Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Review: Whispers Beyond the Veil

At this point, you already know that I love historical fiction, and especially novels with strong female protagonists. There were many periods in history (most periods, actually), when women were expected to be coy, meek, and generally silent in all things. I love to experience stories in which women do not meet those expectations -- and Jessica Estevao's Whispers Beyond the Veil is one of those stories. This novel takes place at the very end of the 19th century, at a seaside resort town in Maine. Ruby Proulx is a victim of her father's crimes. Since childhood, he has carted her from town to town, selling his "medical miracles" and forcing her to take part in his schemes. When one of his miracle demonstrations goes horribly wrong, Ruby is forced to flee. Ruby finds herself traveling to the seaside town of Old Orchard, Maine, where her Aunt Honoria is opening a new hotel geared towards believers in the spiritual realm. 

Ruby is welcomed by her aunt, and is grateful to take up a role in running the hotel but before the season can truly begin, tragedy strikes. Not only is the hotel's future and Honoria's reputation in danger, but Ruby fears her past role in her father's schemes will catch up to her. She takes it upon herself to investigate the crime. The Spiritualists' beliefs in otherworldly powers and an ghostly realm were in contrast with the Victorian propriety expected of the characters. I certainly enjoyed the mystery element too, and the book reminded me of Cat Winter's In the Shadow of Blackbirds and Deanna Raybourn's A Curious Beginning (review here). Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural. This novel is the first in a series that I'll certainly be following in the future. 

Bottom-Line Rating: 4/5

Title: Whispers Beyond the Veil (A Change of Fortune Mystery #1)
Author: Jessica Estevao
Publisher: Berkley, 2016
Price: $10 on Amazon
ISBN: 04255281604
Format: Paperback
Source: Public Library

Friday, May 26, 2017

Children's Review: Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath

Obviously, the first thing that caught my eye with this book was the cover. I love to read middle grade fantasy-slash-adventure novels, so an image of two kids riding a giant pig (boar?) piqued my interest. Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath has a really creative premise, featuring the titular character, who has just moved from Illinois to London. When she gets there, a seemingly innocent act (fixing a faucet in her flat's bathroom) leads to her mother being kidnapped and her discovery that the sewers beneath London were built upon a system of magic rivers. Hyacinth's first priority is to rescue her mother, and along the way she comes across a cast of unique characters -- including the pictured magical, giant pig -- some of whom are more nefarious than they first appear to be. Hyacinth also discovers that she has a particularly important role in not only saving her mother, but also saving London, so along the way she learns more about her own family's history with the magic that flows beneath her new city.

I have to admit I struggled with this book a bit and wasn't sure that I was even going to finish it. I didn't really get invested in the story until around the 40% mark, and even after that I found myself with an apathetic attitude towards the plot. What I liked were the characters -- the very charming pig was my favorite -- but Hyacinth herself fell flat for me in terms of development and authenticity. I appreciated the creativity of the premise, but in the end the world-building felt discombobulated and the details were hard to track throughout the story. I wished there had been a bit more background or ground-laying in terms of the magical elements and without spoiling the ending, the resolution couldn't pull it together enough for me to recommend this book to my students or readers of the blog.

Bottom-Line Rating: 2/5 

Title: Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath
Author: Jacob Sager Weinstein
Publisher: Random House, 2017
ISBN: 0399553177
Format: Ebook
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!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Reader Recommendations: Audiobooks

Are you a fan of audiobooks? If you had asked me a year ago, I would have replied with a shrug and a meh. I didn't like audiobooks because I felt like they didn't count -- like listening was a form of cheating. Obviously I abandoned that ridiculous notion, and I'm glad I did, because I'm now a huge fan of audiobook listening.

I didn't start listening to audiobooks regularly until last summer, when I decided to multitask and listen to a book while I set up my new classroom. I'm pretty picky when it comes to audiobook narrators, but what I discovered was that I love listening to a story while doing a mindless task like cleaning, cooking, or even exercising. (Sometimes, wanting to finish an audiobook actually spurs me to get out for a long walk or run -- there's a motivational tip for you!) It turns out that listening a book really is akin to reading it (at least as far as brain activity goes), so for me that second task needs to be a mindless one in order for me to immerse myself in the story and keep my attention on comprehension rather than letting my mind wander.

I've listened to a few really great titles in the past year (the one above - T.E. Kinsey's A Quiet Life in the Country -- being my favorite aside only from Rachel McAdam's reading of Anne of Green Gables), but I often felt that it was a matter of chance when trying to select my next audiobook, so I recently asked some bookish friends of mine to recommend audiobooks.

 My goal was to make a list for myself to listen to this year, but the response was so big that I came out with a list that will certainly take more than a year to tackle (I average about 2 audiobooks a month) and that I knew I had to share with readers of the blog, with the hope that we'll all be able to find our next favorite read!

I decided the list needed a more permanent spot on the blog, so you can easily find it by clicking the Audiobooks tab above. It's a growing list, so if you have a new recommendation to add, send me a message or leave a comment and I'll update it semi-regularly!

Thank you to all those on Instagram, readers of the blog who emailed me with recommendations, and my bookish friends from the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club who are always willing to share their favorite titles! I know my own list of audiobooks is now miles long, and I hope you can find something here to listen to and love too!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Newbery Project Update

I'm the type of person who is always taking on a new challenge, whether it's fitness, food, or book-related, I love working towards new goals. Which is why I'm really loving My Newbery Project, as it's helping me to refocus my children's literature brain on quality books that stand the test of time. I thought I'd update you on the progress I've made so far in 2017.

I love the characters in this book -- Claudia's sass and Jamie's imagination spurred me quickly through the story. This would be a great one for an elementary book club discussion.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This has been my favorite so far. I listened to it on audio and Woodson narrates it herself. It's a novel in verse so it's a quick read, but I would absolutely recommend it for both children and adults.

I really struggled with the first half of this book. It felt scattered and I was so disoriented that I considered putting it down and calling it a loss. So I took a few days off from it and came back with a firm goal of getting to the end. I'm so glad I did, because the ending made this book for me. I thought to myself, Oh, now I get it. I can't see myself recommending this to many students to read independently, but the lessons embedded within are so very important that I would love to lead a student book club in reading this. Now that I've reached the end I think I'd like to re-read it, just to have a clearer picture of the threads that Barnhill was weaving from the very beginning.

We read this for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, and I loved it. That didn't surprise me though, because I'd read Jefferson's Sons before it and adored that one as well. Some of the best historical fiction in middle grade comes from Brubaker Bradley. I can't wait for the sequel to this one, coming out this August.

Not my favorite. This book dealt with tragedy in a way that felt shallow to me and in the end I felt really surprised that it even made it onto the honors list.


I'm currently working on crafting the list of Newbery titles I'd like to tackle this summer, so if you have a favorite that you think I absolutely must read ASAP, leave a comment or send me a message!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review: Piecing Me Together

I can no longer claim that I'm "not really a reader of young adult books" because 2017 has been a year of branching out, and I'm realizing that I really do like young adult books, even if I am a little picky in this category. Piecing Me Together is a young adult novel unlike any other that I've read, and I didn't just like it, I loved it. 

This contemporary fiction novel (just published in February) follows Jade, a high-school junior. She lives in a poor neighborhood in Portland with her strict and hard-working mother and her eccentric young uncle. Jade is constantly feeling like she's in between worlds -- she attends a small private school on scholarship, so her friends at home think she's privileged and her peers at school think she's a charity case. As Jade navigates high school, thoughts about the future, and friendships in both her worlds, she has to discover who she wants to be and how to stand up for herself. 

Before I tell you why I loved this book, I want to give a little background. I'm a teacher in an urban district, where many of my student's can related to Jade's struggles with hunger, money, and systematic racism. I saw a reflection of my students in Jade, which had me emotionally invested in her future from the very start of the book. Not only did I love that this book wasn't about romance -- instead, it was about identity (and not identity in relation to any male figures in Jade's life) -- but I also loved that it helped me to gain a better perspective into how my students might feel having a white, privileged teacher when they come from a completely different world. So much of the time, we assume that a teenage girl's priorities are all centered around boys, social media, and the like, but Watson's portrayal reminds us that teenagers are far more sophisticated than we might think- that they do think about social justice, about their futures, about who they want to be and what they want to contribute to the world.

I would love to see this book become a point of discussion for high schoolers (hello, summer reading assignment!) because Jade has to learn how to speak up for herself -- how to name incidents of racism in her life, how to ask others for the truth, and how to tell others what's most important to her. We read this for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club this month and I absolutely cannot wait to hear everyone's thoughts. One thing I'm trying to do in 2017 is read more literature from diverse authors with more diverse characters. If you have a recommendation, I'd love to hear it.

Bottom-Line Rating: 5/5

Title: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renée Watson
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 2017
Price: $10 on Amazon
ISBN: 1681191059
Format: Hardcover
Source: Public Library

Friday, May 12, 2017

Booklist: Grumpy (& Endearing) Old Men

I've noticed a trend in some of the books that I've loved in the past few years and it's something totally unexpected. I love well-written characters -- more than plot, more than style, characters are the reason that I read -- and I've found that some of my most loved characters in the past few years have all been grumpy old men.

Here's the archetype: a grumpy old man who knows exactly how he likes things done. Not room for new habits or hobbies, no tolerance for those who do things differently.

Normally, that wouldn't make for a very likable character. However, these men transform throughout the course of these stories. They discover new truths, find new things that they like, and become more endearing than irritating.

These stories remind me to be kind to others because they reveal how incredibly impactful that kindness can be. They reinforce compassion in the reader and remind us that life will continue to surprise us at every age.

This is the only one on this list that I haven't yet read, but it's on my summer reading list and I have no doubt it belongs on this list too.

Beautiful cover aside, I gave this four stars on Goodreads back in 2013. I still haven't gotten to it's parallel novel but I've heard great reviews from those who loved Harold and his unique quest in the name of friendship.

I listened to this on audio this year and loved both the narrator and Arthur Pepper himself. Highly recommended.

One of my favorite reads of 2017 so far. I adore Ove. (And not to be missed -- the equally curmudgeonly Britt-Marie.)


Have a book you could add to this list? Leave a comment below!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review: The Long Run

I wouldn't necessarily call myself a runner. Sure, I enjoy running, but if we're being honest, it's hard and requires a lot of mental energy for me, so it's not always my go-to option for exercise. In the past year or so, I've only gone on a handful of runs, but after reading The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion, I've felt inspired to lace up my sneakers and take another shot at being a "runner."  
Here's the thing about this book: it's not a typical sports memoir. Catriona Menzies-Pike is not a famous athlete. She's run a handful of marathons and many, many half-marathons, but when you put her running accomplishments in perspective, she's pretty much on par with any other ordinary person who also happens to run marathons.

What makes this memoir interesting is not that it's about running, but that it's written from a feminist perspective. Within the first chapter, I realized that this was one of the most well-written memoirs I've read, and by the time Menzies-Pike mentioned her PhD in Literature, I could tell that she was a voracious reader, and someone of extraordinary intelligence. She not only writes about her own life experiences -- a plane crash that left her orphaned, a downward spiral shortly after, and her discovery that running helped to heal her -- but also writes about the history of women in running. 

I learned so much about the discrimination of women in this sport (starting in the time of Ancient Greece and continuing well into the 1960's) and the stories of individual women who dared to run alongside male athletes. One of the most interesting (and disturbing) facts that I learned? Women were often told to avoid running because it would threaten their fertility. Women runners who entered races were often scolded for their selfishness, race organizers certain that to run a marathon was to sacrifice a future as a mother. Now, of course, we know that a woman can be both an athlete and a mother, so it seems absurd to think that this was a huge reason behind the discrimination. There are some spots where I felt the history (or the focus on sexism) was a little drawn out and sluggish, but in the end I came away from this book feeling inspired to run and to encourage the women in my life to pursue dreams that may feel impossible. Her story is proof that dedication bears fruit and I loved her overall message that no matter your size, speed, or distance, when you set out on a run, you are a runner.

This title will be released on May 23, 2017.

Bottom-Line Rating: 4/5

Title: The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion
Author: Catriona Menzies-Pike
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group, 2017
ISBN: 1524759449
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!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: Britt-Marie Was Here

Fredrik Backman is quickly climbing the ranks of favorite authors for me. I adore Backman's characters. They're flawed, genuine, and totally out of touch with society, but their experiences in the world and the way they react to them are what makes these stories so charming to read. If you listened to my featured episode of What Should I Read Next?, then you know that characters are a big element of fiction for me and Britt-Marie Was Here did not disappoint.

Like Ove (Backman's most famous character), Britt-Marie could definitely be described as prickly. Britt-Marie has well established notions on just about every topic -- how people should style their hair, what time is most appropriate to eat dinner, and what brand of window cleaner is the best. Her story begins in the unemployment office, where she's seeking a job for the first time in many years. She's offered a short-term job as the caretaker of a run-down recreation facility in a town that's given up on itself. When she arrives, she discovers that that though the job requires little effort, there's another (more important) role for her to play in the community. This story is full of personality and encourages readers to reflect on their relationships to their own communities and the people who need them most.

Long story short, I loved this book and I hope that you will too.

Bottom-Line Rating: 5/5

Title: Britt-Marie Was Here
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria Books, 2016
Price: $16 on Amazon
ISBN: 1501142534
Format: Hardcover
Source: Public Library

P.S. I just ordered Backman's latest novel for summer reading and I can't wait to dive in.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

5 Tricks to Double Your Reading Volume

In years past, I haven't put a premium on the number of books that I read in a single year. In general, I read between 50-70 books a year but in 2017 I've changed some of my reading habits and those changes have helped me to double my average number of reads per month. I can't promise my pace will stay the same for the whole of 2017, but I'm really loving that I've gotten through so many of the books on my TBR list for the year already. Wanting to reach that quota (10 books per month) has actually encouraged me to think about how I can fit more reading hours into my life and has led me to think about some habits (ahem, technology) that I could cut back on in favor of more reading.

Here are my tricks for reading more this year.

Make a Monthly "To Read" List

I didn't think I was going to be the type of person to do this -- I make enough lists in every other aspect of my life -- but because I work with publishers to review books before they are published, I am often working with reading deadlines. In the last week of each month, I make a list of books that I need to read in the next month. Generally, my lists are 5-8 books long, which leaves me with a little wiggle room at the end of the month to choose a book or two that I've had waiting on my nightstand but hasn't been a priority.

Get on Board with Audiobooks

I'll admit, I had a hard time getting into audiobooks. The tricky part for me is in the narrator -- I am super picky and the littlest thing can put me off from a story.

 I've found that I particularly enjoy British narrators (because who doesn't love listening to a British accent) and I like narrators who aren't too dramatic with their expression but at least have subtle differences for each character's voice. Soon I'll be sharing audiobook recommendations both from myself and from followers on Instagram so stay tuned for that! (And if you have a recommendation, feel free to leave it in the comments section below!)

Find Time to Read in the Margins

This is one of my biggest tricks, and it's inspired by a quote from Lemony Snicket (the mysterious author behind one of my favorite children's series). "Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." Amen. I always make sure to have a book (or my Kindle) in my purse, and that has made a world of difference. Most days I'm just traveling from home to work and back so I don't actually pull my book out until bedtime, but when I unexpectedly find myself with wait time I can pull out my book and actually make progress on it. Not to mention that it keeps me from mindlessly scrolling on my phone -- a habit that I'm trying to break. 

Join a Book Club - Or Find a Bookish Friend!

In the past six months, I've done both of the above. I've discovered a few colleagues that are fellow bookworms, re-connected with an old friend over good books, and been active in the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club. The book club itself has me reading 2-4 books per month and I love to pass them on to my colleagues for further discussion. In addition to that, my mom is also a big reader and often gets to read my new books before I do. I love when she can preview a book for me (our tastes are often in sync) and tell me whether it's worth the read or not. I've also had a few people reach out to me via Instagram or e-mail and I love having conversations about books through those channels too!

Don't love it? Abandon it!

I try not to do this with my advanced copies (I won't give a review if I haven't finished it), but with books of my own choosing, I stick with a general guideline: if I'm 100 pages in and I find myself dragging, then I'll put it down. That doesn't mean that I'm never going to read it, but it does mean that now is not the right time. I used to have qualms about abandoning books but over time I've realized that with so many books and so little time, it's not worth it to read something that you don't like.


How do you fit reading time into your life?
Have any tricks of your own to suggest?
 Leave a comment below!