Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale

Princess AcademyPrincess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters
by Shannon Hale
Pub Date: March 3, 2015

Years ago, I fell in love with Princess Academy. Miri, Peder, and Britta— they are some of my favorite imaginary people. When Palace of Stone, the 2nd book in the series, came out I finished it in a day. When I discovered a 3rd book was coming out, I knew I needed to read it. It did not disappoint, and I must say, I love Miri and Peder even more after reading this book.

The book begins with Miri and Peder ready to leave the palace and go home to Mount Eskel. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned. King Fader calls Miri back for an assignment: start a princess academy to prepare a royal girl to marry a foreign king and stop a war. Miri is to use her gift as a teacher to start a new Princess Academy in…. a swamp. Three of Prince Steffan’s distant cousins live in an isolated swamp, and they must be trained to act like princesses so that the foreign king may choose one to be his bride and save the country Danland from war. Of course, nothing is what it seems and Miri is tested beyond she can imagine.

Miri is one of the most optimistic, level-headed, resourceful people I have ever encountered in books. She takes everything in stride, from learning how to live in a swamp to navigating the political games of governments. Miri’s relationship with Peder is a romance that is simple and beautiful; my heart sighs whenever they are together.  The story is intriguing with enough twists and turns to make it interesting, and, as a librarian, I love that problems are often solved using knowledge gained from books.

So if you are looking for a sweet story with a mystery and plenty of surprises, this is an excellent choice. If you are anything like me, you won’t be able to put it down.

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Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova

AwkwardAwkward
by Svetlana Chmakova
Pub Date: July 21, 2015

Peppi Torres has 2 Cardinal Rules for surviving school: #1- Don’t get noticed by the mean kids and #2- Seek out groups with similar interests and join them. Unfortunately for Peppi, she broke the first rule on her first day when she trips over her own feet, drops everything, and is helped by the nerdiest boy in school. What could she do when the mean kids start to tease her? She had to push the nerdy boy away from her. Now she has been in school for a couple months, and she still regrets pushing him. Peppi avoids him, especially when she realizes he is a member of the science club—the enemy of her art club.

This story is cute, and reminded me of my middle school days. I remember being the band geek that was so nervous about being noticed. Peppi and Jaime (the nerdy boy Peppi pushed) reminded me of those quiet kids in school, the ones who don’t say a word in class and dread being called on by the teacher. Throughout the story, Peppi learns she is stronger than she believed and that even the people who seem to have everything together have their own problems.

Not only was this graphic novel a sweet story of growing up, it also shows a variety of people without being forced. Most stories have the typical white, physically fit kids with maybe one character who has a different skin color. The illustrations in this book includes the beautiful black Miss Tobins, Jaime’s mother in a wheelchair, Akilah Saib in a hijab, and the middle school students who are all different sizes and shapes. After reading books for Black History Month in February, this aspect really stood out to me.

I would recommend this story to those who love to have a quick trip back in time to when life revolved around the school social hierarchy and an afterschool club could define your existence. It’s a sweet story about finding friends in the most unlikely places and working together to make something incredible.

This Side of Home, by Renée Watson

This Side of HomeThis Side of Home
by Renée Watson
Pub Date: February 3, 2015

Stories about the last year of high school hold a special place in my heart right now as I watch my oldest niece approaching graduation and making plans for college.

Maya and Nikki Younger are twins who have done everything together. All their lives they have planned their future: they will graduate from high school with amazing grades, go to college at Spelman-a historical black woman’s college, and they will marry their boyfriends they have known all their lives. But like all idealized plans, life has some detours.

First, Maya and Nikki’s best friend/neighbor is forced to move. Second, the family who moves in is white and has a daughter who quickly becomes Nikki’s best friend. Third, the family next door also has a son who is more likeable and cute than Maya is ready to admit. Fourth, the new school principal keeps butting heads with Maya as senior class president. This is not the senior year Maya planned. Instead, Maya is forced to accept other people’s choices and that she can’t always be the model black girl.

I really appreciated this novel. I wasn’t sure I would relate to the main protagonist, Maya, since she seemed so focused on her identity as a black woman, while I am white and grew up in a town that was predominantly white. Still, Renée Watson does a good job of showing this aspect of Maya’s personality while also making her relatable to a wider audience. I admired Maya’s grit, intelligence, and tenacity. She focuses on the importance of family, friendship, and acknowledging history while looking to the future. This story made me think about different cultures, and how difficult the “race” questions can be even today. One of my favorite things about reading fiction is that I’m invited to see the world through a different perspective. This perspective opened my eyes. I am glad I read this book, and highly recommend it to others.

The Scent of Secrets, by Jane Thynne

The Scent of Secrets Jane ThynneThe Scent of Secrets
by Jane Thynne
Pub Date: September 15, 2015

I’ve had something of a World War II obsession since I was a little kid thumbing through the American Girl catalog. Molly McIntire was one of my favorites of the dolls, and eventually I did get to own her (and as a twentysomething got to meet the author Valerie Tripp!). So ever since about the age of seven I’ve loved any book taking place during the 1940s. Home front, London Blitz, Polish resistance, Jewish survivor narratives, Anne Frank… the whole shebang. So this pick seemed an obvious choice for me — a British-German film actress with some espionage training, Clara Vine, is asked to befriend Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun and glean whatever information she can as the tension of the coming conflict tightens its hold on Paris and Berlin, the two settings of the novel. Since Eva is kept hidden from the public eye, this is no easy matter. And Clara may have to watch her own back as her past creeps up on her. And the whole thing starts with a mysterious death aboard a Nazi pleasure cruise.

(As a head’s up, this book is actually the third in the series featuring the actress Clara Vine. From what I can tell, the series is undergoing a rebranding, and the first two books in the series are not readily available at this time in the States, but I didn’t feel I was missing any major plot points. You pick up any background information pretty quickly.)

Spy stories are always fun. Especially if you have an author like Thynne who’s done plenty of research and adds in marvelous little details about how Clara utilizes her espionage training – like hiding information in the tube of her lipstick, or how she manages to ditch the man she suspects is trailing her. All the while we learn more about Clara’s day job as a film actress, and how the film industry in 1930s Germany was and had been. (Plenty of name-dropping, but not in an annoying way. Thynne doesn’t force Emil Jannings into the narrative just for the sake of having a well-known 1930s German actor show up, for instance.)

But what I particularly enjoyed about this story was learning about how the Nazi elite functioned in the late 30s. Clara enjoys some clout being an actress, and has a rapport with the wives of some of the Nazi leadership like Madga Goebbels and Emmy Göring. It’s certainly a different reading experience to see Nazis being portrayed as more human than demonic — the centers of petty gossip and extramarital affairs, not terribly mindful of the troubles being caused outside of their social circles. Having recently read a book about the concentration camps (which will be reviewed at a later date), it was kind of historical fiction whiplash. Nevertheless, I still got wrapped up in the story, and loved the tension of Clara’s mission, tactics, and personal life all mingled together.

There is some more adult material alluded to in the story, but the details are glossed over. Really, you get so engaged with the various story-lines as they come together that you’ll have trouble putting the book down for long, and you’ll be primed for the next book in the series being published in May. If you enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this is likely a novel you’ll also enjoy. If you’re like me and you’re into books on Germany around World War II, this will offer a different take on the usual points of view. And if you’re into Agent Carter and don’t mind the lack of physical altercations, this might be a pleasant read for you, too.

All Fall Down, by Ally Carter

All Fall DownAll Fall Down
By Ally Carter
Pub. Date: January 20, 2015

After devouring the Gallagher Girls series, when I heard Ally Carter was coming out with a new book I knew I would have to read it. For those who haven’t read the Gallagher Girls series, I would highly recommend it. Picture this: a hidden all-girls school to train spies where hacking into government websites is homework, martial arts and combat training is p.e., and friendship means risking your life to save each other. These books dealt with some serious issues, but had enough comedic moments to keep it light.

All Fall Down, the first book in the Embassy Row series, has a lot of secrets and twists with another unreliable narrator like the Gallagher Girls series, but it is darker without as much humor. Grace is the daughter of a military man, the granddaughter of an ambassador, and the witness of her mother’s death. Three years later after her mother died, Grace still has daily flashbacks, only made worse by the knowledge that no one believes her when she says her mother was murdered. She is trying not to act too crazy, but she knows everyone is worried about her mental state. Now she is living in Europe at US embassy with her grandfather, where a wrong move could start a war and everyone wants her to act normal and go with her grandfather to state functions. Of course, things do not work out as planned and Grace finds herself getting into even more scrapes than usual with a new group of teens as she tries to figure out how to stop the man she believes murdered her mother.

I thought this novel was well done: it has a unique setting based on life in an embassy and it does a good job staying in a first person narrative with a complex story line. I often found myself annoyed with the protagonist, but I can see she is the way she is because Grace went through a traumatic experience. The Gallagher Girls series is still my favorite though, because I liked the humor and I enjoyed the characters and felt more invested in what they were doing. Altogether, I would recommend reading All Fall Down for those who want a good suspense where the teenage girl everyone thinks is crazy collaborates with her friends to save the world. It doesn’t have any romantic entanglements (although there is a hint of one), and it doesn’t have a lot of violence. I enjoyed reading it, although I kept myself distant from the protagonist.

Planted, by Patrick Q. Mason

Planted Patrick Q. MasonPlanted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt
by Patrick Q. Mason
Pub Date: December 28, 2015

Some books get just enough push and hype that you realize you really need to read it so you can be part of the discussion. Planted was definitely one of those books for me. Quite a few people in the Bloggernacle have praised it, and as soon as I read just a few pages out of it I knew I wanted to add my chorus to those praises.

“[…] God created us in all our sexual, racial, and cultural differences, precisely so that we could learn from the unique gifts of others and then glorify God for the gift of his diverse creation.”

Brother Mason is a scholar and active LDS member. He states in his introduction that he wrote this book after having many discussions with people at various levels of faith, and felt the need to address the feelings of doubt that get brought up. It’s a book not just for those who question and have doubts, but for those who feel more solid in their faith and testimony and want to know what they can do to help those who do experience doubt. As someone who has been on both sides of that fence, I felt Brother Mason did a good job of covering a lot of ground. It’s not comprehensive to be sure, but he does provide an excellent bibliography of other books and talks and articles to read tailored to more specific questions one may have. Having only read about 15 of the listed sources, I’m looking forward to adding more to my “church TBR” list.

“We must constantly remember, in [Eugene] England’s wise words, that ‘the Church is not a place to go for comfort, to get our own prejudices validated, but a place to comfort others, even to be afflicted by them.’ The path of ease, recognition, and casual sameness is not the way of the cross Christ calls us to bear.”

One of the things I really appreciate about this book is the frank and understanding tone Brother Mason uses. It’s like a good friend is offering useful advice and telling a few good stories, too. He uses clear language to explain a few troubling moments in LDS history, giving the reader an example of how they can not only frame the questions they may have, but also how to properly seek out answers (or at least reconciliations) for themselves. He constantly reminds the reader that this is a church of continuing revelation, that something that we find troubling now was viewed differently in the past (and led me to think of what “normal” things the Church does now that 50, 70, or 150 years from now will seem weird and troubling). I highly recommend this book as an exercise in thought, and a boost for discussion among friends and family. It’s a reassuring hug that though the people in this Church are not perfect, the gospel is, and you will find answers to the questions you have.

5 to 1, by Holly Bodger

5 to 15 to 1
by Holly Bodger
Pub. Date: May 12, 2015

I once read an article about how China has become a culture of bachelors in the decades since they made it a law that a woman could have only one child. It made me wonder, what will happen in a couple more decades? What will China do if men begin to outnumber women at a dangerous level?

5 to 1 is a dystopian novel that looks at a possibility of what could happen to a society if there are five men for every single woman. Would women become a valuable commodity? Would men fight for the right to marry? In a small part of India 40 years in the future, young men are put into groups of five to compete for their chance to become a husband and father. A young woman is assigned to be the judge of one of these groups to choose which young man will be her husband. Every young man and young woman is required to participate; every woman must marry and a man’s importance is based on how many girls he can father.

5 to 1 is written in alternating perspectives: Sudasa in verse and Kiran in prose. Sudasa is an observant young woman who sees the hypocrisy in her community. Kiran is an angry young man who refuses to participate in the competition for Sudasa’s hand. Yet, as the competition continues, Sudasa and Kiran realize that they want the same thing: a choice.

In this novel, I appreciated how Holly Bodger looked at a real life issue in today’s world and contemplated its effect on the future. I also loved how she pointed out the harm that can come when people act on revenge and anger. The novel was very clean, except for one part of the novel that discusses the possibility of having an abortion and a couple rude sexual comments. Overall, I thought this was a great novel that investigates how people strive to help others, find hope in the future, and make life better for their children.