Current Picks: Book Reviews

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (2019)

I loved this epic high fantasy from Samantha Shannon. Yes, it is a big book, but it is a standalone novel, so no waiting for a sequel and the nonstop adventure will make the reading quick.

Taking inspiration from old legends, Shannon has created a world with hints of our own and includes a wonderful collection of mythological creatures. This world is currently facing the imminent return of  'the nameless one,' 1000 years after he was trapped in the abyss. Will Sabran, Queen of Inys, produce an heir to protect her country from this threat? Ead Duryen has been sent from the South to infiltrate the court to protect the Queen, but can she maintain her anonymity whilst attacking cutthroats and wyrms? Across the abyss in the East, Tane is preparing for her trials in the hope of becoming a dragon rider, but will the appearance of a stranger put her future in danger?

The Priory of the Orange Tree is an incredible tale full of assassins, religious differences, legends, ancient magic, political intrigue, dragons and pirates. And it has a fantastic cover too!

Series Spotlight: Ada Lace by Emily Calandrelli

Ada has two turtles: Oxygen and Hydrogen. For children who know why Ada used those names…this is the series for them! Author Emily Calandrelli is a graduate of MIT and works with Bill Nye, The Science Guy. She knows children, science, and technology.

Ada, a third grader, uses science to solve mysteries. She keeps a field guide noting what is happening all around her. The field guides are an important tool for Ada. Maybe the reader of these books will start a field guide?

The first book in the series (Ada Lace, On the Case) finds Ada watching Mr. Pebbles' apartment and she wonders…is there a dog in the apartment? Another adventure (Ada Lace Sees Red) finds that Ada has programmed a robot – George – and he does what she asks (think Alexa)…but not without problems. In Ada Lace, Take Me to Your Leader, Ada's neighbor gives her a ham radio. Ada is trying to connect with someone/something. Her friend Nina thinks aliens are answering but are they really?

At the end of each book, a "Behind the Science" section explains several of the issues and concepts in the book. There are five books in the series so far. Each book is about 118 pages with black and white illustrations on most pages. Lexile scores range from 570-610.

And…could there be a connection between Ada Lace and Ada Lovelace? This is a good opportunity to practice research skills!



My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

Oyinkan Braithwaite's debut novel is a classic tale of sibling rivalry with a dark twist—one of the sisters happens to be a serial killer. In its darkly humorous telling, this book explores universal questions about the relationship between two sisters and how their lives intertwine in ways that can never be undone. My Sister, the Serial Killer is a character study, a love story, and a family drama all rolled into one. Oh, and given that one of the sisters can't seem to avoid murdering any man that shows interest in her, it's also a bit of a crime drama too.

This is a book about love and loyalty that asks the question: How do you choose between doing the right thing and doing what you know to be right?



No Exit by Taylor Adams (2019)

College student Darby is heading home to Utah for Christmas to see her dying mother when she's caught in a blizzard. Forced to get off the road by the bad weather, she ends up at a rest stop thinking she can wait out the storm and then be back on the highway. When she sees a girl locked in a cage in one of the other cars at the rest stop, she wonders which of the other four people trapped there are responsible. Soon, Darby finds herself fighting for both her life and the girl's in order to see justice done.

No Exit by Taylor Adams is a white-knuckled thriller that's hard to put down, but it's not for the squeamish. Try this novel if you enjoyed Harlan Coben books or Greg Iles' 24 Hours.



The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018)

greatErnt, a former POW in Vietnam, takes his family to Alaska in an effort to make a new start after losing job after job in the lower 48. The long summer days and the helpfulness of neighbors allow the family to adapt to their new wilderness home, but as winter and darkness descend, the father’s demons begin to show.

His teenage daughter, Leni, makes friends with her desk-mate at school, but he is the son of a longtime resident with whom her father has issues. As time passes, darkness descends as both the days shorten and the family’s troubles multiply.

Kristin Hannah follows up her WWII blockbuster The Nightingale with the 1970s-set The Great Alone.

The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren (2018)

onesDon’t be alarmed by the premise: this second-chance romance is a story worth reading. The protagonists of The Ones Who Got Away survived a school shooting twelve years ago. Finn and Liv reconnect after participating in a documentary about the tragedy. Yes, there’s grief—but there’s also hope and healing in this moody and engaging novel.

Named a best romance of 2018 by Amazon, Entertainment Weekly, and Kirkus, this is book one in the series by Roni Loren. If you enjoy reading about strong groups of friends, continue with the subsequent titles: The One You Can’t Forget and The One You Fight For.

The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz (2016)

inqThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog (on the Rebecca Caudill 2019 nominees list) was thoroughly surprising and delightful. I wasn't sure what to expect when I opened this book, complete with the drawings of an illuminated manuscript, but I was completed unprepared to fall in love with it.

The three children (William, Jacob, and Jeanne) absolutely won me over and I cheered for them and their friendship. I found myself looking forward to the twists and turns of the story, especially when different travelers took over as the narrator.

I think this would make a fantastic family read, although there are small bits of violence (a village is burned, a dog is killed -- but comes back, and capture) to be aware of.

I can't imagine how Adam Gidwitz could possibly write a sequel, but I would love to follow another adventure in this same style!

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier (2013)

lastThis novel details the journey of Honor Bright, a young Quaker who leaves England to follow her sister, who was about to start a new life in Ohio with her betrothed. Things don’t turn out as planned when Honor’s sister dies en route. With nowhere else to go, Honor moves in with her sister’s fiancé, Adam, and his sister-in-law, and struggles to deal with his family.

Along the way, Honor befriends a local milliner named Belle who makes good use of Honor’s excellent quilting skills. Working in the shop, Honor meets Belle’s brother, a slave hunter, and witnesses some movement along the Underground Railroad, giving her insight into both those who seek to uphold the law and those who sought to help slaves to freedom. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier is a thought-provoking and leisurely-paced historical novel that is filled with interesting characters, loss, and a unique look at slavery in America through the eyes of the Quaker community.

A Mask of Shadows by Oscar de Muriel (2018)

maskIn late 19th century Scotland, detectives Frey and McGray are plagued by the calls of a banshee that bedevils the cast of Macbeth as they prepare to open performances in Edinburgh. Frey suspects this is a clever publicity stunt, but when a death occurs, the detectives take these happenings more seriously.

A Mask of Shadows is the third book in the paranormal mystery series by Oscar de Muriel.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

hauntingA short, spooky novel that will have you sleeping with the lights on, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House brings together four strangers to investigate reported paranormal activity at an unoccupied dwelling. The house itself is curiously constructed with a labyrinth of rooms and towers that seem to creep around corners all on their own. Ghostly events occur shortly after the guests arrive and each visitor has their own individual experience even when in the presence of the others. Hill House is alive. It breathes and sighs. It is as much a character of the book as the strangers it traps inside.

This classic was first published in 1959, adapted to the big screen in 1963 and again in 1999, and most recently released as a Netflix series in 2018. Read it before you binge watch—it’s a great story to curl up with on a cold winter night!
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Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry (2018)

becomingThis is a great book for anyone who enjoys a good love story—and for anyone who is fascinated by C. S. Lewis. Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis is full of the real-life details and writings of C. S. Lewis and his wife and published author Joy Davidman. The book introduces two strangers, both independently seeking and growing in faith and in curiosity, who become pen pals, then cherished friends, and then fall deeply in love.

Patti Callahan Henry has clearly done her research on the characters and put a lot of thought into this book in order to weave their documented words – their poetry, essays, and speeches – together to illustrate their relationship. The author also demonstrates the idea that behind many great figures, there is often another overlooked figure who has helped to shape and grow the other so that they can have the kind of impact that Lewis did.

Betty Ford by Lisa McCubbin (2018)

bettyFormer First Lady Betty Ford thought her husband Gerald Ford was going to retire after his time in the U. S. House of Representatives, but instead he moved to a higher office, taking over the Vice Presidency when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned, setting her husband up as one of the most powerful men in the world without even running for office. His demanding job made him a largely absent husband, forcing Betty to raise her four children almost as a single mother.

While her husband was in the White House, Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, it was like receiving a death sentence. She also suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. In 1978, her family staged an intervention. Ford was open with the American public about her health issues and would go on to co-found the Betty Ford Center. Her outspokenness about her personal experiences put the focus on women’s health issues, alcoholism, and addiction, prompting many to seek treatment themselves.

You don’t need to be a fan of President Ford or Betty Ford’s politics to enjoy Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin. This is an inspirational and sympathetic portrait of a woman dealing with many issues while living in the political arena.

Series Spotlight: Adventures of Sophie Mouse by Poppy Green

friend2Sophie Mouse, her family and friends live in Pine Needles Grove. Her mom owns a bakery, her dad is an architect, Mrs. Owl is her teacher – families gather for parties, children play together, everyone knows each other. In each book, along with her friends Hattie Frog and Owen Snake, Sophie has an adventure and a problem to solve. She gets lost in the forest, has to figure out what to do about a ruined dessert, and tries to find her lost scarf. With good thinking and the help of others, Sophie always figures out what to do.

The series should interest children who are ready for more complex, longer stories that relate to their lives. Fans of the Adventures of Sophie Mouse series are going to know exactly what books in the series they have read, what book they want to read, and probably will read many books in the series until they move on…to another series.

Do talk with readers about Sophie’s adventures. Sometimes things happen in Pine Needles Grove that probably a child living in the real world should not do – such as going into the home of a stranger to get help.

A New Friend is the first book in the series by Poppy Green. Each series title has 117 pages, 10 chapters, and black/white illustrations on most pages. Lexile varies between 430 and 600.
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All We Have Left by Wendy Mills (2016)

all_weThe September 11 terrorist attacks are one of those significant moments in history where you remember where you were and what you were doing when it happened. This novel is told from two teen girls' perspectives, fifteen years apart: Alia in 2001 and Jesse in 2016. Alia, a Muslim, going to the North Tower to see her father when the plane hit, and Jesse, whose older brother somehow ended up at the Twin Towers that day and lost his life, significantly altering her family in the process.

The two stories eventually intertwine, and if you are like me, All We Have Left will have you on the edge of your seat as piece by piece you learn how Alia's and Jesse's experiences are connected. All We Have Left by Wendy Mills is a nominee for the 2019 Lincoln Award (PDF), the Illinois teen readers' choice award.
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Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans (2018)

inspired“Let it be known that Natalie loves this book. Read it. Pass it on. May it find its way back to her again.” This is the note that I wrote in this book. I had already borrowed the book from the library, then checked out and listened to the audiobook twice, before deciding that I needed to buy a copy to share with my family. This book, part tales and part essay, weaves together ancient storytelling and traditions with modern theology and current politics.

Rachel Held Evans thoughtfully addresses some of the most difficult contradictions (such as how can a good God allow such terrible things?) and problematic issues (such as slavery, genocide, and gender inequality) in the Bible. She creates common ground and challenges all readers regardless of religion affiliation or political allegiances. Inspired is an incredibly entertaining and engaging book.