Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: The Crooked Sixpence (The Uncommoners #1)

I'm sure you can guess what first drew me in to this new middle grade series. (Hint: always judge a book by its cover.) It was both the cover illustration (whimsical & quirky) and the title that made me want to preview this new series for you before its release next week on January 31st. 
Fun fact: Jennifer Bell was a long-time children's bookseller before she became a writer. I love supporting booksellers-turned-authors -- only they see how truly difficult it is to write and successfully sell a book from both sides of the process. Freshman authors rarely hit their stride on the first try, and while I won't be granting this book 5 stars, I'll continue to follow the series when the second is released in June. 

The Crooked Sixpence introduces us to Ivy and Seb Sparrow, siblings who are staying with their grandmother when a strange chain of events ends with them standing in the ransacked living room of their now-hospitalized grandmother, staring at a very creepy and threatening message etched into the wall.

We can see you now.

Soon a pair of suspicious-looking police officers show up at their door, rambling about things the children don't understand and threatening them with...toilet brushes? Nothing makes sense, but the children know one thing: they need to run.

So begins Ivy and Seb's foray into the world of uncommoners and the market of Lundinor. They learn that hidden beneath London lies a market full of uncommon goods -- things that seem like ordinary objects but serve peculiar purposes -- and that only a select population of people are uncommoners, those who can use these items for their alternate purposes. This is the part of the book that I both loved and felt was underdeveloped. Bell's world building was super creative, and while I saw some comments online about it being too similar to Harry Potter, I actually felt that it was very different and appreciated the quirkiness of it. I only wish that there was more of an explanation, more time spent revealing the world to our protagonist and therefore to the reader. I thought that the characters could use a bit more substance too and am hoping to see that in the next installment.

In terms of plot, I enjoyed reading about the adventure of the siblings and the people that help them along the way, and I liked that there was a bit of a mystery component as well. Though there was some resolution at the end, Bell left a thread open for the next adventure, and I'm looking forward to seeing the return of some of these characters -- especially our remaining villain.

From a seasoned reader perspective, this was a solid freshman release with some things to be improved in the next, but I could see a middle grade reader really enjoying both the adventure and the world building. I'd recommend this to fans of Harry Potter, The Mysterious Benedict Society, and The Mister Max trilogy.

Bottom-Line Rating: 3/5

Title: The Crooked Sixpence (The Uncommoners #1)
Author: Jennifer Bell
Publisher: Random House, 2017
ISBN: 0553498436
Format: E-book
Source: Net Galley

Note: Top Shelf Text was provided with a copy of this text by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Review: The Fifth Petal

First, you must know that Brunonia Barry is a local author. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts, a city rife with historical significance, and also the city where I teach. I was first drawn to Barry's novels because of Salem's storied past, along with my love of reading fiction set in places that I know in real life. I first read The Map of True Places in college and loved both Barry's writing style and her penchant for bringing the past to life in a contemporary novel. Last year, I picked up The Lace Reader and was blown away by the surprise ending. The Fifth Petal is the sequel to The Lace Reader and will be released next week on January 24th. If you haven't yet read The Lace Reader but think you might be interested, stop reading here and go grab it off the library shelf! Be warned, spoilers ahead.

The Fifth Petal begins sometime after the ending of The Lace Reader. In it, Rafferty, our charming and flawed investigator, is married to Towner and has been promoted to chief of police. The story opens with a new look into an old cold case -- what's known locally as The Goddess Murders. Back in the late eighties, three beautiful and notoriously promiscuous friends had formed a mysterious clique, naming themselves The Goddesses and using their ancestral link to the convicted witches of Salem as part of their lure for Salem's eligible (and ineligible) men. One night, they are brutally murdered at the site of a Wiccan ceremony. There are only two survivors from the ceremony -- an old woman named Rose and a five year old child, daughter of a goddess, who is whisked away to be raised by nuns after the traumatic incident. Flash forward to modern day, and Rose has become Salem's resident crazy homeless lady, while Callie (the traumatized child), returns to Salem to find that so much of her past is not what she thought it was. Old faces from both The Lace Reader and The Map of True Places come into play as Rafferty and Callie work to find out what really happened on the night of the Goddess Murders and how it's all connected to those original Salem witches.

I have to say that the beginning of this novel was a teensy, tiny bit slow for me. I wasn't really sure what Barry was getting at and went into it thinking that more loose ends from The Lace Reader would be addressed. I'm still waiting on some of those loose ends (Barry has commented that it will happen in book 3!) but as soon both Rafferty and Callie started to discover more details about the night of the murders, the more suspenseful it got and the more I became invested in Callie's character and her backstory. Over time, I tried to make my predictions about the resolution to the mystery, but if there's one thing Barry writes well, it's an all-is-revealed, high-intensity ending. This one absolutely rivaled the ending of The Lace Reader. If you enjoyed the first I'd highly recommend this second installment. You still have almost a week to pre-order your copy before its release -- enough time to have it on your doorstep early next week!

Bottom Line Rating: 5/5

Title: The Fifth Petal
Author: Brunonia Barry
Publisher: Crown, 2017
ISBN: 110190563
Format: E-book
Source: Net Galley

Note: Top Shelf Text was provided with a copy of this text by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Currently Coveting {January}

If you read my 2017 Reading Resolutions then you know that one of my goals this year is to spend more time reading the books that I love. With that goal in mind, I picked out a few titles that I'm coveting this month. My reading time is pretty packed this month (new releases galore!) but these are some of the books I'm hoping to get to when I have a spare slot in my to-read list. There are a lot of great books coming out this month, but if you want the sneak peek for the whole year, check out The Great 2017 Book Preview from The Millions.

A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn // I read & reviewed the first in this series last year and really enjoyed it. I'm always interested in mysteries but add a strong female detective into the mix and I'm hooked. The historical fiction element is an added bonus. I'm looking forward to picking this up after I've finished the latest installment in the Inspector Gamache novels -- my current mystery read. 
Release date: January 10th

The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak // This story features elements of Russian historical fiction, the world of professional ballet, and that tenuous relationship between siblings who are both prodigies in the same field. I read The Winter Palace by Stachniak and really enjoyed both her writing and her attention to historical detail. 
Release date: January 17th

The Jolly Regina by Kara LaReau // This new series has been compared to A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place  -- two of my favorite series to recommend for middle grade fiction fans. The series features the unintentional adventures of the Bland sisters aboard a pirate vessel. The cover art is adorable and I am so on board for a new witty series. Fun fact: the author for this series edited my all-time favorite (modern) children's novel: The Tale of Despereaux. So I'm willing to bet she'll be an author to follow in the future.
Release date: January 10th

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe // My non-fiction pick for the month. In this, Schwalbe explores the role that books play in our modern society and the books that help us to navigate our universal questions. Each chapter features a book, with stories about how the book influenced him and the people in his life that are tied to it. You know I love books about books, and this seems like a perfect fit for the beginning of a new year.

What are you looking forward to reading this month?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Five Reading Resolutions for Twenty Seventeen

Anne Bogel, host of the What Should I Read Next? podcast, curator of my online book club, and my reading guru, always asks the guests on her podcast one question: 

What do you want to be different in your reading life?

That question is my starting point for my 2017 reading goals, because these goals aren't going to be to read specific titles, or even certain genres, but to find ways to improve my reading life in general. In 2016 I read eight books less than the year before. Eight! Now, 55 books is still quite a lot. I get that. But for me, that is a significant slump in my reading life. I never push myself to read a certain number of books (quality over quantity, remember?) but I felt a profound shift in my attitude towards reading this year and I want to be intentional in my effort to turn that around in 2017.

What Went Well?


I finally finally got on board and fell in love with the convenience of audiobooks. The only problem is that I am super picky about the narrator so I have trouble finding ones that I can stick with, especially for adult books. If you're a audiobook lover and have recommendations, please send them my way!

My new book club. 

I'm not a super serious reader, but my book club reads books that are a little more high-brow, which helps me to push myself into a new range of reading. I'm really looking forward to the books that we'll be reading in 2017. This was my favorite read from book club so far. 

What Got in the Way?

A lot of books went unfinished. 

I'm talking a lot. I've never really been the type of person to abandon a book, but this year I put down quite a few of them and never picked them back up. All that time spent reading 100 or so pages only to abandon a book really impacted the amount of books that I was able to finish, and left me with kind of a meh attitude because I felt I was no longer able to easily spot books that I knew I would love.


Love/hate relationship over here. I love being able to connect with others on various platforms, but I am also very cognizant of the fact that time spent on my phone and computer is time that I'm not spending reading. I'm sure many readers can relate.


I'm both proud and a little ashamed to admit that I could sustain at least a year of my reading life on only the books that I have purchased but not yet read. The problem is that I have very few books out on display right now. To put them all out would require several bookshelves and space that I don't have, so there isn't an easy fix to this one. But I have to say, when I'm wandering the house looking for inspiration for what to read next, having all my books packed away is not helping me to feel inspired.

How Can I Improve My Reading Life?

My Five Reading Resolutions for 2017

Resolution #1: More children's literature.

Before 2016, I was a voracious reader of children's literature. I didn't read much of it outside of work in 2016, and I'd like that to change for this year. I want to read more children's literature for my own entertainment, not necessarily for the benefit of my lesson planning. So, this year I'm hoping to read at least one children's novel a month. Thankfully, I have a friend in the bookseller/publishing industry who is a adamant lover of children's lit and is a great source for finding the best of the best. Recommendations coming from her on the blog soon!

Resolution #2: More time reading, less time on the phone.

I have very few hours of free time during the week, and despite heading to bed with a book in hand each night, I sometimes fall asleep after reading just a few pages. In 2017, I want more dedicated, distraction-free reading time.

Resolution #3: More audiobooks.

I'm really not a music lover, so when I go to the gym, cook dinner, drive, and fold laundry I prefer to listen to podcasts or audiobooks. This year, I listened to Stuart Little, Anne of Green Gables, The Willoughbys, Charlotte's Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Tale of Despereaux. I find that children's literature is easier for me to finish on audio because they're usually much shorter. I'd like to find more audibooks to listen to and love in the new year. Recommendations, please!

Resolution #4: More books that I love.

I picked up and put down so many books last year. I also felt lost in picking genres. In years past, I always had a go-to, whether it was historical fiction, fantasy, or mystery. This year I tried to dabble too much in genres that I don't love, and I think that contributed to my slump. So in 2017 I want to read more of what I love, even if that means I don't cross the genre boundaries very often.

Resolution #5: More book club talk.

Speaking of not crossing the genre boundaries, I think I get plenty of that just from following along with my book club picks, so have no fear, I will be reading more than just mystery books this year. 

I love my book club. As Anne Shirley once said, "Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It's splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world." I genuinely enjoy the discussions that I have with my fellow bookworms, and I'd love for 2017 to be the year that I get to join a real, in-person book club as well.

I'd love to hear about some of your reading resolutions for 2017! Leave a comment with one way that you want to improve your reading life below.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Top Ten of Twenty Sixteen

Welcome Twenty Seventeen!

This year, I read 55 books. That's actually quite a bit less than I read last year, so I'm taking some time to reflect on what worked (and what didn't) as I plan my reading resolutions for 2017. You can read more about those on the blog next week!

As always, these are some of my most highly-rated books, and come to you in no particular order. 
I'd love to hear some of your top picks from 2016 in the comments if you'd like to share!

You know a book is good when you cannot stop talking about it. I've raved about The Year of Living Danishly to anyone willing to listen, and even talked a few of my coworkers into reading it too. Now we all gush about the Danish way of life. I am the type of person who thinks a lot about quality of life and how to improve my own, and this book actually gave me a few great ideas for finding that balance between work and personal life (spoiler: teachers rarely find that balance). Not to mention, I'd jump at the chance to relocate to Denmark, where quality of life is the driving focus for the entire population. You can read more of my thoughts here.

If you like mysteries and have not yet started Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache novels, then all I have to say to you is "What are you waiting for?!?"

The Beautiful Mystery is the eighth in the series and I think it's the best of them all, though I want to be clear in saying that this is the best mystery series I have ever (ever) read, so all of the books are great in their own right. I started this series over the summer and have been raving about it since. Even if you aren't a mystery lover, I would still recommend it to you. Worth a try, I promise.

I didn't read many classics this year (oops), but this 1938 gothic novel was one of the best books I read and continue to think about. I'm sure there are other reviewers who could put it into words better than I can, but it's haunting and mysterious and the character of Mrs. Danvers is unforgettable.

I have yet to speak with a reader who read Outlander and didn't love it. The only intimidation of it is the size of each book in the series. I flew through this first one in just a few days over the summer (when reading for five hours at the beach was possible) and went immediately to the bookstore to pick up the next two. These are books that you want to be fully immersed in, and I find the mix between historical fiction and fantasy to be perfectly captivating.

I read this in two days with no interruptions, thanks to a seaside vacation. It was beautifully written. Definitely a reading experience that I highly recommend, if you're interested in more serious historical fiction or stories from WWII.

This is a new-to-me series that I fell in love with this year. The vibrant cover is what first caught my eye at the library, but the story inside was just as mesmerizing. I'm looking forward to reading the second in the series in 2017.

How interesting is it that I have been a reader for twenty years and had not yet read Anne of Green Gables until this year? Looking back on it, I'm sad for all of those years I spent without the influence of Anne Shirley. I love this book so much that I read it twice just this year (once in paperback, once through audible -- I highly recommend the Rachel McAdams narration) and loved it equally both times. Tears were shed, giggles escaped, and I can't help but dream of my own little Green Gables.

Though I read this in childhood, I rediscovered it this year in an effort to read more children's classics. This is another one that I both read and listened to through audible. I love the level of writing in it -- sophisticated, and with the best closing line in all of literature (well, maybe except for Ulysses) -- and my students loved Templeton's character ("He's so rude!"). We celebrated finishing the book by watching the 1973 animated film and I loved how closely the film stuck to the dialogue of the book. 

I don't read a lot of young adult literature (something I'm attempting to branch out in next year), but this was a really fascinating read that mixed mystery and sci-fi with a classic villain character. Highly recommended for those who enjoy Marvel-esque stories. I'm looking forward to reading more of Schwab's work in 2017.

I'm doing something unprecedented here -- I'm adding a book to my top ten for the second year in a row. The Tale of Despereaux easily holds a spot in my top three books of all time, and I swear it doesn't feel like a children's book when I'm reading it. The theme of dark and light, or chiaroscuro, has stayed with me and has had a profound impact on the way that I both interpret characters by other authors and try to write my own. If you haven't read this yet, put it at the top of your list for 2017. 


What made it to the top of your list in 2016?

You can find my top ten lists from past years here: