Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature: A (Non-Fiction) Picture Book Review

Ansty Ansel: A Life in Nature by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and Christy HaleWhen he was a child, Ansel Adams could not sit still. He fidgeted. He wanted to run. He did not like being indoors.

By contrast, Ansel loved the great outdoors–especially the parks surrounding his California home. When his father recognizes that his son will not thrive in a traditional school, he helps Ansel educate himself with access to books and also studying nature.

This choice will change the path of young Ansel’s life in Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature (2016) by Cindy Jenson-Elliot, illustrated by Christy Hale.

This non-fiction picture book introduces young readers to an iconic American photographer and his work documenting the country’s National Parks. Jenson-Elliot’s text is long enough to be informative but brief enough to remain approachable for younger readers.

The biographical book also includes some little known facts about Adams such as his accomplishments as a pianist (and his subsequent choice between pursuing a career as a professional pianist or as a photography). The back matter in the book has additional details, resources, and some reprints of Adams’ actual photos.

Large page spreads work to bring natural wonders to life in this vibrantly colored picture book. Hale makes “antsy Ansel” immediately fascinating along with the stunning pieces of nature that captivate Adams for much of his life and career. Detailed illustrations also reproduce some of the photographer’s iconic photos throughout the book.

Antsy Ansel is a beautifully illustrated introduction to one of the foremost photographers in the United States. A great choice for anyone looking to introduce young readers to biographic texts and a timely read for the centennial of the National Parks System.

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Boys Don’t Knit: A Review

Boys Don't Knit by T. S. EastonBen Fletcher knows his friends are good for nothing but trouble. After an unfortunate incident involving a crossing guard and a bottle of Martini & Rossi, Ben is especially sure that he needs new people–particularly when the judge decides to make an example of Ben.

As part of his probation Ben has to Make Things Right with said crossing guard. No easy feat when she seems determined to kill him with household objects hurtled from windows. Worse. He has to take a class to improve himself. Desperate to avoid his father’s mechanic class, Ben decides to try knitting where he can at least ogle the hot teacher. Except, of course, she isn’t actually the teacher.

No one is more surprised than Ben when he starts to show an actual talent for knitting. Even more shocking is the realization that knitting helps keep Ben calm and eases his (many) anxieties. Except, of course, for the ones related to panicking about his friends and family finding out that Ben Fletcher–accidental criminal and intentional liar–is a knitting prodigy in Boys Don’t Knit (2015) by T. S. Easton.

Boys Don’t Knit was originally published in the United Kingdom where it also has a sequel (An English Boy in New York) which will hopefully make its way across the pond soon.

Boys Don’t Knit is an unexpected, funny novel. Written as Ben’s probation-mandated diary, the novel chronicles Ben’s brief flirtation with shoplifting (and the unfortunate crossing guard incident) before moving into his knitting misadventures.

The humor here is decidedly English and as charmingly quirky as you’d expect. Ben is neurotic, precocious, and looking for ways to make sense of his increasingly confusing teen years. Something he finds, unlikely as it may be, in knitting.

Boys Don’t Knit is often sensationalized and exaggerated with big moments for humor tempered by Ben’s introspection about his family or his friends (a friend writing a rip-off of Fifty Shades of Grey with the original name of Fifty Shades of Graham adds another layer of absurdity and a lot more fun). A hint of romance between Ben and his long-time crush also helps to move the plot along.

Easton keeps the narrative very focused on the world through the lens of a teenage boy while also populating this story with strong women including Ben’s crush and several authority figures including his mother and teachers.* Ben is honest and authentic throughout the story both with his knitting and the rest of his life. Boys Don’t Knit is a perfect read for anyone looking for a bubbly bit of cheer and some good fun.

Possible Pairings: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood, Frankly in Love by David Yoon

*SPOILERS: There’s some coarse language in here, as can be expected from teenagers. It didn’t bother me and it works in the story but since this book is otherwise middle grade appropriate it seemed worth mentioning. There is also a scene where Ben and his friends spend their afternoon ogling a woman with a broken leg struggling to put groceries in her car (causing her skirt to ride up repeatedly). Ben points out how their behavior is problematic and a bit gross in the narrative itself but again it does move the target age a bit higher for the story.

These Vicious Masks: A Review

These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly ZekasEngland, 1882. Evelyn would rather do anything than spend another night at another interminable party with the same vapid women and the same eligible bachelors that her mother considers ideal candidates for marriage. Evelyn has no desire to be married off so quickly and disappear behind the veiled curtain of domesticity.

Little surprise, then, that Evelyn immediately secures passage to London when her younger sister Rose disappears under mysterious circumstances.

Accompanied on her search by the dashing Mr. Kent and the brooding Sebastian Braddock (who claims Evelyn and her sister have healing powers), Evelyn is thrown in a world of secrets populated by extraordinary people. Evelyn isn’t sure what to believe or who to trust. The only thing Evelyn knows for certain is that she has to find Rose before it’s too late in These Vicious Masks (2016) by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas.

These Vicious Masks is the first novel from Shanker and Zekas. It is also the start of a series.

These Vicious Masks starts with a fun premise. Victorian England. Romance. Superpowers. Action. This book literally has it all complete with a heroine with decidedly modern sensibilities (something that was, personally, less satisfying to read than a character operating within the social mores and expectations of her era).

Evelyn’s narration is filled with snark and humor as she bemoans her status an a young (bored) debutante before her sister’s disappearance. The story is filled with evocative descriptions but thinner on historical detail with the time period serving more as set dressing for the novel than an integral part of the plot.

Readers will follow Evelyn’s search for Rose with as much interest as they will her romantic prospects with the appropriately contrasting suitors of Mr. Kent and Mr. Braddock in a love triangle that is filled with intrigue and tension.

These Vicious Masks is a fast-paced and super fun read. Ideal for fans of light historical fiction and superhero adventure. An open-ended conclusion and shocks in the denouement promise an exciting next installment.

Possible Pairings: Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, Ink, Iron, and Glass by Gwendolyn Clare, Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance by Jennieke Cohen, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; A Breath of Frost by Alyxandra Harvey, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

*An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Tonight the Streets Are Ours: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Like all stories, the one you’re about to read is a love story.
If it wasn’t, what would be the point?”

Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila SalesSeventeen-year-old Arden Huntley is recklessly loyal. She wants to be someone people come back for; to be someone who is not taken for granted. But that seems impossible when her best friend Lindsey is incapable of appreciating everything Arden does to keep her out of trouble and when Arden’s own mother has chosen to walk out.

Arden finds comfort and validation in an unlikely place when she comes across a blog called “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” run by Peter, a teenaged writer in New York City. Peter’s blog mirrors Arden’s own frustrations when Peter also wonders why no one loves him as much as he loves them.

Arden is fascinated by Peter’s musings and his life that seems to be filled with luxury,  adventure and, of course, a beautiful girlfriend. Until she dumps him.

When Arden reads about the breakup after her own disastrous day, she knows there is only one possible course of action: Road trip to New York City to find Peter.

During one crazy night in New York City Arden will discover that Peter isn’t exactly who he seems. And maybe Arden doesn’t have to be either in Tonight the Streets Are Ours (2015) by Leila Sales.

Find it on Bookshop.

Tonight the Streets Are Ours is an obvious progression for Sales’ writing and it is absolutely fantastic.

The first thing readers learn about Tonight the Streets Are Ours is that it’s a love story. And that is absolutely true. However this book also subverts preconceived notions about happy endings what love stories can actually be to deliver a story that is both perfect and empowering.

Nothing and no one is quite what readers first expect in Tonight the Streets Are Ours. Everything here is muddy. Readers quickly learn that “truth” isn’t always the same as “fact,” in real life or online, as everything Arden thought she knew about Peter–and to some extent herself–is challenged again and again.

Tonight the Streets Are Ours defies expectations in this story where friendships can bend but not break, family can mean all sorts of things, and sometimes perspective is all you need to change everything.

Possible Pairings: Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi Alsaid, The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, City Love by Susane Colasanti, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, In Real Life by Jessica Love, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith, The Insomniacs by Marit Weisenberg, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Rebel Mechanics: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Rebel Mechanics by Shanna SwendsonSixteen-year-old Verity Newton is certain that her university-quality education and the numerous novels she has read will be preparation enough to work as a governess among the upper class magisters who rule Britain and its American colonies with magic in 1888.

Soon after arriving in New York City, Verity learns that unrest is growing and a group of colonists calling themselves the Rebel Mechanics hope to use ingenuity and mechanical inventions to unseat the magical might of the magisters.

After securing a job as governess to one of New York’s premier families, Verity finds herself caught directly between the magisters and the mechanics. Although she is sympathetic to the rebel cause, she also realizes there is more to the magisters than anyone might think–particularly when it comes to her new employer Henry.

When Verity is drawn into the fledgling rebellion as a spy, she learns that anything goes when it comes to revolution–and love in Rebel Mechanics (2015) by Shanna Swendson.

Swendson blends historic details and steampunk sensibilities perfectly in this novel to create a fun alternate history New York filled with magic and powerful inventions. Verity’s sense of wonder at everything she sees in the city will capture similar feelings from readers.

Verity starts out as a naive heroine with little life experience and a lot of uncertainty about her place among the magisters or the mechanics. Although she makes a few blunders along the way, Verity learns from her mistakes and her character development is perfectly paced throughout the novel. Despite her naivete she is a pragmatic and thoughtful narrator who refuses to let things like bandits or revolutionaries fluster her.

Although Verity’s love interest for much of the novel is not ideal, the story is still filled with enough swoony moments and excellent characters to forgive Verity’s lack of good taste. Henry, a magister with rebel sympathies and Verity’s unlikely employer, is guaranteed to be fan favorite.

Rebel Mechanics offers a perfect blend of fantasy, action and romance that is sure to leave readers smiling. This book is currently a standalone (with a largely self-contained plot to prove it!) but we can only hope Verity and her friends will eventually return with new stories and adventures.

Rebel Mechanics is a delightful steampunk novel filled with adventure and magic. Highly recommended for readers looking for an effervescent read as well as fans of fantasy/steampunk or historical fiction/alternate history novels.

Possible Pairings: The Shadows by Megan Chance, Scarlet by A. C. Gaugen, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, This Shattered World by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Clariel by Garth Nix, Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, Enchantée by Gita Trelease, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

You can also read my exclusive interview with Shanna about the book!

*An advance copy of this book was provided for review consideration by the publisher*

Finding Mr. Brightside: A Review

Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay ClarkAbram and Juliette have circled each other for a while the way people do when they go to the same school and live down the street from each other. Their lives only become inextricably linked when Abram’s father and Juliette’s mother die. In a car crash. Together.

In the wake of the crash Abram and Juliette are both left reeling with grief and confusion over their parents’ affair and sudden deaths. With few other coping mechanisms in sight Abram ends up on anti-depressants while Juliette self-medicates with Adderall.

They never should have been friends. Except Abram likes Juliette and decides to say hello to her at CVS. No one is more surprised than Juliette when she agrees to go with Abram to Taco Bell. That’s when what starts as a tenuous friendship might turn into something neither of them saw coming in Finding Mr. Brightside (2015) by Jay Clark.

Finding Mr. Brightside alternates between Abram’s and Juliette’s first person narration.

Because this book is so slim (224 pages, hardcover), much of the plot and character development is pushed off page with very little foundation to support the relationship between the two main characters. The plot also moves very abruptly from their first meeting to going off on a five day vacation together.

Juliette and Abram are both damaged, honest characters. Abram comes off as a likable slacker while Juliette is brittle and high-strung. Unfortunately they are also both thinly drawn beyond those key traits.

Juliette is particularly problematic. While her quirks and fears come from a very authentic place, the portrayal is fundamentally flawed. Every time Juliette contemplates her sexuality, even vaguely, she refers to herself as a whore. Furthermore, in asking Abram if he is attracted to another girl, Juliette repeatedly refers to a girl (a character referred to but never seen) as “that Asian.” With the proper treatment, both behaviors can have their place in fiction. Unfortunately they are presented here without further comment and serve only to leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth.

Finding Mr. Brightside is a fast and sometimes sweet story. It is also not a romance in the truest sense. What this story is–and what it does well, flaws aside–is focus on the recovery process accompanying a tragic loss and the people that can help others move past those dark moments.

Possible Pairings: Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Last Night at the Circle Cinema by Emily Franklin, How to Steal a Car by Pete Hautman, The After Girls by Leah Konen, Rx by Tracy Lynn, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp, How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

*An advance copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher*

Famous in Love: A Review

“I can’t touch him. The only thing I want to do is run to him and have him put his arms around me, to take me someplace that isn’t here. Someplace it’s just the two of us and none of this matters. But I can’t do that because no one knows. Not Wyatt and not Sandy, not even Cassandra. They think we’re just friends–that I belong to someone else. They don’t know that I’ve made a huge mistake. They don’t know that, like August, I chose wrong.”

Famous in Love by Rebecca SerleSeventeen-year-old Paige Townsen never expected her audition to for the coveted part of August to come to anything. She never thought she’d be the only unknown picked to star in the next big blockbuster when the bestselling book Locked was adapted for the big screen.

Except that’s exactly what happens and suddenly instead of starring in community theater productions and high school shorts, Paige is at the center of a major production. Her co-star, Rainer Devon, is right at Paige’s side helping her make sense of her sudden fame and the rigors that come from movie production.

When troubled actor Jordan Wilder is cast as the final piece in the love triangle at the center of the film, Paige’s life begins to uncomfortably imitate art as she is torn between these two very different young men. With everything changing, Paige will have to figure out who she is before she can begin to choose who she wants in Famous in Love (2014) by Rebecca Serle.

Famous in Love is the first book in a trilogy. The “book-within-the-book” Locked is also slated for a tie-in publication.

Serle draws inspiration from real life celebrity drama to create this story of fame and romance. Readers will be with Paige from the start when she first hears about the audition right through to the post-production of the first film. While Paige vacillates between Rainer and Jordan throughout the book, both relationships feel authentic and offer very different things for Paige.

Although Paige’s friends and family often feel like one-note characters, they are happily present showing that Paige had a life before getting famous and will have support for whatever pitfalls Hollywood may have in store. Being the first in a trilogy, readers can expect a lot more love-triangle based drama as Paige is forced to choose both on-screen and off.

Famous in Love is an all-access pass to what happens off camera and behind the curtains of a movie production. Sure to appeal to hopeless romantics, celebrity junkies and movie fans alike.

Possible Pairings: Behind the Scenes by Dahlia Adler, Now & Forever by Susane Colasanti, Not in the Script by Amy Finnegan, A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall, Open Road Summer by Emery Lord, The Romantics by Leah Konen, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy

*A copy of this book was required for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2014*

The Ghosts of Heaven: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It was all the same thing; the same sign, and now she knew what it meant.”

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus SedgwickIn a time before modern history, a girl tries to use a charred stick and ochre to make magic with disastrous results. Staring at the spiral shapes found everywhere in nature, she begins to grasp the enormity–the power–that can be found in written marks.

Centuries later, Anna hopes to care for her brother after her mother’s death only to have the entire town turn against her. As she fights rumors and increasingly vocal accusations that she is a witch, Anna too begins to see hidden meaning in the spiral found in their traditional spiral dance that begins to appear everywhere.

In the twentieth century an American poet watches the ocean from within the walls of an inhospitable asylum. He can see the shapes there too. Spirals. Helixes. Shapes that have become emblematic of the horrors he can scarcely fathom.

Keir Bowman knows, in the distant future, that he will become an astronaut on a desperate mission to colonize a new planet. He knows he will keep looking forward. What Bowman can’t guess is that in hurtling himself through space, he will also move toward his destiny and an understanding of these spirals that march through history in The Ghosts of Heaven (2015) by Marcus Sedgwick.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Ghosts of Heaven is a standalone novel in the same style as Sedgwick’s Printz Award winner Midwinterblood.

After an introduction from the author, The Ghosts of Heaven includes four short stories titled “Whispers in the Dark,” “The Witch in the Water,” “The Easiest Room in Hell,” and “The Song of Destiny.” As the introduction explains, these stories can be read in any order. (I read them in the order given in the book which is also the order listed above.)

The Ghosts of Heaven is an incredibly smart and ambitious novel. The stories here span a variety of genres and forms as they work together to convey a larger meaning.

“Whispers in the Dark” is told in sparse verse as a girl begins to make sense of written words and forms.

“The Witch in the Water” returns to more traditional prose as the story watches the hysteria and fear that fed the fires of witch accusations and  trials in the seventeenth century. This segment also demonstrates how much of the novel deals with unequal power dynamics–in this case as Anna tries to work around much unwanted attention.

“The Easiest Room in Hell” brings readers to an asylum on Long Island where supposedly revolutionary treatments highlight the arcane and unfeeling nature of much mental health care in the early twentieth century. This story also underscores the fine line that can exist between creativity and madness.

Finally in “The Song of Destiny” Sedgwick brings the golden ratio (and the Fibonacci sequence) to the forefront in this solitary and meditative story as all of the vignettes come together in a conclusion with surprising revelations about the spirals and their ultimate meaning.

Sedgwick weaves subtle references between each quarter to make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts as readers–along with the characters–move toward a larger understanding over the course of the entire novel.

The Ghosts of Heaven is a startling, clever and life-affirming novel that pushes the written word to its limit as Sedgwick expertly demonstrates the many ways in which a story can be told.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, Wildthorn by Jane Eagland, The Curiosities by Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater and Brenna Yovanoff; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Wicked Girls by Stephanie Hemphill, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Folly by Marthe Jocelyn, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, Across the Universe by Beth Revis, In the Shadow of Blackbirds of Cat Winters

You can also read my interview with Marcus Sedgwick about the book.

*A copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher*

The Night She Disappeared: A Review

The Night She Disappeared by April HenryGabie drives a Mini Cooper. She works at Pete’s Pizza where she makes deliveries. She’s the girl the customer asked for on Wednesday when Kayla was making deliveries. Gabie is the girl that would have been taken if she and Kayla hadn’t swapped shifts.

Now Kayla is gone. Gabie can’t stop thinking about how it should have been her that night. Drew–the boy who took the call–keeps wondering if he should have done something.

With Kayla dead or maybe worse, Gabie becomes obsessed with the investigation and–if she can–with finding Kayla. Riddled with guilt and his own desire to see help both girls, Drew decides to help. With time running out and few leads, Gabie and Drew will have to work together to prove that Kayla is alive and to find Kayla before she isn’t anymore in The Night She Disappeared (2012) by April Henry.

The Night She Disappeared is a well-assembled page-turner with a multimedia aspect as receipts, news clippings and other ephemera are interspersed to help tell the story. Short chapters with varied viewpoints and Henry’s straightforward prose make this book very readable with appeal for both avid and reluctant readers.

Although Gabie’s connection to Kayla pushes the limits of plausibility in this contemporary mystery, it still does add a unique dimension to the story. With no supernatural sideline and minimal romance, The Night She Disappeared is more in the vein of traditional mysteries as Gabie and Drew move through their investigation. Every piece works well here to create a tense narrative that builds to a surprising, action-packed conclusion.

Possible Pairings: Find Me by Romily Bernand, Breaker by Kat Ellis, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga, Acceleration by Graham McNamee, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, Missing Abby by Lee Weatherly, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Cathy’s Book: If Found Call 650-266-8233 by Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart

Tiger Eyes: A Rapid Fire Review

Tiger Eyes by Judy BlumeTiger Eyes by Judy Blume (1981)

Davey’s whole life is falling apart. Her father was shot in a holdup. Her family is broken. And worse, her mother is taking Davey and her little brother all the way from home to visit relatives in New Mexico while they recover.

Davey doesn’t want to recover.

But New Mexico works its own kind of magic on Davey and her family. Wandering the desert landscape Davey meets a mysterious boy called “Wolf” with his own secrets and his own reasons for understanding Davey’s sad eyes. With his help, maybe Davey can finally move on.

So Judy Blume is obviously very popular. Most of her books fall into the time before I was reading YA (this one being published a few years before I was born) so Blume is never quite an author I get to. While I can see the appeal of this book, it largely didn’t work for me.

While Davey’s struggles are very contemporary and relevant, the story itself was often dated with Davey working as a candy striper (do those even exist anymore?) to name but one example. A general air of Cold War hysteria permeates the story as well with Davey’s aunt and uncle in a panic about the nearby nuclear plant malfunctioning.

I can see the appeal here and it might appeal to readers looking for this very specific kind of story. On the other hand there are also more recent stories that cover similar themes just as well.