Book Review: One Paris Summer by Denise Grover Swank

Title: One Paris Summer
Author: Denise Grover Swank
Publisher: Blink
Paperback: 272 pages
Source: BEA 2016
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Most teens dream of visiting the City of Lights, but it feels more like a nightmare for Sophie Brooks. She and her brother are sent to Paris to spend the summer with their father, who left home a year ago without any explanation. As if his sudden abandonment weren’t betrayal enough, he’s about to remarry, and they’re expected to play nice with his soon-to-be wife and stepdaughter. The stepdaughter, Camille, agrees to show them around the city, but she makes it clear that she will do everything in her power to make Sophie miserable.

Sophie could deal with all the pain and humiliation if only she could practice piano. Her dream is to become a pianist, and she was supposed to spend the summer preparing for a scholarship competition. Even though her father moved to Paris to pursue his own dream, he clearly doesn’t support hers. His promise to provide her with a piano goes unfulfilled.

Still, no one is immune to Paris’s charm. After a few encounters with a gorgeous French boy, Sophie finds herself warming to the city, particularly when she discovers that he can help her practice piano. There’s just one hitch—he’s a friend of Camille’s, and Camille hates Sophie. While the summer Sophie dreaded promises to become best summer of her life, one person could ruin it all.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher from BEA 2016.*

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

When I went to BEA with my husband this past year, my main goal was to find great young adult books that his high school students could fall in love with. So when I saw this cute, fluffy romance book set in Paris, I went for it.

This is a cute book about two teenagers who go to Paris to reconnect with their dad, who left them just about a year before and who is now marrying another woman in Paris — Sophie and her brother, Eric, are sent to Paris to celebrate the wedding and meet their new stepmom and stepsister. Their stepsister is awful to them, and gets Sophie into all sorts of trouble by playing games and manipulating things. So, it becomes really complicated when Sophie ends up falling for Camille’s friend, Mathieu. Hijinks ensue.

One Paris Summer is pretty much what I was expecting. It’s a fast read and it’s fun. Sophie at first got on my nerves, but it made sense within the context of the story and her character evened out within the first few chapters, thank goodness, so I actually ended up enjoying her character and looking forward to reading about her adventures in Paris. My favorite parts were her interactions with her brother and her crush, Mathieu. It was nice to see Sophie realizing that people didn’t hate her and cared about her. My main problems with a lot of this book had to do with logic and drama. Characters’ reactions to things didn’t seem to fit with their personalities and seemed only to serve the purpose of creating conflict that felt melodramatic and fake.

However, aside from that, the romance and Paris aspect were really fun. This is a book you don’t want to think too much about — what I like to think of a beach read. Just breeze through it and enjoy the fun, cute parts. Because of that, this took me very little time to finish once I started focusing on it, and overall, I enjoyed it. I think younger teens would enjoy this a lot, but there isn’t a lot of crossover appeal for older readers simply because what I said earlier about the conflicts feeling overly dramatic.

Side note: I loved that we got some French words thrown in here, so readers might be able to learn a couple of phrases. Nice touch!

Book Review: Oxblood by Annalisa Grant

oxblood by annalisa grant.jpg
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Title: Oxblood
Author: Annalisa Grant
Series: Victoria Asher, Book 1
Publisher: Open Road Media Teen & Tween
Paperback: 300 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

How far would you go to save the only family you have left? Victoria “Vic” Asher is finally finding some balance in her life. Though she’s still reeling from her parents’ death in a plane crash, she’s content with waiting tables at the Clock; window shopping with her best friend, Tiffany; and hanging out with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Chad. But when she receives a mysterious package in the mail from her brother, Gil–a law student doing research in Italy–she knows immediately that he’s in danger. Vic isn’t about to risk losing her only brother, so she sets off for Italy to find him. But when she runs into Ian, the gorgeous leader of Interpol’s secret Rogue division, who’s also searching for Gil, she quickly realizes that her brother is in much deeper trouble than she ever could have imagined. Vic will stop at nothing to locate Gil, but doing so could cost her her life–and her heart.

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I love YA thrillers and strong female characters, so when I saw this on NetGalley, I knew I had to take a look and see what it was about.

Let’s go through the bad stuff first. There were a few things that bothered me about this story. The first is that a lot of the conflicts were made overly simplistic by the fact that they were resolved so quickly. The second is that most of the action and exposition takes place through dialogue. This is a huge pet peeve of mine — if you wanted to write what people say — write a screenplay. If you want to write through description and exposition, write a novel. Overall, it’s a not a huge deal, but it really does bother me when the whole novel basically takes place through conversations.

With that said, I enjoyed the story overall. I think it had a good amount of suspense and a few twists that I didn’t see coming, which was fun. Victoria is such a cool character, with her ability to adapt to situations, and I like that her skill in observation came in handy in her search for her brother. I hope that she grows more as the series continues and is able to get past the aren’t-I-such-a-sad-baby thing, because while she certainly has it tough, she also certainly loves lamenting over the fact that her life is tough. This one wasn’t a must-read for me, but I definitely can see people loving it for its constant stream of surprises.

Fun, quick read if you’re interested in a YA thriller. It certainly delivers on intrigue!

Audiobook Review: The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial by Peter Goodchild

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial.jpgTitle: The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial
Author: Peter Goodchild
Publisher: LA Theatre Works
Running Time: 1 h 55 min
Source: Audiobook Sync
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

The Scopes Trial, over the right to teach evolution in public schools, reaffirmed the importance of intellectual freedom as codified in the Bill of Rights. The trial, in a small-town Tennessee courtroom in 1925, set the stage for ongoing debates over the separation of Church and State in a democratic society – debates that continue to this day.

An L.A. Theatre Works full-cast performance featuring Edward Asner, Bill Brochtrup, Kyle Colerider-Krugh, Matthew Patrick Davis, John de Lancie, James Gleason, Harry Groener, Jerry Hardin, Geoffrey Lower, Marnie Mosiman and Kenneth Alan Williams.

The Great Tennessee Monkey Trial is part of L.A. Theatre Works’ Relativity Series featuring science-themed plays. Major funding for the Relativity Series is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to enhance public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

©2006 L.A. Theatre Works (P)2006 L.A. Theatre Works

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

I’m not really sure how I feel about this play, to be quite honest. It’s an interesting subject, and full cast audios are the best, especially when they’re by LA Theatre Works and the actors are actually performing. However, simply based on the fact that it’s supposed to represent a historical event, I just didn’t like that I wasn’t sure which parts were dramatized and which were truly taken from the court records, especially when it came to dialogue. There were some parts that I feel like might have been added simply for entertainment/humor value, but if they weren’t, then that would have interested me in a completely different way, but I was never sure if any/all of it was true or made up.

Besides that, it’s an interesting case that’s worth further study and thought. Since Andrew’s a teacher, and I studied education for my Master’s, the way law and social norms influence how and what we teach is incredibly interesting to me, so that helped a lot for pulling me into the story in general. This case also foreshadows a lot of the textbook wars we have present-day, so it’s fascinating to hear some of these first arguments for/against teaching evolution/religion. Very cool.

However, I think it’d be better to actually see the play or read the book. It was hard for me to keep all the characters straight, and within the trial, I think it’s important to know who is speaking and who is making what argument (even though after a while, you can figure it out). Admittedly, I’m not the best when it comes to remembering details when I’m only getting information through audio, so if audio is your strong suit, then it might not be a problem for you.

Overall, however, I think it was a good dramatization of the trial and it presented a lot of interesting factors that (like the description says) we’re still debating today, especially within education. I just think that I would have much preferred to read this than to listen to it, even with the full cast.

Book Review: The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron

Title: The Dark Unwinding
Author: Sharon Cameron
Series: The Dark Unwinding, Book 1
Publisher: Scholastic
Hardcover: 318 pages
Source: Chicago Public Library
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

When Katharine Tulman’s inheritance is called into question by the rumor that her eccentric uncle is squandering away the family fortune, she is sent to his estate to have him committed to an asylum. But instead of a lunatic, Katharine discovers a genius inventor with his own set of rules, who employs a village of nine hundred people rescued from the workhouses of London.

Katharine is now torn between protecting her own inheritance and preserving the peculiar community she grows to care for deeply. And her choices are made even more complicated by a handsome apprentice, a secretive student, and fears for her own sanity.

As the mysteries of the estate begin to unravel, it is clear that not only is her uncle’s world at stake, but also the state of England as Katharine knows it.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

I found out about this series when browsing through books from BEA 2013 — where the sequel was being offered as an ARC. For the most part, I just can’t read series out of order (knowingly, at least), so I left it alone and put this book on the to-read list. And yes, 3 years later, I’m just now reading it. Us bibliophiles have a problem with overly long to-read lists, yes?

I have to say that this one gets off to an incredibly slow start. It tries to be too creepy too fast, to the point where I really just didn’t understand what was going on in the first few chapters. Is it trying to be paranormal? Is it trying to be just average-run-of-the-mill creepy? No idea. I think that was the point, but I personally wasn’t into it. By the first 30 pages, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get through it, but I powered on, and it turned out to get better. Yay! It also doesn’t help that there seems to be a wide variety of genres used for this book, but by my judgment, it’s more alternate history/gothic than anything. (Especially steampunk — um, what?!) There are so many creep factors to it that it just feels dark the way only gothic books do. Anyway, once the book figures out what its story is supposed to be, it gets pretty good.

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Book Review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

snow flower and the secret fanTitle: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: RandomHouse
Kindle: 288 pages
Source: Chicago OverDrive
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

In nineteenth-century China, in a remote Hunan county, a girl named Lily, at the tender age of seven, is paired with a laotong, “old same,” in an emotional match that will last a lifetime. The laotong, Snow Flower, introduces herself by sending Lily a silk fan on which she’s painted a poem in nu shu, a unique language that Chinese women created in order to communicate in secret, away from the influence of men.

As the years pass, Lily and Snow Flower send messages on fans, compose stories on handkerchiefs, reaching out of isolation to share their hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. Together, they endure the agony of foot-binding, and reflect upon their arranged marriages, shared loneliness, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood. The two find solace, developing a bond that keeps their spirits alive. But when a misunderstanding arises, their deep friendship suddenly threatens to tear apart.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

This book has been on my reading list for so long, I’m not even sure why I added it in the first place. It’s available on OverDrive, which is huge for me actually getting some reading done these days, and I think I might have seen that it was a “most popular” book, and added it to my wishlist. So, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I started it. I kind of hate reading descriptions, because I feel like they ruin my discovery of the story, so it’s nice that I have such a long to-read list, because it gives me time to forget the book description.

Overall, I would say that Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is solidly entertaining. It’s not too complex, so it’s easy to get through, and the main character is fairly easy to relate to, even if she is a bit judgmental. See does a good job in keeping the plot moving with interesting twists and turns, and the beginning is well developed in terms of detail and the reader is gently led from one conflict to the next. I’m currently reading a book that’s incredibly choppy, where we get one huge conflict that takes a chapter to introduce, followed quickly after by a page-and-a-half resolution, and then another huge conflict again. This book is definitely not like that. The beginning and middle take their time to fully develop, which allowed me to become immersed when it was going on.

While I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, the end was lacking a little bit. Everything about the culture and way of life is incredibly detailed, and I loved learning about the different customs of these people through the eyes of Lily. However, if a book about the cultures and customs of women in the Hunan Province is what I wanted to read, I would have picked up a nonfiction book. What I really wanted from this particular novel was a good story, and the story/plot elements were lacking for me. I understand that the author spent a lot of time researching, which I appreciate in a novel like this, but she spent too much time showing off that research instead of dedicating space to plot and character development near the end. The climax wasn’t as developed as it could have been, which made the resolution fall a bit flat.

Again, that’s not to say that I disliked this book. I liked it quite a lot — the ending just wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked. As a quick read, this is perfect. A little gruesome at times (I still can’t get over the foot binding scene. Ah!), but easy to get through and entertaining. There definitely was enough drama to keep me interested the entire time.

Book Review: The Naming by Alison Croggon

the namingTitle: The Naming
Author: Alison Croggon
Series: The Books of Pellinor, Book 1
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Paperback: 492 pages
Source: Purchased
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Maerad is a slave in a desperate and unforgiving settlement, taken there as a child after her family is destroyed in war. She is unaware that she possesses a powerful gift, one that marks her as a member of the School of Pellinor. It is only when she is discovered by Cadvan, one of the great Bards of Lirigon, that her true heritage and extraordinary destiny unfold. Now she and her new teacher must survive a journey through a time and place where the forces they battle stem from the deepest recesses of otherworldly terror.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

This book was way longer than it had to be. For all the pages that I had to go through, not much happened.

The plot itself was pretty good. I’m not a fan of the really-this-is-real fake sort of thing that a lot of people are so fond of, but Andrew would disagree with me on that, so it’s more a matter of preference than actual problems with the story. With that said, since it was supposed to mimic a true history, I wish it could have tied more into the mythologies and ancient worlds that we currently know about. References to already-known things would have made it feel much more like a true story instead of a disjointed mythology/epic that doesn’t fit in with the world as we know it now.

I think what prevented it from being something that’s a must-read is all the backstory and explaining that happened in this first book. It’s necessary that we have those elements, but more showing instead of telling would have been appreciated, or at least maybe more of it could have been added into an appendix so that we could have gotten more story. I wanted actual plot and character development, but things are almost the same in the end as they are in the beginning. Conflicts that could have been interesting were resolved too quickly, probably to make room for more backstory.

Though it might seem like it with all this criticism, I didn’t hate this book. I think it provides a nice set-up to a story that could potentially be interesting if the storytelling itself is kicked up a notch in the subsequent books. The main character has enough of a personality to make her somewhat interesting, but again, I want that to develop more strongly in the next books. It’s good enough that I’m giving this series one more book to hook me in before I give up, but if the second turns out to be similar to the first, then I don’t think this is a series I need to spend my time reading.

Book Review: Shalador’s Lady by Anne Bishop

shaladors-ladyTitle: Shalador’s Lady
Author: Anne Bishop
Series: The Black Jewels, Book 8
Publisher: Roc
Hardcover: 476 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

For years the Shalador people suffered the cruelties of the corrupt Queens who ruled them, forbidding their traditions, punishing those who dared show defiance, and forcing many more into hiding. Now that their land has been cleansed of tainted Blood, the Rose-Jeweled Queen, Lady Cassidy, makes it her duty to restore it and prove her ability to rule.

But even if Lady Cassidy succeeds, other dangers await. For the Black Widows see visions within their tangled webs that something is coming that will change the land-and Lady Cassidy-forever…

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

Shalador’s Lady continues the story arc introduced with The Shadow Queen — we pick up where we left off with Lady Cassidy, who is still trying to pull Dena Nehele together while trying to win the people’s hearts and negotiate a reluctant First Escort.

The Black Jewels sequels are nowhere near the quality of the original trilogy, and I’m getting a bit tired of the recycled phrases and situations. We get it: a “too soft” voice and sleepy eyes means that the all-powerful Saadi family is angry. Queens are stubborn and too reckless with their own safety, while the Warlord Princes are overprotective. Nothing new there. With that said, however, these books are fun, easy-reads that are good for a quick fix when you’re craving time in the Black Jewels world.

In this one, I wasn’t so much interested in the story as a whole, but I did like seeing the growth of the two male characters Ranon and Gray. We get to see a much more vulnerable side of Ranon, while Gray turns from vulnerable, broken boy to a strong Warlord Prince who is someone to be feared. I also enjoyed getting to see more Sceltie characters and reading about how they interacted with the other Queens and Princes.

Overall, I would say this is a light read that will appeal to fans of the series, if only to revisit old characters. Other than that, there’s not much to it.

Audiobook Review: Danger in the Dark by L. Ron Hubbard

Title: Danger in the Dark
Author: L. Ron Hubbard
Narrators: Karen Black, R.F. Daley, Christina Huntington, Jim Meskimen, Gino Montesinos, Noelle North, and Josh R. Thompson
Duration: 2 hours
Publisher: Galaxy Audio
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Explore this fantastic tale. After Billy Newman strikes gold while mining in the Philippines, he believes Lady Luck favors him so much that he buys his own South Seas island for a bargain price . . . or so he thinks.

 But when the natives fall ill from plague and crops start failing, the tribal chiefs blame Billy for angering the local god Tadamona. Their solution: sacrifice a beautiful young girl before the 75-foot god. Appalled, Billy argues to stop the ritual, but the chiefs demand he cure their ills in just one day or allow the killing to go forward. Desperate, he denies that the deity even exists and dares Tadamona to show himself. Not only does Billy get his wish, he draws a beastly wrath upon the entire island. ALSO INCLUDES THE FANTASY FICTION STORIES “THE ROOM” AND “HE DIDN’T LIKE CATS”

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

*I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher*

I enjoy pulp fiction and appreciate its significance and influence in the science fiction and fantasy genres today. Danger in the Dark is a collection of three stories, and it is pulp at its finest — just plain, good fun. As with any collection of short stories, there were some stories that I liked better than others, but there weren’t any that I really disliked or hated, so that’s a good thing. This was a quick listen and was simply a fun, entertaining collection of stories. The sequence of these stories also worked very well, since my least favorite was the first story, and my favorite was the last.

The stories included in Danger in the Dark are short and sweet — the best kind, in my opinion. A lot of action, drama, and suspense without having too much exposition to bog it all down. It’s not a huge time investment, but it’s good entertainment, which I appreciated.

Galaxy Audio really went all-out for this production. I loved the full-cast performance and the added sound effects. I’m not the kind of person who generally likes sound effects in my audiobooks, but these were incredibly well done. They really added to the story and helped create drama and tension in all the right places. This is one short story collection that I don’t think I would have liked as much in print. I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of this one.

Book Review: The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams

Title: The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia
Author: Rowan Williams
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Hardcover: 152 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams offers fascinating insight into The Chronicles of Narnia, the popular series of novels by one of the most influential Christian authors of the modern era, C. S. Lewis.

Lewis once referred to certain kinds of book as a “mouthwash for the imagination.” This is what he attempted to provide in the Narnia stories, argues Williams: an unfamiliar world in which we could rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity–“which is almost everything,” says Williams–and rediscover what it might mean to meet the holy. Indeed, Lewis’s great achievement in the Narnia books is just that-he enables readers to encounter the Christian story “as if for the first time.” How does Lewis makes fresh and strange the familiar themes of Christian doctrine? Williams points out that, for one, Narnia itself is a strange place: a parallel universe, if you like. There is no “church” in Narnia, no religion even. The interaction between Aslan as a “divine” figure and the inhabitants of this world is something that is worked out in the routines of life itself. Moreover, we are made to see humanity in a fresh perspective, the pride or arrogance of the human spirit is chastened by the revelation that, in Narnia, you may be on precisely the same spiritual level as a badger or a mouse. It is through these imaginative dislocations that Lewis is able to communicate–to a world that thinks it knows what faith is–the character, the feel, of a real experience of surrender in the face of absolute incarnate love.

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Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

I’m not a very religious person, but I find it interesting how some authors can seamlessly weave metaphors and allusions to other narratives within their stories. Lewis was a master at this, and I thought that the best way to learn more about this religious undertones was to read literary criticism from someone who has a lot of knowledge about Christianity.

What I liked:
– Williams doesn’t rely only on The Chronicles of Narnia for information; he talks about many other of Lewis’s works, such as That Hideous Strength and The Screwtape Letters. This made for a full portrayal of Lewis’s beliefs, which I really appreciated.

– The arguments are well thought out and Williams takes the reader through them step-by-step, providing a great deal of evidence from Lewis’s works.

What I didn’t like:
– I was looking more for background information on the religious ideas behind Narnia rather than a Christian literary analysis of the text. The title is a bit misleading on that front.

– It gets preachy at times, and I would have preferred it stay objective and informational. Similarly, the writing didn’t flow as well as it could have.

Summary:
While not an example of fantastic writing, I think that this is an interesting book for those who are a fan of the Narnia books and want to learn about an expert’s opinion on the religious meaning and lessons that provide the backbone of this series.

Audiobook Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Title: Don Quixote
Author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Translator: Tobias Smollet
Narrator: Robert Whitfield
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Edition: Unabridged
Duration: 36 hours, 45 minutes
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Don Quixote has become so entranced by reading chivalric romances, that he determines to become a knight-errant himself. In the company of his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, his exploits blossom in all sorts of wonderful ways. While Quixote’s fancy often leads him astray-he tilts at windmill’s, imagining them to be giants-Sancho acquires cunning and a certain sagacity. Sane madman and wise fool, they roam the world together, and together they have haunted readers’ imaginations for nearly four hundred years.

With its experimental form and literary playfulness, Don Quixote has been generally recognized as the first modern novel. The book has been enormously influential on a host of writers, from Fielding and Sterne to Flaubert, Dickens, Melville, and Faulkner, who reread it once a year, “just as some people read the Bible.”

Overall Rating: 3/5

I’ve always wanted to read this book because of the fact that it’s considered one of the first (if not the first) novels published. I was surprised to find that it was actually rather funny and the themes explored still hold relevance for today’s world. Some parts are funnier than others; there were hours during the narration where I was completely bored and wanted to skip ahead. However, I think the good stuff outweighs the bad for this one. And seriously, if you know anybody who takes movies, books, films, etc. stuff too seriously, then you will have some laughs at this novel.

Besides, Don Quixote is a classic and I still recommend that everyone read it. It’s also fun to see how the novel has evolved from the 1600’s until now.

As for reading this as an audiobook, well, to be honest, I didn’t like the narration all that much. Not enough emotion was put in it, in my opinion. It wasn’t told in monotone, but it was told in a distanced, controlled story-teller voice. Because of this, I found myself tuning out parts of the book because Whitfield’s voice wasn’t keeping my attention.