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1. The Ask and the Answer

The Ask and the Answer. Patrick Ness. 2009. 536 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Your noise reveals you, Todd Hewitt.

Premise/plot: The Ask and the Answer is the sequel to the Knife of Never Letting Go. To refresh your memory, these are the first two books in the science fiction Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness. In the first book, readers met Todd and Viola. Todd is the conflicted hero who can't decide if he's willing to kill in order to "become a man." Viola is the newly arrived colonist whose parents died in the crashing of the scout ship. She puzzles Todd because she does NOT have noise. All the men, all the animals have noise. Women are mysteriously noise-free. Their thoughts cannot be heard by others. (Women can and do read the thoughts of men. And MEN hate this so very much). The Knife of Never Letting Go ended in a horrible place. Our two had spent over four hundred pages racing to reach a town called Haven only to arrive and....

Viola spends this book worried about Todd--they are separated for most of the book--and worried about what will happen next. Will the women (led by Mistress Coyle) war with the President's army? The women are THE ANSWER. The army (mainly if not exclusively men) are THE ASK. Both seemed determined to defeat the other no matter the cost. Both seem short-sighted and not really thinking about what is best for the planet, best for humanity. Mayor Prentiss and Mistress Coyle seem to be two peas in a pod--stubborn, selfish, dishonest.

Todd spends this book worried about Viola--as I said, they are separated for most of the book. He will do his duty and do whatever the Mayor (the PRESIDENT) says if he promises to keep Viola safe and allow them to see each other and be together again. He'll bide his time following orders--always kept close by the Mayor's son, Davy--until an opportunity comes along. Todd doesn't like being in the army. He doesn't like working with the slaves--the SPACKLE. He doesn't like banding the slaves or the women. But unlike the women of The Answer he doesn't physically rebel and become violent. He's still conflicted.

Mainly the book is about the skirmishes between The ASK and THE ANSWER...and the lies and broken promises of Mistress Coyle and President Prentiss. Todd and Viola are sad, lonely, angry, confused. More than anything they want to be TOGETHER and live in a peaceful community. This seems impossible.

My thoughts: I really LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this one the first time I read it. I can't say the same the second time I read it. Perhaps because you can only be surprised by the story and characters once. One thing that really surprised me the first time was the character arc of Davy Prentiss. The ending of this one is SOMETHING especially the first time I read it.

I would still recommend this series with a few reservations. First, I think you have to read all three books in the proper order, and, close together at that. I think the books will have the biggest impact on readers if they're read back to back. Second, I think that the series isn't for all readers. You have to be fine with a moderate amount of profanity and really enjoy science fiction set on another planet. If you don't enjoy science fiction, then this series probably won't seem all that good.
"If you ever see a war," she says, not looking up from her clipboard, "you'll learn that war only destroys. No one escapes from a war. No one. Not even the survivors. You accept things that would appall you at any other time because life has temporarily lost all meaning." "War makes monsters of men," I say, quoting Ben from that night in the weird place where New World buried its dead. "And women," Mistress Coyle says. (102)
Everyone here is someone's daughter," she says quietly. "Every soldier out there is someone's son. The only crime, the only crime is to take a life. There is nothing else." "And that is why you don't fight," I say. She turns to me sharply. "To live is to fight," she snaps. "To preserve life is to fight everything that man stands for." (215)
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. The Grand Tour

The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones. Rich Kienzle. 2016. 288 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Would he or wouldn't he show up?

Premise/plot: The Grand Tour is a biography of George Jones that seeks to balance a focus on his life and on his music. The author takes on the role of music critic and biographer. In the prologue he explains his approach, "Jones's life and music are inseparable. The music often triumphed even during his worst personal moments. His evolution from twangy imitator to distinctive new voice, from influential vocalist to master of his craft, is as important as his personal failings. Exploring that musical side--how he found songs and recorded them; the perspectives of the public, those involved in creating his records, and Jones himself--is pivotal to understanding the story. I've attempted to take the long view, examining not only his life and the events that shaped him from start to present, but simultaneously exploring his immense musical legacy, all in a clear chronological context." (13)

My thoughts: I started listening to George Jones' music this summer. And what I loved, I really, really LOVED. So I was curious to pick this new biography up at the library. I picked it up as a new fan and not an expert, so perhaps keep that in mind. But I enjoyed this biography very much. I think I might have appreciated aspects of it even more if I was familiar with more of his albums, more of his songs.

The prologue of this one had me hooked. Here is how the author describes Jones' voice: "The voice was raw nerve put to music...Yet above all that was his consummate ability to explore pain, sorrow, heartbreak, and emotional desolation." (9)

It was an often absorbing read full of highs and lows. I would definitely recommend it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. The Heart of Betrayal

The Heart of Betrayal (Remnant Chronicles #2) Mary E. Pearson. 2015. Henry Holt. 470 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: One swift act. I had thought that was all it would take.

Premise/plot: The Heart of Betrayal is the second book in Mary E. Pearson's The Remnant Chronicles. First, I have to say: READ THE FIRST BOOK before you even think of picking up this one. I think the first book will sufficiently hook you. You can pick it up knowing that the second and third book likely won't disappoint. Second, this review will probably contain a few spoilers for book 1 but a bare minimum of book 2.

So Lia, our heroine and runaway princess, has been captured and taken to an enemy nation, Venda. She knew little, if anything, about Venda before being taken hostage by THE ASSASSIN who was under strict orders to KILL her not BRING HER BACK A PRISONER. But Kaden could not, would not, kill her--though he considers himself to be a very loyal follower of the Komizar. Rafe, aka The PRINCE, has followed her to Venda, followed her straight into danger because though there relationship started out built almost exclusively on lies...him pretending to be a farmer...her pretending to be work in a tavern...he considers himself head over heels in love with her now. Willing to risk everything to save her from certain death. Lia learns a lot about herself, Kaden, the Komizar, and VENDA. The book is ACTION-PACKED and full of drama.

Is there a love triangle? Yes, no, maybe. Kaden certainly finds himself drawn to Lia, and, he does share his quarters with her...and perhaps a kiss or two. But Lia does not see him in that way at all. She regards him as someone to be manipulated and used in order aid her eventual escape. Competition for her heart? Not really. And the Komizar, well, does he fit into a triangle? Well, only if you consider physical threats to be a form of wooing. Which I DON'T. But their lips do meet... Rafe is not jealous so much as OUTRAGED that "his" girl is being essentially assaulted.

My thoughts: Could NOT put this one down. Seriously intense. Loved it. At first I thought I would be absolutely lost since it's been almost two years since I read the first book. But I soon found myself swept up into the drama...the politics...the romance...the action.

This series is easy to recommend.


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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4. Agatha

Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie. 2016. 130 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!

Premise/plot: Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie is a graphic novel for adults and perhaps even young adults, if they have read Christie's mysteries and can't get enough! I would say this one is primarily for fans of Agatha Christie. If you've never read Christie, if you've never met Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, then this isn't the way to be introduced to them. Trust me. What readers get are snippets of Christie's life.

The graphic novel opens in 1926 with the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie. It then flashes back to the beginning, to tell a more traditional life story. The flow of this one is start-and-stop. More like you're flipping through a stack of photographs of a person's life than actually taking the time to read a narrative biography.

One sees Agatha Christie as a writer--haunted in a way by her creations. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple especially have a way of popping up and interacting with Christie. One also sees her as a world-traveler, a wife, and a mother. One catches the barest of glimpses of Christie during World War I and World War II.

My thoughts: I read the HUGE autobiography of Agatha Christie a year or two ago. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED, LOVED it. Found it absolutely fascinating. Perhaps a little rambling for those who aren't big readers, but, just about perfect for me. This is very condensed and abbreviated.

That being said, I am glad I read this one. I liked it. I may not have loved, loved, loved it. But it is an entertaining read.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. The Borrowers

The Borrowers. Mary Norton. Illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush. 1952/2006. HMH. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: It was Mrs. May who first told me about them.

Premise/plot: Ever wondered why there's never a safety pin when you need one? Readers meet a family of Borrowers who live under the kitchen floor in an older house. Pod is the 'borrower' of the family. He knows the routines of the 'human beans' and can go out and about without being seen, most of the time. He doesn't mind being seen by the matriarch of the family at night. (She thinks she's hallucinating because she's had a couple too many drinks.) His wife, Homily, is quite satisfied to stay safely in her house behind dozens of locked gates and such. (She gives him plenty of instruction on what to borrow, however.) The couple's daughter is Arrietty, and, she is the book's heroine by my reckoning. She meets a boy that has come to stay--recuperate--for a couple of months. They become very, very good friends. She reads to him. He brings her and her parents STUFF for their home. (He 'borrows' freely from the house, most notably from a doll house that everyone seems to have forgotten about.)

Readers learn about the dangers of being a Borrower and 'the good old days' when the house was FULL of families. Arrietty fears that her family is the last living in the house.

My thoughts: This one is super fun. It is also quite suspenseful at the end!!!! I definitely recommend this one!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia. Brandon Sanderson. 2009. Scholastic. 299 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: So there I was, hanging upside down underneath a gigantic glass bird, speeding along at a hundred miles an hour above the ocean, in no danger whatsoever.

Premise/plot: This is the third book in the Alcatraz fantasy series. IN this one, Alcatraz and company arrive at last in the Free Kingdoms, in Nalhalla. Alcatraz wrestles with fame and ego in this one. Though raised in the Hushlands in a Librarian-controlled nation, he's FAMOUS in Nalhalla already, even starring in his own book series. (The book series being written by the Prince himself). Open up one of his books, and his theme music plays. You don't really get more famous than Alcatraz Smedry, of course, it's not really, truly HIM that is famous, more an idea of him. Also in this one, Bastille is put on trial. Will she be stripped of knighthood? How long will her punishment last? I should also not forget to mention that the LIBRARIANS want to come to peaceful terms and end the war at last. But Alcatraz and his friends suspect the WORST. But so many people want peace that they seem willing to give the Librarians the benefit of the doubt....

My thoughts: This one is an action-packed read full of fun and humor. I love this series. And I think I enjoyed this third book even more than the first two books. Folsom was a great new character to introduce--loved his talent, by the way. And it was nice to meet a librarian who wasn't evil for a change!!!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood

Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood. (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #4) Nathan Hale. 2014. Abrams. 128 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: This prologue is brought to you by E Pluribus Hangman.

Premise/plot: Nathan Hale shares with the British soldier (Provost) and hangman a story of when England and America will no longer be fighting each other but best friends and allies. This graphic novel is about World War I. It selectively, yet descriptively, tells of the war, year by year. It is action-packed, and yet one knows it's not exhaustive in its coverage.

Each country mentioned (both those fighting and those holding onto their neutral status) gets an animal assigned to it. So most of the illustrations are of animals at war with one another. Serbia is a Wolf. The Austro-Hungarian Empire is a Griffin. Russia is a Bear. Germany is an Eagle. France is a Gallic Rooster. Belgium is a Lion. England is a Bulldog (since Lion was already taken). America is a Bunny (since Eagle is already taken). Australia is a Kangaroo. Canada is a Beaver. New Zealand is a Kiwi. India is a Tiger. Ottoman Empire is an Otter. Japan is a Raccoon Dog. Those are the countries I can remember.

World War I is a complex subject, there is a lot to digest. There are hundreds--if not thousands--of books written by adults for adults seeking to explain the war and exhaustively cover every battle, every victory, every loss. So it is an ambitious project to condense the war into a middle grade graphic novel.
Nathan Hale: War is built and controlled by human hands--humans start it, humans stop it.
Hangman: Then WHY DIDN'T THEY STOP IT EARLIER--BEFORE IT KILLED EVERYBODY?! WHY DID THEY LET IT OUT IN THE FIRST PLACE!? THEY SHOULD LOCK IT UP AND NEVER EVER LET IT OUT!!!
Provost: Calm down, Hangman! There are times when war is a necessity. Tell him it is so, Captain Hale.
Nathan Hale: I'm not here to judge which wars were necessary and which wars weren't. I just tell the story. World War I is best summed up by those who experienced it.
All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal. ~ John Steinbeck
My thoughts: I really thought this book was well done. Yes, it's a bit text heavy. Yes, there is a LOT of information packed into it, perhaps too much information to actually absorb and digest. But it's well-crafted and well-organized. I'm impressed by how Nathan Hale (the author) was able to break down all the information and present it in such a concise way. War is never glorified, yes, the Provost and Hangman sometimes get carried away with BATTLES, but, by the end, Nathan Hale (the spy) has moved them both with his story.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. The Underground Abductor

The Underground Abductor. (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #5) Nathan Hale. 2015. Abrams. 128 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: It is time to hang this spy! Are you sure? Can't we get one more story out of him first?

Premise/plot: Nathan Hale sets out to prove that America isn't perfectly perfect, and, that America has in fact "taken part in some truly horrible, despicable, abominable, atrocious, downright evil acts." He speaks, of course, of slavery. And in this graphic novel, he tells the story of Harriet Tubman (aka Araminta Ross). It's an intense story without a doubt. He speaks of her growing up in slavery, the abuses she faced, the challenges she overcame, her marrying a free man, her decision to run away, her decision to run back into slavery. For it became her mission to travel back and forth between North and South saving slaves--escorting slaves to safety, to Canada, in fact. All via the "underground railroad" of abolitionists. Some of this information I was familiar with, but, some was new to me. For example, I was not aware of her head injury perhaps leading to her narcolepsy. I had no idea of her visions either!

My thoughts: I am so glad I discovered this series. I really have enjoyed reading these books practically back to back. I would definitely recommend all of the books in the series. I hope it is a very LONG series.


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. Alamo All Stars

Alamo All-Stars (Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales #6) 2016. Abrams. 128 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Three hundred families...land grand....Texas...almost home.

Premise/plot: Nathan Hale and his two pals (the hangman and the British Officer) are joined by Juan Seguin and his three executioners (firing squad, I believe?) to tell the story of the Alamo. It doesn't rush into the story of the Alamo though. Readers learn about Mexico declaring its independence from Spain, the setting up and deposing of several Mexican governments, the arrival, with permission, of American settlers (families) into Texas, the clashes and near-clashes of those settlers with the native tribes in Texas (all given names, I won't mention them all here) and with the Mexican government. Not all Mexican leaders welcomed the idea of settlers, some feared that the more settlers there were, the more likely they would rebel and claim Texas for their very own. Readers learn about Stephen F. Austin, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, William Travis, etc. Some of the people we learn about center around the Alamo--lived, fought, and died at the Alamo--some not. The book explores why they were fighting, what they thought they were fighting for, and their strong personalities that certainly didn't always help in their decision making.

My thoughts: Though a Texan, Texas history has not been my strongest subject especially when I was in school! I found this book a lot more interesting than a textbook. It also helps knowing that I'll never be quizzed on the subject again. Quite the difference between reading for the story and reading to remember names, dates, and places.

There were a LOT of characters in this one. It was fun that our familiar gang was joined by four more. Juan Seguin and his executioners added something to the story. I liked how the hangman came to get along with them and wanted to have a sleepover.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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10. Monopolists

The Monopolists. Mary Pilon. 2015. Bloomsbury. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: One day during the depths of the Great Depression, an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow retreated to his basement.

Premise/plot: Love Monopoly? Hate Monopoly? Mary Pilon's The Monopolists is a fascinating read to be sure. Who invented Monopoly? Who did NOT invent Monopoly? Why does it matter?

The Monopolist tells the story of the woman who invented the game, a game with two very different sets of rules. She didn't call her game 'monopoly' but 'The Landlord's Game.' The general game board concept and rules of play were hers. This was in 1904. In her community, it became quite popular, even an obsession of sorts. So much so that it spread across the nation as one person--or one couple--would teach another and another and another and another. People would create their own homemade game boards. The rules were taught but not written down. For decades, people were playing this game, loving this game. It wasn't a game you could buy at the store, though. 'The Landlord's Game' wasn't the only real-estate game that predates Parker Brothers' Monopoly. The game Finance also did. It also being offspring of Lizzie Magie's original game. Though I think perhaps by that time, it had just one set of rules. Charles Darrow, the man whose name would be associated with the game MONOPOLY, was taught the game by friends. He later claimed he invented the game. The couple who taught Darrow spent a lot of time in Atlantic City with the Quakers who LOVED the game and changed their own game boards to reflect their lives. These place names would stay with the game and be the names that we come to associate with Monopoly. The rules, the layout of the game board, the place names, all were essentially handed to Darrow ready-made.

Most of this book focuses on a lawsuit in the 1970s and early 1980s. Parker Brothers was trying to stop one man--Ralph Anspach--from selling his own game, a game called ANTI-MONOPOLY. Anspach was an economics professor, I believe. It would take a lot of time, effort, stamina, and courage to stay in the fight.

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this one. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would. I don't love playing Monopoly, but, I found the game-playing culture of the twentieth century to be FASCINATING. There is something to be said for people spending time together around a table and actually talking and having fun doing the same thing. This was written in an engaging way. I'd definitely recommend it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth. Vera Brittain. 1933. 688 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.

Premise/plot: In 1933, Vera Brittain published her autobiography, Testament of Youth, which covers the years 1900 to 1925. Much of the book focuses directly on the Great War (aka World War I) and its immediate aftermath. During the war, Vera Brittain left her university studies (Somerville College, Oxford) and became a nurse (V.A.D.). She worked as a nurse in England and abroad. (I believe she nursed in France and Malta.) Many of her friends actively served during the war. And those closest to her--including a brother and a fiance--were killed. She wrote honestly and openly about how brutal and devastating the war was, about how the war changed her and there was no going back after peace was declared.

When the book is not discussing the war, it often turns to education, politics, and social issues. Vera Brittain definitely was a feminist. She had VERY strong opinions on women's rights. But she didn't just speak out and speak up about women. She also was a voice for the poor and working class. She saw a lot of injustice and wanted to change the world.

Vera Brittain loved to be a lecturer or guest-lecturer. She had a LOT to say, and wanted to be HEARD wherever she went. This wasn't always the case. She was unhappy with certain groups--or clubs--that didn't value women's opinions and treat women as intellectual equals.

Also of interest perhaps, Brittain shares her experiences as a writer--her journey to publication and her thoughts on the literary world.

The very last chapter is a relief--after spending so many chapters distancing herself from humanity by focusing on POLITICS and WORLD AFFAIRS--focuses instead on her deep friendships and ultimate marriage. She struggled a lot with the idea of marriage. Can she marry and still be a feminist? Can she marry even though she has every intention of staying a career woman? Can she marry even though children are the very last thing (almost) on her mind? She spent so long speaking out against marriage and traditional roles for women, that she is almost ashamed and embarrassed that she fell in love.

My thoughts: It was REALLY long. Overall, I thought it was slightly uneven. It was at times quite fascinating and compelling, but, then at times it was also quite sluggish and boring. There would be pages that definitely kept me reading and kept me caring. I will say that the movie did a great job condensing the book and capturing the spirit of it. Not that the movie is 100% faithful to the book. (No movie is).

Quotes:
There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think--which is fundamentally a moral problem--but be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process; it brings to the individual far more suffering than happiness in a semi-civilized world which still goes to war, still encourages the production of unwanted C3 children by exhausted mothers, and still compels married partners who hate one another to live together in the name of morality. (40)
I am inclined to believe that provincial dances are responsible for more misery than any other commonplace experience. (51)
Most of us have to be self-righteous before we can be righteous. (56)
How curious it seems that letters are so much less vulnerable than their writers! (124)
Even my work-driven uncle at the bank wrote a long letter, enclosing a fragment of philosophy which had recently come to England from the French trenches: "When you are a soldier you are one of two things, either at the front or behind the lines. If you are behind the lines you need not worry. If you are at the front you are one of two things. You are either in a danger zone or in a zone which is not dangerous. If you are in a zone which is not dangerous you need not worry. If you are in a danger zone, you are one of two things; either you are wounded or you are not. If you are not wounded you need not worry. If you are wounded you are one of two things, either seriously wounded or slightly wounded. If you are slightly wounded you need not worry. If you are seriously wounded one of two things is certain--either you get well or you die. If you get well you needn't worry. If you die you cannot worry, so there is no need to worry about anything at all." (306)
It seems to me that the War will make a big division of 'before' and 'after' in the history of the world. (317)


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. Wolf Hollow

Wolf Hollow. Lauren Wolk. 2016. 304 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie.

Premise/plot: Annabelle, the heroine, faces her hardest struggle yet in the year 1943 when a new girl at school, Betty, begins to bully her. Annabelle is reluctant to tell her parents--or her teacher--what is going on. Afraid that Betty won't stop bullying her and will start to bully her brothers as well. But one adult, a near-homeless war veteran named Toby, witnesses Betty in action. When one of Betty's pranks goes too far, Annabelle's world is turned upside down. Life will never be the same, could never be the same.

My thoughts: Wolf Hollow might suit other readers better than it suits me. The depiction of Annabelle's aunt, Lily, bothered me. "A tall, thin, ugly woman who might have been handsome as a man, Aunt Lily spent her days working as a postmistress and her nights praying and reading from her Bible...her big, square teeth and her feverish devotion to God frightened me." In every single scene with Lily, she's presented as a villain. And at least in Annabelle's eyes, part of the villainy, part of the "getting it wrong, being in the wrong" is connected with her aunt's Christian faith. If Lily was more than a one-dimensional character, if she was perhaps a complex creature with strengths and weaknesses, then perhaps I could forgive much. I don't mind characters with weaknesses. I really don't. In fact, give me a HUMAN character each and every time. But don't give me someone who is 100% wrong because she's 100% devoted to Christ and call it characterization.

That being said, Annabelle is a solid narrator. I really enjoyed getting to know her. She is a young girl in a difficult position forced to remain in a difficult position. There is plenty of drama and action and conflict in this one. I would say the drama almost overpowers the characterization, however. In particular, Betty and Andy were lacking in character development which is a pity. What motivates a person to act a certain way? What is going on in his or her life behind the scenes? I could think of half a dozen more WHY questions. And perhaps it's asking too much for an author to get inside the head of a bully or two. But I've read other novels--even for this audience--that go there better. I didn't "need" a redemption story where Annabelle and Betty become best friends over the course of a school year, and, all this misunderstanding is swept aside as both girls experience forgiveness and new beginnings. So I wasn't disappointed exactly with the turn of this story.

There are definitely things I like about Wolf Hollow--just not everything.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians

Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians. Brandon Sanderson. 2007. Scholastic. 308 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: So there I was, tied to an altar made from outdated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.

Premise/plot: Alcatraz Smedry is not your ordinary boy, even before he learns of his special ancestry and his magical powers. He's a foster kid with a talent for breaking things--no matter how big or how small. On his thirteenth birthday he receives a package in the mail--from his father--a bag of sand. He thinks, at first, it's a joke. He doesn't think: Wow! I bet my life is going to change forever and ever! On his birthday, he "breaks" the stove and accidentally catches the kitchen on fire. His foster care worker shows up and steals the sand, though he doesn't realize it just yet. She'll be back for him in the morning with a new foster home ready to take him in. Before she shows up, his GRANDFATHER shows up to "rescue" him. Alcatraz was clueless he had a grandfather. And his grandfather is so weird and odd and a CHARACTER. But it's either go with his grandfather....or....face a hitman with a gun. So Alcatraz's second day as a thirteen year old is something....

My thoughts: I love this one. This is my first time to reread the series. Or at least I think it is! Readers meet Alcatraz, his grandfather, Bastille (a knight around his own age), Quentin, and Sing Sing. (I hope I didn't forget anyone!) Their mission is to infiltrate the downtown library and get back the sand....it won't be easy.

The style of this one is half the fun. I do like some of the commentary quite a bit!

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones

Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones. Brandon Sanderson. 2008. Scholastic. 322 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: So, there I was, slumped in my chair, waiting in a drab airport terminal, munching absently on a bag of stale potato chips.

Premise/plot: This is the second book in the fantasy series. Alcatraz has had several months to get used to the truth. (The Hushlands (including the U.S.) are ruled by EVIL LIBRARIANS who control all information and manipulate and manufacture things their own way.) Smedry was raised in the Hushlands, but his 'real' place is with the Free Kingdomers. He's a SMEDRY. His family is one of the oldest and most powerful. He comes from a line of Oculators, for one thing, and each Smedry has their own unique talent. His grandfather's talent is arriving late. His own talent is for breaking things.

This is his second adventure...Bastille is present, but, readers meet many new sidekicks in this one. The mission this time is to find Alcatraz's GRANDFATHER and possibly his FATHER who have gone missing. They are believed to be in the Library of Alexandria. Kaz is an uncle. Australia is another relation, possibly a cousin? Also there is Bastille's mother--also a knight. The novel is definitely action-packed. Perhaps even more so than the first book.

My thoughts: Definitely like this series very much. I know I've read all four books before, but, it's been so long it was like reading them again for the very first time.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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15. The Circus Mystery

The Circus Mystery (The Whodunit Detective Agency #3) Martin Widmark. Illustrated by Helena Willis. 2003/2015. 80 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: It was summertime in the town of Pleasant Valley. The sun had been shining brightly all day, and a gentle breeze rustled through the leaves of the trees in town.

Premise/plot: Jerry and Maya are two kids with a detective agency. A circus is coming to town. This circus has a bad reputation, however. Whatever towns the circus visits, a series of robberies and thefts occur. They have every reason to believe that their town will be no different, that the thief will rob people in the crowd. The police chief and Jerry and Maya attend both performances of the circus in order to see if they can solve the case.

My thoughts: I like this series well enough. Early chapter books are key in reading development. And who doesn't like a good series? Kids need series books; they need the predictability and the formulaic structure. I would definitely recommend the series.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. The Cafe Mystery

The Cafe Mystery (The Whodunit Detective Agency #4) Martin Widmark. Illustrated by Helena Willis. 2003/2015. 80 pages. [Source: Library]

First Sentence: "Mmm, pastries!" said Maya. "Cakes and muffins! Yum," added Jerry. "Can you believe everything that's been happening in there?" asked Maya, gesturing toward Cafe Marzipan, Pleasant Valley's best bakery.

Premise/plot: Jerry and Maya are kid detectives with a new toy: a digital camera. And that camera will come in handy for their next case. The bakery has suffered several robberies in the past year. No one has been able to figure out who the robber is. The robber just happens to hit every time there is a large amount of cash in the cash register. (An event that isn't all that common.) Can Jerry and Maya figure out which of the employees is working with the robber...and why?

My thoughts: I like this series. I do. I am enjoying spending time in Pleasant Valley. Jerry and Maya are very good at what they do.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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17. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Ambelin Kwaymullina. 2014. Candlewick. 383 pages. [Source: Library]

I loved The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf. I did. (I didn't expect to 'love' it. I didn't know a lot about it going into it, hadn't read a thousand gushing reviews or anything. I would rather be surprised by how good a book is than be disappointed in how bad it is. So my thinking: always try to keep expectations moderately low.)

What you should know: 1) It is YA speculative fiction. I'd say somewhere between dystopian and post-apocalyptic. Post-apocalyptic because it is set hundreds of years after 'the reckoning' that almost destroyed the planet and wiped out humanity. Dystopian because of the ordered--often cruel--society or government that has restructured the world. So if you like or love either genre, then you should pick this one up. 2) It is complex--purposefully, strategically structured to keep you always guessing and a bit unsure. Some people love this, I think; some people don't. I enjoyed it very much! 3) The premise is simple perhaps to make up for the complex storytelling and intense plot. The premise? Well, some people are born with special powers or abilities. These abilities manifest themselves over time, so, you essentially grow into your power/ability. Strength (intensity/power) and control (ability to direct, use at will) vary from person to person. These people are labeled 'illegal' and are targeted by the government. 4) The book is about the conflict between Illegals and the Powers That Be. Questioning Authority and Being True To Yourself are some of the themes explored. 5) I love the world-building. Not everything is explained upfront, and, I love that about it. I don't think everything should be revealed from page one. I like the mystery and suspense and the gradual unfolding of how things are as you orient yourself to Ashala's world. It almost is better because it is slow and gradual. 6) The characterization. Like the world-building, characters aren't nicely introduced in a telling, usual way.

Ashala Wolf is one of the leaders of the tribe, a group of Illegals living in the Firstwood, living on their own as far away from society as they can get. Firstwood is a unique, fantastical setting. I never quite pictured or imagined it fully, but, that didn't stop me from loving this one. It didn't feel "less real" because of that. It almost felt "more real." In the opening chapter, readers learn that she has been captured, perhaps even betrayed by the boy, the young man, that she can't help being drawn to. She's essentially a prisoner at a detention camp, and, because she's a leader, and a defiant leader at that, she most likely is facing torture.

Actually, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf reminded me of first season Alias. There's intensity, action, and confusion all at the same time. I could just as easily compare it to LOST or Once Upon A Time. You may not know everything you want to know, but, you know just enough to know you want more, more, MORE.


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. What Are The Summer Olympics

What Are The Summer Olympics?  Gail Herman. Illustrated by Stephen Marchesi. 2016. 112 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed reading Gail Herman's What Are the Summer Olympics? This short little nonfiction book for young(er) readers (think elementary school) covers all the basics. It provides a nice, little overview of the Olympics. Readers don't learn all there is to know about any one sport--or event--but readers learn a little bit about many of the most popular events. The chapters are actually arranged decade by decade. Each chapter typically covers two or three sports.

For example, the ninth chapter focuses on the 1980s. That chapter covers the U.S.A's boycott of the 1980 games, introduces readers to Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics), Carl Lewis (track), and Greg Louganis (diving).

Because over a hundred years worth of sports history is covered in this little volume, there isn't a lot of depth and substance. The book is a little over a hundred pages in length. BUT the book has a lot of illustrations.

Is it as FUN as Horrible Histories' Flame?!?! Sadly, no. But the book and song go VERY well together. The book, of course, covers A LOT more than any song parody could ever do it.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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19. The Wildest Race Ever

The Wildest Race Ever. Meghan McCarthy. 2016. Simon & Schuster. 48 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The first Olympic marathon held in America happened on August 30, 1904, in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Premise/plot: This nonfiction picture book tells the wild-but-true story of the first Olympic marathon. McCarthy introduces us to ten runners out of the thirty-two that started the race. This story has plenty of twists and turns. It's never dull!

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this one. It appears to be well-researched. A select bibliography is included. And a link is provided for a full bibliography. It is well-written in my opinion! The story is lively and fun. I really liked the end papers!

It is probably best suited for slightly older readers. (Elementary perhaps instead of preschool.) It might make for a slightly awkward group read-aloud because there are a lot of sidebars and such in addition to the main narrative.

Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 8 out of 10

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. Unhooked

Unhooked. Lisa Maxwell. 2016. Simon & Schuster. 342 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a boy not so very far from being a man. He crossed a sea to venture to London, for he wanted to find his brother, who was the bravest of soldiers. He carried with him only a light pack, for he had every intention of returning...

The novel opens with a move. Gwen and her mom have moved...again. Readers are given the impression that this happens a lot. That her mom is very unstable, that the daughter takes care of the mom instead of the other way around. Along for the trip is Gwen's best friend, Olivia. The tone of the novel from the beginning is dark and mysterious. (Readers witness Gwen's mom FREAK out because of a drawing on a nursery wall. On an evening run, this paranoia seems to have spread to Gwen who FREAKS out when she sees her friend talking to a stranger.) Gwen's nerves continue to be frazzled that night. She can't sleep. Then her worst fears come true.
I will never forget how this moment feels. Like I am being pinned down by night itself. I thrash wildly, trying to get away, but the intruder holds me easily, and then, pressing his face into the curve of my neck, he inhales--a sharp intake of breath--like an animal scenting its prey. When he exhales, his host, fetid breath crawls against my skin. Instinctively I jerk back, but his body cages me in, and his scent overwhelms me--he smells like the damp underside of old leaves, early and a little sour from decay. Like hunger and wanting. But as close as he is to my face, I can't make him out. The room has grown so dark, there isn't enough light for me to see him. Without warning, something warm and wet traces the length of my exposed neck with excruciating thoroughness. He's liking me. Tasting me. Bile rises hot and acidic in my throat, and I understand that I am not going to make it out of this untouched. I don't know if I'm going to make it out at all. (34-5)
Gwen is kidnapped--abducted--from her new home and taken....where????? Well, first she wakes up on a ship. And then she spots an island in the distance...and told that it's NEVERLAND.

There is a Captain (named Rowan) at odds with someone calling himself PAN. But forget what you know about Peter Pan and Neverland.

Unhooked is a read that is best described as dark, intense, dangerous, very life-and-death. Nothing trivial or jolly about it.

Is there a love triangle? Perhaps for a chapter or two as Gwen tries to make up her mind who is telling the truth. But for 90% of the book there is not a love triangle to be found.

Is there romance? Yes. While I would not describe it as instant-love, I would say there's some instant-attraction going on. I think there is a decent amount of relationship development occurring throughout considering the circumstances.

What about the characters???? I love the depth of characterization in this one. The villain was fully realized, as was the hero and heroine.

I also really enjoyed the dialogue of this one. Very well done!

One more quote:
"But in the story--"
"Were I you," he says, turning back almost viciously, cutting off my words, "I'd not put my trust in stories. They tend to pass off lies as the truth and hide the truth in their lies." (75)
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. The Thank You Book

The Thank You Book. Mo Willems. 2016. Disney-Hyperion. 64 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: I have a lot to be thankful for...I had better get thanking.

Premise/plot: Piggie is out to thank EVERYONE. But Gerald worries that Piggie will forget someone, someone important, someone REALLY, REALLY important. Readers see Piggie go about thanking various characters including the Pigeon, Brian Bat, the whale, some flies, etc. All the while Gerald gets more and more concerned. Piggie IS forgetting someone important. And Piggie is not taking hints!

My thoughts: I have mixed feelings about The Thank You Book. Part of me would like to put it in the freezer and pretend it simply doesn't exist. Why? It feels very much like THE LAST BOOK IN A SERIES. I do not want it to be the last book, the END. Cue the music. There could be a hundred titles in the series, and I'd still be looking for the release of 101! I haven't processed the loss yet...to there being no more books starring Gerald and Piggie.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. Paper Wishes

Paper Wishes. Lois Sepahban. 2016. FSG. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Grandfather says that a man should walk barefoot on the bare earth every day.

Premise/plot: Paper Wishes is a middle grade historical novel set during World War II. Manami, our heroine, soon finds herself ripped away from the life she knows and loves--along with her family, her friends, her neighbors--because she's Japanese-American. Manami's family includes her grandfather, her father, her mother, an older brother (Ron) and an older sister (Keiko). Manami and her grandfather are especially, especially close to their dog Yujiin. So close that Manami tries to sneak the dog onto the bus or train that is taking them away. It does not work. And the dog is taken from her. This traumatic event leaves her without a voice. She does not speak for months--almost the entire book. But just because she isn't speaking doesn't mean she doesn't have a way of expressing herself and finding a voice. She DRAWS. She paints. And she gives some of her drawings to the wind as PAPER WISHES. What does she wish for most of all? HER dog, of course. So she sends along dozens of drawings of Yujiin hoping that somehow these wishes will come true...

My thoughts: I really found this to be an emotionally compelling read. I loved Manami and her family. In particular, I love her, Ron, and the grandfather. (I don't honestly feel I got to know-know her parents. Though I liked them well enough). I really liked getting to know her teacher as well.

Anyone who enjoys character-driven historical novels with a lot of heart will enjoy this one.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. 23 Minutes

23 Minutes. Vivian Vande Velde. 2016. Boyds Mills Press. 176 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: The story starts with an act of stunning violence.

Premise/plot: Zoe, our heroine, has a superpower of sorts. She has the ability to curl herself up into a ball, say PLAYBACK, and have time reverse itself exactly twenty-three minutes. She can playback one twenty-three segment of time up to ten times...and then whatever the last time was...is forever frozen. So when Zoe witnesses a crime, a bank robbery, and ends up covered in blood, it seems like the natural right thing to do to try to make it better. True, the robber ended up being shot, but, so did Daniel, the super-nice guy who helped pick up all the papers from the folder when she dropped it.

Readers go with Zoe on the journey to try to make things better. But it won't be easy. For Zoe finds the odds are against happy endings in this instance in particular. Some tries result in "just" two to four people being shot. Others result in a LOT more shots being fired. Including shots into the street where a mom has her child in a stroller passing by...unaware of the lurking danger.

What Zoe needs is an ally, and, Daniel may just be her best chance....

My thoughts: This one is PREMISE-driven. One character is definitely explored and that is Zoe herself. One learns what is in the folder she carries, the secrets in the papers she's got with her. And what they reveal about her is interesting in a way. Though I'm not sure they provide a complete picture. Either readers believe Zoe is who she says she is, and she truly has this power. (Which readers don't really have reason to doubt the way the story is presented.) OR readers can choose to doubt Zoe and believe the papers, Zoe being a psychological mess. (I don't think there is enough ambiguity in the text to allow for this interpretation).

There is a lot of ACTION in this one. I found it nearly impossible to put this one down.

If the book has a weakness, it is Zoe's crush on Daniel. I don't think every reader will have trouble believing that a young girl (15) could notice the "cuteness" of a guy regardless of his age. But some will. I think there's a big difference between noticing how cute a guy is, and, seriously believing that a relationship is possible. Zoe doesn't really, truly think Daniel is boyfriend material. But she can't help finding him cute all the same. And for better or worse, readers have to hear Zoe talk about how cute Daniel is again and again. As I said before, this may prove annoying to some readers. But I don't think every reader will react the same way.

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Ms. Bixby's Last Day

Ms. Bixby's Last Day. John David Anderson. 2016. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence: Rebecca Roudabush has cooties.

Premise/plot: Topher, Steve, and Brand are close friends who come together to give Ms. Bixby, their beloved teacher, the last day of her dreams. This middle grade novel is narrated by all three boys in alternating chapters. (Brand may possibly be my favorite. It's hard to say). Several chapters into the book, Ms. Bixby makes an announcement to the class: she has cancer. She'll be leaving within a week or two. They'll have a substitute for the remaining weeks in the year. But she leaves even earlier than intended and is, in fact, hospitalized. Three students take it upon themselves to visit her and bring the 'last day' party to her. True, the class made get well cards. But somehow that doesn't seem like enough. It is Ms. Bixby, after all, only the best teacher in the whole world. The teacher who reads The Hobbit out loud and gives all the different characters voices. The teacher who seems to see and know everything...even to understand everything.

It won't be easy to pull off this last day. All three will have to skip school for starters and pull together all their resources. They want a cheesecake, a bottle of wine, and some McDonald's french fries. And they're relying on many buses to get them there and back again. In some ways they're clueless and foolish. In other ways, just sweet with good intentions.

My thoughts: I really liked this one. I would have loved, loved, loved it but I didn't love all the bathroom 'boy' humor. I do appreciate, in a way, that there are funny parts in this one. I think humor really helps sell kids on reading. So I'd rather the book be 'just right' for kids than 'just right' for me as an adult.

I really enjoyed the characterization. It wasn't rushed and it was complex. The ending was predictable, but just right in a bittersweet way.

My favorite quotes:
"We all have moments when we think nobody really sees us. When we feel like we have to act out or be somebody else just to get noticed. But somebody notices. Topher. Somebody sees. Somebody out there probably thinks you're the greatest thing in the whole world. Don't ever think you're not good enough." (232)

The truth is--the whole truth is--that it's not the last day that matters most. It's the ones in between, the ones you get the chance to look back on. They're the carnation days. They may not stand out the most at first, but they stay with you the longest. (293)

© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. Salt to the Sea

Salt to the Sea. Ruta Sepetys. 2016. 391 pages. [Source: Library]

First Sentence: Guilt is a hunter.

Premise/plot: Salt to the Sea is a historical novel set during the last part of World War II alternately narrated by four teenagers: Joana, Emelia, Florian, and Alfred. Though the book may seem excessively mysterious and difficult to follow--at the beginning especially--I want to encourage readers to keep going, to keep reading. The BIG PICTURE story of this one is so worth it.

Joana's first sentence: Guilt is a hunter.
Florian's first sentence: Fate is a hunter.
Emilia's first sentence: Shame is a hunter.
Alfred's first sentence: Fear is a hunter.

So what might be nice to know: The end is fast coming. Danger is everywhere--depending on your nationality, your paperwork, your secrets. The 'liberation' coming from the Russian side is just as troubling and disturbing and good cause for fear as accidentally bumping into German Nazis. Three of our four narrators are slowly but surely making their ways to the Baltic Sea, to a port where they may luck into finding an escape aboard a ship. The fourth narrator is already there, a German already assigned to a ship. (That would be Alfred. He will actually be one of the people responsible for registering refugees to the ships and assigning who goes where, who gets on board and who is left behind.) All four seem destined to be aboard Wilhelm Gustloff.

My thoughts: If I had to pick just a handful of words to describe this one: compelling, mysterious, intense, bittersweet. It was a WONDERFUL read. One of those books that remind you WHY you like to read in the first place. I was swept into this story, and, though it took me days to make it through the first fifty or sixty pages, I soon found it impossible to put down. The key to this one, I think, is just going for it: reading it in big chunks. You'll probably still have a few questions here and there, but, just keep going. The more you read, the more will ultimately be revealed.


© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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