Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: Caraval

If you're seeing this book here for the first time, prepare yourself to see a whole lot more of it. Caraval is this year's Hunger Games meets The Night Circus, and it's wonderfully done. Though it's touted as a young adult (YA) book -- and certainly has some of the elements that make for a popular young adult novel -- I think this one will appeal to wider audiences and especially those readers who enjoy mystery and magic wrapped in dangerous circumstances.

Scarlett and Donatella Dragna are sisters, daughters to a wealthy and abusive man and captives in their own island home. When they were little, their grandmother told them the story of Caraval, a fantastical event happening only once a year, a traveling game come to life. All Scarlett ever wanted was to see the show, protect her sister from their father's beatings, and somehow get the two of them off the island to a better life. For years, Scarlett wrote to Legend, the Game Master, pleading with him to bring Caraval to their island, and for years she received no response. Until, just weeks before she is set to marry, three tickets arrive to this year's Caraval.

What I loved about this book: the sumptuousness of it. There was sensory detail in every paragraph, and I particularly loved the way that Garber described Scarlett as experiencing emotions as colors. Also captivating was the way that Garber set up the world of Caraval -- it's only a game, and players are constantly reminded of its illusory nature, but it's disorienting all the same and difficult to tell who can be trusted. That also makes the romantic relationships rather tenuous, as you can never tell if someone is acting genuinely or simply acting while inside the game. 

Caraval is the first in a duology, but there's no information yet on the second book's release. This first book has already been all over Instagram, but I predict you'll see more of it because the movie rights were snapped up even before the novel was published. Highly recommended for fans of the fantasy genre, and especially to those who enjoy a reading experience that keeps you guessing.

Bottom-Line Rating: 5/5

Title: Caraval (Caraval #1)
Author: Stephanie Garber
Publisher: Flatiron 2017
ISBN: 1250095255
Format: Hardcover
Source: Amazon

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: Pirate Hunters

I'm sure many readers can relate -- sometimes, a book catches your eye and finds its way into your hands immediately because you just know you need to read that book right now, while other times a book can catch your eye but has to wait patiently for you to rediscover it. With Pirate Hunters, the latter is true for me. This book first stood out to me as I perused titles for my June Currently Coveting post...last year.

I happened upon it again in a bookstore last week and when I saw it I yelled out, "I've been meaning to read this book!" It went into my stack right then and there (and it didn't hurt that it was on the bargain shelf). I don't reach for nonfiction books often, so when I find one with a premise that interests me, I always want to give it a fair shot so I can (hopefully) recommend it to you!

Thankfully, Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship turned out to be just as enthralling as the title suggests. I love stories of treasure hunting and I was really caught up in the idea that this book told the story of a real life treasure hunt with all of the suspense of a great movie! Pirate Hunters tells the story of John Chatterton and John Mattera, two men who made it their mission to discover a lost Spanish galleon ship that had supposedly sunk off shore of the Dominican Republic. The story behind it takes place in the late 1700's, when a respectable captain-turned-fearsome-pirate named Joseph Bannister had an epic battle with the Royal Navy. In the end, Bannister torched and sunk his own ship, named the Golden Fleece, and both the legend of his pirate career and the ship's treasure were lost to history.

Chatterton and Mattera had both made their names in the diving/treasure hunting business long before this expedition, and reading about their backgrounds and what led them both to this incredibly long and hard search for the Golden Fleece made the stakes feel so real. These men both sacrificed so much of their lives for the chance at discovering this treasure -- failure was not an option that they wanted to consider. Of course, there were plenty of obstacles, both relating to the actual search for the treasure and in terms of funding the trip, dealing with the minimal amenities available in the Dominican Republic, and the long distance relationships that they struggled to maintain. What I loved most about reading this book was the dedication to the discovery -- the personal motivations for both men kept me engaged and wanting to see that their hard work rewarded.

This is a book worth reading, even for those who don't normally read nonfiction. The elements of treasure, history, suspense, danger, and putting-it-all-on-the-line were what drew me in and kept me reading until the very end. Kurson's also written another book featuring Chatterton, Shadow Divers, which I'll be putting on my to-read list.

Bottom-Line Rating: 4/5

Title: Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship
Author: Robert Kurson
Publisher: Random House, 2015
Price: $11 on Amazon
ISBN: 0812973693
Format: Hardcover

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: The Radium Girls

I've been so lucky with the books I've read this year. I already have a bunch of contenders for top ten of 2017 -- and it's only April! I'm not a big non-fiction reader, so it's high praise to say that The Radium Girls is on the short list for best reads of 2017. The Radium Girls is, essentially, the story of a great injustice. I'll freely admit that I had no knowledge of the history behind this book before reading, but now that I know better I can't stop relaying the story to anyone willing to listen.

Incredibly well-researched, and told with a narrative tilt that makes for a captivating read, The Radium Girls tells the story of the women who worked in radium-dial factories across the U.S. during World War I and beyond, carefully painting much-needed military clock faces with a luminous paint made from radium. In that time period, radium was being hailed as a miracle element. It's tumor-blasting powers had recently been discovered, and medical professionals and marketing firms were taking advantage of the public's newfound obsession with its health benefits. The military held contracts with these dial-painting factories so that they could ensure their soldiers and pilots could read their clock faces, as the radium-laced paint shone brightly in the dark. That luminous paint earned these women the nickname "the shining girls," and along with it an elevated status in society. It turns out that working in the radium-dial factories was one of the best jobs that a woman could have in that time -- it paid well, there were social benefits, and there didn't appear to be any downsides. That is, until the girls started to get very sick.

Here's my disclaimer for this book: if you have a sensitive disposition, this might not be for you. The descriptions of the girls' suffering was pretty detailed and graphic. I was chatting with my boss about the history behind the book one day and when I finished relaying just a few of those graphic details he asked me why in the wold I wanted to read about that (valid question, I'll admit) and I replied that it was like watching a train wreck -- terrible, but I couldn't look away.

I might have had a sort of fascination with the medical decline of the girls while reading, but what really kept me interested was the girls' quest for justice. I won't give away the big parts of the story, but I will say that if you have an interest in social justice, this is the book for you. These women were faced with incredible pain, deceptive doctors, greedy corporations -- and yet, they kept fighting for their rights. It's largely thanks to them that we have protections against occupational hazards, because while their jobs were touted as the best out there, their work actually poisoned them. Highly recommended (even for those who don't usually read non-fiction like myself), and absolutely a good pick for a book club read, The Radium Girls is one book that you'll want to put on your to-read list this year.

This title will be released on May 2, 2017.

Bottom-Line Rating: 5/5

Title: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women
Author: Kate Moore
Publisher: Sourcebooks, 2017
ISBN: 149264935X
Format: E-book
Source: Net Galley

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Review: The Witchfinder's Sister

Normally, I wouldn't be reading a witch-centered tale at this point in the year; I prefer to read this type of story in the fall, when the crunching leaves and cool wind outside put me in the mood. I couldn't wait, however, to get my hands on this new release from a freshman author, if only to see if I should recommend it for this year's great October reads list. The Witchfinder's Sister is a tale of witch-hunting in 17th century England, a time in which the slightest betrayal of propriety could mark a woman as under the influence of the devil.

The story follows Alice Hopkins, a woman who is forced to move from London back to her hometown of Manningtree after the death of her husband. Alice arrives, hoping that her fractured relationship with her brother can be healed as she will be forced to rely on his hospitality for the foreseeable future. Matthew accepts Alice into his home but he has undergone a change since the siblings had last seen each other. He has grown into a serious man, extremely private and outwardly judgmental of those who do not follow the Bible's teachings. Alice soon realizes that Matthew is doing more than just judging others -- he is taking careful notes, preparing himself for a venerable witch-hunt. 

For a debut novel, this was very well written. The details were obviously well-researched, and I had no trouble putting myself into the setting of this book. For me, it's weakness was in the plot. I felt that it was awfully drawn out, and I found my interest waning until I hit the 70% mark -- that's when I started to feel invested in the story. The pace makes sense considering the setting -- there wasn't much sudden action back in the 1640's -- but some of the most interesting history behind the book didn't come in until that last 30%, and I found myself wishing that our protagonist could have spent less time pacing her room and more time in the action. My second qualm was in the character of Alice, as she was always deferential and even when she tried to stand up to the men in her life, she never actually followed through. Historically, her behavior makes sense, as she wouldn't have had many options when it came to supporting herself, but her character felt weak to me and I found myself disappointed in her tendency towards hiding away rather than standing up for herself and others. 

I found the history behind the story really interesting -- Matthew Hopkins was a real figure in history, a man responsible for the death of over a hundred women whom he accused and persecuted for witchcraft. This all happened before the infamous trials in Salem and yet it's not nearly as well known. I live next to Salem (and teach there, too) and though I had heard of the trials in England I had no knowledge of the scope of Hopkin's impact. For those interested in this period of history, I would recommend this story even with my dislike for its protagonist. To me, this feels like a book that wasn't quite right for me as a reader but has the potential to be a favorite for others.

This title will be released on April 25, 2017.

Bottom-Line Rating: 3/5

Title: The Witchfinder's Sister
Author: Beth Underdown
Publisher: Ballatine Books
ISBN: 0399179143
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!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress

I've said it before and I'll say it again: without the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club, I would never have picked up this book. The same is true for almost all of the books we've read, and yet I thoroughly enjoy reading every single title that Anne Bogel chooses for us. (I'm telling you, she's my book guru.)

We read The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress for our April selection and when I sat down to read the first few pages, I did not expect that I would end up reading the novel cover-to-cover. But that's what happened. The quote from USA Today on the cover of my copy says "A genuinely surprising whodunit." and I have to say that I completely agree. 

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress follows three women (surprise) in 1930's New York City. One, the neglected wife of a social-climbing judge, another his reluctant mistress, and the third his hard-working maid. Of course, in the 1930's, women were often still controlled by the men in their lives. For these three women, that much is true. Even the maid, who has an adoring husband, is under the thumb of both her employers and the mobster who granted her a favor. Their carefully-constructed lives hang in the balance when the social climbing judge goes missing and suspicion is cast on every character.

I won't say anything further about the plot, but this book stood out to me for two reasons: the characters (rich, sassy, and female-driven are all pluses in my book) and the depth and layers of this mystery really surprised me. Even without the mystery component, I think I would have enjoyed this as a historical fiction novel, but that added element of suspense really raised the story to a new level. I was constantly surprised by the deception that was revealed, and I cannot claim to have guessed the culprit (though I'll admit, I almost never guess the culprit). Since reading The Great Gatsby, I haven't read much historical fiction set in this time period and I loved the detail, the sumptuousness, and of course, the ceaseless scandal. 

I'd recommend this to book clubs especially (I can't wait for our discussion at the end of this month), and for summer reading lists too. There's just something about reading a good mystery by the pool, and this is one that won't disappoint. I've already put Lawhon's Flight of Dreams on my personal summer reading list.

Bottom-Line Rating: 4/5

Title: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress
Author: Ariel Lawhon
Publisher: Anchor, 2014
ISBN: 0345805968
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal Library

Friday, April 7, 2017

My Newbery Project

One of my lifetime goals as a reader is to tackle the Newbery Medal Award Winners and Honor Books list. I recently went back through the archives of the American Library Association (ALA) to see how many of the books I've actually read. As it turns out, that number is not nearly as high as I thought.

I read quite a bit of children's literature, but when making this list to feature here on Top Shelf Text, I realized that I really haven't read many of these acclaimed books. As an educator and a children's literature fanatic, I want to be both a reader and an advocate of quality children's literature. Which means that I need to step up my game and get to it.

I'm posting the list of winners here (on the bar above, click My Newbery Project to find the page) for a quick reference guide for myself and for other readers who might want to follow along as I tackle this (rather long list). Because the full list of winners from 1922-Present features so. many. titles., I am starting with a shortened version featuring the award winners & honor books from the 1970's up to now. For each year 2017-1970, you'll find the title and author, and for those I've crossed off my to-read list, you'll also find the year in which I read the book.

Many of these books are ones that I read as a child, but in many cases I don't remember more than a few details about the books. I want to tackle the full list now as an adult, so that I can make better recommendations to both my students and readers of my blog. I won't be reviewing all of them, but I may post an occasional update with some thoughts as I continue to check off titles on the list.

How long will this project take me? Years. That's for sure. Will I ever check off every single title? I hope so, but who knows. Above my desk I have a framed print that says "The joy is in the journey," and that's the attitude I'm choosing to have when it comes to this project.


Have you ever completed a reading challenge? Tell me about it!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Duels & Deception

Austenites, I have one for you today! Let's start with my disclaimer: I cannot, by any means, call myself an Austenite. I've only finished two Austen novels (I know, I know -- I'm hoping to remedy that this year) but I adored both of them and find Austen's quick wit to make for the most humorous of reads. Cindy Anstey continues the Austen tradition with Duels & Deception, her latest novel, which releases on April 11th. You won't be surprised to hear that the cover caught my attention first -- I'm always drawn to typography -- but Anstey's strong female protagonist (an obvious homage to Jane Austen) is what hooked me on the story. 

Duels & Deception gives us a clever heroine in Lydia Whitfield, heiress to a rather large fortune and outspoken source of reason when it comes to controlling the family estate. Since her father's death, Lydia has had a firm hand in the dealings of Whitfield Hall, and when we meet her, has employed the help of a solicitor's clerk in further securing her own future and that of the estate. Despite her rather unusual desire to control her own future and fortune (she is a woman, after all), the solicitor's clerk finds Lydia simply irresistible. It helps that he also happens to be charming, educated, understanding, and also a member of the peerage. Though Lydia had called upon him to draw up her marriage contract, she suddenly finds herself in a predicament of emotions vs. logical thinking. Before the feelings between Miss Whitfield and this clerk can grow too deep, Lydia is kidnapped and both her reputation and her carefully-laid future plans are endangered. Fortunately, she's not really the damsel-in-distress type. What ensues is a humorous, suspenseful, and yes, romantic adventure. 

Things I loved: the characters were intelligent, developed, and personality shone through on each page. The plot was interesting -- though really, I was paying more attention to the tension between our two main characters than the kidnapping -- and I was surprised by the reveal (an added bonus). I'm also one of those readers that loves to learn the facts behind historical fiction novels, and that curiosity was satisfied with an extra section in the back detailing some of the traditions and societal expectations of the Regency era. I believe that this book is being marketed in the young adult fiction category, but I would recommend it to Jane fans of all ages. Anstey's first book, Love, Lies, and Spies is not one that I've read yet but looks equally charming. My only complaint is that Duels & Deceptions is a stand-alone novel, and I would love to revisit these characters again in another story.

This title will be released on April 11, 2017.

Bottom-Line Rating: 4/5 Stars

Title: Duels & Deceptions
Author: Cindy Anstey
Publisher: Swoon Reads, 2017
Price: Pre-order for only $8.00 (paperback)
ISBN: 125011909
Format: E-book
Source: Net Galley

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