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1. Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray. Ruta Sepetys. 2011. Penguin. 352 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: They took me in my nightgown. Thinking back, the signs were there--family photos burned in the fireplace, Mother sewing her best silver and jewelry into the lining of her coat late at night, and Papa not returning from work. My younger brother, Jonas, was asking questions. I asked questions, too, but perhaps I refused to acknowledge the signs. Only later did I realize that Mother and Father intended we escape. We did not escape. We were taken. 

Premise/plot: I'm tempted to not give any premise or plot at all. To just say: READ THIS BOOK. But I'm not sure that's exactly fair. While, I do think this book should be read WIDELY, I think it's only fair to tell you a little bit about what to expect. It's set in 1941 in Lithuania. Lina, the heroine, and her family are in a difficult position. They're trapped between two worst-case-scenarios: Stalin, on one side, and Hitler on the other. No matter which "wins" control over Lithuania, Lina and her family--and so many others--are in great danger.

The book opens with Lina's family being arrested. It doesn't get any cheerier from that point. Lina, her mother, and her brother, Jonas, take the reader on quite an emotional journey. It's an incredible read, partly set in Siberia as well, which is where these 'prisoners' end up.

My thoughts: This was a reread for me. There is a companion book newly released this year starring Lina's cousin Joana. The companion book is set at much closer to the end of World War II. I read Salt to the Sea not really realizing its connection with Between Shades of Gray. It worked. So if you do read the books out of order, that is okay. But definitely I think you'll want to read both books.

I love this one. I do. I love the characterization. I really, really, really love Lina. And I love Andrius as well. Just because there is a tiny bit of romance, don't mistake this one for a proper ROMANCE. It's so much more than that. It's a fight for survival, and, a fight for DIGNITY. It is very bittersweet. But if you're looking for a book you can't put down, this one is it.


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. The Hotel Mystery

The Hotel Mystery. (Whodunit Detective Agency #2) Martin Widmark. Illustrated by Helena Willis. 2002/2014. 80 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Every year, on the day before Christmas Eve, nearly everyone in the little town of Pleasant Valley does the same thing: They all head to the holiday buffet at the town's hotel, where they find turkey, ham, roasted carrots, and mashed potatoes and gravy, all served on big platters in the beautiful dining room.

Premise/plot: Jerry and Maya are friends and classmates who formed the Whodunit Detective Agency. Over Christmas vacation, these two are working at the town's hotel. (Jerry's uncle works there.) The hotel is in great excitement because the hotel's best and most expensive suite has been rented out to a family, the Braeburn family. Making the new guests HAPPY is to be their top priority. But their stay is not uneventful, and before the book ends, Jerry and Maya will need to solve a crime.

My thoughts: This is the second book in the Whodunit Detective Agency series. It is an early chapter book with a lot of colorful illustrations. These mysteries are simple and straightforward. The characters aren't exactly complex and intriguing. But. I think for the intended age group, these mysteries are fine reading material.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. The Heir

The Heir. (Selection #4) Kiera Cass. 2015. HarperCollins. 346 pages. [Source: Library]

I have very mixed feelings on The Heir by Kiera Cass. That isn't a huge surprise. I had mixed feelings about the first three books as well. The first three books in the series focused on Princess Eadlyn's parents--America and Maxon. I found the books both silly and irresistible at the same time. If I found the books on the silly, ridiculous, predictable side, why did I care so much about what happened and who ended up together?! That was the question then, and, to some extent that remains the question. The difference being I am less attached to Princess Eadlyn than I was to her father, Prince (now King) Maxon.

So. America and Maxon have four children together: twins Eadlyn and Ahren, and two younger boys that barely enter into the story, or, perhaps are completely forgettable no matter how many times their names are dropped. Eadlyn being born seven minutes before her brother is the heir to the crown. She's about eighteen or so when the story opens. And readers are led to believe that she may become Queen much sooner than anyone thinks. Conveniently perhaps America and Maxon have not aged well it seems. Though young when they married, and though their oldest is just eighteen, they are talked about as if they're closer to sixty or sixty-five than forty! Granted, we don't know for sure how long they waited after marrying to have children, but, even if it was five or six years--they still shouldn't be over forty-five! The fact that they are presented as so decrepit and ancient--their health so fragile--frustrated me. And I did not like the ending at all. Trust me on that.

So is Princess Eadlyn likable? I don't think she's meant to be. I think we're supposed to struggle with liking her perhaps? She struggles with being an actual human being.

So "to save the monarchy" the parents are strongly-strongly encouraging their daughter to hold a Selection and get married. Thirty-five young men will be coming to the palace just for her. One of the selected is not a stranger at all, but, someone she's a little too familiar with on the surface, someone who has grown up in the palace, someone who's always been friendlier with her brother than herself. His name is Kile. And he gets the first kiss, though it is staged. Other men of note, Henri (Swedish cook who needs an interpreter) Eric (the interpreter and not really an option for the selection, at least not officially), and Hale (he doesn't seem as obvious a choice as the others, but, he isn't as forgettable or as obnoxious as the others, so, I wouldn't be surprised if he makes it to the top six or seven at least). Since Eadlyn struggles with, you know, actually being human herself, it's hard for her to talk with others and be herself. I don't know that I have a favorite-favorite, but I'm leaning towards Henri.

The world Cass has created still doesn't seem fully fleshed out and lived in, like it makes sense logically. And the political, social, cultural side of it still seems a bit flimsy, but this book like the other is just oddly readable and entertaining.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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4. White Fur Flying

White Fur Flying. Patricia MacLachlan. 2013. 116 pages. [Source: Library]

I really enjoyed Patricia MacLachlan's White Fur Flying. I loved Zoe and her family. Her mom rescues dogs--Great Pyrenees--fostering them until they can find forever homes. Her dad is a veterinarian, I believe. He brings home a parrot one day that is in need of a home. The parrot was--and this is very surprising to me--one of the highlights of the book. In fact, without the parrot, I don't think this novel would work as well, be as emotionally moving. She has a sister, Alice, who is always talking, telling stories, writing poems and stories, etc. Zoe's own character is revealed slowly throughout the book. Kodi, the other "family member" is a dog--Great Pyrenees, of course. He likes having other dogs around, and doesn't mind them coming and going.

So. The novel opens with the family watching the new neighbors move in. They haven't officially--or even unofficially--met the new family yet. And so some are quite busy making up stories about who they are, and why they're moving. Phillip is a boy around 9 or 10 that is moving in next door. He's the quiet type. The really-super-quiet and choosing-not-to-talk-at-all type. But that doesn't keep Kody and Alice and the other dogs from wanting to make friends with him....

Why is Phillip so silent? Will befriending dogs "save" him and help him reconnect with the world again?

This one is predictable enough--if you're an adult reader especially. I can't say honestly whether or not I would have found it predictable enough as a child. For one thing, if a book had a dog on the cover, I wouldn't read it because I was afraid the dog might die. Even though it might be on the slightly-predictable side. I found it very high on the feel-good side. I liked the way the book made me feel, especially at the end when Alice shares her poem. I think that is worth noting. Predictable does not always equal "bad."

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go. Patrick Ness. 2008. Candlewick. 479 pages. [Source: Library]

I have been meaning to reread Patrick Ness' The Knife of Never Letting Go for a couple of years now. It is the first book in the Chaos Walking series. I really did EXPERIENCE the next two books in the trilogy. (I was going to say enjoy, but, can you ENJOY a book that is so dark and suspenseful and emotional.)

Here are a few things you should know before picking it up.

1) It is science fiction. It is set on another planet, aka "New World." The planet has a handful of small settlements, including Prentisstown, the hometown of our narrator/hero. The planet's biggest settlement is Haven.

2) Todd is our narrator. He is a few weeks away from his thirteenth birthday. He "becomes a Man" on his thirteenth birthday. He is an orphan being raised by two men, Cillian and Ben.

3) There are NO WOMEN in Prentisstown. Todd has been taught all his life that there was a plague or virus that killed all the women of the settlement.

4) A virus (perhaps the same virus that allegedly killed all the women?) has made it so that all the men can hear one another's thoughts all the time. This is called NOISE. It isn't just men, though, they can hear thoughts of animals too. Manchee is Todd's dog. And he's a bit too forthright to say the least!

5) The book is thriller-esque. It's essentially one big action-sequence from cover to cover. Well, perhaps it takes three or four chapters to get him on his way. But once he gets started...he stays going. It's an intense, action-packed book.

6) He doesn't go alone. Manchee, his faithful dog that he once didn't even want, is with him....but more importantly he meets Viola.

7) Viola basically "dropped from the sky" and right into his path. Viola is the sole survivor of the settler's scout ship. Her parents died in the crash. The ships with thousands of more settlers is about seven or so months behind the scout ship. Todd cannot hear Viola's noise. Viola is the first female he can remember seeing--apart from reading the memories of the men in his settlement--which is not the same thing I think you'll agree.

8) Both Viola and Todd are in GREAT DANGER. Why?????? Well, it has to do with SECRETS and SCHEMES and PLOTS. The mayor of Prentisstown is ambitious and manipulative....to pick two of his tamer qualities.

9) Todd has some internal conflict going on inside....he cannot bring himself to kill. So while I might have spent a good deal of time emphasizing the ACTION, ACTION, ACTION aspect of this one, that doesn't mean it is without characterization and complexity.

10) Be warned it doesn't really have an ending.

11) It has profanity. A good deal of profanity. For some people it may be off-putting enough to pass on the book. For others that might be a big non-issue.

12) Poor grammar is part of the world-building. This may or may not bother readers!
Men lie, and they lie to theirselves worst of all. (22)
But a knife ain't just a thing, is it? It's a choice, it's something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don't. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again. (84)
The knife is alive. As long as I hold it, as long as I use it, the knife lives, lives in order to take life, but it has to be commanded, it has to have me to tell it to kill, and it wants to, it wants to plunge and thrust and cut and stab and gouge, but I have to want it to as well, my will has to join with its will. I'm the one who allows it and I'm the one responsible. But the knife wanting it makes it easier. If it comes to it, will I fail? (341)
"War is a monster. War is the devil. It starts and it consumes and it grows and grows and grows. And otherwise normal men become monsters too." (392)
I can read her. Cuz she's thinking about her own parents also came here with hope like my ma. She's wondering if the hope at the end of our road is just as false as the one that was at the end of my ma's. And she's talking the words of my ma and putting them into the mouths of her own ma and pa and hearing them say that they love her and they miss her and they wish her the world. And she's taking the song of my ma and she's weaving it into everything else till it becomes a sad thing all her own. And it hurts her, but it's an okay hurt, but it hurts still, but it's good, but it hurts. She hurts. I know all this. I know it's true. Cuz I can read her. I can read her Noise even tho she ain't got none. I know who she is. I know Viola Eade. I raise my hands to the side of my head to hold it all in. "Viola," I whisper, my voice shaking. "I know," she says quietly, pulling her arms tight around her, still facing away from me. And I look at her sitting there and she looks across the river and we wait as the dawn fully arrives, each of us knowing. Each of us knowing the other. (420)


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. The Diamond Mystery

Diamond Mystery (The Whodunit Detective Agency #1). Martin Widmark. Illustrated by Helena Willis. 2002/2014. 80 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The streets were empty in the little town of Pleasant Valley.

Premise/plot: Jerry and Maya are classmates and friends who have opened a detective agency out of Maya's basement. They live in the small, quaint town of Pleasant Valley. The book opens with Mohammed Caret hiring these two child detectives to find out who is stealing diamonds from his shop. Their cover will be that he has hired these two children to do some light cleaning and run a few errands for him. They meet the three employees that work for him. And after a day of close observation, they are ready to solve the case.

My thoughts: I liked this one. I did. It's an early chapter book. I'd say just about right for second graders. It's the first in a mystery series for children. It has been translated into English from the Swedish.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Worst of Friends

Worst of Friends. Suzanne Jurmain. Illustrated by Larry Day. 2011. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the best of friends--even though they were completely different. John was fat. Tom was thin. Tom was tall and John was short. Tom was rich and John was not. John was fond of telling jokes. Tom liked to play the violin. And that was only the beginning. Excitable John could talk for five hours straight without stopping. Quiet Tom didn't say "three sentences together" in public.

Premise/plot: Worst of Friends by Suzanne Jurmain chronicles the friendship and feud of two founding fathers--both Presidents--John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The first eight pages focuses on their deep friendship. Fifteen pages focus on their very bitter feud. The cause of the feud? POLITICS, of course. The last six pages are perhaps the best of all, showing how the feud ended in 1812. The two remained friends the rest of their lives. They both died July 4, 1826.

My thoughts: I loved, loved, loved the narrative style. It was very conversational and reader-friendly. Not just simple enough for young readers to understand, but it was also actively engaging--lively even.

I also loved the illustrations by Larry Day. They were practically perfect in my opinion!

Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 5 out of 5
Total: 10 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac. Edmond Rostand. Translated by Lowell Blair. 1897. 240 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Stop! You haven't paid your fifteen sols!

Premise/plot: Cyrano de Bergerac is in love with his cousin, Roxane. The problem? He lacks the courage to tell her so because he feels his nose--his hideous, ugliness--will prevent her from ever loving him in return. Also standing in his way is the fact that Roxane declares herself head over heels in love with oh-so-handsome Christian de Neuvillette. How does Christian feel about Roxane? He loves her of course. Why? Because she's beautiful. (At least Cyrano knows Roxane, and, his love isn't based on her beauty alone.) Roxane asks Cyrano to watch over Christian and be his friend. (Christian has just joined the same regiment.) Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane does love him, but, instead of that being the end of it...it is just the start. For Roxane is determined that the man she loves will be brilliant and exceptionally well-spoken. He must win her heart through his words. The problem? Christian's idea of wooing is to say "I love you" and go in for a kiss. NOT WHAT ROXANE WANTS AT ALL. The solution is for Cyrano to give Christian the words to speak to win her heart for once and all. But is that a real solution?! Is a happily ever after possible in this love triangle?!

Cyrano de Bergerac is a five act (French) play by Edmond Rostand written/performed in 1897. It is set in seventeenth century France around the same time as The Three Musketeers. And like The Three Musketeers, it has sword fighting. Lots and lots of sword fighting.

My thoughts: I LOVE it. I really, really, really love it. I think I first saw the 1990 French film with English subtitles. I found it swoon-worthy then. I am not sure when I first read it, probably in high school or college. I don't think I read it more than once, however, so it was like rediscovering a forgotten friend to reread it after all these years.

I do think (like most plays) it is best read in one sitting if at all possible. (I do allow for intermissions! After all, if you were to see it performed live, they'd certainly be at least one break!)

Act five is certainly the most dramatic perhaps, but, it is also for me a wonderfully bittersweet way to end the play. THAT ENDING gets me every time.

I think this play is beautifully written. I adore the character of Cyrano de Bergerac. I love his integrity, his wit, his passion, his dashing courage.

Have you read Cyrano de Bergerac? What did you think?

Favorite quotes:
Cyrano: I have a different idea of elegance. I don't dress like a fop, it's true, but my moral grooming is impeccable. I never appear in public with a soiled conscience, a tarnished honor, threadbare scruples or an insult that I haven't washed away. I'm always immaculately clean, adorned with independence and frankness. I may not cut a stylish figure, but I hold my soul erect. I wear my deeds as ribbons, my wit is sharper than the finest mustache, and when I walk among men I make truths ring like spurs. (40)
Cyrano: Look at me and tell me what hope this protuberance might leave me! I have no illusions. Sometimes, in the blue shadows of evening, I give way to tender feelings. I go into a garden, smelling the fragrance of spring with my poor monstrous nose, and watch a man and a woman strolling together in the moonlight. I think how much I, too, would like to be walking arm in arm with a woman, under the moon. I let myself be carried away, I forget myself--and then I suddenly see the shadow of my profile on the garden wall. (50)
Ragueneau: How can you treat poetry with such disrespect?
Lise: I'll treat poetry however I please!
Ragueneau: I shudder to think of what you might do with prose! (62)
Cyrano: I'll now put down on paper the love letter that I've already written within myself a hundred times. I have only to look into my soul and copy the words inscribed in it. (66)
Cyrano: My poor girl, you're so fond of fine words and gracious wit--what if he should prove to be an uncultured savage?
Roxane: Impossible. He has the hair of one of d'Urfe's heroes!
Cyrano: His speech may be as crude as his hair is elegant.
Roxane: No, there's delicacy in everything he says. I feel it.
Cyrano: Yes, all words are delicate when they come from lips adorned with a shapely mustache...But what if he's a fool?
Roxane: [stamping her foot] Then I'll die! There, are you satisfied? (78)
Cyrano: Shall we complete each other? We'll walk together: you in the light, I in the shadow. I'll make you eloquent, you'll make me handsome. (102)
Roxane: Your words are hesitant tonight. Why?
Cyrano (pretending to be Christian): Because of the darkness, they must grope their way to your ears.
Roxane: My words have no such difficulty.
Cyrano: They go straight to my heart, a goal too large to miss, whereas your ears are small. And your words travel swiftly because they fall, while mine must slowly climb.
Roxane: But they seem to be climbing better now.
Cyrano: They've finally become accustomed to that exercise.
Roxane: It's true that I'm speaking from high above you.
Cyrano: Yes, and it would kill me if you let a harsh word fall on my heart from that height. (126)
Cyrano: After all, what is a kiss? A vow made at closer range, a more precise promise, a confession that contains its own proof, a seal placed on a pact that has already been signed; it's a secret told to the mouth rather than to the ear, a fleeting moment filled with the hush of eternity, a communion that has the fragrance of a flower, a way of living by the beat of another heart, and tasting another soul on one's lips! (133)
Roxane: I've adored you since the evening when under my window, you began to reveal your soul to me in a voice I'd never heard you use before, and when I read your letters it was like hearing that same voice. I could feel its tenderness enveloping me! Finally I had to come to you, no matter what the danger! Penelope wouldn't have calmly stayed home with her weaving if Ulysses had written to her as you've written to me! She would have become as ardent as Helen of Troy, thrown her work aside, and gone off to join him! (184)
Roxane: Ah, how many things have died, and how many have now been born! Why were you silent for fourteen years, knowing that he hadn't written that letter, and that the tears on it were yours?
Cyrano: The blood was his. (218)
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. Waiting for the Magic

Waiting for the Magic. Patricia MacLachlan. 2011. 143 pages. [Source: Library]

Can a book about a father abandoning his family actually be good and funny and heartwarming? Apparently it can if it's written by Patricia MacLachlan.

The novel opens with Will, the narrator, discovering that his Dad has left them. He finds a note from his dad for him, and one for his sister. The mom, who is struggling to hold it together, decides to do something that many might consider drastic in its suddenness. The family needs a dog; that very day they will go to a shelter and get one. Will and Elinor can come along to help pick one out. Do they come home with a dog? Yes. They come home with FOUR dogs and ONE cat. The dogs are Bryn, Grace, Neo, and Bitty. The cat is Lula.

The way it's talked about in the novel--the way its perceived--is that 4 dogs and 1 cat can successfully replace the absent Dad. And that's a little true, at least on the surface, the dogs definitely take their minds off the problem, and prove lovable and entertaining as well. They all help take care of the animals. Everyone loves to play with all the dogs. And at night, the dogs are often in their beds. Bryn, I believe, "owns" the Mom, and takes over the bed.

The dogs are very joyful and fun. The novel has some 'magic' in it. The dogs (and cat) TALK. At first, it's just the four year old, Elinor, that hears them. The animals are all, OF COURSE SHE CAN HEAR US, SHE'S FOUR. YOU ALWAYS HEAR WHEN YOU'RE FOUR. But eventually Will hears them too....and he's not the only one.

I don't want to spoil the book. I don't. But the Dad is not out of the picture for good....and the family drama isn't nearly over. But it's drama in the best way under the circumstances. I wasn't expecting the book to be so delightful and heartwarming. I really wasn't.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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10. Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night. William Shakespeare. 1601. 220 pages. [Source: Library]

Twelfth Night is not in my top three list of plays by Shakespeare. But I often forget that I do really enjoy it all the same. For one thing, it is a comedy. And I just love how this one opens. I must admit that the line, "If music be the food of love, play on" is a great, great line.

So. Essentially this one is about a shipwreck and the romantic misunderstanding that arise from that shipwreck. Sebastian and Viola are twins. Each think the other perished in the wreck. Viola, with a little help from a sea captain, decides to "become" a man and seek employment with Orsino the Duke of Ilyria. Her new name is Cesario. Sebastian is rescued by a man named Antonio, who also happens to be a sea captain, but not the same that rescued Viola. These two will not realize that the other is alive for most of the play. Olivia is the "love" of Orsino's life. The problem? Olivia is mourning because of her brother's recent death, and, she really can't be bothered with the Duke's attempts of wooing and courtship. Most of the characters in the play are from Olivia's household. (Also the Duke's household.) Feste, a clown, bridges the two together in a way. He's in scenes at both houses. (He may just be my favorite character from this play).

So what is the misunderstanding? Well, Olivia falls madly, deeply in love with Cesario at first sight. Cesario is the Duke's messenger. Viola herself falls head over heels in love with the Duke. It seems love will make a fool of all three since there can be no happy ending as matters stand. There are further misunderstandings, but, this is the big one.

One of the comic elements of this play involves a practical joke of sorts in Olivia's household. Malvolio, her steward, is led to believe that Olivia is madly in love with him. He believes this easily, and, soon becomes a very, big fool all in the name of love.

I think I appreciate this one more having seen it performed when I was in college.

Favorite lines:
Anything that's mended is but patched. Virtue that transgresses is but patched with sin, and sin that amends is but patched with virtue. ~ Feste, Act I, scene V
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon'em. ~ Malvolio reading a letter "from Olivia" Act II, scene V
Love sought is good, but given unsought is better. ~ Olivia to Cesario, Act III, scene I

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. One Dead Spy

One Dead Spy (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #1) Nathan Hale. 2012. Abrams. 128 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Welcome, one and all! I am the hangman. I am here to hang the man!

Premise/plot: Nathan Hale, the spy, narrates this graphic novel, the first in a new series by Nathan Hale. Readers meet him on the day of his hanging. A slight delay in the process gives him just enough time to practice finding the right last words to say. What he comes up with as his 'last words' are so good, that a giant book--a HISTORY BOOK--comes and swallows him whole. When he 'returns' from the book to the present, he knows the future. He further delays his hanging by telling two people--the hangman and a British officer--entertaining stories. He gets them hooked on history, in a way. The stories in this first volume are of the REVOLUTIONARY WAR. (The second book in the series is focused on the CIVIL WAR.)

My thoughts: It's a graphic novel. I am not a big reader of graphic novels--usually. But I always seem to find a handful of exceptions to the rule to read throughout the year. I enjoyed this one so much, I think I'm going to continue on with the series. I believe there are six so far.

I like the fact that they are packed with history, and the focus is on the STORY of history. The characters--minus the narrator, hangman and British officer--seem to be taken from history and stick relatively close to actual history. (Yes, there was a real Nathan Hale who spied for George Washington, was hung when he was caught, remembered for his last words. But this Nathan Hale seems to be cheating his fate and become a famous storyteller who can foresee America's history.)

At the end of the book, Nathan Hale (the author and illustrator) shares with young readers more biographical and historical information. He also introduces his team of baby researchers who vow that each graphic novel is 76% accurate. If anyone finds flaws in the history, they are to write the CORRECTION BABY. It's an odd way to share research details, perhaps, but definitely unique.

This particular book in the series includes a bonus episode--of a few pages--called CRISPUS ATTACKS: FIRST TO DEFY, FIRST TO DIE!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. The Grand Mosque of Paris

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Saved Jews During the Holocaust. Karen Gray Ruelle. Illustrated by Deborah Durland DeSaix. 2009. Holiday House. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: In 1940 war came to Paris, and life was turned upside down.

Premise/plot: Quite simply this is a picture book for older readers. Dare I say it's even a picture book primarily for adults?! This picture book is definitely text-heavy, and the subject is a heavy one. The book brings to light something you may not know: the North African Muslims of Paris rescued a lot of Jews during World War II. (Others were part of the French Resistance.)

This is not a well-documented, well-known part of history. Rescuing Jews (hiding Jews, creating new identity papers, forging documents, smuggling them out of France) was deadly dangerous. So it makes sense that it was not well-documented, that they did not leave a paper trail to show how many hundreds or thousands they rescued during the war. This is a story of what we do know--a handful of cases, examples, of men, women, and children rescued by Muslims.

My thoughts: This one is packed with information, most of it all new-to-me. Because I am interested in the subject, I found it fascinating. It isn't a storytelling narrative. The text doesn't thrill you with its beauty. But it is dense with information that you probably can't find elsewhere. I can guess why they went with a picture book format. The illustrations are LOVELY and truly complement the text.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. Poems in the Attic

Poems in the Attic. Nikki Grimes. Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. 2015. Lee & Low. 48 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Grandma's attic is stacked with secrets.

Premise/plot: Poems in the Attic is a picture book about a seven year old girl who discovers a box of her mother's poems in her grandmother's attic. Her mother started writing poems when she was just seven. Our heroine, the little girl, decides to start writing poems of her own. Readers see these poems--mother and daughter--side by side. The mother's poems are about growing up a 'military brat' moving from place to place every year or so. The daughter's poems are doubly reflective.

My thoughts: I liked this one. I liked the premise of it especially. A girl coming to appreciate her mother in a new light. A girl learning to express herself through poetry. The book celebrates family, poetry, and a sense of life as one big adventure.

That being said, poetry tends to be hit or miss with me. I sometimes enjoy poetry. Sometimes not so much. I didn't love the short poems in this one as much as I wanted. I liked them okay. I just wasn't WOWED by them. I do like the celebration of family. And the illustrations were great. Eleven places were captured in the mother's poems. And the author's note was interesting. So this one is worth your time.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. Big Bad Ironclad


Big Bad Ironclad (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #2) Nathan Hale. 2012. Harry N. Abrams. 128 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: If you've got a story, you'd better tell it, Nathan Hale. This is a hanging, not a children's story hour.

Premise/plot: Nathan Hale, the spy, continues to outwit the British in this second graphic novel. (The first book in the series is ONE DEAD SPY.) Though he's due to be hanged any minute, his tales from the future (all taken from American History) are so entertaining that the British officer and hangman are delaying a bit. In his conversational style, the focus shifts from the current war (Revolutionary) to the Civil War. These stories concern the NAVY and the Civil War sea battles. Specifically, the race to build the best ironclad ships and create an indestructible navy. The South had the U.S.S. Merrimack. The North had The MONITOR. Of course, it isn't just the two ships that are the subject of this one. So many people are introduced, some of them quite fascinating and 'new to me' at that.

My thoughts: I enjoyed this one even more than the first book in the series. I really found this to be a quick, absorbing read. I may have thought it pushed a little too far to the absurd side when Gustavus Fox was illustrated as a fox to satisfy the whim of the hangman, but, I overlooked that in the end!

Even if you don't "love" graphic novels, if you love history you should give one of the books in the series a try.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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15. Socks

Socks. Beverly Cleary. 1973. 160 pages. [Source: Library]

I haven't reread Socks by Beverly Cleary since I was a child. I remembered very little about it except that it was about a cat, which, I must admit is the most obvious thing to remember! The first chapter introduces readers to Socks, her litter mates, and the boy and girl who originally "owned" her and were trying to sell all the kittens. Bill and Marilyn Bricker adopt Socks and take him home. Several chapters focus on these early, happy, good years. (Actually, I'm not sure how much time passes, Socks isn't particularly great at noting months, seasons, or possible years.) A few chapters into the book, Socks is upset by a shrinking lap. Mrs. Bricker is having a baby, and, Socks doesn't particularly care one way or the other about it...until the new baby changes everything. Less attention, less food, no lap-time, a lot of noise, visitors who warn of the dangers of having a cat around the baby, etc. Will Socks make peace with Charles William?

I enjoyed this one. I didn't love, love, love it. Not like I love, love, love the Ramona books. But it was an enjoyable read. I liked the ending, it felt right to me.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. A Lion To Guard Us

A Lion To Guard Us. Clyde Robert Bulla. 1981. 117 pages. [Source: Library]

I really enjoyed reading Clyde Robert Bulla's A Lion To Guard Us. I saw this one on the library shelf, and, it said TAKE ME HOME. It is historical fiction and follows three siblings as they travel to America in 1609 to the first (and only) British settlement of Jamestown. The novel opens with Amanda hearing news of her father from a stranger--a sailor. Amanda is serving--in her mother's place--in a household. (Her mistress (Mistress Trippett) isn't the nicest or best.) Soon after the book begins, the mother dies leaving Amanda the sole guardian of her younger siblings: Jemmy and Meg. She wants to go to America and find their father. The problem? The family's money was taken by Mistress Trippett when the mother got sick and took to her bed. She's now claiming that the money isn't theirs but hers. And she's so insulted by their asking for the money, that she keeps all three out. Fortunately, they find a sympathetic soul in the doctor that treated the mother. This doctor, Dr. Crider, has dreams of his own. And those dreams include traveling to America. He takes the children in and promises a bright future for one and all. Their new lives will start aboard the ship The Sea Adventure. But readers learn that life is full of uncertainty...

I loved this one. It is historical fiction at its finest. I enjoyed the chacterization and the action. It's a very simple yet emotional story. Definitely recommended!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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17. Prairie Evers

Prairie Evers. Ellen Airgood. 2012. 224 pages. [Source: Library]

Prairie Evers is one of those books that had me at hello. I really felt an almost instant connection with Prairie, the main character. I not only enjoyed spending time with her, I genuinely enjoyed spending time with her family: her parents, her great-grandmother, her best friend whom she considers A SISTER.

The book is definitely a coming-of-age story set in New York. (Though not in an urban setting. This is very small town, a bit rural. Her parents are giving farming a try. And Prairie is super-excited to have her own flock of chickens.) The book opens with some shocking news: Grammy, who has always, always, always lived with them, is moving, returning home to North Carolina. She'll be moving in with her brother. A few chapters later, Prairie is in for another shock: she'll be attending school for the first time. She's been home schooled for all of her life by Grammy and by her parents. She's loved it--absolutely loved it. And her own curiosity has made her a strong and willing student. But she's intimidated by the idea of attending a traditional school. She's never been around that many kids of her own age. And she's worried that she won't fit in, that she'll be laughed at or bullied, that she won't make friends, that no one will like her.

The focus of this one is on friendship and family. Prairie's first best friend is a girl named Ivy. And Ivy is a gem of a character. Ivy's story is compelling. I look forward to reading the companion novel soon. I would definitely recommend this one.

Prairie Evers is one reminder why I tend to love and adore middle grade fiction the most.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. The Education of Ivy Blake

The Education of Ivy Blake. Ellen Airgood. 2015. 240 pages. [Source: Library]

The Education of Ivy Blake is a companion novel to Prairie Evers. Both books are middle grade realistic fiction. Both are slightly bittersweet, think Because of Winn Dixie. I enjoyed the Education of Ivy Blake very much.

Since Ivy's mother killed her husband--Ivy's father--she hasn't been the same...at least not in her daughter's eyes. Even her "good days" are strains and stretches. It seems her mother is incapable of being happy, of being content, of being consistent, of being stable. Ivy could cope with her distant, weird mother for the most part since they were living with an aunt. But now that the aunt has died, and it's just the two of them, living with her mom has been impossible. For a while, Ivy found relief and protection by living with the Evers. Her mom wanted to leave her behind, being so newly in love and eager for a new beginning. But now that her mom's love life has soured, she wants Ivy back so she can start a new new life in yet another new town. Ivy doesn't trust her mom, but, her mom is her mom is her mom is her mom. Ivy's loyal. Ivy's brave. Somehow Ivy will make her life beautiful and purposeful.

Ivy is a great character. This book is emotional, but not overly DRAMATIC.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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19. Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator

Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator. Mo Willems. 2011. HarperCollins. 72 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence of the first story: Amanda was at the library getting her books for the week. Her alligator was not. He was waiting for Amanda to get back.
Want to read 6 1/2 surprising stories about 2 surprising friends? What if those stories are written by Mo Willems?!

I am a BIG, BIG fan of Mo Willems. I am. So I was so excited to read Hooray for Amanda & Her Alligator. I was happy to discover six (and a half) stories about a little girl, Amanda, and her best friend, a stuffed toy alligator. It was wonderful to see how many stories highlight Amanda's love for reading. Willems' shares with readers the titles of Amanda's library books: How to Raise a Tiger, Whale Songs for Beginners, Climbing Things for Fun and Profit, and You Can Make It Yourself: Jet Packs! (I thought the titles were clever--my favorites being Climbing Things for Fun and Profit and You Can Make It Yourself: Jet Packs!) The stories are just fun and imaginative and--at times--sweet.

For example, in "A Surprising Value," Alligator is worried--and a bit sad--to discover that he's only "worth" seven cents. That he, in fact, came from the sale bucket. But Amanda reassures her dear friend that there was a very good reason no one else wanted to buy him,
"No one wanted to buy you because they knew you were meant to be my best friend." After that, Alligator felt better. (And that's the truth.) (44-45)
I also enjoyed the last story, "A Surprising Discovery." In that story, Alligator is again worried. This time he's worried because Amanda has brought home 'a surprise' from her day at the zoo. She's brought home a new toy, a stuffed panda. This panda does NOT look like it was from the sale bucket. No, the panda definitely cost more than seven cents. So Alligator isn't all that happy about this new friend. Not until he realizes that Panda is great fun. Alligator used to spend his time waiting for Amanda; spent his time being bored, bored, bored. But with Panda around? Well, it's fun to "wait" for Amanda! Here's one of my favorite quotes from that story:
When Amanda comes home, we will have fun, thought Alligator.
We will sing songs!
We will dress up!
We will make discoveries!
Maybe Amanda will have another surprise for me!
Alligator smiled.
"Surprise!" yelled Amanda, swinging open the door. "Look what Grandpa got for me at the zoo!"
It was a panda.
The panda was huge.
The panda was fluffy.
The panda did not look like it came from the sale bucket.
Alligator did not like Amanda's surprise. (58-60)
I enjoyed all the stories. I did. And I would definitely recommend this one.


Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 5 out of 5
Total: 10 out of 10


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. Be A Friend

Be A Friend. Salina Yoon. 2016. Bloomsbury. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Dennis was an ordinary boy...who expressed himself in extraordinary ways.

Premise/plot: Dennis (aka "Mime Boy") is lonely until he finds someone who really, truly gets him. Her name is Joy. And they can be friends without saying a single word. So long as they can use jazz hands to laugh together!

My thoughts: I love this one. I do. It is cute, sweet, and true. What a celebration of friendship...and imagination...and being true to yourself. My favorite line: There was no wall between Dennis and Joy. It was more like a mirror.

Do watch the Emily Arrow song.

Text: 4.5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4.5 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. Strictly No Elephants

Strictly No Elephants. Lisa Mantchev. Illustrated by Taeeun Yoo. 2015. Simon & Schuster. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The trouble with having a tiny elephant for a pet is that you never quite fit in.

Premise/plot: Readers meet a boy and his pet elephant in Lisa Mantchev's Strictly No Elephants. The book recognizes loneliness and celebrates friendship. One day the boy and his elephant want to go to a pet club meeting, but neither is allowed inside because of a sign that states: strictly no elephants. He's sad, but, hope is not lost for he soon meets a girl with a pet skunk. Together the two decide to form a club of their own where ALL are welcome.

My thoughts: I really, really liked this one. I read it several times, and liked it more each time. I liked the text. I liked the message. The text incorporates little lessons about friendship into the text. It isn't completely seamless, but, it works for me just fine. The illustrations are practically perfect. Loved them!!!

Watch the Emily Arrow video.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 5 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. The Truth of Me

The Truth of Me. Patricia MacLachlan. 2013. 128 pages. [Source: Library]

The Truth of Me almost has a melancholy feel to it. Robbie, our narrator, and his dog, Ellie, will be spending summer at his grandmother's house. These two have a special bond. Robbie feels safely and securely loved by his admittedly eccentric grandma, Maddy. He is staying with Grandma Maddy while his parents go on a music tour in Europe.

Robbie doesn't always feel so loved when he lives with his parents. The good news? This isn't one of those melancholy books about parents separating or divorcing. The bad news? His parents don't make time for him--their careers come first, always. And even when they're at home, they're not in the moment WITH Robbie. Sometimes Robbie learns more about his parents by reading newspaper clippings of music reviews and listening to music programs on the radio than by actually observing them and talking with them. This young boy points out to his grandmother that his mother loves her violin more than she loves him. And the grandmother admits that is probably true--for better or worse.

Robbie loves being with Maddy. And Maddy has a way with stories, and, a way with animals. Some people think she's spinning stories, making up all the animal stories she tells. But Robbie believes her. He may just become part of one of her stories when they start to camp together....

It isn't that The Truth of Me lacks a plot; it has one, it's just a melancholy one where even when fun stuff is happening, one never really loses a sense of loss or sadness. It brings to mind when Sadness says, "Remember the funny movie where the dog dies." Now, that was NOT a hint that Ellie dies. The dog's life is never in danger.


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. Duel!

Duel: Burr and Hamilton's Deadly War of Words. Dennis Brindell Fradin. Illustrated by Larry Day. 2008. Walker. 40 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The two enemies had much in common, starting with difficult childhoods.

Premise/plot: A picture book biography focusing on the lives of two founding fathers, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The book slowly but surely builds its way towards the DUEL between the two men; the duel that will end the life of one and ruin the career of the other. As part of the context for understanding the duel, a little bit of American history is unpacked for readers, highlighting the roles both men had during American's war for independence and the turbulent decades afterwards as the United States of America came into existence. The book illustrates that politics always involves DRAMA.

My thoughts: I liked this one. I really do. I think it is definitely a picture book for older readers though. Not all picture books are intended as fun readalouds for preschoolers and kindergartners. The text keeps the story moving--it's quite lively at times. The author notes that both men were to blame for the duel.

I definitely liked the illustrations by Larry Day.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 8 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Aaron and Alexander

Aaron and Alexander: The Most Famous Duel in American History. Don Brown. 2015. 32 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Aaron and Alexander could have been friends. They were alike in many ways. But the ways in which they were different made them the worst of enemies.

Premise/plot: Don Brown compares and contrasts the lives of two men--two patriots--Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. The book does a great job in providing context for the now-more-famous-than-ever duel between Burr and Hamilton. The narrative is straight-forward and engaging.

My thoughts: I definitely liked it. I can say I like the narrative more than the illustrations. I thought the narrative was good and age-appropriate.

Is it text-heavy? Not really. I'd say it was very well balanced actually. It is still for older readers. (I don't imagine anyone reading this one out to kindergartners or first graders.) I'd say it's for the 9 to 99 crowd.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. War of Two

War of Two. John Sedgwick. 2015. Berkley. 432 pages. [Source: Library]

I definitely enjoyed reading John Sedgwick's War of Two: The Dark Mystery of the Duel Between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and Its Legacy for America. I thought it did a good job chronicling the lives of both founding fathers. The attention is rightly divided between the two men. Readers learn not just about politics and war but also more personal affairs such as family and home life.

Part one is titled "The Roots of the Hatred." Part two is titled "The Battle is Joined." Part three is titled "To the Death." Part four is titled "And Then There Was One." Each chapter title seems to be taken from a direct quote from a primary source.

I was familiar with the basics of this story having listened to Hamilton a couple dozen times. I think anyone interested in learning more would profit from reading this one.

From the introduction, "Hamilton came to America alone at sixteen, a penniless immigrant, from the West Indian island of Saint Croix, the only one of the original Founding Fathers not born on the continent" (xxii). And, "As for the illegitimate Hamilton, Adams derided him as "the bastard brat of a Scotch peddler" (xxii). And, "Hamilton could take four hours to say what Burr could say in thirty minutes" (xxii).

From chapter five, John Adams on New Yorkers [like Hamilton], "They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer they will break out upon you again and talk away." (38)

From chapter six, "Hamilton was primarily a man of action, driven to achieve; his strongest feelings stemmed from ambition, and indignation when his aspirations were not met." (44)

From chapter eight, "As Hamilton listened to the speakers bellowing into the wind, he found the arguments against the British to be surprisingly feeble, and, unable to wait his turn, he started to speak up, unbidden, from the middle of the crowd, first timidly, unsure, and then proudly, firmly; and finally he could not stop, bringing forth a great tumbling river of argument that washed over the crowd. At nineteen, Hamilton was not the most prepossessing speaker, or the most fully voiced, but he was the most persuasive--forceful, compelling, assured--and somehow all the more so for being so boyishly slender and obviously young." (54-5)

From chapter eleven, "Hamilton, Laurens, Lafayette, all three of them young, brash, brilliant, and glamorously handsome, quickly formed a three-way attachment that was unusual by the standards of a ragtag army." (85)

From chapter thirteen, "Hamilton was a man on the prowl and had been ever since he was a teenager...No wonder Martha Washington named her frisky tomcat Hamilton." (98)

From chapter fifteen, "To Hamilton, Angelica was sunshine itself. The relationship revealed a gushing enthusiasm for a woman that ran the gamut from playfulness to desire and back again. From the first, he was so taken by Angelica, and so bad at concealing it, that many people assumed they were the lovers." (110)

From chapter twenty-four, "And so it began: From that moment forward, as in the army, Washington would depend on Hamilton as he depended on no other. He would never make a significant decision without Hamilton's advice, often doled out in ten-thousand word installments, his quill flying, and he would never question that advice, no matter how it turned out. Washington had plenty of wise men in his circle--Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Edmund Randolph, James Madison, all but the last of them in his cabinet, and all of them older, some substantially so--but it was Hamilton he turned to, over and over. He emerged as Washington's alter ego, the first among equals." (176).

There came a point when I stopped flagging all the passages that I liked/loved/found interesting.

The book is compelling and I definitely recommend it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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