Sunday, December 23, 2018

Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith

Bloodleaf by Crystal Smith
  • ISBN-10: 1328496309 - Hardcover $18.99
  • Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (March 12, 2019), 384 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Reviewers program and the publisher.

The blurb:
Princess Aurelia is a prisoner to her crown and the heir that nobody wants. Surrounded by spirits and banned from using her blood magic, Aurelia must flee her country after a devastating assassination attempt. Her only option for freedom lies with another warden: her betrothed, Prince Valentin.

To escape her fate, Aurelia disguises herself as a commoner in a new land and discovers a happiness her crown has never allowed. As she forges new bonds and perfects her magic, she begins to fall for a man who is forbidden to rule beside her.  But the ghosts that haunt Aurelia refuse to abandon her, and she finds herself succumbing to their call as they expose a nefarious plot that only she can defeat.  Will she be forced to choose between the weight of the crown and the freedom of her new life?

I admit that I had to put Bloodleaf down a few times because I was too worried about what would happen to Princess Aurelia.   She's headstrong, caring, selfless and tough. She is in grave danger from the start and is subjected to bullying and threats even within her palace.  Her people and their religious leaders seem to despise her for her magical ability which she tries to keep hidden.  But she is willing to take dangerous risks to support those she believes are being persecuted.

The reasons for the hatred, distrust and fear of the princess aren't made clear at the start of the novel. It is only as the action continues and Aurelia is fleeing that we learn more about the dangers that had surrounded her.  Crystal Smith is very effective at keeping the action moving and revealing the nature of her heroine.  As I went deeper into Bloodleaf, I was torn between worrying about Aurelia and not wanting the action to end.  It is a fun read and I can't wait for the other two books in the trilogy.

About the Author:
Crystal Smith is a writer, photographer, and artist who developed an early love of storytelling in a family of voracious readers. She resides in Utah with her high school sweetheart husband and two lively sons. When she isn’t writing or creating, she can be found re-watching Jane Eyre or reading ghost stories with all the lights on. @crysrensmith.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani (Founder of Girls Who Code)

Brave, Not Perfect by Reshma Saujani (Founder of Girls Who Code)
  • ISBN-10: 1524762334 - Hardcover $25
  • Publisher: Currency (February 5, 2019), 208 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of Amazon Vine Reviewer Program and the publisher.

The blurb:
Do you ever feel crushed under the weight of your own expectations? Do you often lose sleep ruminating over a tiny mistake or worrying what someone else thinks of you? Do you run yourself ragged trying to do it all at home and at work, with a smile and not a hair out of place? Have you ever passed up an opportunity - a new relationship, new job or new challenge - because you're afraid you won't immediately excel at it?  For you, is failure simply not an option?

You're not alone. As women, we've been taught from an early age to play it safe. Well-meaning parents and teachers rewarded us for being quiet and polite, urged us to be careful so we don't get hurt, and steered us to activities at which we could shine. Meanwhile, boys were expected to speak up, get dirty, play rough, and climb to the top of the monkey bars. In short, boys are taught to be brave, while girls are taught to be perfect.

As a result, we grow up to be women who are afraid to fail.  So afraid of not doing everything perfectly, we tamp down our dreams and narrow our world, along with our opportunities for happiness.  As too many of us eventually learn, being afraid to take risks, to use our voice to take a stand or ask for what we want, even to make mistakes, leads to a lot of disappointment and regret. 

But it doesn't have to be this way. In a book inspired by her hugely popular TED Talk, Reshma Saujani shows us how we can end our love affair with perfection and rewire ourselves for bravery.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews with girls and women from around the country, stories of women changing the world one brave act at a time, and her own personal journey, Saujani shares an array of powerful insights and practices to make bravery a lifelong habit and enable us to be the authors of our biggest, boldest, and most joyful life.

In Brave, Not Perfect, Reshma Saujani shares her story to help make the case that the relentless striving for perfection leads to a narrowing of goals and also of achievements.  There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, but as I read the book, much of my own experience dovetailed with Saujani's statements and claims.  Her message of shaking off the criticism (internal self critics and external critics who use a tougher standard for women), learning to take failure as part of the learning process, etc.  these are straightforward messages that are helpful to have reinforced.  But I was also hoping for more than this message repeated in many ways and anecdotes.  Fortunately, Saujani does suggest exercises for bravery in the last 1/3 of the book.  Chapters on "Building a Bravery Mindset", "Get Caught Trying", "Nix the Need to Please", "Play for Team Brave", and "Surviving a Big, Fat, Failure" have concrete suggestions.

About the Author:
Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology while teaching girls confidence and bravery through coding.  She's been named one of Fortune's 40 Under 40, a WSJ magazine innovator of the year, one f the 50 most powerful women changing the world, Business Insider's fifty women who are changing the world, and an AOL/PBS MAKER.  She is the author of the NY Times bestselling book for young readers Girls Who Code.  Learn more about her at

Monday, December 10, 2018

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol
  • ISBN-10: 1616959460 - Paperback $17
  • Publisher: Soho Press Inc (November 15, 2018).
  • Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

The blurb:
Two women, a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker, go on a road trip in Duterte's Philippines, collaborating and clashing int eh writing of a film script about a massacre during the Philippine-American War (In the Philippines it is known as the "War of Philippine Independence.") Chiara is working on a film script and writes her own version.  Insurrecto contains within its dramatic action two rival scripts from the filmmaker and the translator -- one about a white photographer, the other about a Filipino schoolteacher.

Within the spiraling voices and narrative layers of Insurrecto are stories of women -- artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters -- finding their way to their own truths and histories. Using interlocking voices and a kaleidoscopic structure, the novel is startlingly innovative, meditative, and playful.  Insurrecto masterfully questions and twists narrative in the manner of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, and Nabakov's Pale Fire.  Apostol pushes up against the limits of fiction in order to recover the atrocity of Balangiga, and in so doing, she shows us the dark heart of an untold and forgotten war that would shape the next century of Philippine and American history.

My review:
I confess that I was drawn to this book after hearing Gina Apostol speak at an author's event.  Insurrecto is an unusual novel because of the topics it covers, the characters Apostol creates and the novel's setting.  I enjoyed reading and learning about the Philippine American Insurrection (which is viewed as the war for Philippine Independence in the Philippines).  Insurrecto teaches details of the war that weren't covered in the history classes that I'd taken - we learn more about the actual brutality of the war, the ways that the US took to holding its first colonies and the water torture used against the Philippine rebels.  These details of colonial period,  the conquest, and the indiscriminate massacre of the local villagers was fascinating to me.   Apostol covered this setting and topics without any data dumps or excess of information - she does it with a soft, deft touch.

The main characters of the wealthy, glamorous American filmmaker and the cosmopolitan/anthropologist like Filipino American translator are vividly created and their respective creations in their scripts are also fleshed out.  Apostol gives us complicated characters with wit and inside jokes that frequent visitors to New York and Metro Manila will appreciate.  Unfortunately, I did not find either these two leading women simpatico and instead was exasperated by their quirks and pretensions. The cultural criticism and anthropologist's view makes the book stand out but I wish that Chiara was more likable rather than memorable.

About the Author:
Gina Apostol is the PEN Open Book Award-winning author of Gun Dealer's Daughter, as well as a two-time winner of the National Book Award in the Philippines for novels Biblioplepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata.  Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies and journals including The Gettysburg Review; the Penguin anthology of Asian American fiction, Charlie Chan is Dead, Volume 2; and the Feminist Press Anthology Go Home!

Monday, November 5, 2018

A Christmas Revelation by Anne Perry

A Christmas Revelation by Anne Perry
  • ISBN-10: 0399179941 - Hardcover $20
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books (November 6, 2018), 192 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of Netgalley and the publisher.

The blurb:
It wouldn’t quite be Christmas without a holiday mystery decorated with all the Victorian trimmings as only New York Times bestselling author Anne Perry can render it. Now the tradition continues as mayhem is once again found under the mistletoe, and intrigue stalks the cobblestone streets and gaslit parlors of old London Town.

Formerly a river urchin living on the banks of the Thames,  nine-year-old Worm has never experienced a family Christmas. But thanks to a job at Hester Monk’s clinic in Portpool Lane, he’s found a makeshift family in kindly Miss Claudine Burroughs and curmudgeonly old bookkeeper Squeaky Robinson.

When Worm witnesses the abduction of a beautiful woman by a pair of ruffians just days before Christmas, he frantically turns to Squeaky for help. A one-time brothel owner, Squeaky knows the perils of interfering in nasty business, but he can’t bear to disappoint Worm—or leave the boy to attempt a rescue on his own. What neither of the would-be saviors expects, however, is that the damsel in distress already has her dilemma well in hand . . . and is taking steps to bring her captors to justice for crimes far worse than kidnapping. But the rogues, as cunning as they are deadly, are not to be underestimated. The aid of cynical old Squeaky and hopeful young Worm just might make the difference between a merry triumph over evil and a terrible yuletide tragedy.

In Anne Perry's latest Christmas tale, A Christmas Revelation, we follow Squeaky and young Worm in a life threatening adventure.  Young Worm is captivated by a beautiful young woman.  She seems too gentle and well born to be in their area and when she is accosted by two men, Worm tries to follow her, hoping to save her.  He attracts the attention of dangerous men but finds himself drawn to help the young woman.  He enlists the help of Squeaky at Hester Monk's clinic.

Though Squeaky had rough beginnings and has  a reputation as a dangerous man, we find that he does have a soft spot for the women and children at Hester Monk's clinic.  He cares for these people but will be quick to deny it. So, when young Worm comes to Squeaky and tells the story of the young woman in danger, Squeaky suspects a fraud.  But Squeaky wants to keep Worm's idealism alive and agrees to find the woman and to see how they can help her.  Against his better judgement, Squeaky finds himself drawn into a dangerous game - trying to convince hardened criminals that a long dead man and a hidden treasure can be found.

In A Christmas Revelation, Anne Perry delivers a heartwarming tale wrapped in robbery, violence, deception and uncertainty. We're given a chance to learn more about Squeaky and Worm and celebrate friendship and loyalty.

About the Author:
Anne Perry is the bestselling author of two acclaimed series set in Victorian England: the William Monk novels, including Dark Assassin and The Shifting Tide, and the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt novels, including The Cater Street Hangman, Calandar Square, Buckingham Palace Gardens and Long Spoon Lane. She is also the author of the World War I novels No Graves As Yet, Shoulder the Sky, Angels in the Gloom, At Some Disputed Barricade, and We Shall Not Sleep, as well as six holiday novels, most recently A Christmas Grace. Anne Perry lives in Scotland.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Murder, She Wrote, Manuscript for Murder by Jessica Fletcher & Jon Land

Murder, She Wrote: Manuscript for Murder by Jessica Fletcher & Jon Land
  • ISBN-10: 0451489306  Hardcover $25
  • Publisher: Berkley (November 6, 2018), 320 pages.
    Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The blurb:

Jessica Fletcher has had plenty to worry about over her storied career, both as a bestselling novelist and amateur sleuth. But she never had any reason to worry about her longtime publisher, Lane Barfield, who also happens to be a trusted friend. When mounting evidence of financial malfeasance leads to an FBI investigation of Lane, Jessica can't believe what she's reading. 

So when Barfield turns up dead, Jessica takes on the task of proving Barfield's innocence--she can't fathom someone she's known and trusted for so long cheating her. Sure enough, Jessica's lone wolf investigation turns up several oddities and inconsistencies in Barfield's murder. Jessica knows something is being covered up, but what exactly? The trail she takes to answer that question reveals something far more nefarious afoot, involving shadowy characters from the heights of power in Washington. At the heart of Jessica's investigation lies a manuscript Barfield had intended to bring out after all other publishers had turned it down. The problem is that manuscript has disappeared, all traces of its submission and very existence having been wiped off the books.

With her own life now in jeopardy, Jessica refuses to back off and sets her sights on learning the contents of that manuscript and what about it may have led to several murders. Every step she takes brings her closer to the truth of what lies in the pages, as well as the person who penned them.


I'm very familiar with the TV show Murder, She Wrote but this was the first novel that I'd read. I admit that I've read quite a few of Jon Land's thrillers with Caitlin Strong, so I wanted to see how he collaborated with Jessica Fletcher and what sort of mystery they would face.

Manuscript for Murder starts off in New York City at a book reading in the famous Mysterious Book Shop. It almost feels like there are cameos of Otto Prenzler, Lee Child and David Morrell - certainly there are nods to places that readers and writers enjoy frequenting. But the drama comes with a fellow author, down on his luck, claiming that their mutual publisher has been stealing from them. And then the suspicious death of both the down-on-his luck author and the possibly dishonest publisher. As Jessica Fletcher is drawn to investigate, she finds herself encountering more suspicious deaths, clues, but also a trail that leads to the White House. Jessica Fletcher and Jon Land deliver an an unusual mix of cozy and thriller!

About the Authors:

Jessica Fletcher when writing) is a character and the protagonist portrayed by Award-winning actress Angela Lansbury on the American television series Murder, She Wrote. Fletcher is a best-selling author of mystery novels, an English teacher and congresswoman.

Jon Land is an American author of thriller novels. His books include the Caitlin Strong novels about a fifth-generation Texas ranger, and the Ben Kamal and Danielle Barnea books, about a Palestinian detective and chief inspector of the Israeli police.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Bob by Wendy Maas and Rebecca Stead

Bob by Wendy Maas and Rebecca Stead
  • ASIN: B076B4RT7F - Paperback $16
  • Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (May 1, 2018), 224 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

The blurb:
It’s been five years since Livy and her family have visited Livy’s grandmother in Australia. Now that she’s back, Livy has the feeling she’s forgotten something really, really important about Gran’s house.
It turns out she’s right.
Bob, a short, greenish creature dressed in a chicken suit, didn’t forget Livy, or her promise. He’s been waiting five years for her to come back, hiding in a closet like she told him to. He can’t remember who—or what—he is, where he came from, or if he even has a family. But five years ago Livy promised she would help him find his way back home. Now it’s time to keep that promise.
Clue by clue, Livy and Bob will unravel the mystery of where Bob comes from, and discover the kind of magic that lasts forever.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but had enjoyed Wendy Maas's The Candymakers and Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me.  Bob tells the story about the friendship between Livy and a magical creature.  

When Livy returns to Australia to spend time with her grandmother on her farm, it's a difficult time of transition.  Grandmother has suffered from a drought and the farm is close to bankruptcy.  The drought forced Grandmother to get rid of her horses and much of her animal stock and if it doesn't rain soon the farm's crops and animals won't be able to survive.  Livy's also been having a hard time with the birth of her younger sister.  With her parents seemingly focused entirely on her sister, Livy finds herself unable to sleep away from her parents. This separation anxiety has started to affect her own friendships as she no longer stays for sleepaways.  This stay with her grandmother will be a big change for Livy and her stomach has started to ache as she thinks about her mother and her baby sister leaving.

In the 5 years since Livy's visit, she's forgotten much about her stay with Grandmother.  Her favorite toys and things to do, etc. - but Livy discovers an old friend, Bob.  Bob is green, small, and dressed in a chicken suit that Livy made 5 years ago.  He's been waiting for her to return - 5 years much of it spent in Livy's closet playing chess by himself, reading the dictionary, crying and missing his friend.  

When Livy and Bob are reunited, it takes less than a day before their friendship comes back in full force. They try to solve the mystery of Bob's origins, but there is only so much a 10 year old girl and her magical friend can do.

Bob is a fun read - it celebrates friendship without being overly sentimental. There are moments of magic, humor and sadness.  It's the sort of book one can read to a child or they are likely to enjoy reading themselves. 

About the Authors:
Wendy Mass is the New York Times–bestselling author of The Candymakers series and many other novels for young readers, including the Schneider Family Book Award-winner A Mango-Shaped SpaceJeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life (which was made into a feature film), Every Soul a StarPi in the Sky, the Twice Upon a Time series, and the Willow Falls series that began with 11 Birthdays. She and her family live in New Jersey.

Rebecca Stead is the New York Times-bestselling author of When You Reach Mewinner of the Newbery Medal; Liar & SpyFirstLightand Goodbye Stranger. Her work has been also been awarded the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award. She lives in New York City with her family and their lazy but beautiful cat.

The Darkdeep by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs

The Darkdeep by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs
  • ISBN-10: 1547600462 - Hardcover $16
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's Books (October 2, 2018), 272 pages.
  • Review copy courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.

The blurb:
Everyone in Timbers knows Still Cove is off-limits, with its creepy Beast sightings and equally terrifying legends. But when a bullying incident sends twelve-year-old Nico Holland over a cliff and into Still Cove's icy waters, friends Tyler and Emma--and even Opal Walsh, who usually runs with the popular kids--rush to his rescue . . . and discover a mysterious island hiding in the murky, swirling mists below.
Though the island appears uninhabited, the kids can't shake a feeling that something about it is definitely not right. Their suspicions grow when they stumble upon an abandoned houseboat filled with all sorts of curiosities: odd-looking weapons, unnerving portraits, maps to unknown places, and a glass jar containing something completely unidentifiable. And in its lowest depths churns a dark, deep secret.
As the group delves deeper into this mysterious new clubhouse, their lives begin to intertwine in weird and dangerous ways. For something ancient has awakened . . . and it can detect not only their wishes and dreams, but also their darkest, most terrible imaginings. Do they have what it takes to face the shadowy secrets lurking within their own hearts?
Told from alternating points of view, this pulse-racing tale from bestselling duo Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs is the start of a high-stakes, thrilling series about friendship and believing in yourself--and each other.


I hadn't planned to stay up much of the night reading The Darkdeep. I was just going to start a chapter, see if this would be the next book on my list.  But I found myself drawn into the world of five 12-year olds.  Nico Holland's father works for the Parks Department and found that the horned owl lives in the woods near Timbers.  Mr. Holland's efforts to save the horned owl meant that much of the woods were saved from deforestation, that the main employer, a lumber company, had to let go of a majority of its workers.  Nico was suddenly persona non grata in town and the target of bullying. Lucas, whose father owns the timber mill, is especially angry with Nico and delights in tormenting him. 

When a bullying incident goes too far and Nico's life is endangered, his best friends risk their own lives to enter a foggy area with a deep drop and murky water.  The children discover that this strange isolated place has some strange magic and an abandoned houseboat with unusual powers.  There are fascinating artifacts -- Opal and Tyler start taking an inventory (kids after my own heart!) but Emma's curiosity leads them to the Darkdeep, a pool of water that has the ability to read what is in their hearts and make it come alive. When the kids go through Darkdeep, they are able to make their thoughts, dreams, fears take shape in the real world.  First it is sparkly unicorns and imaginary friends from childhood but the imaginings take a darker turn and their nightmares come alive. When these imaginings are able to cross out of the special space and invade the town, the children must work together - even Lucas, Nico's nemesis, becomes part of the group.

The Darkdeep is delightful read. It's the sort of book I'd recommend gifting to a reluctant reader - it has just enough adventure, magic and the delights of friendship to get a child to fall in love with reading.

About the Authors:
Ally Condie is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Matched Trilogy and of the middle-grade novel Summerlost, a 2016 Edgar Award Finalist for Best Juvenile Mystery. A former English teacher, she lives with her husband and four children outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, and is the founder of the non-profit WriteOut Foundation.
Brendan Reichs is the author of the instant New York Times bestseller Nemesis and its sequel Genesis, and co-author of the six-volume Virals series. Brendan is also a member of the Executive Board for both YALLFEST and YALLWEST literary festivals and has received a MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his wife, son, daughter, and a herd of animals that tear up everything.