Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My Spring Break Reads

Since beginning my full-time semester of student teaching, my reading habits have changed pretty significantly. I have less time to read (and sometimes feel guilty when I prioritize reading over schoolwork or planning), so I've developed a more selective attitude towards books. I want my reading time to be spent with quality stories, so I've become more particular in my picks and quicker to abandon a book when it's not working for me.
Over the course of my spring break vacation I finally had the chance for some completely uninterrupted reading. We went down to St. Simons Island in Georgia for a full five days of sun, sand, and salt water (all of my favorite things). If you're looking for a relaxing vacation in a gorgeous setting, I highly recommend the island! 

I mentioned on Instagram that I had been saving Anthony Doerr's Pultizer Prize-Winning All the Light We Cannot See for this particular trip, and I am so glad that I did. I had heard (from just about everyone who's read it) that it was a favorite, so I wanted to be able to fully immerse myself in the setting. I spent two days parked in a beach chair while I sped through the book, and rather than reviewing the book, I'm going to just chime in with every other reader and insist that you put it on your list. Not only was the story captivating and heartbreaking (everything that you want in a WWII novel), it was also just so beautifully written. I stopped countless times to reread sentences and just appreciate the way that Doerr put them together. This book was a definite 5-stars, and you can count on seeing it on my Top Ten list for this year.

After I completed All the Light We Cannot See, I wanted to move on to another book but found myself hesitant to pick one because, well, not much is going to measure up to that. My mom had brought along The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins for her beach read, so the day after I finished All the Light I borrowed it from her. I read it in an afternoon and thought it was an excellent thriller. I guessed the wrong culprit (more than once) and felt that the ending was just superb. The suspense was high and I got so involved in the book that I wound up getting a pretty bad sunburn from failing to move for the entire 5 hours that it took me to read (Oops!) but it was worth it. I definitely recommend it for a vacation read (and I really liked the juxtaposition of the very serious All the Light with the suspense of The Girl on the Train -- they turned out to be an excellent pair). 

Because I've had a habit of reading each night before bed for, well, my entire life, I brought along my Kindle as well (tip for traveling with others -- Kindles are great for night-time because you can use the backlight to read while your travel buddies sleep peacefully in the dark!). So while I was reading more modern and popular books during the day, I was spending nights with Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. I haven't finished it yet, but I do love the story so far (and found myself chatting about what a scoundrel a certain character is to my mom) and I'm going to continue reading it now that I'm home. I love that feeling of checking off a highly-anticipated book from my to-read list, and this vacation allowed me to do that more than once. Plus, having no agenda was probably the nicest feeling in the world. I feel totally refreshed and ready to hit the ground running -- and with only three weeks until graduation and eight more weeks of school, that marathon feeling is exactly what I'm expecting. Here's to a busy spring!

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Author Interview: I.J. Brindle, Author of Balthazar Fabuloso in the Lair of the Humbugs

Greetings from my new favorite spot! I'm currently soaking up the sunshine and spending my days buried in a book while lounging on an island off the coast of Georgia, and let me tell you, I am loving it. You can keep up with my vacation reads on Instagram (@topshelftext), if you're so inclined.
This week I'm bringing you something new: an author interview! I.J. Brindle's new middle grade fiction novel, Balthazar Fabuloso in the Lair of the Humbugs, debuts on May 1st. I am always looking for new fiction to recommend to my students, and I jumped at the chance to read a book that I thought looked both funny and appealing to boy readers -- who are, let's face it, the hardest to find good books recommendations for. Balthazar is one of those quirky books that will appeal to readers who like sassy characters and absolutely ridiculous plots. Balthazar's family is eccentric, to say the least -- they perform wacky magic shows for a living -- but here's the real trick: the magic that they "perform" is actually real. That's right, every one of them has a particular power, that is, except for Balthazar. At the age of 11, it looks like he'll just turn out to be an ordinary kid. One day, in the middle of a performance, Balthazar's entire family disappears without rhyme or reason. It's up to him to save them, and the task set out before him seems nothing if not overwhelming for a kid without any magic. I can see this appealing to my students who are super hard to find books for, and I'd simply recommend it as a crazy adventure. I will say that there were a few points in the book that made me cringe -- jokes that I thought were in bad taste, or things that I found too inappropriate for my fourth graders. For that reason, I'd highly recommend this for those on the older end of the middle grade age group (11 and up), or for readers who are a bit more mature.

Now that you know the premise of the book, let's have a chat with I.J. Brindle!

What was the inspiration behind the book?

My first inspiration was this experience I had in seventh grade. I was staying in Quebec with a host family on some kind of a school exchange trip and they were nice and it was my first time away from home and their house smelled different from my house and the room I was staying in was really different from my room so I couldn’t really sleep. So instead, I spent all my nights reading this classic fantasy series I had with me. I absolutely loved it, but it left me with this out-of-sorts feeling. In part because I was homesick and sleep deprived, but also I couldn’t stop thinking about how, as much as I loved the world I was reading about, it was this somewhere-else world I would never, in real life, get to be a part of, and as much as I admired the hero, he was this mystical prodigy super-magic-genius that I would never be. I wanted a book that showed the possibility of the magic I often felt just floating beneath the surface of my own quirky, random, everyday life. So I wrote to try to do that for the seventh-grade me and for anyone else who ever gets that feeling.
It was also inspired by my firstborn, Theo, who believed in this book before it existed and grilled me about all the little nonexistent details until they became real, and by my sister, Mary, who has been drawing in sketchbooks since before I could scribble and who had the best knife collection, comic book collection and taxidermy animal collection of any kid in St. Catharines.
What makes this book special to you? What important message do you feel it brings to young readers?
A fancy-pants Russian novelist once wrote “any instant of life if deeply enough probed becomes a doorway to infinity.” I believe this idea holds true for people as well as instants.
I would love it if young readers came away from this book being a bit more aware of the incredible power that lies in being deeply true to who you are, even if it’s not who anyone else wants you to be and even if you’re not even quite sure what that is yet.

What inspired you to write, and when did you know you would become an
I think the first clue I would become a writer was in preschool when I used to horrify unsuspecting adults by spicing up stories about my life with alarming details I borrowed off the news. Back then they called it lying. Then somewhere along the line I figured out if I did the same thing but called it fiction, I could have the same kind of fun without the scolding after. I always planned to become an author at some point—and also to buy an island that I'd specifically set aside for authors and readers. I'm still working on the island part.
What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
Read lots, watch carefully and be real—especially when you’re making stuff up.
If you're interested in pre-ordering a copy of Balthazar Fabuloso in the Lair of the Humbugs before its release on May 1st, you can get a copy here on Amazon, or if you'd like to read an excerpt (and see the CCSS connections), you can view the publisher's listing here.
A big thank you (and congratulations on this first novel) to I.J. Brindle, and also to the fun and friendly team at Holiday House Books, who were kind enough to send a copy to Top Shelf Text! (Please note that all opinions are my own, and have not been influenced by my partnership with Holiday House Books).
I'm off to soak up some more of that sunshine!
Happy Reading!



Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: The Seven Sisters

I've been in a bit of a book rut lately. I started reading more than one book at a time, and before I knew it I was skipping from book to book because nothing was keeping my interest. I read The Seven Sisters a few weeks ago, and it was the last book to completely captivate me. This was the first book that I've read by Lucinda Riley (I have another one of hers sitting on my shelf) and I'd put her in the same category with some of my other favorite historical fiction writers (such as Kate Morton and Lauren Willig).

The Seven Sisters is the first in a new series based upon the constellation Pleiades, and the frame switches between two narratives. The modern narrative belongs to Maia, one of six adopted sisters who spent her idyllic childhood on a secluded island which her father lovingly named Atlantis. While her sisters are spread across the globe pursuing their different lives, Maia is the sister that never left. Her world starts to fall apart when her father dies unexpectedly. Upon his death, each sister is given a letter and the coordinates of her birthplace. In a moment of spontaneity, Maia decides to pursue her heritage, so she follows the coordinates to Rio. While she's there, the reader is introduced to the second narrative: that of Bel, a teenager who lives in high society in 1920's Rio. She must come to terms with the constraints on her future: a fiancĂ©e chosen by her family and expectations for her future as a wife. Before she is married, Bel leaves on a tour of Europe, where she is able to meet the man sculpting the famous Christo statue. There, Bel finds that there is more to life that she sees in Rio.

I don't want to give too much away, because I loved how Riley revealed details throughout the book and I think that having those details revealed one at a time was really important to my love for the story. Throughout the book, the reader is able to follow both Maia and Bel as they navigate new cities and fight for what they want in life. I loved both narratives and felt compelled to find out the connection between the two women. There are a lot of questions left unanswered at the end of the book, so I'm eager to read the next in the series and am keeping my eye out for it at the library. If you're a fan of the dual-narrative, I'd highly recommend this series!

Bottom Line Rating: 5/5

Title: The Seven Sisters
Author: Lucinda Riley
Publisher: Atria, 2015
Price: $20 on Amazon
ISBN: 1476759901
Format: Hardcover, 704 pgs.
Source: Public Library

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Currently Coveting {April}

April is going to be an extremely busy month around here -- but busy in a good way. I'll be taking over the classroom in my student teaching placement, launching my very own literacy unit (details to come!) and jet setting for a week of pure relaxation at the resort where my brother has been interning. Needless to say, I am so happy that April is here. Since I'll be taking a week to lay on the beach and indulge in my to-read list, I'm queuing up a few books to take with me! First on the list is this Pulitzer Prize winner, which just about everyone has raved about since it first debuted in 2014. I'm still considering other candidates to tuck into my suitcase, including my finds for April below...

The Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie // I read and loved the first in this series before it's debut over the summer. I remembered recently that the second in the series was due out in April so I immediately pre-ordered the second. Not only are the covers beautiful, the historical detail is rich and the stories are almost too scandalous to believe, but the history behind it all is true! If you're a fan of historical fiction, I highly recommend looking into this series (this second installment came out just yesterday)!

America's First Daughter by Stephanie Drat & Laura Kamoie // I've been re-reading this middle grade historical fiction novel about the children that Thomas Jefferson had with one of his slaves. It casts Martha Jefferson Randolph in a not-so-positive light, and I'm curious to read a different account of her life as the daughter of a founding father.

Salt by Mark Kurlansky // I've realized that my interest in non-fiction mostly centers around small details in history. I stumbled across this account of how salt -- something that seems so unassuming --  has shaped the history of humanity. Definitely worth checking out at the library this month.

The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma // This sounds like the sweetest memoir. A girl and her dad make a deal, that he'll read to her every night for 100 nights. When the 100 nights are up, neither of them want the tradition to come to an end. They continue until the day she leaves for college, and here she writes about the many books and life lessons that she learned from that time together. 


What are you looking forward to reading this month?

Happy Reading!