Recent Reads / 04

Hi friends!

Happy Monday! How are you? Did you have a wonderful weekend? And perhaps most importantly: can you believe it’s already August? I certainly can’t – I’m home for just a few days before I return to the Cape for the last three weeks of my internship (!!!). We open our run of Sweeney Todd tomorrow before we round out the season with productions of Iolanthe and Cabaret. Needless to say, there’s a lot of fun ahead before the summer officially comes to a close – if quite a bit of packing too!

I’m also hoping to fit in a few more books before I head back to school at the end of the month. My July produced many a new favorite, so I have my fingers crossed August will be similarly successful (and while I’m home, you can be sure that a stop by my local library is on the agenda). In the meantime, however, I wanted to share the novels I’ve enjoyed most as of late. What are you reading?

Recent Reads 3[1] First, Everything All at Once is a book I have come to recommend time and time again since I devoured it last summer; author Katrina Leno won me over with her lyrical prose and skillful use of magical realism. Naturally, I was giddy with excitement when Summer of Salt, her latest book, came in at the library – and it didn’t disappoint. Following twin sisters Georgina and Mary during an unusual summer on their home island of By-the-Sea, it’s as empowering as it is atmospheric (and it deserves an extra kudos for its diverse cast of characters). It may be too early to say, but I have a feeling this will be topping my list of favorites at the end of the year.

 [2] Promises of a “fun, feminist, eccentric romp” had me delighted and so excited to finally get my hands on a copy of Everything Must Go, a 2017 debut by author Jenny Fran Davis. The contemporary epistolary novel chronicles the junior year of Flora Goldwasser as she transfers from her status-obsessed private school in NYC to the environmentally focused, Quaker-founded Quare Academy in the Hudson Valley. It took me a bit to settle into the novel’s sense of humor; if you run into the same problem, I urge you to continue with it, for you’ll be rewarded with a thought-provoking coming-of-age narrative. I’m itching to read it again, but until then, I have my fingers crossed that we’ll be hearing of the next Davis YA novel soon!

[3] I’ve enjoyed Kate Messner’s books in the past, but her most recent work, Breakout, absolutely blew me away. Another epistolary novel, it follows the lives of three middle school students after two inmates escape from their town’s prison. From the thoughtful attention to detail to the honest confessions of the characters, Messner leads readers through a tale of racial injustice, the acknowledgment of privilege, and the dimensions of trust. I suppose it’s no surprise that it comes from an author who is often considered a staple of middle-grade literature, as I imagine this will be finding a home on many classroom bookshelves in the fall. Needless to say, if there’s one MG book you read this summer, make it this.

[4] And finally, another author I adore is Morgan Matson, whose books have been consistent favorites of mine and hold a cherished spot on my bookshelf. It was no different with her latest release, Save the Date, an entertaining, family-centered romp that follows the ups – and downs! – of a wedding. While it wasn’t my favorite of her books, it still had all of the elements for which Matson is known best: an adorable, unexpected romance (it’s a relationship made for the movies), a plot chock-full of funny moments (there’s no shortage of potential disasters for the bride-to-be), and strong family and friend dynamics (can I be an honorary Grant?). In short: be sure to grab this one too!

Have a terrific start to your week!

Flying Lessons and Other Stories: A Book Review

Hello friends!

Happy Sunday! Did you have a relaxing weekend? Can you believe it’s almost March? I sure can’t, especially given that I head back to school tomorrow to kick off what is sure to be a busy – but fun! – spring. On today’s agenda, however, I have a tech rehearsal this afternoon {our one-act play festival is a mere week away}, plans to watch the Oscars tonight {I have my fingers crossed La La Land, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures score big!}, and hopes to finish Here We Are, a collection of feminist literature and essays, in between my English questions and physics problems. If you too are looking for a literary escape, I hope today’s review, a look at the middle grade anthology Flying Lessons and Other Stories, provides you with your next read.

flying-lessons-and-other-storiesTitle: Flying Lessons and Other Stories
Author: Edited by Ellen Oh
Published: January 3, 2017, by Crown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 240
Genre: Middle Grade / Contemporary
Source: Library / Hardcover
Series: N/A

Whether it is basketball dreams, family fiascos, first crushes, or new neighborhoods, this bold anthology — written by the best children’s authors — celebrates the uniqueness and universality in all of us.

In a partnership with We Need Diverse Books, industry giants Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin, Meg Medina, Walter Dean Myers, Tim Tingle, and Jacqueline Woodson join newcomer Kelly J. Baptist in a story collection that is as humorous as it is heartfelt. This impressive group of authors has earned among them every major award in children’s publishing and popularity as New York Times bestsellers. From these distinguished authors come ten distinct and vibrant stories. {Goodreads}

As I’ve done with other short story collections, I’ve decided to review each installment separately, but a general note before the fun begins: there’s never been a better time to read more diversely than now. It’s for that reason that I find Flying Lessons and Other Stories so important for young audiences. As a collection, it’s not perfect, but it succeeds in doing what it set out to accomplish: celebrating a wide range of voices from a variety of backgrounds.

how-to-transform-an-everyday-ordinary-hoopThe collection opens with a story by Matt de la Peña, in which the protagonist recounts the summer he spent on the basketball court. The story is heartening, and the author approaches the topic of police profiling with care, but what stands out most is the voice of the main character, a middle-school student whose dreams of a big basketball career read as realistic as his conversations with his soft-spoken dad. I think it’s clear: I’m a Matt de la Peña fan.

the-difficult-pathGrace Lin is an author whose work I remember fondly from my childhood, but it’s been several years since I last picked up a novel of her own. Reading The Difficult Path, however, reminded me of why I fell love with her writing in the first place: she crafts compelling narratives; her protagonists are flawed and fully-dimensional, and she weaves her Asian heritage into her work. The story takes an unexpected turn, but Lin pulls it off masterfully, sharing with readers of any age the power of words.

sol-painting-incIf there is one element that defines Meg Medina’s work, I believe it’d be her excellent portrayal of families on the page. It’s no different of a case in her contribution, Sol Painting Inc. in which a young girl is made aware of the sacrifices her family makes when she accompanies her dad at work. It’s a short story, but ultimately a sweet one, made even better by its summertime setting and sibling banter.

secret-samanthaI’ve been meaning to pick up a book by Tim Federle for what seems like ages at this point, and so, I was excited to see a piece of his own in Flying Lessons. My expectations were high, but Federle delivers: Secret Samantha, a short story about a friendship that blossoms over a classroom Secret Santa, is nothing short of daymaker. Readers may not share Sam’s sense of style or the strained relationship with her mother, but anyone can relate to the glee of finding a “kindred spirit.”

the-beans-and-rice-chronicles-of-isaiah-dunnFrom its inception, the We Need Diverse Books organization has made an effort to support aspiring and debut writers, such as newcomer Kelly J. Baptist, author of the short story The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn. There are a number of elements that make up the story – the death of a parent, a writing contest, struggling financial situation – but never does it feel disjointed. If this is an indication of her work to come in future years, we bookworms are in for a treat.

main-streetIt can be daunting to write about race in a manner accessible to middle grade readers, but if any writer can do it – and do it well – it’d be Jacqueline Woodson, whose story, Main Street, follows a friendship of two races in a small, predominately white town. Her writing lacks dreamy and descriptive language, but the story doesn’t ask for it; rather, its simplicity allows readers, even young ones, to ponder the ideas she presents. I wanted more.

choctaw-bigfoot-midnight-in-the-mountainsTim Tingle’s short story, Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains, builds upon the age-old tradition of storytelling as the protagonist listens eagerly to a tale told by his fun-loving uncle. While I’m delighted to see Native American representation, I can’t say I ever grew into this one. Would expanding upon it in a longer format or hearing it read aloud changed my mind? I don’t know, but in that lies the beauty of literature: it wasn’t my personal favorite, but that’s not to say the next young reader won’t fall in love.

flying-lessonsSoman Chainani is known for his magical fantasy stories, but his installment in Flying Lessons allows him to flex his contemporary skills – and he nails it. Following the fierce and adventurous Nani and her grandson on a vacation trip, the story is as humorous as it is profound. It’s light-hearted, in other words, but it still holds many a gem of advice, prompting readers to reflect on what they do out of a sense of obligation and what they do out of pure enjoyment. Needless to say, I loved it.

seventy-six-dollars-and-forty-nine-centsWhile I have yet to read the other books by Kwame Alexander, namely the Newbery winner The Crossover, I was nevertheless excited to read his installment about a boy granted with the ability to read the minds of his classmates, Seventy-Six Dollars & Forty-Nine Cents. It didn’t disappoint: Alexander’s prose is to be praised, as is his understanding of middle school life and its diversity of emotion.

sometimes-a-dream-needs-a-pushFinally, the anthology finishes with a contribution from Walter Dean Myers, a short story titled Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push. It’s another basketball tale, and yet, it feel fresh, standing out from not only the other stories in the anthology, but also the current titles available on shelves (it helps that it approaches it from a different perspective: that of a young boy who uses a wheelchair). At the very least, it proves that a story need not be long to have an impact.

Have a wonderful Sunday!

Pros and Cons / Poison is Not Polite

Hello!Pros and ConsWhen it comes to my middle grade reads, I’m all about the mystery genre. From the fast-paced, high-action adventures of Spy School to the suspenseful, puzzling cases of The Red Blazer Girls, mysteries, I’ve found, are an easy cure for any and all reading slumps. Poison is Not Polite, the charming sequel to Robin Stevens’ Murder is Bad Manners, is the latest to join my long list of favorites, proving yet again that sometimes all a burnt-out bookworm needs is a good story with which to spend the afternoon. I wanted to sneak in a review before the month came to a close, but before I do, let me ask: what are you currently reading?

Poison is Not Polite

A tea party takes a poisonous turn, leaving Daisy and Hazel with a new mystery to solve in the second novel of the Wells & Wong Mystery series.

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t about Daisy after all—and she is furious. But Daisy’s anger falls to the wayside when one of their guests falls seriously and mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. It’s up to Daisy and Hazel to find out what’s really going on.

With wild storms preventing everyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem—and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy begins to act suspiciously, the Detective Society does everything they can to reveal the truth… no matter the consequences. {Goodreads}

Inspiring, distinct young sleuths The enthusiastic Daisy Wells and the inquisitive Hazel Wong are faced with quite the case: what to do when a dinner guest falls sick and dies? Anyone else would call the authorities, but Daisy and Hazel, detectives they are, decide to look for the truth themselves. Their friendship could be overlooked in favor of moving the mystery along were it not for Stevens’ talent in characterization; her main characters come off as a relatable pair of best friends, albeit a pair with a knack for solving cases, rather than the other way around.

A colorful and well-developed ensemble cast of characters Daisy and Hazel are joined by many family members and friends who have just as significant of a role in shaping the story: Aunt Saskia, who has a secret up her sleeve, Miss Alston, who doesn’t act like the governess she claims to be, and Lord Hastings, who has a fondness for bad jokes, among others. This eccentric ensemble plays a pivotal part in the mystery – they all have motives, only some have alibis – and their different personalities add yet another layer to the whodunit. Furthermore, though the number of characters first seems overwhelming, Stevens takes care to develop each supporting member with as much care as she does Daisy and Hazel.

An engaging, if somewhat predictable, mystery From the classic red herrings to the gloomy, anything-could-happen weather, this story is an homage to traditional mysteries à la Agatha Christie or Clue. With or without the well-written case, I could easily see budding detectives and avid readers devouring this book in one sitting, but even I found it hard to put it down once I was invited into Fallingford Mansion – a testament to the novel’s addictive nature if I ever saw one. In addition, what the mystery lacks in shock-factor is further made up with in its final scene, where Stevens brings the case to a realistic close while also setting the foundation for the next adventure of Daisy and Hazel.

An abundance of charm and humor As she does in Book One, Stevens weaves her trademark British charm throughout the narrative, a task easier said than done with such dreary topics as arsenic poisoning, sudden death, and old mansions. It’s a delicate balance to walk, but Stevens does it with little issue, writing from the eyes of Hazel in a case-book style. It’s a subtle technique, but the resulting, humorous quips are too charming to escape notice. For added smiles, Hazel shares British terms and phrases that may be unrecognizable to American readers in a glossary – it, in addition to the Wells Family Tree, is a delightful treat that only deepens my love for all things Wells and Wong.

+ Use of a common setting and plot makes it less memorable than the first book Finally, the only area where I believe the book falters is in its memorability. Poison is Not Polite uses a number of common mystery tropes – too much? – that I fear it loses the impact of the first book. It’s a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent read, one that I’ve already begun recommending to friends. Meanwhile, I’ll be awaiting the release of the third book, First Class Murder; April couldn’t come soon enough.

Have the most wonderful Thursday!