Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

Hazel WoodWhile Alice was growing up, her mother, Ella, moved them around every six months or so, trying to outrun the bad luck. Friends around them would get hurt, or strange people would approach Alice, and Ella would know that it was time to move on. In all those years, Alice never met her grandmother, a famous author, nor had she read her book, even though she loved to read. As a matter of fact, she had never even seen a copy. It was not for lack of trying. Alice had haunted used book stores, scoured online, and followed up every possible trail to obtain a copy of The Hinterlands, but they were always gone before she got there. Although she couldn’t read her grandmother’s dark fairy tales, their effects still seemed to follow them everywhere.

When she found out that her new school project partner, Ellery Finch, was a fan of her grandmother, Alice was disgusted. The internet was filled with Hinterland fan fiction, chat rooms, and entire blogs devoted to speculation on her grandmother’s dark world, all of which Alice thought was nuts. Besides which, Finch was crazy rich, with all the privileged blindness that entailed. Thing is, as she got to know him, he was just so darned nice that it was hard to push him away. The day that she came home to find her mother gone, the apartment filled with a green and rotting smell, and a chilling clue left on her pillow, Alice ran to Finch, knowing that he could somehow guide her to her grandmother’s home, the Hazel Wood, and from there into the heart of the Hinterlands.

Ripping back the Disney façade that fairy tales have assumed for the past few decades, debut author Melissa Albert weaves a creepy tale that teams the Grimm brothers with the Unseelie Court, together punching a hole in the twenty-first century space-time continuum. There are a few meta-fictive elements, giving the reader a complicit chuckle without distracting from the immersive experience. Dreams turn to nightmares, no one can be trusted, and reality is illusion.

Garnering six starred journal reviews, The Hazel Wood is poised to hit it big when it is released in January, 2018. Written for older teens and adults, there is some strong language throughout. This is one of the most engrossing and compelling books I’ve read in a long time, and if you like fantasy or fairy tales—as I surely do— you will not want to miss it. Read it with the fire going and the lights on.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson

Almost SistersThat little flutter in Leia’s belly makes her face the reality that Batman will be with her forever. Single and in her late thirties, she has decided to embrace her last chance at motherhood. Perhaps she had a bit too much fun at the Con where her famous graphic novel, Violence in Violet, was lauded before adoring fans, since she was several tequilas in when the Dark Knight ended up in her room. Now she can’t remember his name, and time is running out for her to find a way to tell her family before they can see the evidence for themselves.

Leia didn’t see the text that her step-sister sent, canceling the family’s weekly brunch, so she witnessed the messy break-up for herself. Standing in the collapse of Rachel’s marriage, Leia’s phone exploded with texts and calls from Birchville, Alabama, where her grandmother, the last reigning Birch, had just given scandalous evidence of her advanced dementia by revealing every dirty secret of her beloved First Baptist Church, and even her dear friend Wattie had been helpless to stop her. With her crushed thirteen-year-old niece in tow, Leia is rushing down to the small-town South to save the day, and as she drives, she realizes that one thing about Batman may suddenly become important. She does remember that he was black.

What is a graphic novel artist doing in a Southern chick-lit novel? How did this light read that I chose for fun end up so full of important issues? This is the first novel that I have read by Joshilyn Jackson, although a friend who is an expert reader’s advisor recommended her Gods in Alabama to me a couple of years ago. Always trust librarians, especially when they know you well.

In this novel, Jackson explores the phenomenon of two realities, two truths, existing at the same time and in the same place. This theme is woven throughout the story, and always through the lens of personal experience. She writes from the inside. When she describes the warm and loving Southern small town, where everyone knows and cares for everyone else, we feel the truth in our hearts. When she describes the cold and vicious Southern small town, where race and class divide everyone into rigid groups and hatred simmers just below the surface, we also feel the truth in our hearts. It is not a choice between two options; both are real, and it is just as appropriate to rejoice in one as it is to mourn the other. Similarly, her wide-ranging criticisms of the church are obviously made by a believer. Invective from an outside observer was never so insightful. Institutions that have forgotten the love of the gospel message can never be mended by emergency casseroles.

Beloved characters and a many-layered plot come together with Jackson’s friendly style to create a story that is more than meets the eye. Not just a glass of sweet tea—maybe with a bit of bourbon. I have a trip to the beach coming up, and Gods in Alabama is definitely coming with me.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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Martin Luther, by Eric Metaxas

Martin Luther MetaxasMany decades ago, in my twenties, this quiet Catholic school girl found a hero in the brash and courageous monk named Martin Luther. When I could not find myself in the world in which I lived, he showed me a way out to a place where honest inquiry and Biblical truth combined to proclaim freedom to the captives, like me.

When I heard a few years ago that Eric Metaxas, of Bonhoeffer fame, was going to write a biography of Martin Luther in time to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I mentally set aside the fall of 2017 to read it. Metaxas has that felicitous combination of intellectual rigor and irrepressible humor that is unfortunately rare in serious Christians. Bringing those qualities to bear on a study of a figure like Luther, who was brilliant and articulate, but also shockingly vulgar and outspoken, has produced a work of profound insight that is sometimes pure fun.

Metaxas begins by debunking the many myths surrounding Luther, such as that he was from a poor family, or that he nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle door, thunderously announcing a new church. Rather, he quietly attached them to the door, which was like the neighborhood bulletin board, asking for a debate. As Metaxas has said on talk shows, picture him putting them up next to a poster of a lost cat. We imagine the hefty, confident man of his later years, but at that point, Luther was a skinny, sickly, and terrified monk who was just beginning to understand that all his fasting and confessing could not save him from hell. Rather, his faith in a loving God would. He had to let everyone else know about the grace that he had found.

The subtitle of this book is The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, which seems at first presumptuous. How could God be rediscovered? Had He been lost in the back of a closet? By painting a picture of the state of the church in Luther’s time, and of the entanglements between the ecclesiastical powers and the civil authorities, Metaxas proposes that yes, to a large extent, the knowledge of God had been hidden away from the vast majority of the common people, who had never seen a Bible in their lives and were completely dependent for their understanding of God on whatever they were told by the priests. As a matter of fact, Luther, a student of theology, had never owned a Bible until he was given one in order to teach scripture at the university. It is no wonder that so many reformers in past years had tried to translate the Bible into the language of the common people, only to die for their efforts. Luther’s success is due in no small part to the invention of the printing press not long before his birth, since it seems that everything he said and did was printed and distributed broadly, creating a groundswell of support for him that was already uncontrollable before the authorities knew of its existence.

Because of his own faith, Metaxas is able to understand and dissect the important details of doctrine that seem so obvious to us today, but were seen as heresy and therefore punishable by death in the 16th century. His story of the moment when Luther truly understood the message of faith in the book of Romans is the most riotous and R-rated presentation of the Gospel that I have ever seen or heard. It is certainly memorable. As the man of faith was freed from his fear of God, his troubles with earthly authorities began, and he endured years of challenges, maturing in his understanding of faith and slowly becoming the larger-than-life figure who has marched his way through our history books. In his early forties, he married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and became an unexpectedly tender and loving husband and father. Surprisingly, he extended far more rights and respect to women than was usual in his very male-dominated world.

Metaxas does not spare his criticism for Luther’s failures, and he did have very public failures, indeed. Luther did not foresee some of the consequences of allowing freedom of thought, and when other reformers went too far, or when the people began to rise up against their rulers, he always referred to Romans 13, which admonishes believers to submit to the governing authorities. Luther even went so far as to write to the rulers, advising them to quell the uprising with violence. His harsh statements against the Jews that he made late in his life are similarly shocking, especially since they contradict his positive writings about the Jewish people that he had made when he was younger. In a humorous passage that shows how powerful men who are quite sure of their opinions can often drive even their supporters to wish that they would just stop talking, Metaxas writes of Luther’s friend:

Melanchthon was upset at what he perceived as the harshness of Luther’s tone toward Karlstadt, but, alas, very much of what Luther would write in the years hence would read like a modern-day late-night tweet storm. (p. 325)

No one in Europe had succeeded in speaking truth to power before Martin Luther. His teaching and his writings had spread to Switzerland, England, and other parts of the continent before his death, and would continue to spread across the Atlantic to the New World in the years to come. We enjoy freedom of religion in this country because of his influence, and yet the church itself is splintered into innumerable squabbling groups for the same reason. Metaxas has written an account of this remarkable man that is scholarly yet readable, absorbing, and even, at times, rollicking. For good and for ill, Martin Luther changed the world forever, and whether you are a Christian or not, you may be surprised at the impact he has had on your life.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

Turtles All the Way DownSure, everybody’s teen years are confusing and difficult, but Aza’s life is not so bad. Her single mother is also her history teacher, but she’s a great mom. Daisy, her BFF, has an endless supply of coupons for Applebee’s, so they eat free every week, and the boy she is crushing on even seems to return her affections. It’s just that Aza can’t get past the suspicion that she is a fictional character.

When the feeling becomes oppressive, Aza drives her nail into her finger, and the pain of the split skin reassures her that she is real. This relief is quickly replaced by the fear of infection, so Aza has to remove the ever-present Band-Aid, washing and disinfecting the open wound. And then there are the Wikipedia articles that she feels compelled to read over and over, describing the symptoms of the most dreaded diseases and causing her to live in constant revulsion over all of the bacteria dwelling in her healthy human body.

Daisy lives life out loud. She works at Chucky Cheese, writes fan fiction, and chatters through all of Aza’s silence. When Daisy finds out that they could win $100,000 by finding a missing millionaire, she jumps right in—which means that Aza has to play, too, since she is the one with the wheels.

Bestselling author John Green has described this novel as his most personal work yet. The theme of mental illness has become a growing trend in young adult fiction over the last few years, and often, the main characters are good kids in solid homes with loving parents, which helps to erase the stereotypes in older works. Turtles All the Way Down features Green’s signature witty and precocious teens, with one strong girl just trying to get through high school while drowning in her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Aza is a thoroughly relatable character who is caught up in the tightening spiral of her own thoughts, someone who would like to focus more on other people, but who cannot escape the fears that consume her every waking moment.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book, since there will probably never be another galley of a John Green book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not express those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Half-Drowned King, by Linnea Hartsuyker

Half-Drowned KingRagnvald looked up to Solvi the Sea King. The band of warriors was almost home to Norway after viking in Ireland, and Ragnvald foresaw himself spending a lifetime as one of Solvi’s captains, reclaiming his family land, and starting a family of many sons along with his betrothed, Hilda. When Solvi threw Ragnvald overboard and cut his face with a dagger, the shock of betrayal almost outweighed the pain of the knife and the deathly cold of the fjord.

Svanhild waited at home for the return of her dearest brother. Soon Ragnvald would find her a good husband and release her from the bondage of living with her brutish stepfather, Olaf, and his new, favored wife, Vigdis. When the news came of Ragnvald’s death, she had no one to protect her from Olaf’s plan for her marriage to a man who had been the death of many wives.

Filled with frigid landscapes and fierce battles, this fictionalized account of the life of Harald the Fairhaired, the first king of all Norway, rivals ancient sagas in its sweeping scope, and yet, perhaps because of the equal treatment of women’s lives, it opens the chamber doors of small, intimate relationships and domestic dramas. It is all here: family feuds, debts of honor, courage in battle, naked ambition, hidden shame, unexpected romance, and the struggle to transcend the conventions of the past.

Epic sagas have been some of the most memorable works of literature in my life. My medieval literature professor suggested that I learn ancient Icelandic so that I could read the sagas in the original. Even when I was 19 years old, I knew that life was too short for that. Besides, The Lord of the Rings was in English already, so I knew it was possible to have good stories in modern languages. The contemporary appetite for sagas seems enormous, if the spectacular success of The Game of Thrones is any measure. The Half-Drowned King is not as choked with gore as The Last Kingdom, the recent Netflix adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s series The Saxon Stories— which I cannot possibly watch— but it does not stint on battle scenes: on land, on sea, and at the dinner table.

Happily, this novel for adults is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to find out what happens to several of the main characters in the future. As Ms. Hartsuyker warns, if you don’t want to know what happens in the end, don’t research King Harald on Wikipedia. But I couldn’t help myself.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of The Half-Drowned King, which is now available for sale. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds

Long Way DownWill’s brother, Shawn, was shot in front of him. Dead, lying in the street. While Will’s mother tried to drown her sorrow, Will went to the jammed drawer in Shawn’s dresser and got out his pistol. He knew the Rules, the Rules that Shawn lived by, and that their father had lived by before him. Because he loved Shawn, Will had to find his murderer and shoot him dead. He was pretty sure it was Carlson Riggs.

Will had never even touched a gun before, but he tucked the pistol in the back of his pants and got on the elevator. He hit the “L” button for the lobby, but it stopped on the very next floor, the 7th floor, where his Uncle Buck got on. His Uncle Buck, who was… dead.

The ride down to the lobby took one minute and seven seconds, but not a second was wasted. Each floor brought years of wisdom and memories, and the Will that lands in the lobby is seven stories older than the one who stepped into the elevator.

Written in crackling verse, this 304-page novel flies by. Jason Reynolds’ first YA novel packs a whirl of emotions—anger and sorrow, hatred and regret— into a tight economy of words. Here’s the problem for his readers to ponder: There are places where murder is so common that there are established rules for generations of boys to follow when it happens. How can they break out of that cycle of violence?

Highly recommended for teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be available on October 24th. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Landscape AndersonAfter the Vuvv landed, they took over the Earth, running all of its government and business, employing the inhabitants as actors for the Vuvv’s entertainment. The Vuvvs found traditional Earth tastes charming, and they would pay by the minute to observe 1950s-style romances. They were mad for doo-wop music and still life paintings. Wealthy people worked in Vuvv enterprises, living in artificial cities hovering over the earth. In the meantime, the vast majority of earthlings were unemployed, and adults with master’s degrees were standing in line for the opportunity to work a food cart, even intimidating and beating other applicants into going away.

Adam’s father couldn’t take the strain, so he left his family in desperate straits, which forced his mother to take in boarders. Adam and Chloe quickly fell in love, selling broadcasts of their faux-fifties dates to Vuvv viewers, romantic scenes of necking in convertibles and whispering, “Gee whiz!” to one another. It didn’t take long for the shine to wear off, and now that the lovers can’t stand the sight of one another, their families may starve for lack of income.

Anderson gave an interview about his book at the School Library Journal’s Virtual Teen Conference last month, saying that the idea for this new work came from his realization that we are all busy curating our lives online for the viewing pleasure of our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. We reveal things that would have been incredibly private just a few years ago, receiving validation of our lives by the number of “likes” we garner. By doing so, we relinquish control of our souls to virtual strangers who insist that we behave in socially-approved ways. There are other political messages here, to be sure, but Anderson is posing a question that others have also been asking, and he is aiming it at a generation who has never known another way of living: How do we get off this racetrack, and who are we when we leave?

The deep philosophical questions raised in this title are conveyed in a fast-moving and thoroughly entertaining story for teens and adults. Some strong language.

Recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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