating where it should be shelved. I chimed in by saying they could hold off deciding for a few days, because it was coming home with me! Then again, pretty much any book that comes into the store screaming “female badassery” comes home with me before too long!

Synopsis

Get ready! It’s a long (but good!) one!

Let’s face it: the list of historical women we learn about in school is lacking. It’s safe, it’s censored, it’s short. And even when we learn about a true legend – say, Harriet Tubman – we get half the story (and it’s usually not the half about her as a plantation-torching Union spy-master). This is just the list of women we know about. What about the women we don’t?

In place of complex, real-life heroines, we get sparkly, doe-eyed animated damsels who dominate children’s minds everywhere. Rejected Princesses is here to provide an alternative to that.

In this fully illustrated, deeply researched, and totally entertaining collection, Jason Porath offers 100 women too uncompromising, too untoward, or too uncomfortable to fit the modern princess mold. Gathering together a diverse set of some famous, some infamous, some forgotten, and some virtually unknown figures from history and myth, from all over the globe, this book presents the female role models we never knew we needed. Yes, there are a few princesses, but there are also pirates, spies, journalists, activists, concubines, empresses, ninjas, pilots, samurais, mathematicians, sword-slingers, and warlords too.

These women were rebels and rulers, pioneers in their fields, and fighters for their causes (and sometimes for themselves). In a time when women are still pushing for equal pay and equal opportunity, shouldn’t we be putting brave women like Sybil Ludington, Hatshepsut, Nzinga Mbande, Josephine Baker, Khutulun, Rani Lakshmibai, Harriet Tubman, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Joan of Arc on equal footing with Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty?

Women have always played a key, kick-ass role in revolutionizing our world. The girls of today are the latest links in a long chain of geniuses, warriors, and fearless women. It is the birthright of every woman to have a connection to that history.

Review

Like I mentioned in my previous review of Wonder Women, I love books that are compendiums of stories about different women who have done awe-inspiring things. The biggest selling point of this particular book for me is two fold:

  1. The author worked on my favorite animated movie – How to Train Your Dragon and helped bring one of my favorite characters, Astrid, to life! (the cake topper for my wedding was even Astrid & Hiccup!)
  2. He included Alfhild, a Viking princess turned pirate and the real life inspiration for the novel I’m writing!

In Rejected Princesses, Porath includes women who are princesses and commoners alike, who hail from all over the world, from all walks of life, of all manner of life experiences. The illustrations of each “princess” are exquisitely designed to highlight their uniqueness and specialties. Porath also designed a rating system for all the women, but not the usual misogynistic rating of hotness, but of the type of life they led, more similar to a movie rating from G to R. In this manner, Porath has ensured that Rejected Princesses can be suitable to all ages and for younger children, parents can determine which stories to share with their children.

So many of the women included would make terrific role models, especially given their diverse backgrounds, for any young woman, or man, and I absolutely cannot wait for a second volume! Porath continues to add new women to the Rejected Princesses‘ website and I hope that he will include them together in a a book just like with this volume!

Rating: 10 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $26.99 • 9780062405371 • 384 pages • published October 2016 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Rejected Princesses Website

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Rejected Princesses

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Royally Screwed by Emma Chase

I’ve always been an American Royalist, since I was a young girl and first learned about two real live princes actually existing in England and not just in Disney movies, I’ve been one of those people who follows there every move. My mother’s own love of Princess Diana certainly didn’t hurt my love for the royal family, and I was one of the people who woke up at 4am on Saturday, April 29, 2011 to watch the Royal Wedding. One of my favorite books of 2015 was The Royal We (review to come in the near future) and since then, I’ve been reading every piece of glorified royalist fan fiction that I can get my hands on!

Synopsis

Nicholas Arthur Frederick Edward Pembrook, Crowned Princes of Wessco, aka “His Royal Hotness,” is a charming, devastatingly handsome, and unabashedly arrogant – hard not to be when subjects are constantly bowing down to you.

Then, one snowy night in Manhattan, the prince meets a dark haired beauty who doesn’t bow down. Instead, she throws a pie in his face. Nicholas wants to find out if she tastes as good as her pie, and the heir apparent is used to getting what he wants.

Dating a prince isn’t exactly what waitress Olivia Hammond ever imagined it would be. There’s a disapproving Queen, a wildly inappropriate spare heir, relentless paparazzi, and brutal public scrutiny. While they’ve traded in horse drawn carriages for Rolls Royce’s and haven’t chopped anyone’s heads off lately – the royals are far from accepting of this commoner. But to Olivia – Nicholas is worth it.

Nicholas grew up with the whole world watching, and now Marriage Watch is out in full force. In the end, Nicholas has to decide who he is, and more importantly, who he wants to be: a king… or the man who gets to love Olivia forever.

Review

My sister first described Royally Screwed as a rip-off of a rip-off. Even the fictional prince’s name is the same here as it is in The Royal We. While intentional or not, it means that I find myself frequently defending my enjoyment of this book to my sister, my friends, and just about everyone I’ve allowed to see my reading it, or see it on my shelves. They’re my guilty pleasure, new adult romances. I am finally admitting it here for the first time – I do occasionally (about once a year) enjoy curling up with a dirty romance and Emma Chase writes them well.

Are the characters spectacular? Not really. But they are well rounded with thoughtful backstories and logical actions and reactions based on what the reader learns about them. Are they role models? Not really. But they are real (well, other than the prince/commoner romance bit), and they have problems that are relatable and impulses that  can sometimes lead them to leave their better judgment behind. They are human, and they are flawed and they don’t at any point feel forced or mechanical.

Is the plot spectacular? Not really. It’s pretty predictable from start to finish – but sometimes the best escapist fiction is. It’s a perfect plane, train or road trip book – compelling enough to hold even my attention and I have an admittedly very short attention span – I’m not much better than the 6th graders I used to teach in that regard, but lighthearted and, yes, predictable. Are there things I would change about the characters/plot? Absolutely, but Emma Chase didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel and it is romance – which does have a prescribed formula for plot that ensures a happy outcome. Am I going to read the rest of the series? Absolutely.

* recommended for ages 17+ *

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781682307755 • 276 pages • published October 2016 by Everafter Romance • average Goodreads rating 4.12 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Emma Chase’s Website

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Royally Screwed

Fiction, Mythology, Young Adult

Freya by Matthew Laurence

I don’t remember exactly how I wound up with the advance reading copy (ARC) of Freya, but it definitely had my name written all over it – from my obsession with Norse mythology, to a badass woman on the cover, I was definitely going to inhale this book.

Synopsis

Freya is myth. She is legend. And she’s about to make one hell of a comeback.

Sara Vanadi is more than she appears to be. In her prime, she was Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, war, and death. Now all that’s left of her legacy is herself. Her power comes from belief, and for an ancient goddess in the 21st century, true believers are hard to come by.

She’s been lying low for a few decades, when all of a sudden a shadowy corporation extends an offer: join them and receive unlimited strength and believers—or refuse and be destroyed. Sara chooses neither; she flees with the help of a new friend named Nathan. With a modern power rising that wishes to bend the divine to its will, Sara decides to fight back—but first she needs some new clothes.

Review

First things first – Freya is a debut novel by a cool dude about a badass woman. I always check out reviews of books before reading them, but this time, I was the first to post a “review” of sorts on Goodreads and in going back to read the new reviews since the book was released in March (I read it in November), I have to say, I understand the complaints, but the pros outweigh the cons and the promise of more outweighs what the first book may have lacked.

Freya is the perfect book for young adults who spent their childhood reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and are looking for a mythology book that is a touch more grown up. The pacing is quick, the plot moves along at a steady pace, and the supporting cast of characters is richly described. While they may not yet be full realized, there is a lot of opportunity for them to grow and for the readers to get to know the various deities and mythologies better.

Sara/Freya is a fabulous narrator – in a debut, first in a series, YA fantasy, the most essential part of ensuring readership is to have a fully realized main character and Sara/Freya is such a character. And while some may complain about a pretty big structural point, that Freya is in first person, and there are certain things about Freya, what she is thinking, her background, and such that we as readers are not privy to, I personally enjoy the suspense and delight in the “not-knowing” aspect of the final plan to take down the big bad corporation. Freya marries the best parts of first and third person narration spectacularly.

I have only two complaints, and one is a silly one at that. The first, if Nate is going to be our main supporting actor, he needs a bit more of a role than simply “worshipper of Freya.” And the second, the silly one, the name Sarah, my own name, should always have an “H” at the end.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9781250088178 • 352 pages • published March 2017 by Imprint • average Goodreads rating 3.42 out of 5 • read in December 2016

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Freya

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Wonder Women by Sam Maggs

It is a known fact at the store than any book that comes in that screams “female badassery,” a phrase a coined when telling publishing reps what types of books I enjoy, is to immediate go to me for review and ogling. I first heard of/met Sam Maggs at BookCon in 2015 and I have been a fan of hers ever since. When I found out her sophomore book (her debut being The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy) would be about women in STEM, I knew I had to read it and recommend it to so many of my (former) students and customers.

Synopsis

Smart women have always been able to achieve amazing things, even when the odds were stacked against them. In Wonder Women, author Sam Maggs tells the stories of the brilliant, brainy, and totally rad women in history who broke barriers as scientists, engineers, mathematicians, adventurers, and inventors. Plus, interviews with real-life women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers, an extensive bibliography, and a guide to women-centric science and technology organizations – all to show the many ways the geeky girls of today can help to build the future.

Review

I’m a sucker for nonfiction compendiums that chronicle the lives of interesting people in short digestible vignettes, which is not only evident here with Wonder Women, but with the forthcoming review for Rejected Princesses.

In March of my sophomore year of high school, my stepfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was given months to live, but through a cutting edge surgery that summer, we were able to have another four years with him before he passed away in the spring of my sophomore year of college. His diagnosis led me to consider a future in biomedical engineering – specifically the artificial organ project, being pioneered at Boston University. I made it my life goal to become a medical researcher and was a founding member of my high school’s STEM Savvy group. Lady researchers and mathematicians have always held a special place in my heart, and while I did not fully pursue a career in STEM, I will always look at ladies like Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, and Ada Lovelace as role models and inspiration.

Sam Maggs obviously cares for and respects not only the 25 women she profiles, but also the women whom she interviews regarding contemporary issues with women’s roles in the STEM world. She handles the discussion of feminism and sexism in primarily male roles of engineering, science, technology and mathematics with an understanding of someone who has experienced some of the issues her foremothers did.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $16.99 • 9781594749254 • 240 pages • published in October 2016 by Quirk Books • average Goodreads rating 4.17 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Sam Maggs’ Website

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Wonder Women

 

Contemporary, Fiction

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The bookstore that I work at has a number of book clubs, the largest being the original, with 25 to 30 members and last night, they celebrated their 14th year in existence. Typically, they read former bestsellers, which they vote upon every three months or so. Last November, they voted overwhelmingly to read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. I don’t normally pick up the book for the book club, I have my own, The Modern Readers, but after everyone at the store, staff and customer alike, started raving about it, I figured it was one to pick up!

Synopsis

A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over – and see everything anew.

Review

I have recommended this book at the store and given it as a gift more times than I can count since reading it in November last year. Gabrielle Zevin’s storytelling is top notch, the pacing is very measured and the page turning comes quite quickly. I laughed, I cried, a shared in A.J.’s joy and despair. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry runs the full gamut of emotions.

The story centers not just on life in the bookstore, but the publishing world and life on a small island as well. Zevin expertly weaves together the stories of not just A. J. and his family, but all of the richly developed and intriguing supporting characters as well. From A. J.’s unexpected best friend, his former sister-in-law, the dynamic and lovely publishing rep, and the seasonal and regular bookstore customers, each is given utmost love and care from their creator, their author. It is clear to any reader that Zevin cares about her characters and she does not take their fates lightly.

It is a perfect summer vacation, beach or airplane read and is a quick one at that. I strongly recommend it for people who enjoy an intriguing and fulfilling story.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.95 • 9781616204518 • 288 pages • originally published April 2014, this edition published December 2014 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill • average Goodreads rating 3.97 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Gabrielle Zevin’s Website

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Storied Life of A J Fikry